The unfortunate passing of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) is a sad reminder that the United States’ system for dealing with Senate vacancies is truly insane. There is no national standard. Each state has its own system and they run from the decent, to the highly undemocratic, to the legally ambiguous.
Given the political pressures and power at his disposal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie actually showed a decent amount of restraint appointing AG Jeff Chiesa to serve as a temporary replacement. Chiesa is at least a moderate Republican who isn’t going to exploit being given this powerful position to run for the office.
That said, it is ridiculous that mere accident can significantly shift the balance of power in the Senate. Only the electorate should be able to change the makeup of their government. There is no good reason governors should have this incredible level of power.
I propose a single national standard. When a Senate seat becomes vacant, a special election should take place within 65-80 days, giving room to avoid landing on a holiday, or let it happen on the same day as a regular election. In the meantime, the Senator’s chief of staff should be appointed as a temporary place holder. The chief of staff is probably the person most likely to mirror the views and voting habits of the Senator the electorate chose. It makes far more sense than letting the Governor choose a replacement from the other party.
This change can either be accomplished state by state or through a Constitutional amendment. While I admit any reform is unlikely, this at least would be a nonpartisan way to make our democracy slightly better. I doubt anyone believes we can’t do better than our current absurd patchwork system.