The Vacancy Dilemma: Its Not Just Senators

by Erik Connell // Published February 5, 2009
Between the shameful attempt to sell President Obama's Senate seat by Rod Blagojevich, the media circus surrounding the selection of Hilary Clinton's Senate replacement, and the other three Senate vacancies, the issue of filling vacant legislative seats has been on a lot of people's minds recently. It is clear that filling a vacant seat leaves room for corruption and insider games, and also undermines American democratic values, but some still believe appointment to be the best way to fill a vacant seat.

With the recent death of County Councilman Don Praisner, Montgomery County is due to have its second special election in less than a year, after the death of Praisner's wife Marilyn last February. Mr. Praisner was elected in a two-round runoff election where the cost was over $1.3 million. The turnout dropped from an already low 11.5% the primaries to a paltry 8.5% in the general, and of course the candidates had to raise and spend more money for the second election. In light of these facts, as well as the current state of the economy, Praisner asked, as a last request, that his replacement be appointed instead of elected.

There is a solution that solves both the problems associated with appointments and those associated with runoffs: instant runoff voting. It would solve the appointment quandary by having an election, while solving runoffs' problems by cutting election costs in half and avoiding a turnout drop-off simply by having one election instead of two. Those values contributed to a 71% win for a charter amendment to enact instant runoff voting in Memphis, Tennessee last November, with more than 400,000 voters at the polls.

Both the Blagojevich scandal and the current economic crisis have saddened many Americans. But if there's a silver lining to the current clouds in the air, perhaps it could be that, due to these unfortunate circumstances, Americans rethink the way we do democracy, and move toward instant runoff voting for vacancy elections.