The November Illinois Senate Election and the Value of Voting

by Patrick Withers // Published August 4, 2010

On July 22, the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion upholding an earlier ruling by Judge Wood  that Senator Burris’s appointment was temporary and President Obama’s former seat must be filled at the soonest general election.  As this means that Senator Burris’s vacancy appointment ends November 2, 2010, voters in Illinois will need to vote in two US Senate elections this November: one to elect President Barack Obama’s successor in the Senate, serving a six-year term, and one to fill the vacancy left open by Roland Burris’s appointment expiring who will fill the seat for approximately two months.

There are those who have warned that the Seventh Circuit’s ruling may be confusing to voters and expensive.   However, Judge Wood’s opinion seems to suggest something novel in political discourse today: that elections and who is in office matter.  She says that the court is “not prepared to say that this… [election is for] such a short period of time that it should be dismissed as de minimis.”  Indeed, even though it is only for an eight-week period, the voters of Illinois have a Constitutional right to select who represents them in the Senate. Given that Congress will be back in session  for a “lame duck session” after the election, this new Senator indeed will have immediate responsibilities in casting votes in the Senate.

This country is built on the idea of representative democracy.  While any political system must be flexible to account for exigencies that may arise, at the foundation, a strong representative democracy must always keep in mind the principle that government is of, by, and for the people.  While this country, with the possible exceptions of cases such as gerrymandering,  does a pretty good job of keeping this in mind overall, there are ways in which we could make our democracy more robust and more representative.

Given its importance in confirming nominees and t is important that no state goes without representation in the Senate.  In the era before instant communication and widespread plane transportation, it might have made sense to have a long-term Senate appointment.  However, as the Seventh Circuit acknowledged, there is no justification for depriving voters of their right to vote for the individual to represent them in the Senate longer than necessary.  Now, the court punted on what “necessary” meant: whether appointments were valid until the next regularly-scheduled election or rather that states had to hold an election as soon as practicable.  However, one thing was clear from the opinion; no matter how short the time period, voters cannot be deprived of the opportunity to democratically make their voice heard.

The Obama Senate vacancy story of course has become a notorious example of government gone wrong, with former governor Rod Blagovich seemingly offering the seat to the highest bidder. Now that it seems that the multi-year saga of the Illinois Senate seat scandal is about to conclude once and for all, Americans should take this opportunity to reflect on the lessons of this experience.  Clearly, the system of vacancy appointments made by politicians and given to politicians is prone to corruption and anti-democratic actions.  Furthermore, this decision emphasizes that a vote is not just a formality, it is a right.  Hopefully, the Seventh Circuit’s language will be taken to heart and more Americans will exercise and defend their right to vote, both in this and other elections.  For, before this right can be codified, it has to be recognized as important by those who can exercise this right.