The Washington Post

Nevadans should have had a say in Senate vacancy

We interrupt birther coverage to focus our attention on something else in another part of the country. Namely, the doings in Nevada now that Sen. John Ensign (R) has finally opted to resign rather than continue to sully the world’s most deliberative body — not to mention his constituents — with further revelations stemming from an ethics investigation into his sordid affair with a staffer. But that’s not my focus.

The Ensign resignation set off a series of dominoes that highlights a quirk in our electoral system that allows someone to assume a Senate seat without a single vote being cast.

Okay, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution gives governors the right to fill Senate vacancies. That gave Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) the opportunity to appoint fellow Republican Rep. Dean Heller to the seat Ensign will vacate on May 3. Ensign had already announced he wouldn’t seek reelection next year, and Heller had already announced he would run for the open seat. Now, Heller will run with a major leg up provided by the power of incumbency.

We’ve seen this movie before — in Illinois, Delaware, New York, Colorado and Florida. A Post editorialexplains why “voters, not self-interested politicians trying to game the process for their own benefit, should decide who will represent the electorate in Washington.”
Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.)offered plans to change this in the last Congress. Feingold proposed a constitutional amendment to fix the 17th that would permit special elections for Senate vacancies. A time-consuming process that would take years with no guarantee of success. Schock (R-Ill.) proposed a legislative remedy that would require a special election within 90 days of a vacancy. It allowed for gubernatorial appointment with the selected person required to stand in that special election. There are questions of constitutionality with this approach.

Not that any of this matters right now. There’s been no movement. Feingold lost reelection. Schock has not done much on this since he testified before a joint Senate-House Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on Senate Vacancies in March 2010.
But what of Heller’s seat, you’re wondering. Right?

On this question, the Constitution is clear. A special election must be held to fill a vacant seat in the House of Representatives. In Nevada, that will come within 180 days. That means Sharron Angle has another chance to persuade Nevadans to entrust her with power. But at least voters in Nevada’s 2nd congressional district will get a say in who represents them in Washington.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.


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