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Avi Green: Vermont needs two senators. What happens if there’s a vacancy?

This commentary is by Avi Green, who’s been living in Warren for the past three years. He and his family also have a home in Cambsridge, Mass., where they mainly lived before the pandemic.

You notice your roof is leaking when it’s raining or, worse, when the winter snow is melting, but the best time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining bright.

The Legislature in Montpellier should take this to heart, since Vermont has a hole the law that says what happens if, as we hope never happens, a U.S. senator from Vermont dies or otherwise leaves office unexpectedly, creating a vacancy. 

The problem is simple. It has little to do with Vermont, and everything to do with partisan politics in Washington. Today, according to Vermont law (17 V.S.A. § 2621 and 2622, if you want to get technical), if there is a vacancy for U.S. senator, the governor will set a date for an election to occur within six months of the opening occurring (that part is fine) — and, in the meantime, the governor can choose a person to fill in on an interim basis (there’s the problem). 

Imagine if a governor, like Phil Scott, is of a different party from a senator whose absence, untimely death or resignation creates a vacancy. There is nothing stopping Phil Scott from ignoring the preferences of Vermonters and choosing someone of a different party — say, Scott’s own party — to represent Vermont for six months in Washington. And six months is a lifetime down in D.C. 

For the next two years, such a catastrophe could flip control of the Senate. That doesn’t sound at all like the will of Vermonters, as it’s been expressed in federal elections for Senate over the last decade.

How about a simple fix? 

In the event of a vacancy, a new law could say that the governor shall request that a committee be formed of the three highest-ranking statewide or legislative officeholders belonging to the same party as the absent U.S. senator, and that committee could give three names to the governor, who would then be required to choose one. 

The whole process could be mandated to take no more than a month from the time when the vacancy occurred. Then we could proceed to the special election six months later, or, even better, have the election coincide with the next scheduled federal election (in an even-year November) when most Vermonters will be coming out to the polls.

The short-term upside of such a change is clear — such a move protects the state from being the unwelcome center of national attention, and the cause of a power-shifting earthquake in Washington, if, as everyone hopes is not the case, a senator dies or otherwise vacates their post in the next two years. 

But in the long run, such a law change is also good policy, ensuring that any governor making an interim appointment can only appoint someone who can continue to align with the party that the voters of Vermont chose for the U.S. Senate in the first place. 

Some might say, “Wait a minute. Phil Scott is exactly the kind of moderate Republican we need more of in Washington. ” 

To my mind, that’s beside the point. It’s one thing to be a GOP governor, and quite another to be a Democratic senator. And, in the future, if the positions are reversed, a law change of this type will equally ensure that a Democratic governor respects the choices of Vermonters, should Vermont voters send a GOP U.S. senator to Washington who is unable to complete a term.

Ultimately, this law change, indeed, comes down to respecting the will of voters. And, now, while it’s still sunny, it’s time for the Legislature to get this hole fixed in this brave little state’s legal roof.

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