US Senate Vacancy Bill Passed

The Rhode Island House today became the first legislative chamber in the nation after the Blagojevich debacle to approve a bill that would guarantee every US Senator is elected. The bill, H 5005, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Fierro, won a 64-6 majority in the House, with support from both Democrats and Republicans.

“This chamber did its duty in responding to the public uproar over the Blagojevich scandal,” said Rep. Fierro. “Every United States Senator should be elected by the direct vote of the people, not arbitrary gubernatorial selection.”

If the bill passes in the Rhode Island Senate, where a companion measure (S 201, sponsored by Senator Paul Jabour) was heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the same day, the bill will reach Governor Donald Carcieri’s desk.

“I hope Governor Carcieri will carefully consider this bill’s many benefits for Rhode Islanders. If there is ever a Senate vacancy, we should use the most transparent and fair process to fill the seat, an election. Elected senators have earned the trust of their constituents in an election. That’s why elected Senators have much higher re-election rates than their appointed colleagues,” said Matt Sledge, FairVote Rhode Island Director.

When appointed senators choose to run, they have a re-election rate that hovers around 50%--far lower than their elected colleagues.

Similar legislation was introduced in the Rhode Island House and Senate and backed by FairVote last year. The spate of gubernatorial appointments in the wake of Barack Obama’s gave Fierro’s bill critical momentum this year. Nine states in 2009 are considering legislation to mandate elections, not gubernatorial appointments, in the wake of Senate vacancies.

In Rhode Island, the governor currently makes an interim appointment which lasts from the time of the vacancy until the next general election, according to current state law- in other words, for a period of up to two years.

FairVote supports moving to a model along the lines of Oregon or Wisconsin, whose laws ensure that that every person who goes to represent Rhode Island in Washington is elected by the people. The language of H 5094 (Rep. Fierro) and S 201 (Sen. Jabour) is based on and nearly identical to the language in current state law which provides for special elections in case of vacancies in the US House of Representatives.

Pre-Registration Passes
Also in the Rhode Island House on March 10, Representatives approved H 5005 (Rep. Edwin Pacheco) on  a 55-10 vote, with bipartisan support. The bill that would permit advance voter registration of 16 and 17 year olds. Previous versions of this bill have passed for three years running (2006, 2007, and 2008), only to be vetoed by Governor Carcieri.

“Pre-registration should be approved by the full General Assembly swiftly,” said FairVote RI Director Matt Sledge. “If the Governor plans to again veto this simple and easy measure to boost youth civic engagement, the General Assembly should quickly override his veto.”

Young voters aged 18-29 currently vote at rates similar to the rest of the population, but only when they are registered. The “registration gap” between younger and older voters has been closing, particularly in the wake of President Obama’s election campaign, but it still accounts for most of the difference in voting rates.

Pacheco hopes the bill, which allows for pre-registration in the straightforward and regulated environments of the DMV or a high school civics class, could close some of the registration gap.