22 December 2008

Senatorial Special Elections: Too Much of a Bother?

I must not be the only person suggesting a general adoption of special elections to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, because now I'm seeing writers attempting to explain why it's a bad idea. Joshua Spivack, for instance, decries the expense and bother of such a scheme. It costs money to have an election, he notes, and to do it right you'd have to have party primaries and all the other fixins. Add it up and New York or Illinois could go for months without its full Senatorial cohort.

Worse, Spivack suggests, the winner of a special election might get uppity and act as if he or she has a mandate from the people -- and might even run for a full term!

Over the past 50 years, around 40 percent of the senators selected by governors have won election to their own terms, compared with the 81 percent of incumbents who win re-election contests. It suggests that voters, and the other elected officials who mount primary challenges to these nonelected senators, do not automatically grant them the deference that accrues to incumbency. But voters may not have the same hesitation to give knee-jerk support to special election victors. Despite the fact that such senators generally arrive in office on the votes of a very small percentage of those eligible, they will still be the "incumbent," as in an official who has won the imprimatur of the voters. The result is likely to be a much greater, if undeserved, chance of victory in the next general election.


Spivack is unwilling to grant full legitimacy to special-election winners because they've historically won under conditions of low voter turnout compared to general elections. But whose fault is that? But if the "deference that accrues to incumbency" is based on the fact that incumbents have won elections, from which no voters have been excluded, why shouldn't a special-election winner enjoy more deference than a gubernatorial appointee, if there's to be deference at all? What is Spivack arguing for here, anyway? If deference (as expressed, presumably, by re-election) is objectionable, and accrues less to appointees than elected officials, would we all be less deferential toward our representatives if we never voted for them at all, but had them appointed by executives instead? Spivack actually suggests that letting governors appoint makes them more accountable in the public mind, and he actually cites the state of Alaska as proof, since Sarah Palin became governor by defeating an incumbent of her own party who had offended the people by appointing his own daughter to the Senate. I can understand what Spivack's trying to say here, but were there no better examples?

Complaints against expense are sure to dissuade some people from completely democratizing the Senate. For them, I propose an alternative that will involve no expense or extra effort at all. They can amend the Constitution to forbid Senators from accepting any appointment during their elected terms, leaving vacancies caused by death as the only problem for states to solve. Maybe they needn't be filled at all until the normal election time. This country used to get along quite well without a Vice President when one happened to die in office, and that officer is the president of the Senate. How much more dispensable is any given Senator? Individual states and the major political parties might protest, but maybe it would just be too bad for them. Let's at least give the matter some more creative thought than it's been getting so far.


1 comment:

The Crime Think Collective said...

Or, perhaps, we should consider eliminating the states in favour of a streamlined central government. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if 50 separate states are really necessary in the 21st century, or should we be focusing on the idea of "one nation, one law, one language".