Lawmakers in at least 15 states backed stripping governors of their power to fill U.S. Senate vacancies after former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was accused of trying to sell President Barack Obama's seat, but only Connecticut and Rhode Island have done so.
Representatives in state legislatures from Colorado to Florida have introduced legislation since the Blagojevich allegations surfaced in late 2008 to require that voters — not governors — pick the people who replace senators when an incumbent dies or leaves office midterm. The proposed measures would require states to hold special elections to fill the vacancies, as 14 states — including Connecticut and Rhode Island — already do.
The U.S. Constitution requires House vacancies to be filled by elections, but allows states to choose how to fill Senate vacancies. There are 36 states that give governors the power to appoint replacements until the next regularly scheduled, statewide general election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers who've pushed for special elections instead of gubernatorial appointments say there are two main obstacles to getting it passed: the cost of holding a special election, which can be several million dollars, and plain old politics.
Maryland Delegate Saqib Ali, a Montgomery County Democrat, has twice proposed changing his state's laws to require special elections, but Ali says "no one in Maryland really takes it very seriously." Besides the price tag of a special election, Ali says there is a "less overtly stated" argument.
"This is a Democratically controlled legislature with a Democratic governor," Ali said, explaining that his Democratic colleagues don't want to risk allowing voters to pick a Republican should one of Maryland's two Democratic senators leave their seat.
"If, for some reason, our governor switches to Republican, we may start having more success on this issue," Ali said.
The leader of FairVote, a nonpartisan group that promotes greater access to the political process, agrees with Ali.
FairVote's executive director Rob Richie says despite an initial "flurry of excitement" around such bills, they often face tough opposition "infused with partisanship."
"Legislatures are looking at it and making a calculation about whether it's their party's governor who has the power," Richie said.
In both Connecticut and Rhode Island, the changes were approved when Democrats controlled the state assembly, but a Republican sat in the governor's office. Republicans opposed to the bill in both states accused Democratic supporters of trying to grab the governor's power.
Even lawmakers in Illinois, where Blagojevich is now on trial for allegedly trying to profit from naming Obama's successor in Congress, balked at changing their state's law.
"The reason it wasn't voted on, quite frankly, is because it was political," bill sponsor and Illinois Rep. Jack Franks said. "They worried if we had a special election we could lose Barack Obama's seat. It wasn't based on public policy, it was based on raw politics."
Legislators in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are still in session and could act on proposed changes to election law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
New York Assemblyman Rory Lancman, a Democrat from Queens who sponsored the measure in his state, says as time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the legislation approved.
"Unless something gets done while people are still living in that particular crisis before moving on to the next one, it is very hard to get the stars to align," Lancman said.
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