A Loss of Senate Democracy? - Commentary by Jonathan GS Koppell
“A Loss of Senate Democracy?”
By Jennifer A. Steen & Jonathan GS Koppell
Published October 2, 2009 in the Albany Times Union
Read the article in its original context on the Times Union website.
Paul Kirk, appointed to fill Ted Kennedy's seat until a special election is held in January, joins five other unelected U.S. senators, including New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, in the 111th Congress. That's, the largest class of appointees since the 87th Congress of 1961-62. With each appointment, calls to reform the system for filling Senate vacancies have grown louder.
In February, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., introduced a constitutional amendment that would require all Senate vacancies to be filled by special election. Feingold argues that gubernatorial appointment is simply "undemocratic."
What makes Senate appointments "undemocratic"?
To be sure, they violate the basic principle that the people's representatives should be chosen in free and fair elections. But "undemocratic" is not an either/or proposition. As an adjective, "undemocratic" is more like "tall" than "pregnant": It can be measured on a yardstick, with gradations between the extremes.
Gubernatorial appointment of senators is more undemocratic where an appointed senator may serve longer than 30 months before an election fills the seat (as in Maine and Ohio), and less undemocratic where appointees are replaced or confirmed by a special election within 90 days (as in Vermont and Washington).
Depending on one's perspective, leaving citizens of a state underrepresented for up to three months until a special election fills a Senate vacancy (as in Oregon, Wisconsin and, until last week, Massachusetts) is either the most or the least undemocratic outcome.
Some critics emphasize an alternative kind of "undemocraticness," the unfair electoral advantage appointed senators are presumed to enjoy when they run to retain their governor-given seats. In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. Deval Patrick assured critics that anyone assuming Kennedy's seat would be a true seat-warmer who would pledge not to seek election.
But concerns regarding the overwhelming advantage of incumbency are somewhat misplaced, as they mistake the staggering re-election rate of most U.S. senators for the much less impressive record of appointed senators. Since 1980, 84 percent of previously elected freshmen have won re-election, while only 62 percent of election- seeking appointees have held their seats.
The performance gap suggests important differences between elected and appointed senators, as well as a new understanding of the nature of the infamous incumbency advantage. Our research suggests that office-holding in and of itself may not be the overwhelming advantage it is thought to be. Appointed senators enjoy the perks of office (such as media attention for official acts, franking privileges, opportunities for constituency service and access to the pork barrel). But unlike elected freshmen, none of them have previously waged a successful Senate campaign. This makes them weaker candidates, as a group, than their elected peers. The political resources an elected incumbent accrued during the previous election — such as improved campaign skills, strong relationships with certain constituency groups, and greater name recognition — and the qualities that contributed to the initial victory — political skill, charisma, popularity and the like — seem more important than the institutional resources all senators enjoy.
Indeed, the relative vulnerability of appointed senators is perceived by other political actors, namely experienced politicians in the pool of would-be challengers. Traditionally, high-quality challengers have been more willing to run against appointees than against elected freshmen. In our study of Senate elections from 1980- 2002, three-quarters of appointed senators faced a sitting or former member of Congress or statewide elected official — typically the most formidable of challengers — compared to only a third of elected freshmen.
Appointed senators have been on quite a roll since we completed our study. In the next three election cycles (2004, 2006 and 2008), all four appointed senators won election (three in close general elections).
This recent string of successes might make the public — and, significantly, potential challengers — buy into the notion that the incumbency advantage is all but insurmountable. This threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as high-quality potential challengers stay on the sidelines. As a consequence, voters enjoy fewer choices on their primary ballots and less competition in general elections. In some cases, competition is stifled further when those who might take on appointed senators are discouraged in the name of party unity. In New York, two Democratic House members backed away from challenging a seemingly vulnerable appointed senator after the White House declared its support for Gillibrand.
The appointed senators facing election in 2010 are, individually and as a group, a notably weak assortment in terms of their electoral credentials (or liabilities). And yet they may well sail to a 100 percent victory rate because strong potential challengers underestimate their vulnerability.
Now, that is undemocratic.
Jennifer A. Steen is a lecturer in political science at Yale University. Jonathan GS Koppell is an associate professor of politics and management at the Yale School of Management.