Kennedy Playing Politics With State Election Laws

Meredith Jessup

8/22/2009 1:00:00 PM - Meredith Jessup

Senator Ted Kennedy, who continues to fight life-threatening brain cancer, has sent a letter to the Massachusetts legislature asking lawmakers to change state law which determines how U.S. Senate seats are filled upon vacancy. 

Kennedy's term in the Senate ends in 2012.  In the event he would need to relinquish the seat before then due to health concerns, current law requires a special election  be held to fill the seat at least 145 following vacancy.  This set timeline concerns Kennedy that such a delay could leave his fellow Democrats one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for months while the special election takes place. 

With health care topping the agenda but contentiously dividing the Senate, Democrats will need every vote they can get if they are to pass the overhaul plan. "I therefore am writing to urge you to work together to amend the law through the normal legislative process to provide for a temporary gubernatorial appointment until the special election occurs," Kennedy wrote to state legislators.

The truth is that the state of Massachusetts used to allow the governor to make appointments to the Senate in the event a seat becomes vacant.  However, during the 2004 presidential election, Kennedy worked to have the existing law changed to prevent then-Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from naming Democrat contender John Kerry's replacement. 

In 2004, the Boston Globe reported:

Prodded by a personal appeal from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to take up a stalled bill creating a special election process to replace U.S. Senator John F. Kerry if he wins the presidency.

But now that the state has a Democratic Governor and the Democrats' plan to overhaul health care may be on the line, Sen. Kennedy is reversing himself and calling on the state to revert back to gubernatorial appointments.

The strong Democrat majorities in the Massachusetts legislature have the votes to grant Kennedy's request, but will they?  When such a policy reversal is so blatantly transparent and fraught with political gaming, will politicians risk foregoing the peoples' democratic special election process just to maintain partisan influence?  And will Massachusetts voters encourage their representatives to decide based on principle and not politics?  Or will Ted Kennedy get just what Ted Kennedy wants?