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Hold a Special Election for Byrd's Seat; Senators Should Never Be Appointed | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Hold a Special Election for Byrd's Seat; Senators Should Never Be Appointed

No Senate seat should ever be filled by gubernatorial appointment.

To do so gives one man or woman the authority to place a stamp on the affairs of the nation that ought only be affixed by the voters.

Unfortunately, most states allow for the appointment of senators -- sometimes until a special election, sometimes for the remainder of a term.

Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold has proposed a constitutional amendment requiring that all senators be elected, just as all House members must face the voters before taking their seats. And after the messy -- and at times, it appears corrupted -- processes that saw replacements for Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar chosen by gubernatorial appointment, legislators in a number of states around the country have began efforts to assure that their senators are elected.

Unfortunately, West Virginia has not updated its laws to respect the democratic process.

Thus, though the state outlines a procedure for a special election, the West Virginia Secretary of State interpreted the law as saying that Governor Joe Manchin should appoint a replacement for the late Senator Robert Byrd to serve until November of 2012. Manchin is a potential replacement for Byrd but he says he won't appoint himself, which is good news.

The better news is that Machin now says he will delay making an appointment until a determination is made about whether a special election can be held this year. "I believe in the power of the vote. I believe in the election process. Two and a half years to appoint someone to fill the shoes of Robert C. Byrd is too long," the governor said Wednesday morning. "There is reasonable concern that there should be clarity to this, and that is why I am asking the attorney general [Darrell McGraw] to render a legal opinion on this as quickly as possible."

Manchin's move followed an outcry that led state officials to begin weighing proposals to rewrite state law in order to hold a special election this fall. A special legislative session that is already scheduled to begin July 19 could do the job, and Derek Scarbro, the executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party, says he is finding strong support for the idea from both Democrats and Republicans for calling a special election. "A lot of other groups have come out in favor of it now, too," Scarbro tells The Hill.

The West Virginia Republican Party has endorsed the change and Troy Berman, its executive director, says, "Just about everybody appears to be getting on board with a legislative remedy at this point."

Make no mistake, the "legislative remedy" is the right fix. It is also the possible fix. There is more than enough time between now and November to open a filing period, schedule party primaries and hold a general election in conjunction with the regular November election. In fact, Hawaii's filing deadline for its September 18 party primaries is not until July 20. And West Virginia's filing deadline for independent and third-party candidates is not until July 30.

So this can be done, relatively easily.

It is simply a matter of will -- democratic will.

Manchin has displayed it, and he deserves credit for this -- a credit that might well make him a leading contender for the seat.

The governor has faced pressure from D.C. Democrats who want the seat to be filled immediately by appointment, so that they will have one more vote for their weak financial services reform proposal. This delay will not make them happy. But it is not Manchin's job to make Democratic leaders in Washington happy.

Nor should be take the counsel of  D.C. Dems who, fearing that this could be a tough election cycle, have quietly urged Manchin to keep the seat out of the voters' hands until 2012, when things might calm down for the Dems.

The governor should dismiss the political calculations on all sides and do the right thing.

Democracy is not supposed to serve the agenda of partisans on either side. It is supposed to serve the interest of voters, who should be represented in Washington by elected, not appointed, members of Congress. The Constitution requires that every House seat be filled by election and the same standard should apply to the Senate, which is, if anything, more powerful than the House when it comes to defining federal policy.

And West Virginia is especially in need of a serious Senate contest.

The state has not had an open Senate seat in 26 years -- since Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller outspent his Republican foe 10-1 to win the first of his five terms.

The last time a senator got beat in an open election was in 1958, when Republican Senator W. Chapman Revercomb, a progressive Republican who was a stalwart champion of civil rights, was defeated by a segregationist Democrat named Robert Byrd.

Revercomb (who had been elected in a special election two years earlier) was the better candidate in 1958, although Byrd became a fine senator.

Ultimately, however, small "d" democrats should worry less about who is elected than about the fact of an election.

West Virginia can have one this November. And it should.

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