Bill establishes procedures to fill midterm vacancies in Congress

Utah Capitol 22


Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, is taking aim at how Utah fills midterm vacancies in Congress.

McCay’s SB122 changes who gets to pick the possible replacements for a U.S. Senator if there’s an unexpected vacancy in the middle of their term. It also establishes a timeline for holding elections if a U.S. House member cannot finish out their term.

Currently, if there’s a midterm vacancy for U.S. Senator, the central committee of the political party that holds the seat nominates three possible replacement, and the governor appoints one of them to fill the seat until the next election.

McCay’s bill takes the responsibility for picking possible replacements away from the political party and gives it to the legislature. Instead of three nominees, lawmakers will send only one name to the governor to fill the vacancy.

McCay says the change brings the selection of U.S. Senators closer to what the Founding Fathers wanted when they framed the Constitution as state legislatures elected U.S. Senators until the 17th Amendment went into effect in 1913.

“It brings us back to what we did before the 17th Amendment,” said McCay. “It makes our representatives in Washington more responsive to lawmakers back home.”

Utah was the only state to reject the 17th Amendment when it came up for ratification.

Only once has a U.S. Senator from Utah failed to finish their term. Wallace Bennett resigned from his seat in December of 1974 to allow newly elected Jake Garn to take office early and gain seniority over the other freshmen senators elected that year.

The other part of McCay’s bill sets specific timelines for holding a special election to replace a member of Congress.

Current Utah law states that in the case of a vacancy in Congress, the governor shall call a special election, but does not establish a timeline. McCay’s bill seeks to remedy that.

SB122 does not make any rules for how potential candidates to fill the U.S. House vacancy get on the ballot.

In 2017 after Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned shortly after being sworn into office for his new term, Gov. Gary Herbert clashed with lawmakers over how to conduct the special election to replace him. Herbert refused to call the legislature into a special session so they can set the rules for the election as he feared they would establish a process that would favor one of their own. Instead, the state used the current dual-track path to the ballot, which allowed candidates to gather signatures or go through the traditional convention.

Current Rep. John Curtis placed fifth at the nominating convention but gathered signatures, won the GOP primary and was elected to fill out Chaffetz’s term.