On Vacant Senate Seats: Let the Voters Decide


Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

First, America elects a one term senator their president. That Senator happens to be an African-American and he also happens to have flipped N.C., Ind., Fla., Va., Ohio, N.M. and Nev. from red to blue.

Then the senator, now President-elect, picks several fellow senators to join his administration, creating several vacancies. In the Senate, unlike the House where the states hold special elections, the vacancies are filled by Governors. (This is a relic of the time when state legislatures picked Senators. It’s a compromise which was established as part of the creation of the 17th amendment in 1913.)

So here’s where we stand with the various Senate vacancies:

Delaware– Sen. Joe Biden is now Vice President-elect. Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner picked long time Biden chief of staff, Ted Kaufman to fill the rest of Biden’s term. Kaufman will take office when Biden resigns his Senate seat, probably a few days before inauguration day.

Colorado– Obama has named Sen. Ken Salazar to be Secretary of Interior. On Friday, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter indicated he plans to name Denver school superintendent Michael Bennet to fill Salazar’s term.

New York– Obama has named Sen. Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. Democratic Gov. David Paterson seems to be conducting his own version of Ed McMahon’s star search, much to the chagrin of N.Y. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo seems to think that if anyone in New York is going to inherit a Senate seat, it ought to be the son of the former governor for life, not the daughter of a former president. Paterson, for his part, seems to enjoy toying with the New York media and will probably drag the process out until the very last minute. Why not name someone from upstate with some legislative experience who could do something for the people of New York?

Illinois– Gov. Rod Blagojevich, caught in an FBI sting trying to auction off Obama’s senate seat, has recently appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the seat, in defiance of the state’s legislature, Senate Democrats, and the President-elect. In a news conference following the Burris announcement. Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush pleaded to the media that they not “hang or lynch” Burris, who would be come the Senate’s sole African-American member if seated. “Separate, if you will, the appointee from the appointor. Roland Burris is worthy.” Aren’t we past that kind of politics Congressman Rush?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for his part,  has vowed not to seat Burris or any person named by the soon-to-be-jailed governor, citing Article I, Section 5 of the United States Constitution, which states that “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members”.

Meanwhile, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has refused to sign the appointment documents from the office of the soon-to-be-jailed governor. There seems to be a hope that the state legislature will get its act together and impeach Blagojevich, clearing the way for the Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to become governor and appoint Obama’s successor.

Got all that? “No Drama Obama,” is a phrase which apparently doesn’t apply to the process for deciding who will fill the President-elect’s former job.

Minnesota – Amazingly, in the ongoing recount of votes in the election of GOP Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic Al Franken, Franken has pulled ahead by 49 votes. Yet, there are still several thousand absentee ballots which are being contested. These ballots are from jurisdictions that Franken carried handily. Even if the state canvassing board names Franken the winner on Tuesday, expect Sen. Coleman to file lawsuits contesting the decision. Or, if Coleman is named the winner, expect the same from Franken.

Senate Republicans, led by campaign chief and Texas Senator John Cornyn,  have vowed not to seat Franken in the same way that Senate Democrats have vowed not to seat Burris. Great, so two states won’t have Senate representation when the Senate reconvenes on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

Don’t expect any sympathy from the residents of the District of Columbia, who’ve never had voting representation in the Senate. Ever. Although 12 District residents did elect the Senator from Alaska this past November.

It seems to me that the special elections should be the requirement for filing all future Senate vacancies, but current practice leaves it to the states. Special elections would be more democratic but would take political power away from governors. Don’t expect them to give it up without a fight. That said, perhaps the events since Obama’s election certainly provide the political will to change these state laws.

I’m not holding my breath. But perhaps the states will do what this columnist in the News & Observer (of Raleigh, N.C.) recommends: Let the Voters Decide.

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Filed under Obama administration, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, Senate Vacancies

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