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Cokie Roberts On The History Of Special Elections


The governor of Minnesota has announced that he will appoint his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to fill the term of Senator Al Franken. Franken announced his resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct. So how Senate vacancies are filled, whether by appointment or a special election, has a whole lot of you asking questions, which we then put to Cokie Roberts. She joins us regularly to answer our questions about how the government works, and she is with us again this morning. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Let's get to our first question. This is Tania‏ Garberg from Silverdale, Wash.

TANIA‏ GARBERG: Is there any particular designated length of time between when the seat is vacated to when the election is held?

MARTIN: Cokie?

ROBERTS: It's totally up to the states. Thirty-six states wait until the next regularly-scheduled election, with most of them filling the seat by a gubernatorial appointment. But four say there can be no appointment, that the seat stays vacant until the election. They don't trust their governors. Three more provide for temporary appointments under certain controls. And 14 states do hold special elections, as we just saw in Alabama. And the states are constantly changing the rules, Rachel, to deal with their political changing realities.

MARTIN: All right. The politics of these appointments is what our next listener is interested in.

MICHELLE VAN MAANEN: My name is Michelle Van Maanen from Yankton, S.D. Has there ever been a governor who appointed someone from a political party other than their own?

ROBERTS: Well, I haven't been able to find one. I suppose it might have happened in the early days of the republic. Five states actually require the governor to name someone of the same party. And in Hawaii, the party chooses three people and the governor names one of them. But this whole question of Senate choices has been fraught from the beginning when the state legislatures chose the senators. There were allegations of bribery. There were deadlocks in the legislatures. Finally, after decades of debate, it led to the 17th Amendment in 1913, providing for the direct election of senators by the people. But the vacancies are still up to the states.

MARTIN: OK. So our next listener has a question about the power of state legislatures in these choices.

JAMIN RILEY: Hi. This is Jamin‏ Riley from Williamsburg, Va. And I would like to know if the state legislature can override a governor's appointment to fill a vacancy.

ROBERTS: Well, again, it's up to the states. And we have seen states strip the governor of the power to appoint - Massachusetts did that. In 2004 when the Democratic legislature didn't want Governor Mitt Romney making appointments. And then Teddy Kennedy tried to change it back again when he was dying, and he wanted the Democratic governor to fill his seat, but he didn't succeed in changing the law again.

MARTIN: All right. And finally, we've got a question about the House of Representatives, specifically as it pertains to a recent question about a particular member.

KATHLEEN GRAYESKY: Hi. This is Kathleen Grayesky from Pennsburg, Pa. Representative John Conyers said that he would like his son to complete his term of office. How common are such requests, and how often, if at all, are they honored?

ROBERTS: Well, this is much easier, Rachel, because a person has to be elected to the House of Representatives. There's no such thing as an appointment to that body. Now, sometimes voters will briefly honor the request of the outgoing members. Many widows have been elected that way, including my own mother, but she then went on to serve nine terms. Almost all of the early women in Congress were widows. And some, like Margaret Chase Smith, had highly, highly significant careers. She was elected to the House and then to the Senate, where among other accomplishments, she took on Joe McCarthy when the men of the Senate were afraid to. So these widows have had a lot of influence.

MARTIN: That is commentator and columnist Cokie Roberts. She joins us Wednesdays to answer your questions about how Washington works, how politics work. You can tweet us your questions - @morningedition - with the hashtag #askcokie. Or you can email your questions to askcokie@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.