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Georgia's Special Election Has Been Longer Than Some Countries' National Elections

Republican candidate Karen Handel greets people during a campaign stop as she runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District on June 19, 2017 in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Republican candidate Karen Handel greets people during a campaign stop as she runs for Georgia's 6th Congressional District on June 19, 2017 in Alpharetta, Georgia.

The long-awaited special election in Georgia is finally happening.

On Tuesday, people will head to the polls to cast their votes for either Democrat Jon Ossoff or Republican Karen Handel in the sixth congressional district special election in the Atlanta suburbs to replace Republican Tom Price. Price left his seat to become President Trump's health and human services secretary.

That "long-awaited," though, has been pretty long. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver pointed out recently, between the runoff for Tuesday's race and the race itself, the U.K. has already gone through an entire election process.

"The UK *literally initiated and completed an entire parliamentary election* in the time in between the GA-6 primary and runoff," he wrote.

Only 51 days passed from the day British Prime Minister Theresa May called those elections (April 18) to Election Day (June 8). Meanwhile, April 18 was the day of Georgia's runoff, and June 20 will be the general election for that House seat.

And that's just counting from the runoff. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared the election date on Feb. 10 (130 days before the general election), when Price was confirmed as HHS secretary.

That's not even the longest special election campaign happening this year. On Dec. 12 (Dec. 12!), Alabama will elect someone to fill the Senate seat Jeff Sessions vacated when he became Attorney General. The governor called that election on April 18, 238 days before the vote will take place.

So here's how those long stretches of campaigning stack up to the lengths of elections in a few other countries, as well as the 2016 presidential election:

In 2015, Canada's 11-week election campaign drove voters to distraction, even election-weary Americans looked on with envy. Likewise, Australia's 55-day campaign in 2016 was considered lengthy (there).

And this even undershoots, to a degree, the length of the campaigns in those U.S. special elections, because candidates started jumping into the races long before. The first candidate entered the Georgia special election on Nov. 30, 2016 (202 days before Tuesday's vote).

Likewise, the first candidate in the Alabama Senate race, state Attorney General Luther Strange, declared he would run back in December — 385 full days before the election. (That election took some time to be announced, however, as the last governor, Robert Bentley, appointed Strange to replace Sessions instead of calling for an election, as the law requires.)

Counted from when the first person declared he was running, and this year's Alabama Senate race is even longer than the span between last year's Iowa caucuses and Election Day 2016. Here's how those numbers stack up:

Of course, this kind of comparison obscures some important details about foreign countries' elections. For one, even with restrictions on campaign lengths in place, candidates in some foreign nations can start making noise about running well before "campaigning" officially begins. A "faux-campaign" had already been going on well before Australia's 2016 election, as London's Guardian reported last year.

And while Mexico imposes a 90-day campaign period — that marks when candidates can spend their public campaign funds and thereby start campaigning in earnest — candidates can still declare they're interested in running well ahead of time. Already in June 2015, the first candidate for that country's 2018 presidential election declared she was in.

So while they may not be able to fill the airwaves with ads, they can still make their way into news coverage for quite a while before the vote happens. (Of course, that happens here, too, before the first candidate declares.)

In addition, parliamentary systems are by nature going to have starkly different elections than the U.S., as Bill Scher pointed out at RealClearPolitics last year.

"...[I]t's completely disingenuous to compare America's presidential election season to states with parliamentary systems. The political parties in those countries typically select their leaders years before elections are called — and not in small-d democratic primaries where the entirety of the nation's electorate has an opportunity to decide on their choices. The party leaders then square off inside their respective parliaments day after day."

And one final addendum: shorter doesn't necessarily mean better. In Japan, tight rules like limiting campaigning to 12 days keeps opposition parties out of power, the Sunlight Foundation argued in 2014.

So there's some reason not to want the shortest campaign period possible.

Still, after months of phone calls and door knocking, the residents of Georgia's sixth district may want more of a happy medium.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.