By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
An Alabama lawmaker wants to eliminate expensive special elections for U.S. Senate seats, instead allowing the governor to appoint an interim until the next regular election.
Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, cites the cost of special elections to the state as the main reason he’s proposing House Bill 23.
The 2017 special primary, runoff and general contests that saw Democratic Sen. Doug Jones elected each cost between $4.5 million and $5.5 million, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said last week. If Clouse’s bill had been in effect when Jeff Sessions resigned in early 2017, an interim senator would have been appointed until the November 2018 election.
Then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed then-Attorney General Luther Strange to fill the vacancy temporarily, a move that was widely criticized because Strange’s office was overseeing an investigation into Bentley’s activities. Bentley would eventually resign after pleading guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges, and incoming Gov. Kay Ivey set the special election date for December 12, saying the law required her to “forthwith order an election to be held” to replace Sessions.
Clouse, the chairman of the House General Fund budget committee, has sponsored similar legislation previously, even before the 2017 special election.
“One thing we know for sure now that we didn’t know a year ago was the cost,” Clouse said last week.
Thirty-six states currently fill U.S. Senate vacancies the way Clouse is proposing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“So, this isn’t plowing any new territory here, we have an archaic law in Alabama that we didn’t know we had because we haven’t had this kind of situation until 1978 when Jim Allen died and then again (in 2017)” Clouse said.
Sen. Jim Allen died suddenly of a heart attack in 1978. He was eventually replaced by Donald Stewart in a special election.
Clouse’s HB23 also says if the vacancy happens within 76 days of a general election, the election is to proceed and if the vacating incumbent wins, the governor will then select an interim to serve for the two years until the next election.
Last year, Alabama voters approved a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of special elections in the state Legislature. Now, if a vacancy occurs after October 1 of the third year of a quadrennium, the seat will remain vacant until the next general election.
“So that took away the cost of all those special elections, and that passed over 2-to-1 by the voters,” Clouse said. “I think that shows that the voters probably don’t have any idea how a vacancy to the Legislature is filled, but they do know about the cost.”
Federal law requires that vacancies in the U.S. House are filled through elections, not interim appointments.
Clouse’s bill last year passed the House and a Senate committee, but died without a vote in the Senate.
Daniel Sparkman, spokesman for Gov. Kay Ivey, would not say whether the governor might support the bill or not. She would review the bill should it be approved by the Legislature this year, he said.
“Gov. Ivey has shown that she will follow the law concerning appointments and special elections,” he said. “She plans to continue doing just that.”
The 2019 legislative session begins March 5.