Fumbling toward democracy

What do a prostitute, an airport bathroom, a dead congressman and a brain hemorrhage have in common? This isn’t an off-color joke. The joke’s on us, because the correct answer is “the balance of power in the United States Senate.”

In the last year, scandal, death and illness have spotlighted the curious and undemocratic ways we fill vacancies in the world’s most powerful legislative body – one in which Democrats have a slim one-seat majority.

We can’t look to our constitutional framers for help in the current policy dilemma. For more than a century, senators were appointed rather than elected until the 17th amendment brought democratic elections to the body in 1913. But while requiring states to hold elections for the Senate, the 17th amendment does not require elections to fill vacancies. In contrast, from the birth of our federal government, no member has ever served in the U.S. House without being elected.

That’s why the recent untimely deaths of Rep. Paul Gilmor (R-Ohio) and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) were handled so differently. In Ohio, Gilmor’s seat will be filled in a special election. In Wyoming, state law required the Democratic governor to select among three nominees put forward by the state Republican Party’s central committee.

The Wyoming Republican Party decided to host an “American Idol”-style open casting call of sorts to allow members of the general public to apply to be a U.S. senator. Three finalists were then put forward to the governor for selection.

Granted that senators who are appointed to fill vacancies will all eventually have to face voters if planning to serve another term, but allowing appointments at all brings political gaming and backroom deals into the selection process — particularly if a state’s governor is of a different party than the vacating senator. Appointment power can entrench incumbents who take office without the consent of the voters, making them all the more difficult to remove from office regardless of their job performance.

These undemocratic considerations occur due to the great variety of methods with which states have chosen to exercise their discretion in whether to have immediate special elections or to appoint senators. For example, after Republican Sen. David Vitter (La.) was caught up in a prostitution scandal and faced pressure to resign, he no doubt considered that should he leave office, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco would replace him with someone from her own party. Likewise, during his period of illness, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.) had to consider that resigning would place his seat in the hands of the appointee of Republican Gov. Michael Rounds. And would Senate Republicans have been so quick to call for the resignation of Larry Craig (R-Idaho) if the governor of Idaho were a Democrat?

Some states, like Alaska, Arizona and Hawaii, have required that temporary appointments be from the same party as the outgoing senator. But this method still places control over representation in the hands of professional politicians who also happen to be of the same party as the outgoing officeholder. It is not necessarily a reflection of voter intent, as voters may well have been supporting the person more than the party.

It’s time for Congress to bring uniformity to the process, along with a dose of democratization, and either require or induce states to hold special elections when Senate vacancies occur. There’s some question about whether Congress has the authority to mandate special elections, but it could definitely devise incentives for states through the power of the purse. Lack of congressional action, however, should not stop states from voluntarily moving toward special elections in the meantime, as Oregon and Wisconsin have done. Doing so would further advance the evolution of our democracy and would bring us one step closer to creating a system where the people can change the direction of our government, should they see fit.

Special elections can create crowded fields of candidates where winners might fall far short of a majority of the vote, with two separate elections costing taxpayers and hurting turnout. But Texas and Louisiana already require a majority winner for congressional vacancies, and adopting instant runoff voting would elect that majority winner with one trip to the polls. Recommended by Robert’s Rules of Order, instant runoff voting simulates a runoff in one election, by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference.

Whatever the means, vacancies in the U.S. Senate should be filled by staying true to democratic principles. States are not fiefdoms and politicians are not feudal lords. When an emergency arises and a state needs to replace a member of that deliberative body of statesmen and women, the people they will represent should be the final authority.

Moon is program director of FairVote in Takoma Park, Md.