Unsettled over the 17th: Senate Vacancy Reaction Roundup

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 19, 2009
The call for direct elections to fill US Senate vacancies is getting louder and louder following the announcement of Sen. Mel Martinez's coming resignation. Florida governor Charlie Crist will appoint someone to fill the seat, even as he mounts a campaign to win it for himself. The inherent conflict of interest is not going unnoticed.

We have frequently pointed out that about a quarter of all US Senators who have ever served since the ratification of the 17th Amendment have been unelected, the Washington Post in a recent editorial found another glaring statistic. Once Gov. Crist makes his choice to fill Sen. Martinez's seat,

Altogether, 26.6 percent of the nation's population will be represented by a senator no one voted for.
You read that right.

Meanwhile, Steve Chapman at Reason Magazine takes a hard look at that 17th Amendment, and makes the case that its provision for gubernatorial appointments was not intended to withhold electoral power from the people.

For most of our history, the public had no say on the upper house. Senators were chosen by state legislatures. Not until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 did voters gain the right to elect them.

The amendment also provided a democratic means to fill empty seats. "When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate," it decrees, "the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies." Shall issue: Put simply, the governor has to convene a special election. But confusion arises because the amendment says the legislature may authorize the governor "to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct."

. . . the 17th Amendment [has] a clear meaning that has long been ignored . . .  Let the people decide, and sooner rather than later. The 17th Amendment, which was supposed to give power to the voters, should no longer be used as an excuse to take it away.

Of course, there are practical political implications to having states represented by unelected placeholders. In a recent piece by Lesley Clark of the Miami Herald, yours truly is quoted making the point that potency is lost when a new senator doesn't have the stamp of approval from the electorate:
``Even under the most benign of circumstances, a gubernatorial appointment robs the people of that state of the chance to have a say in who that person is,'' said Paul Fidalgo of FairVote, a group that supports a proposed constitutional amendment requiring elections for Senate vacancies. ``They don't come in with a mandate from voters. The political capital that comes from an election is absent.''
Meanwhile, Dan Gilgoff at US News checks in with another FairVoter.
Now, a growing number of lawmakers and good-government groups are using the wave of Senate appointment controversies to push for a constitutional amendment that would end the practice by requiring states to hold special elections to fill vacated Senate seats. . . Critics say that besides bypassing voters, the system gives unelected senators unfair incumbency advantages if they seek another term. "These senators can mail constituents for free, dole out earmarks, and make news," says David Segal, an analyst for the group Fair Vote.
With this latest controversy over a backroom Senate ascension, perhaps the tide is beginning to turn in Democracy's favor.