Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has proposed a constitutional amendment to require popular elections to fill Senate vacancies. Acting under state law, governors have appointed four new senators this year to replace those appointed to high posts in the Obama Administration. None would have been likely to win an election to fill the seat:
-- Most conspicuously, the politically toxic then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois appointed Roland Burris even though Burris had lost his last four political races and was effectively retired from politics.
-- New senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware had two qualifications for his position: (i) he was Joe Biden's chief of staff for 21 years, and (ii) he promised not to run in the 2010 election to clear the way for Vice President Biden's son, Beau, to run for the seat.
-- Michael Bennett of Colorado, then superintendent of Denver's school system, has never run for public office.
-- Kristen Gillibrand of New York was a second-term congresswoman with little statewide profile.
Feingold's proposal would require special state elections to fill vacant Senate seats. Three states currently require such elections (Wisconsin, Oregon, and Massachusetts). Notably, all vacancies in the House of Representatives are filled by special election. The basic premise of the proposed amendment is unassailable: The people should choose their own representatives. That was why the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 ended the selection of senators by state legislatures and gave that power to the people via direct elections. So far, the arguments against Feingold's proposal are entirely unpersuasive.
Quick special elections will favor the wealthy: In 21st-century America, the rich have an advantage in all elections. That edge will be less in a fast by-election where the impact of saturation advertising will be less. Moreover, the smaller electorate for a special election should include better-informed voters who perhaps will be less likely to be swayed by sound-bite marketing. Candidates with high name recognition will have the biggest advantage, which is usually the case. Compare that to the current system. The principal qualifications of the four new senators are that their governor likes them, or that their their appointment served the governor's political interests. Those are hardly values worth fighting for.
The constitutional amendment will intrude on state autonomy: Yup. When state politicians create a political structure that aggrandizes their own power at the expense of the people, let's adopt a constitutional amendment. See, for example, the Seventeenth Amendment.
Special elections are a lot of trouble and expense: Democracy is a lot of trouble and expense. Despotism is simple. In the eighteenth century, it was difficult to manage elections. Not today.
A constitutional amendment is hard to get approved, and we shouldn't monkey with the Constitution unless we absolutely have to: The delegates to the Constitutional Convention intended that amendments be approved. George Mason of Virginia called the amendment process the most important part of the document, since the Constitution would inevitably prove defective. It's good to fix the Constitution. We've done it twenty-seven times, and should do it here, too.