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The Rhode Island General Assembly has sent Governor Donald Carcieri '65 a bill that would require that U.S. Senate vacancies be filled by special election rather than gubernatorial appointment. We believe Carcieri should sign the bill, though it could be improved.  

The ratification of the 17th amendment to the federal constitution in 1913 was a critical step in America's growth as a representative democracy. The amendment mandated that senators be elected directly by voters, rather than state legislators. However, the amendment also allowed state legislatures to grant the governor the power to appoint a senator in the event of an unexpected vacancy. Now, though, several recent appointments — especially the Blagojevich fiasco in Illinois — make it clearer than ever that the 17th amendment's mission will not be complete until all senators are elected by the people. Simply put, no governor should be able to appoint someone to complete a term. 

The bill that is headed to Carcieri's desk would be a step in the right direction, but it's not perfect. For one thing, the bill does not specify a period of time in which the special election must be held. To minimize the length of time a state will be underrepresented, the legislature should propose a reasonable timeframe that would still give candidates enough time to campaign. 

Moreover, the legislature should make provisions for a genuine emergency, like a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. or a natural disaster in the state.

Some constitutional scholars have therefore recommended that governors should be allowed to appoint senators if the President declares a state of emergency or if the number of senators falls beneath a critical threshold. This sort of trigger would ensure that each state has two senators in the event of a true crisis.

More importantly, we believe the state should pick a system for filling Senate vacancies and stick to it. In recent years, the Massachusetts state legislature has undermined its own legitimacy by its unprincipled and blatantly political handling of Senate vacancies. In 2004, when Democratic Senator John Kerry was running for President and Republican Mitt Romney held the Governor's office, the state legislature stripped the governor of his appointment power. This year, with a Democrat back in the State House and a Senate closely divided over health-care reform legislation, Democrats felt they needed every single vote, and the Massachusetts state legislature restored the governor's power to make a temporary appointment to fill the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy.  

The Massachusetts legislature's actions in this area give Rhode Island an example to be avoided. Even now, with both of Rhode Island's senators serving competently and in good health, we worry about the appearance of a Democratic legislature stripping a Republican governor of his appointment power. That's why we believe Senator Russ Feingold's proposed constitutional amendment — which would end appointments and require special elections in all states — is the right long-term fix. 

There is never a good time for a state to see its representation in the Senate diminished. Senator Ted Kennedy's untimely death shows that Senate vacancies can sometimes be extraordinarily inconvenient. Nevertheless, political exigencies can never justify the circumvention of basic democratic principles. If Rhode Island is going to change its method of filling Senate vacancies, it must remain consistent in the decades to come.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to editorials at


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