There is a lot of movement to rework the laws of the state of Massachusetts so that Governor Deval Patrick can appoint a successor to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.
The state’s current rules for filling Senate vacancies — enacted five years ago to prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from appointing a conservative Republican replacement to Democratic Senator (and 2004 party presidential nominee) John Kerry — require Patrick to call a special election that would be held in January or February of 2010.
Kennedy’s last formal request to Massachusetts officials was that they alter the law so that Patrick could make a temporary appointment to fill the seat during the five to six months (the state statute says 145 to 160 days) that would pass between the time of his death and the time of that special election.
“I strongly support the law and the principle that the people should elect their Senator,” Kennedy wrote in a letter delivered earlier this month to to Patrick, state Senate President Therese Murray, and Speaker of the Massachusetts House Robert DeLeo. “I also believe it is vital for this Commonwealth to have two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate.”
When Kennedy made that request, there was resistance even from Democrats in the very Democratic state. They did not want to seem to be manipulating the state’s laws once more in order to assure that the senate seat would remain in the hands of a partisan.
Now that Kennedy has died, however, momentum seems to be shifting in favor of rewriting the rules.
The “logic” is easily understood: the great cause of Kennedy’s life was healthcare reform. That issue will be in play this fall. There are many Democrats who believes his seat should be occupied by a liberal Democrat who can help to advance that cause. And, besides, Massachusetts should have two senators — not one — during this critical period.
But the “logic” is flawed. If one believes that senators must be elected, it is unacceptable that vacancies should be filled — even temporarily — by individuals who have not faced the electorate.
Of course, sympathy and respect for Kennedy will make the rule change attractive. And, unfortunately, the US Constitution leaves the question of senatorial succession vague enough so that each state can play politics with vacancies. (Four Democratic senators have been appointed this year alone, a development that has led to a movement to amend the Constitution to require that all senators be elected.)
But Massachusetts officials do not have to play politics.
The Kennedy seat can be quickly filled by an elected senator.
Instead of changing the law to allow the governor to appoint a temporary successor, why not change the law to speed up the election process?
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was much speculation about what would have happened had a plane hit the Capitol and killed a large number of House and Senate members. Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, proposed a measure — H.R. 2844 — that would have required states to hold special elections for open House seats not later than 21 days after the vacancies were confirmed by the Speaker of the House.
Is that timetable unreasonable?
Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom have historically been held 17 working days after the the sitting Parliament has been dissolved and the formal Writs of Election have been issued. In 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced on April 5 that a general election would be held on May 5.
Many other parliamentary systems around the world work along similar timelines.
Many US states and municipalities organize and hold special elections in less than six months. White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel quit his US House seat on January 2 and the intensely contested special Democratic primary election to replace him — the definitional contest in Emanuel’s Chicago district — was held on March 3. A month later, on April 7, Democrat Michael Quigley won the seat in the general election.
The whole process was finished in barely three months — not the five or six months anticipated in Massachusetts.
And Illinois is anything but a model of speed or efficiency when it comes to organizing elections.
The bottom line is this: Massachusetts officials could establish a timeline for a special election that gives candidates two weeks to circulate petitions and collect a reasonable number of signatures to qualify for the ballot. Party primaries a month after the filing deadline. The general election could be held two weeks later.
That’s more than twice as long as a British election campaign and almost as long as the entire Illinois race that filled Emanuel’s seat.
It’s also more than enough time for contenders to campaign across the relatively small state of Massachusetts, to hold debates and to flood the airwaves with the inevitable commercials. And the sense of urgency and excitement associated with a quick campaign would almost certainly boost interest — perhaps to a level that might mitigate the influence of campaign spending, as free media and grassroots campaigning would be more prevalent than usual. Turnout would, almost certainly, be high.
Under this plan, Massachusetts could hold the special general election for Kennedy’s seat on November 3, the day when many of the state’s municipalities hold local elections. That would actually save taxpayers a few bucks.
And a new senator from Massachusetts could be seated by early November, in plenty of time to participate in healthcare reform debates that savvy senators anticipate will remain unresolved at that point.
It is true that the state would go unrepresented for a time, and that is unfortunate.
But it would be even more unfortunate to seat a “temporary senator” who has no mandate from the voters and then allow that senator to cast definitional votes on major public policy matters.
Indeed, an elected senator, arriving after one of the most exciting and closely watched special election campaigns in recent American history, would arrive with the most genuine of mandates — conferring the legitimacy that the next senator from Massachusetts will need to take the seat left vacant by the lion of the Senate.