In North Carolina, if a U.S. senator is unable to complete his or her term, the governor has the power to appoint any member of the departing senator’s party to fulfill the term. House Bill 659 would change that. The bill that recently passed both chambers of the General Assembly specifies that instead of selecting any member of the departing senator’s party, the governor “shall appoint from a list of three persons recommended by the state executive committee of the political party with which the vacating member was affiliated when elected.…”
The question of how states should fill the term of departing senators is an important one that has been debated in many states since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, which initially gave governors the power of appointment. Naturally, some question whether the 17th Amendment allows governors to act in an undemocratic fashion by empowering them to pick a replacement they support rather than one the people of the state support.
Given its national importance, in 2016 we undertook a research study attempting to understand the types of senate appointments governors tend to make. Ultimately, we were interested in determining whether gubernatorial appointment of senators was antidemocratic, reflecting the political views of the governor at the expense of the state’s overall politics. We suspected it might be. After all, it makes sense that governors would prefer senators who agreed with their ideological position, regardless of voters’ opinions.
To determine whether governors were ignoring the voice of the people, we cataloged every senate appointment from 1913 to 2013 and identified who was selected, as well as who was considered but not selected. While the former was easy to identify, the latter took a little more digging. Ultimately, we found that in almost every case, newspapers reported who was considered before the decision was made.
For example, when Republican Jim DeMint gave up his senate seat in South Carolina, a number of newspapers across the state and country reported that then-Gov. Nikki Haley had narrowed the potential candidates to five – S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton, former first lady of the state Jenny Sanford, former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott.
Searching archival news sources, we eventually identified an average of 3.6 considered candidates per Senate vacancy. Once we identified the appointees and those who were considered but not appointed, we then collected a host of information about them, including their age, background and measures of their political ideology.
After analyzing the data, we found a surprising result: governors did not act as we feared they might. Instead, we found that despite having few formal constraints on their power, governors select appointees who are closest to the ideological position of the voters in their state.
In other words, when appointing a U.S. senator, governors act responsibly. Rather than selecting someone who is closest to their own opinion, they select candidates who, at least ideologically, look a lot like the average voter in the state.
Why is this relevant to the debate over HB 659? Simply put, we suspect that state party leaders may be less likely than governors to follow the will of the people in selecting the list of three potential candidates. While parties are fundamental to a well-functioning democracy, party leaders, by their very nature, are motivated to represent their members, rather than all North Carolinians.
There may be very good reasons to support HB 659, but a fear over the governor running roughshod over the will of the people is not one of them.