Statewide election to fill state's U.S. Senate seat

Sara Sunshine // Published March 31, 2009 in The Brown Daily Herald

In the wake of scandals involving Illinois and New York Senate seats, the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives have voted to change state law so that a vacated U.S. Senate seat would be filled through a special statewide election.

Seats left open before their term expires are currently filled by gubernatorial appointment.

After a similar bill stalled in the House last year, a newer version passed 64-6 in the House and 33-1 in the Senate this month. If either chamber approves the other's version of the bill, it will be sent to the desk of Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 for final approval.

Carcieri has not made a decision yet about whether to approve or veto the bill, according to Amy Kempe, the governor's press secretary. However, there are many reasons to be hesitant about the bill, Kempe said.

In addition to being concerned about the added cost and delay that a special election would pose to the state, Carcieri does not think the bill is "necessary," Kempe said.

"There has really never been an issue outside of the extraordinary circumstance in Illinois," where then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was caught on a federal wiretap attempting to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder.

But according to Matt Sledge '08, director of FairVote Rhode Island, these concerns are outweighed by the fact that the most important statewide federal elected official could be sent to Washington without the backing of a popular vote.

The policy could affect the Ocean State as soon as this year if Sen. Jack Reed takes an appointment in the Obama administration as some state politicians have speculated, according to a March 11 Providence Journal article.

Though Sledge said he believes Carcieri would fill any vacant Rhode Island seat honestly, he said that gubernatorial appointments allow for the selection of "outright crooks" or the perception of corruption, which can be just as damaging.

There is also a concern about separation of powers, Sledge said. "Allowing the executive to directly appoint a member of the legislative branch" is something that Rhode Island voters might object to, he said.

Sledge said he did not find the opposition's arguments convincing, particularly the idea that gubernatorial appointments are the speediest way to fill a vacant Senate seat.

"You can hold a special election pretty quickly and the results are much better," Sledge said, adding that Gov. David Paterson of New York took months to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A similar bill has been introduced in nine states, but its passage is furthest along in Rhode Island, Sledge said.