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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Let voters pick senators


Recent events are suddenly making an excellent case for ending a practice that has flourished since early in the last century: letting governors fill empty Senate seats.

In Illinois, law enforcement officials said they arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich to stop him from selling President-elect Barack Obama's empty Senate seat.

(Kennedy: Wants to enter politics / AP)

And in New York, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President Kennedy, is mounting a curious campaign to get Gov. David Paterson to appoint her to the Senate seat that would be vacated by Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Clinton.

As accomplished as Kennedy might be, there's something distasteful about the prospect of handing her one of the most powerful jobs in American politics largely on the basis of her celebrity. Some of her own supporters say her chief qualification seems to be that she could raise the $70 million or so it would take to keep the seat Democratic in future elections.

There's an easy way to avoid the sorts of shenanigans and controversies arising in Illinois and New York: Let the people decide.

The 17th Amendment gave voters the right to elect senators directly (before 1913, they had been appointed by legislatures) and provided that governors could fill empty Senate seats. Thirty-four states put no restrictions on their governors; five more require the governor to appoint someone from the outgoing senator's party. Only a handful of states have chosen to do this the right way, by holding a special election.

A list of the 181 people who have been appointed to the Senate over the last century contains a handful of notable names (Maine's George Mitchell went on to be majority leader) but is also riddled with undistinguished appointees from both parties. Some governors are unable to resist the call of Capitol Hill: At least five appointed themselves to Senate seats; all later lost re-election. And, in 1972, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards took nepotism to a new level by naming his wife, Elaine, to fill a vacant Senate seat. In 2002, Frank Murkowski rivaled Edwards by appointing his daughter, Lisa, to his old seat when he became governor of Alaska.

On occasion, governors should have the power to fill Senate seats, particularly when the next regular election is so soon that a special ballot wouldn't be worth the effort and expense. But the rest of the time, if celebrities, relatives or anyon

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