Gov. Scott Walker is thwarting representative democracy in Wisconsin. He is refusing to call prompt special elections to fill the seats of former state Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and former state Rep. Keith Ripp, of Lodi, a pair of Republicans who quit the Legislature in December to take posts with the governor’s administration. Walker wants to leave those seats open until January 2019 — denying tens of thousands of Wisconsinites representation for a full year.
Unfortunately, Walker's anti-democratic assault on popular sovereignty is part of an emerging pattern.
Across the country, politicians of both parties have been busy this year trying to dismantle or undermine the infrastructure for holding the special elections that ensure Americans are elected when legislative seats go vacant. Supporters of voting rights and genuine democracy should not simply be concerned by this pattern. They should be mounting a robust popular, legal and legislative response that guarantees equal representation under the law for all Americans.
The most egregious assault on the guarantee of special elections is coming in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore in a high-stakes race to fill the seat former Sen. Jeff Sessions vacated to become Donald Trump’s attorney general. The result embarrassed Trump, who backed Moore despite shocking revelations regarding the scandal-plagued contender's history of preying on teenage girls, and it narrowed the Republican majority in the Senate to a razor-thin 51-49.
What to do? Alabama Republicans are moving to effectively end special elections for vacant U.S. Senate seats. The state House voted Jan. 23 to do away with the state’s existing law, which allows the governor to make a temporary appointment to fill a Senate vacancy but requires that a special election be held “forthwith” — generally interpreted as quickly — to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. Under the new law, a governor would appoint a senator to serve until the next general election.
That means that a vacant seat could be filled with an appointed crony of the governor for several years before the voters are asked their opinion. As Alabama statehouse reporter Mike Cason explains it, “(The bill) says the election will be held at the next general election unless the candidate qualifying period for that election has already started. In that case, it would move to the next general election, two years later. For example, candidate qualifying for this year's elections started Jan. 8. So if a vacancy occurred now, the election to complete the term would be held in 2020. If the vacancy had occurred before Jan. 7, the election to complete the term would be held this year.”
Alabama Republicans who backed the bill claim it brings their state into alignment with most other states. That is true. Two-thirds of American states allow Senate seats to be filled without a special election. But as former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., explained in 2009, when he proposed a constitutional amendment that would require that all senators be elected, allowing any senators to serve by appointment is “anti-democratic.”
Former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, supported the idea, saying, "Elected senators have a mandate from the people. Appointed senators have a mandate from one person: the governor.”
Feingold and Sensenbrenner were seeking to bring the U.S. Senate into alignment with the U.S. House, where vacant seats can be filled only via special elections. “That's the way it's been for the House since the Constitution was written, and I don't think the Senate should be any different,” said the senator, who for many years was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution. “No one can represent the American people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate.”
Regrettably, at least one governor is now meddling with special elections to fill U.S. House seats. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder chose to schedule the special election to fill the Detroit-area seat of former Congressman John Conyers to be held concurrently with the state's already scheduled Nov. 6 election.
“Most of Detroit to go 11 months without rep in Congress,” announced the headline in The Detroit News after the governor revealed his plan to abandon the historic model for filling congressional vacancies with punctual special elections. While some Democrats accepted Snyder’s assault on representative democracy, Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, complains that “Rick Snyder (is) willfully taking away people’s right to elected representation in a prominent community of color.”
Snyder's mangling of laws regarding special elections has parallels in other states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, recently refused to schedule a prompt election to fill vacant state Senate and Assembly seats. Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Group, calculates 625,484 Senate constituents and more than 1.1 million Assembly constituents will go unrepresented during critical deliberations by the legislature on budget issues.
In Wisconsin, Walker has faced sharp criticism for refusing to call special elections that could easily have been organized to fill seats that state statutes say should be “filled as promptly as possible by special election.”
Noting that Walker’s Republicans recently suffered a severe setback in a special election for a state Senate seat vacated last year, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, says: “Governor Walker is running scared and is playing politics with people’s right to be represented in the State Capitol.”
Walker is not alone when it comes to maintaining vacancies for political purposes. But that is no excuse. Governors and legislators who use their authority to prevent voters from filling vacancies in the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and state legislatures reveal a disdain for representative democracy that is at once shameless and shameful.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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