The current system of filling Senate vacancies was a bad idea even before Rod Blagojevich ruined it.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Dec. 17 2008 7:59 PM

The Wisdom of Crowds

The current system of filling Senate vacancies was a bad idea even before Rod Blagojevich ruined it.

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Last Friday, Virginia state legislator Brian Moran resigned his seat to run for governor. By Tuesday, both parties met to choose their nominees to take his place. Although the Virginia House of Delegates has 100 members, and Moran represents just 50,000 registered voters, the new delegate from Virginia's 46th District will be chosen in a Jan. 13 special election.

Around the same time next month, four U.S. Senators—Obama, Biden, Clinton, Salazar—will leave the legislative branch for the executive. Those four were elected to the Senate by states with a combined total of more than 20 million registered voters. But in each instance, their replacement will be chosen by their governor—or replacement governor, as the case may be.

When a House member dies or leaves office early, his or her state promptly calls a special election. But as Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post points out, when a senator exits, 39 states hand the power of filling the vacancy to the governor. The four seats opening up next month will be the most in one year since 1962.

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That figures, since as political swamps go, Rod Blagojevich is a 100-year flood. But the current system of handpicking Senate replacements is a bad idea even if the governor isn't asking for ransom. Voters are the biggest losers, but they aren't the only ones. The appointment power is a decidedly mixed blessing for governors. And more often than not, it turns out to be a bad deal for the replacements themselves, as well as for whichever political party they and the governors who appointed them represent.

For governors, the downsides of the current system are as clear as a Patrick Fitzgerald criminal complaint. Governors make appointments all the time, but as the state's highest political prize, a Senate vacancy is the ultimate no-win situation: More people want it, and more people will be more upset longer when they don't get it. No matter whom they choose, governors make more enemies than friends (except in rare cases in which they may get the chance to earn both in jail).

Sometimes, the governor is the most upset politician of all—at having to give someone else a job he might well have aspired to himself. Blagojevich rarely let a wiretapped conversation go by without reminding his associates that he might appoint himself to the seat. Fitzgerald could easily have dubbed him Senate Candidate Zero.