Power to the people

Remember last month, when Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn urged Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill. to resign and then called on the state legislature to pass a law to require a special election to fill Senate vacancies? Coming on the heels of the acknowledgment by Burris that he tried to raise money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, while vying for the appointment to replace President Obama in the Senate, this was a principled declaration that we wholeheartedly supported. And then it all fizzled. An effort to pass a special elections bill that would have booted Burris died in committee. Other bills to give voters the right to fill Senate vacancies are stalled. And Burris is still there.

Voters should have a say in who represents them in Washington. But if Illinois is any indicator, it's going to take congressional action to push states into giving them that right. The question is, what is the best way to do it? Two proposals were debated this month at a joint hearing of the Senate and House Judiciary subcommittees on the Constitution. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., wants to amend the Constitution to give the power to fill Senate vacancies to the voters of the states. This would be considered a fix to the 17th Amendment, which gave voters the right to vote for their senators — they used to be chosen by state legislatures — and gave governors the power to fill vacancies. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. proposes a legislative remedy that would require a special election within 90 days of a vacancy. The governor could appoint someone, but that person would have to stand in that special election. The federal government would reimburse states for 50 percent of their costs.

The appeal of Schock's bill, the Ethical and Legal Elections for Congressional Transitions Act (ELECT), is the speed with which it could become law. A constitutional amendment would take years to pass. But Feingold's approach isn't shrouded in the constitutional questions that surround Schock's legislation. The Illinois Republican argues that his bill is constitutional because Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress the right to "make or alter" state laws governing elections for members of Congress. Schock also contends that the 17th Amendment's vacancy provision "should not be read to conflict with Congress's power to trump state election laws." Constitutional scholar Vikram Amar said he believes that the Schock bill would pass muster; another scholar, Laurence Tribe, disagrees.

There is no fast and easy solution to this problem. But the bottom line is this: The people of Illinois — and New York, Colorado and Delaware, the other states that faced vacancies this year — should be able to vote for those who would represent them in Washington. If their governors and state legislatures aren't willing to give them that power, Congress should find a way to do it.

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