How Not to Pick a Senator
Three examples show why vacancies should be filled by special election.

Published January 24th 2009 in Washington Post

VACANCIES in the U.S. Senate -- in any elective office, for that matter -- should be filled by special election. Voters, not self-interested politicians trying to game the process for their own benefit, should decide who will represent the electorate in Washington. Need convincing? Look at the way three seats have been filled since the November election.

For sale in Illinois: Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) knew he had something of value and is accused of wanting to extract the best price for it. Federal prosecutors arrested him for allegedly trying to sell, trade or barter his selection of the person to fill President Obama's vacated Senate seat for a Cabinet post, a high-paying job for himself or his wife, or for fundraising help in an upcoming campaign. Democratic leaders initially responded with promises to pass a special-election law, then backed away amid fears that a Republican would win the seat. A tainted Mr. Blagojevich then defied the president-elect and the entire Democratic Senate caucus to appoint former Illinois state attorney general Roland W. Burris, who was seated after the embarrassing spectacle of being banished to the rain by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

Seat-warming in Delaware: The governor of the First State chose Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman to fill the vacancy created by the election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as vice president. Mr. Kaufman worked for Mr. Biden for 21 years, 19 as chief of staff. When he was selected, there were whispers that Mr. Kaufman would step aside in 2010 to allow Mr. Biden's son, who is Delaware's attorney general and serving in Iraq as a member of the Delaware Army National Guard, to run for the seat. Those whispers became audible talk when Mr. Kaufman announced that he would not seek a full term. While this is not the most egregious example of treating a Senate seat like a family heirloom, it comes close.

Opaque in New York: New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) yesterday finally chose a successor to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He named Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who would have to run in 2010 to complete Ms. Clinton's term and again in 2012 to a full term, after a protracted, opaque and ugly process. Mr. Paterson had as many as 15 prospective picks fill out questionnaires. He said yesterday that he consulted with a wide range of elected officials and community leaders. Neither his meetings nor the questionnaire responses were made public. The secrecy gave fertile ground to an unbecoming whispering campaign against one candidate: Caroline Kennedy.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) acted with less drama in replacing Sen. Ken Salazar (D), whom Mr. Obama named interior secretary, and chose, in our view, a potentially top-notch legislator in Michael Bennet, most recently superintendent of Denver's public schools. But that doesn't change the principle: Gubernatorial appointments are undemocratic. The voters in Illinois, Delaware, New York and Colorado should have had their say.