Upholding Democratic Ideals, Even When It's Hard

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 21, 2009
Democratic ideals are not always convenient to uphold. In times of crisis or tragedy, and when the business of governing is swirling with debate and possibilities, it is understandable that there are times when some would seek exceptions to them. It is surely in this spirit that the senior senator from Massachusetts yesterday asked his governor and state legislature to change state law to allow for a gubernatorial appointment to fill his seat should he vacate it. But even with the greatest admiration and esteem for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and with heartfelt sympathy for the battle he now faces, it remains that U.S. senators should always serve based on mandate from the people of their state, not by the choice of one person in a position of power.

I know that Sen. Kennedy agrees with this in spirit; in his letter to Gov. Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts state legislature, he said as much. Concerning the existing state statute that requires a special election be held in the case of a Senate vacancy, he wrote, "I strongly support that law and the principle that the people should elect their senator." To mitigate the undemocratic nature of an appointment to fill a Senate vacancy, Sen. Kennedy would have the governor appoint someone who gave a "personal commitment" to the governor not to seek the seat in an election. It is debatable that such a proviso would be enforceable, but even so, it mirrors other troublesome appointments in which the person appointed is intended as a mere caretaker, a person who represents in this case millions of people without their consent and wielding no mandate from the voters.

Massachusetts' 6.5 million residents are fortunate to live in a state represented by such a man as Sen. Kennedy, and in one of the few states that mandates that they decide who else may speak for them in the upper house of Congress. It is disconcerting, the prospect of so important a seat being empty when so much weighty business is being done on Capitol Hill. But those democratic ideals demand our leaders be accountable to us, not to an already-seated politician with his or her own personal and partisan interests in mind. Though it's clear that Sen. Kennedy's proposal is offered with the best and most noble of intentions, it would be a move backward in time in the history of voting rights.

FairVote continues to support efforts to require that anyone holding a seat in the U.S. Senate does so through direct election by the people of their state. See our just-distributed press release here, and analyst David Segal's testimony before Congress on SJ 7, Russ Feingold's proposed constitutional amendment that would mandate elections to fill Senate vacancies.