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Democracy put on hold in replacing Sen. Robert Byrd

Tuesday, June 29, 2010; A18

THE PEOPLE OF West Virginia loved Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) enough to send him to the U.S. Senate nine times. In turn, he showered his state with the largess that comes with increasing power and longevity. By the time Mr. Byrd died Monday at age 92, he had become the longest-serving senator in U.S. history. But under state law, West Virginians will be represented for the remainder of his term not by someone they have chosen but by someone selected for them by Gov. Joe Manchin (D).

Because Mr. Byrd died more than two years and six months before the end of his current term, West Virginia law calls for the governor to appoint someone to serve only until a special election is held. But there's a rub: Under the law, the special election does not take place until the next regularly scheduled primary and general elections. West Virginia held its primary election for 2010 on May 11. So the special election wouldn't take place until 2012, when the seat would be up for election. West Virginia, somewhat ludicrously, then will hold a "special election" to pick someone who will serve for a matter of weeks -- until the next Congress is seated -- as well as a regular election to choose a senator for the following six years. The same person can run for both.

Mr. Manchin is said to be interested in being a senator. He has said he won't appoint himself to serve for the next couple of years. It would be understandable if he were tempted to choose a caretaker who would not challenge him in 2012 -- but who also might not be the most able candidate available. No matter whom he chooses, West Virginians will be cheated of elected representation.

While the Constitution mandates a special election for vacant House seats, there is no such requirement for the Senate. As a result, we have seen the sometimes tortured and sometimes corrupt process by which Senate seats have been filled by governors. Since President Obama and Vice President Biden were elected in 2008, there have been five gubernatorial appointments. Ideally, West Virginia's legislature would change the law to allow for a special election within a reasonable amount of time, say 60 days. Two and a half years is a long time to wait to give the people of West Virginia their say in who represents them in Washington.

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