South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, reportedly recovering after brain surgery Wednesday, reminds Americans of one of the most troublingly undemocratic aspects of this country’s uneven and often dysfunctional political process.

If Johnson is incapacitated, the decision about how to fill his seat will not be made by the voters of South Dakota but by one man: the state’s Republican governor. And if, as is expected, that governor were to appoint a fellow Republican, control of the upper chamber of the Congress would turn on his whim.

Johnson, a Democrat who is in his second term, became disoriented during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The normally sharp 59-year-old began stuttering in his responses to questions. He seemed to make a comeback, and returned to his Washington office. There, he appeared again to be sick and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Johnson was in critical condition early Thursday morning, after he underwent surgery. Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described what he saw as “the symptoms of a stroke,” although that was not a final diagnosis.

For Democrats, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, however, the diagnosis was clear. If Johnson is incapacitated, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a partisan Republican perhaps best known for signing the most draconian antiabortion law in the land, will be able to appoint a Republican to replace the Democratic Senator.

Rounds has a track record of using appointments to gain partisan advantage. In 2002, after a Democratic member of the South Dakota State Senate died, the Governor put a Republican in his place.

The appointment by Rounds of a Republican to Johnson’s seat would saddle the Senate with a 50-50 split. That would give President Dick Cheney, who as the chamber’s presiding officer is empowered to break ties, the authority to hand control to the GOP.

Cheney will do so.

Thus, if Democrat Johnson were forced to give up his seat, two Republican partisans, Mike Rounds and Dick Cheney, could overturn the decision of American voters on November 7 to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.

Under South Dakota law, the governor has the power to fill an open Senate seat and, according to South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, there are no restrictions on such appointments. Thus, Rounds does not have to appoint another Democrat. Nor does he have to call a special election that, presumably, would be won by South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, a popular Democrat.

Though senators must be elected by the people in all states, when they are incapacitated during their terms they can be replaced in a variety of manners. Some states, such as Texas and Wisconsin, hold special elections to fill open seats–thus keeping decisions about who sits in the Senate with the people. Other states, such as South Dakota, allow a gubernatorial designation that is roughly akin to a royal appointment.

The United States should have a uniform system for replacing senators. The system should be democratic, placing authority in the hands of the electorate rather than a single man or woman. Instead, we have a lingering remnant of royalism–gubernatorial appointment–that could in this rare circumstance upset the will not just of the people of one state but of the United States.


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