Rob Richie - It's time to elect all U.S. senators

// Published September 4, 2009 in McClatchy Papers

In 2004, in hopeful anticipation of a victory by Sen. John Kerry in the presidential race, Massachusetts state legislators voted to require special elections to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. Partisan incentives conveniently aligned with democratic idealism, as the Democratic majority in the legislature took the selection of a senator away from Republican Gov. Mitt Romney and handed it to the people. Massachusetts is now one of only four states to require election of all its U.S. senators.

In the wake of the death of Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts legislators are debating a change to allow the current Democratic governor to make a short-term appointment. Massachusetts should stand by its law. As Sen. Kennedy said in a May 2005 speech to Congress, "The vast majority of Americans' share our commitment to basic fairness. They agree that there must be fair rules, that we should not unilaterally abandon or break those rules in the middle of the game."

More broadly, the authority of our government is grounded in the power of people to choose their representatives. No member of the U.S. House of Representatives has ever taken office without an election. Even though the first House only had 65 members, including two from single-seat states, our founders believed that the "people's House" demanded elections, even if inconvenient.

The U.S. Senate is now also a house of the people. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution requires election of all senators, but gives states the option to fill vacancies by gubernatorial appointment. Into that hole have walked the likes of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who last year brazenly sought to sell a vacancy to the highest bidder. Since the 17th Amendment, governors have appointed nearly a quarter of all U.S. senators. Once a new senator is appointed in Texas, almost 27 percent of all Americans will have at least one unelected senator — a Massachusetts appointment would raise that percentage to 29 percent.

Tawdry details from the rash of appointments in the past year underscore the perils of senatorial appointments. Governors can make backroom details to entrench their power. They can give their favorites all the powers of incumbency, as in New York and Colorado, or choose to appoint obvious seat-warmers for lengthy terms, as in Florida and Delaware. Evidence suggests that appointed senators have a harder time gaining respect in Congress than their elected colleagues.

States have the power to uphold the principles of representative democracy. This year Connecticut's Republican governor signed the Democratic legislature's bill requiring special elections for Senate vacancies, while the Rhode Island legislature passed similar legislation by overwhelming margins. States have the flexibility to keep special election periods to just three or four months, ideally with instant runoff voting to accommodate increased voter choice and elimination of separate primary elections. They could also start the special election process as soon as a Senator announces an early retirement or daringly explore allowing senators to run for office with a running mate who would fill a short-term vacancy before the special election.

No matter how innovative, however, state action is not enough. As the partisan debate in Massachusetts demonstrates, establishing special elections is prone to the whims of shifting political tides. To establish a level playing field for all states and better representation for all voters, Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain lead a bipartisan group of members of Congress in a promising new effort to amend the Constitution to require election of all U.S. senators. Already approved in its first Senate committee, this legislation just may accomplish what democracy demands: giving voters the last word.

  • Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan non-profit that seeks universal access to political participation. Readers may write to the author at FairVote, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Md. 20912; Web site: www.fairvote.org.