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Martinez Resignation Highlights Need for Elections to Fill Senate Vacancies

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 10, 2009

Here's a press release we just put out concerning the news of Sen. Mel Martinez's coming resignation from the Senate.

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Florida U.S. Senator Mel Martinez has announced that he will resign this fall, more than a year before the end of this term. Gov. Charlie Crist, a leading candidate for the seat, is now in the position to decide who will fill the office in the interim, with the expectation of a placeholder candidate who likely will be a weak representative for one of our largest states.

"Any appointment Gov. Crist makes will be perceived through the lens of his own personal political interests," said FairVote's executive director Rob Richie. "All U.S. Senate vacancies should be filled by special election, and never subject to the partisan, parochial interests of governors. It's worked for more than two centuries for the U.S. House. The Senate should be reflective of the will of the people, not the interests of other politicians."

All U.S. Senators must be elected in regularly scheduled elections, but gubernatorial appointment of vacancies represents a giant loophole through which nearly a quarter of all Senators serving since the 17th amendment have passed. The past year has been no exception, with governors appointing members of the U.S. Senate left and right. Many of those appointments have been problematic at best. Most obviously troublesome was impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's controversial appointment of Roland Burris to fill the Senate vacancy left by the election of President Barack Obama, an appointment riddled with allegations of corruption, quid pro quos and an announcement by Burris not to seek re-election. Other appointments include Ted Kaufmann, filling the Delaware seat left by Vice President Biden, who is perceived by many to be 'keeping the seat warm' for the vice president's son Beau Biden. The New York seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was rife with insider maneuverings and drama as political celebrities battled for the favor of Gov. David Paterson.

All of this could be avoided if these vacancies were filled by the people. Despite the notoriety of the Blagojevich scandal, only one state -- Connecticut -- passed legislation this year mandating elections to fill vacancies, although similar legislation has passed both houses of the Rhode Island legislature. Due to state partisan dynamics and self-interested behavior by governors loathe to give up the power to appoint vacancies - see our testimony to Congress on this subject in March for more details -- FairVote supports a constitutional amendment (SJ 7) mandating elections for Senate vacancies, introduced by Sen. Russ Feingold and cosponsored by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, including Sen. John McCain. On August 6th, the legislation passed the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. The bill earned bipartisan support, suggesting that it won't fit neatly into the partisan pigeonholes affecting so much legislation this year.

FairVote analyst David Segal, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this year on behalf of SJ 7, is available for comment at davidadamsegal (at) hotmail.com and 301-270-4616. His commentary on this issue has appeared in the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, and just weeks before the June win in Connecticut, the Hartford Courant.