R.I. Gov. Thinks 0.0001% Turnout for U.S. Senate Elections is Just Fine

by Paul Fidalgo // Published November 10, 2009
rhode island statehouse

Shocking no one but disappointing many, Rhode Island's Gov. Carcieri vetoed legislation that would have mandated a special election in the case of a vacancy in one of the state's U.S. Senate seats.

Carcieri's official explanation essentially rests on the idea that gubernatorial appointments to fill Senate vacancies remain the norm in most other states. (One wonders whether if it were the norm for other states to jump off the Empire State Building, well, never mind). But with the exception of Massachusetts, recent appointment-based scandals, most notably that of Illinois' former governor Rod Blagojevich, have spurred a movement within many states to change to special elections over appointments, as well as a proposed constitutional amendment. Appointment may be the norm, but that's not because it's a good idea.

As with his unfortunate veto of pre-registration legislation (over which a veto override campaign is being waged), Caricieri has also backed up his decision by vague worries over administration. With pre-registration, his first veto was explained by his reticence to take any action regarding voter registration while the voter rolls were being "cleaned" (and once cleaned, he vetoed the legislation again - his consistency of thought is no better on the National Popular Vote plan, either). With the Senate vacancy bill, Carcieri raised concerns that the voters would be 'confused' and that turnout would be low with a shorter campaign season.

This is an odd bit of logic. Perhaps we have grown accustomed to endless campaigns that span years, but there is nothing preventing voters from getting a good understanding of potential special election candidates - decisions are made by those who show up, and it's not the governor's place to decide what constitutes a "enough" evaluation on the part of interested voters. And as for his concerns about turnout, no matter how many people show up to vote in a special election, the turnout would be vastly higher than it is without a special election - a U.S. Senator elected by a constituency of exactly one person (technically, it would be turnout of 0.0001% of the voting eligible population). I'd say that's pretty low.

Carcieri also cited Massachusetts' recent move to rescind its own special election law in the wake of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, but Massachusetts had it right the first time. Its move back to gubernatorial appointments was a purely partisan calculation to keep the Senate flush with voting Democrats for the still-raging health care battle. Carcieri had the chance to advance democracy, and the Massachusetts state government has to chance to hold on to progress already made. Both chose to step backward. For Carcieri, it's become something of a habit.

At bottom, Carcieri is a Republican in a heavily-Democratic state. Were a vacancy to open up in Rhode Island, the GOP governor would have a chance to appoint a GOP Senator, rather than take the chance of a legitimate election. The governor of Rhode Island, it seems, would rather not trust the very people who elected him to office to also choose a U.S. Senator should Rhode Island suddenly find it needs one.