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Senate Vacancies

Renewed demand to change the way open seats filled

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press / August 28, 2009

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WASHINGTON - With the death of Edward M. Kennedy, seven seats in the Senate have been opened since the last election or soon will be. That’s the most in any one year in six decades, drawing renewed calls for changing a system for filling vacancies that many say is not democratic.

Two of the vacancies resulted from the victory of Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the presidential election. After that, Obama named two senators to the Cabinet - Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as secretary of state and Kenneth Salazar of Colorado as interior secretary. Since, two Republicans, Mel Martinez of Florida and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, have said they will leave office this fall, before their terms expire.

With the exception of the Kennedy seat, the other six have been or will be filled by people appointed by their state’s governors. FairVote, a nonpartisan group that promotes greater access to the political process, said the departures mean that four out of the five most populous states - Illinois, New York, Florida, and Texas - and almost 27 percent of the US population, will be represented by senators who were not elected.

Critics also point to the manner in which some have been filled.

In Illinois, impeached former governor Rod Blagojevich faces charges that he tried to sell Obama’s old seat. Roland Burris, the eventual appointee, has not been implicated in the scandal, but has been tainted by the controversy and will not be running for a full term.

Governor Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware tapped Ted Kaufman, a former Biden aide and law school professor, to hold Biden’s seat until next year, when Biden’s son Beau, the state attorney general, returns from military duty in Iraq and is expected to contend for the Senate seat.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment requiring elections for Senate vacancies - the Constitution already requires House vacancies to be filled by elections - and end what Feingold called “an antidemocratic process that denies voters the opportunity to determine who represents them in the US Senate.’’

But special elections have their detractors, who argue that they are too expensive, take too much time to organize, and draw low voter turnouts.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature in Massachusetts in 2004 changed state law to require special elections and prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming a replacement had Senator John F. Kerry won the presidency.

Just days before his death, Kennedy asked state lawmakers to revert to the old system so Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, could name a successor if Kennedy had to leave office. This would avoid leaving his seat vacant for up to five months before a special election could be held and ensure Democrats wouldn’t lose a vote crucial to passing the health care legislation about which Kennedy was so passionate.