Outside editorial: Filling a void in Senate

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009

In 2004, fearing that Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would appoint a fellow Republican to replace Sen. John Kerry should he become president, the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature changed the law, mandating a special election. Now, fearing that the push for health-care reform could be weakened by the absence of a 60th Democratic senator, that same legislature wants to change the law again, allowing the governor - now a Democrat - to make a quick appointment. With all due respect to the wishes of Sen. Edward Kennedy, this isn't how lawmaking is supposed to work. It smacks of political expediency and can only breed cynicism.

Our view is that voters ought to be able to choose their senators. The current Senate helps show why. Illinois's governor treated Barack Obama's seat as property to be sold to the highest bidder. Joe Biden's seat in Delaware has been handled like a family heirloom, Hillary Rodham Clinton's was given away in an opaque and unbecoming process. On Friday, Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist named his former chief of staff to warm the seat for him, assuming that Crist will be elected to the seat next year. Throw in Colorado (whose Ken Salazar became interior secretary) and Texas (where Gov. Rick Perry is on deck to replace retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) and you get 26.6 percent of Americans represented by a senator for whom no one voted.

Under a Massachusetts law enacted in 2004, the special election to replace Kennedy must be held 145 to 160 days after declaration of the vacancy. Maybe that's too long - though if you make the time too short, you give an unfair advantage to insiders with big money chests and name recognition. Now Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick says he would sign legislation to give him the power to fill a vacancy with someone who vows not to run in the special election - though such a promise not to run probably can't be legally mandated. This plan was proposed to Patrick by Kennedy in July and revealed last week.

Massachusetts Democratic state Rep. William Straus, who chaired the Joint Committee on Election Laws, which devised the 2004 law, has a better idea for the governor. "Stay out of it," Straus advises. "It's time for the governor to just pick election dates."

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