Fairvote.org is currently undergoing an upgrade, and some features may not be working as usual. We apologize for any inconvenience, and expect to be back at full capacity soon.

Don't Name That Senator

David Segal // Published January 24, 2009 in New York Times
Now that Gov. David Paterson of New York has completed his operatic quest to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat and Roland Burris, chosen by the embattled Illinois governor to succeed Barack Obama, has made it past Capitol Hill security, we can safely conclude that appointing senators might not be such a good idea.

Actually, Americans came to that conclusion in 1913, when the 17th Amendment mandated regular senatorial elections. Reformers pushed the amendment as an antidote to the inevitable cronyism that surrounded the selections. In essence, however, it just allowed governors to pick replacements, as opposed to state legislatures.

The very problems the amendment was meant to address persist. Consider this: Nearly a quarter of the United States senators who have taken office since the 17th Amendment took effect have done so via appointment. Once Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, Mr. Paterson’s choice, joins the Senate, she will be one of more than 180 senators named by governors since 1913.

By contrast, the Constitution mandates special elections for all vacancies in the House — even though representatives are far less powerful than senators.

Yet only a handful of states routinely fill vacated Senate seats by special election. The result is a tyranny of appointments.

This is bad for the legislature, and the constituents. Even when appointments are not explicitly put up for sale, a governor’s deliberations are surely informed by political expediency and personal ambition. (It would be impossible to look at the New York debacle and not think otherwise.) And even when the process is explicitly political and maybe even corrupt, as appears to be the case in Illinois, it seems as if there’s not a lot anyone can do about it. After all, the Illinois Legislature was unable to wrest power from Gov. Rod Blagojevich to force a special election.

There’s much talk of a “change agenda” in Washington these days. We would do well to add another item to the list: We should stop letting governors appoint senators.

Last year, I sponsored legislation in Rhode Island to require vacancy elections for the United States Senate. Congress should now step in and push all states to do the same. Though Congress’s power to force special elections is untested, it could surely create incentives for putting them in place — or push for another constitutional amendment.

If Congress won’t act, the states should move forward on their own. Special elections have their difficulties — among them, clogged fields of candidates and time-consuming and expensive runoffs.

But these challenges are surmountable. Instant runoff voting, which compresses runoffs into general elections by having voters rank candidates in order of preference, is one solution.

And, as we’ve learned in Illinois and New York, elected officials provide a lot more hope for genuine democracy than their gubernatorially appointed alternatives.

David Segal is a Rhode Island state representative and an analyst for FairVote, a voting rights advocacy group.