Replacing US Senators: The Oregon Way

With the recent news that Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) had fallen ill, Democrats were openly worrying about partisan control of the US Senate. After all, if he were to die or resign, his replacement would selected by Governor Mike Rounds - a Republican.

As the Eugene Register-Guard points out, we do things differently here in Oregon:

Rounds, a single official, should not have the power to remake the nation's political landscape.

Oregon has a better system: State law requires a special election to fill Senate vacancies. A Senate vacancy in Oregon could still precipitate a change in the partisan balance in Washington, D.C. - but the change would not be the result of a decision by a governor who has a partisan interest.

Oregon's law requiring special elections to fill Senate vacancies was approved by voters in 1986, when Democrats and Republicans alike became spooked by rumors that Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield would retire. Democrats didn't want Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh to appoint a successor who would run as an incumbent. Republicans worried that Atiyeh would be followed in office by a Democrat - as indeed he was - who might appoint a weak Republican successor to Hatfield, and the replacement would be sure to lose in the next election.

The rumors were wrong, and Hatfield served another 10 years. The 1986 measure did not come into play until 1995, when Sen. Bob Packwood resigned. The special election that followed resulted in Ron Wyden, a Democrat, replacing Packwood, a Republican - but it was the voters' decision, not the governor's.


  • TomCat (unverified)

    I found this excerpt from the SD Constitution. Can anyone shed some light on why the Governor's appointment would fill the vacancy?

    12-11-1. Special election to fill congressional vacancy–Time of election of representative. If a vacancy occurs in the office of a senator or representative in the United States Congress it shall be the duty of the Governor within ten days of the occurrence, to issue a proclamation setting the date of and calling for a special election for the purpose of filling such vacancy. If either a primary or general election is to be held within six months, an election to fill a vacancy in the office of representative in the United States Congress shall be held in conjunction with that election, otherwise the election shall be held not less than eighty nor more than ninety days after the vacancy occurs.

  • BOHICA (unverified)
    Can anyone shed some light on why the Governor's appointment would fill the vacancy? TomCat

    Because the pundit class says so.

  • (Show?)

    yeah, I understood that SD had special elections within 90 days.

  • (Show?)

    Click the link in the post. You'll discover that most states do it via gubernatorial appointment. I remember, but can't source right now, that we're one of only 2-3 states that do it by election.

  • LT (unverified)

    According to the editorial linked to the post, "nothing in S. Dakota law......."

    I used the URL in the comment and found that the fine print below the section quoted said,

    "This page is maintained by the Legislative Research Council. It contains material authorized for publication that is copyrighted by the state of South Dakota. Except as authorized by federal copyright law, no person may print or distribute copyrighted material without the express authorization of the South Dakota Code Commission. "

    My guess is that the South Dakota Code Comm. knows more about the content of S. Dakota law than an editorial writer in Oregon. This isn't about what "most states" do, it is about what law would govern the actions of the Gov. of S.D. if Sen. Johnson were to die or resign.

    Given how uncomfortable Gov. Rounds looked on TV when he said "that is not a question because there is currently no vacancy", I'm sure he realizes that in the event Sen. Johnson never recovered he would be governed by S. Dakota law, not by what pundits say.

    There have been senators in the past wheeled into the Senate to cast votes in tied situations--so as long as Johnson could point to his eye to cast an AYE vote (as one Senator historically did), I suspect there will not be a vacancy soon unless Johnson's health deteriorates further.

  • Karen (unverified)

    If only we required an election to replace retired/resigned elected officials at the state level. The voters of HD 18 deserve an elected representative after Mac Sumner's resignation.

  • prk (unverified)

    TomKat, that isn't the statute that applies. SL 12-11-1 addresses congressional vacancies generally, whereas 12-11-5 addresses Senate vacancies specifically:

    12-11-5. Special election to fill senate vacancy. The special election to fill the vacancy of a senator shall be held at the same time as the next general election. The general election laws shall apply unless inconsistent with this chapter.

    and 12-11-6 says that there would be no special election anyway b/c Johnson's term expires after the next general election:

    12-11-6. No special election if appointed senator's term expires at normal time. No special election, to fill a vacancy, may be held if the term of office of the appointed senator expires in the month of January immediately following the next general election that would occur after the vacancy.

    But in any case, 12-11-4 explicitly gives the governor the ability to appoint a new Senator:

    12-11-4. Temporary appointment by Governor to fill vacancy in United States Senate. Pursuant to the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, the Governor may fill by temporary appointment, until a special election is held pursuant to this chapter, vacancies in the office of senator in the Senate of the United States.

    Review the statutes in totality here:

  • TomCat (unverified)

    Thanks, prk. Once again, I'm glad to live in Oregon.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)

    As the Eugene Register-Guard points out, we do things differently here in Oregon:

    Rounds, a single official, should not have the power to remake the nation's political landscape.

    Bob T:

    Hmmm, where was the Eugene R-G when a Dem Gov of Pennsylvania picked Democrat Wofford to replace Sen Heinz (R) some years back?

    I don't know how to resolve this but do prefer to see special elections scheduled within a few months.

    But then, remember last year when NJ Gov McGreevy announced that he was resigning, but made it effective for three months later - after the deadline that made a special election impossible. How's that for the party that supposedly stands for democracy?

    Not a peep out of the blues then.

    Bob T

  • aw (unverified)
    <h2>The SD system is the same as in Minnesota -- when Senator Wellstone died in 2002, Governor Ventura was allowed to appoint a replacement for the lame duck session, and he appointed a member of the Independence Party, which was the party he belonged to.</h2>
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