Let the Voters Decide in Massachusetts -- and the Country

Senator Ted Kennedy last week asked the Massachusetts state legislature to reverse its law requiring that a special election be held to fill vacancies in the United States Senate. The law was enacted in 2004 for a mix of democratic and partisan motives. We suspect that most Massachusetts legislators really do support allowing voters to choose all their representatives in Congress, but so happened that Sen. John Kerry was seeking the presidency. The overwhelmingly Democratic legislature was not inclined to leave the power to fill the vacancy with Republican Governor Mitt Romney, with Sen. Kennedy himself urging passage. Massachusetts became the fourth state to ban appointees to the Senate, with the state instead requiring a special election between 145 and 160 days after the occurrence of the vacancy.

Moving to special elections is an important, pro-democracy measure that should be more widely adopted. The last year makes it abundantly clear that gubernatorial appointments tend to be based more on political expediency than the will of the voters. Yet since passage of the 17th amendment requiring election of Senators, nearly a quarter of all U.S. Senators have been first appointed. When we consider last winter's spate of Senate appointments (Bennet from Colorado, Burris from Illinois, Gillibrand from New York and Kaufman from Delaware) and account for anticipated vacancies in Florida (Martinez) and Texas (Hutchinson), nearly 27% of Americans will soon be represented by at least one unelected Senator. That includes four of our five largest states in a body that already underrepresents the citizens of large states.

Massachusetts' 2004 switch to special elections can be justified on idealistic grounds, even if the move had a partisan lining. But the proposed switch back would be anti-democratic as well as politically motivated: It's inconceivable that the legislature would act if a Republican were governor. Instead the state should explore other modifications to its special election law such as shortening the campaign season, starting the election process as soon as Sen. Kennedy announces his intention to resign and using a one-round election with instant runoff voting to uphold the goal of majority rule.

More broadly, Sen Kennedy and his congressional colleagues should act to create a level playing field for all states and better representation for all voters by supporting the constitutional amendment offered by Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain and Representative David Dreier. Already passed in its first Senate committee, it would require all U.S. Senators to be elected - just as our constitutional framers required of all U.S. House Members. Let's give the voters the last word.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote. David Segal is a senior analyst.