Massachusetts Matters of Legality and Taste

The citizens of Massachusetts debate Kennedy's empty seat, accepting a few suggestions from outsiders

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In the media storm surrounding Ted Kennedy's passing, the question of the late senator's replacement looms large. But the question is not merely a matter of "whom" but of "when." Will Massachusetts go without full representation for five months, leaving Democrats without crucial votes for a health-care reform bill? Or will the state change its hastily-enacted law from 2004 to allow a temporary gubernatorial appointment? The Atlantic Wire already covered some early opinions, which mostly condemned the partisan hypocrisy of the suggested move. But what do the citizens of Massachusetts think? And what broader consequences should be taken into account?

  • Some Legal Theories, Too Late  Cynthia Kouril's piece on Firedoglake last Thursday came too late for Ted Kennedy. In it, the New York attorney pointed to a possible loophole in Massachusetts election law: an announcement of intended resignation might create an immediate legal "vacancy," allowing the five-month special election clock to start early, while the senator still held office. "The campaigns could begin," Kouril suggested, "and the Special Election could proceed in the normal way, with little or no gap in representation."
  • From Boston, Again: No Taxation Without Representation  The editors of the Boston Globe are sticking to party lines--Boston Tea Party lines. "There is no mourning period when it comes to ensuring adequate representation for Massachusetts residents in the US Senate," they declared this morning, causing the generally silent residents of the Granary Burial Ground to break into spontaneous Revolutionary applause.
Some state lawmakers fear they will look like hypocrites if they change the law to allow for such an appointment. In fact, they will. The shift in 2004 was indeed a naked effort to block former governor Romney from appointing a fellow Republican if Senator John Kerry were to win the presidency. Kennedy himself played a behind-the-scenes role in the political sleight of hand. A Globe editorial in March 2004 took Romney’s side and urged the legislative leadership 'to scuttle this undeniably partisan bill.' The bill passed, and its dispiriting effects are now in full force. But sticking with a bad position for the sake of consistency or to save face would hardly serve the residents of Massachusetts.
  • Representation Means Elected Representation  "If one believes," wrote John Nichols at The Nation, "that senators must be elected, it is unacceptable that vacancies should be filled--even temporarily--by individuals who have not faced the electorate." Change the law, he advised, but not for an appointment--for a faster election. It would be manageable (he pointed to 17-day gaps in Parliamentary elections in the UK), exciting, and increase voter turnout. Plus, it would give a replacement "the most genuine of mandates," a crucial component in filling the late legislator's shoes.
  • Thoughts from the Citizenry  While the Wire questions the editorial merit of any publication allowing the memorial line "the lion sleeps tonight," it must also commend the Boston Herald's recent performance as a vehicle for public debate. "Let's be real," read one Letter to the Editor written before Senator Kennedy's death. "We have not had two senators in Massachusetts for over five months." Another reader was similarly against the legal change: "Shame on Massachusetts pols if they stoop to self-serving logic while genuflecting before Massachusetts royalty." A Tuesday op-ed by Dale McFeatteres also offered some noteworthy points:
  1. "Special elections are the  most democratic way of filling vacancies"
  2. "The process of a governor naming a Senate replacement is also under something of a cloud." He pointed to Blagojevich.
  3. With four current gubernatorial appointees in the Senate, and two more on the way, nearly "27% of the country will be represented by at least one unelected U.S. senator." Why add to that number?
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