By Jamey Dunn
When Illinois voters head to the polls in November, they may cast two votes to fill President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.
An appeals court ruled that voters must choose a candidate to finish out the last of Obama’s term, from November until the January inauguration of new senators.
“[The court's] interpretation of the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to fill a [U.S.] Senate vacancy by appointment,” said Ron Michaelson, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections from 1976 to 2003.
From the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.
Roland Burris currently holds the seat after a controversial appointment by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The defense is wrapping up its closing argument today in Blagojevich’s corruption trial. The charges against the former governor include trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat for campaign contributions or personal gain.
Judge John Grady of 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is working with officials to help ensure the state meets its constitutional requirements. Michaelson said Illinois election law is basically silent on this scenario because it has never been anticipated.
The special election would occur on November 2 along with the general election. With little time to hold a primary, it seems likely that parties would be allowed to slate their own candidates, so that lineup would likely be the same: Republican Mark Kirk vs. Democrat Alexi Giannoulias as the major party candidates. Burris did tell Chicago reporters, however, that he intends to make a bid for the ballot. Any independent candidates who met the signature requirements for the general election would also be allowed on the ballot for the special election.
As for the speculation that candidates would be able to hit up donors who have already surpassed federal contribution limits because they would now be fundraising for the special election, Michaelson said that is up in the air, too.
“It does raise a fairly unique question, that’s for sure. … [The Federal Elections Commission] will have to say something on that,” he said. “It would be obviously quite unusual.”
So the choice presented by this special election would probably be in name only. Voters would get to choose Obama’s two-month replacement without a primary, specifically for the special election. But, at this point, any alternative would be costly and difficult to pull off.
Democrats called for a special election soon after Burris’ appointment but later backtracked, saying it would be too costly. However, Gov. Pat Quinn emphasized the importance of following the letter of the law in November. “That’s the great thing about our country and our state: We have a rule of law. … When the judges speak, we pay attention and follow the rule of law. I think that’s the great thing about America and about Illinois, that we believe in the law. That’s something as a lawyer --- I happen to be a lawyer -- I take to heart everyday.”
Michaelson says that the special election’s addition to the ballot will likely not mean much to voters. “Most people are not going to understand it well, but they are going to vote for the same candidate [for whom they vote in the general election].”