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Gazette opinion: Let voters, not governor, choose U.S. senators

Gazette opinion: Let voters, not governor, choose U.S. senators

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If simplicity is a virtue, Senate Bill 48 is highly virtuous. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Gary Branae, D-Billings, would add just 12 words to Montana law: “United States senator or” in three places in a statute that now provides for special elections to fill vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Branae's simple proposal would add “United States senator” so that the method of filling an unscheduled vacancy (midterm resignation or death) of a senator would be the same as for a representative. Montana law requires that a U.S. House vacancy be filled by a special election held not more than 100 days after the vacancy occurs.

Election exception

The exception is that if a vacancy occurred 150 days or less before a primary or between a primary and general election, the new representative would be elected at the general election. If the new representative was elected at a November general election, he or she would take office immediately, instead of waiting till January.

Montana law says that each political party “shall choose a candidate according to the rules of the party” for the special U.S. House election and also provides for independent candidates to be nominated. However, for the more powerful office of U.S. senator, Montana law currently provides that the governor will appoint a senator to serve until after a senator is elected at the next general election. Depending on the timing, an appointed U.S. senator could serve for a couple of years before voters were allowed to choose their senator.

The scandalous attempts of a former Illinois governor to profit personally from filling a U.S. Senate seat in 2008 prompted a dozen states to reconsider their laws on gubernatorial appointments for U.S. Senate. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least two states switched from appointments to special elections in 2009. States in which special U.S. Senate elections are the law include Connecticut, Rhode Island, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. However most of those states allow governors to appoint U.S. senators pending the special election. Only Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Oregon don't allow an interim gubernatorial appointment.

Not the 'peoples' choice'

“Historically speaking, appointed senators have not always been the peoples' choice here in Montana,” Secretary of State Linda McCulloch noted in announcing her support for SB48. The two Montana senators appointed by governors weren't kept in office by voters.

As McCulloch said, holding special elections for vacancies in the U.S. Senate is “levelheaded, fair, and most importantly, democratic.” We commend Branae for sponsoring this change to guarantee the same involvement of the electorate in filling the office of U.S. senator as Montanans have in filling vacancies in the U.S. House. We urge all Montana lawmakers to support this change to empower the citizens of Montana to choose their senators.

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