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Ask Civics 101: How Are Seats Filled When a Member of Congress Takes Another Job?

Today's Ask Civics 101 question: How are seats filled when a member of Congress takes another job?

Read on, or listen to this short episode for the answer.

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Click here to submit it.

This question came from our listener, Judy. She wrote, “How is a U.S. Senator's seat filled after they are elected President or Vice President?” The answer, as told to us by Matthew Tokeshi, political science professor at Williams College, is the ever-popular, “It depends on the state.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris

This January, Senator Kamala Harris will resign her seat to become vice president. This is the fifteenth time in U.S. history that a senator has become the VP while in office. Only three senators were elected president while working in the Senate: Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

For the Senate, the 17th amendment to the Constitution grants state legislatures the power to grant the governor power to name a temporary replacement, which 45 states do. In the case of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, California Gov. Gavin Newsom will choose that replacement.

Five states (North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) don’t allow gubernatorial selected Senate replacements. There, senators have to be elected by the people in a special election.

How long do those replacements serve?

Temporary replacements in the Senate last until a special election is held. As to when that election happens, that also varies from state to state.  Most states have the special election at the next statewide election, while others have it within a mandated timeframe. For example, Alaska has the special election 60-90 days after the vacancy. Here’s a list from Ballotpedia of all the different state requirements for filling a Senate seat.

What about the House?

Article One of the Constitution says that House vacancies are filled by special elections. Unlike the Senate, there are no temporary appointment powers granted to anyone. That election, if Congress is in its first session, must happen within that year.

What if a member of Congress joins the Cabinet?

Vacancies in the House or Senate due to a member leaving to join the Cabinet are the same as if they were elected president, resigned, died, or were impeached. The president-elect must be very careful when choosing their Cabinet; it’s not just ensuring the right person for the right job, but also being mindful of the current position that member of Congress holds. President-elect Joe Biden has not chosen anyone in the Senate for his Cabinet, in part due to the potential 50/50 split of party control depending on the upcoming Senate elections in Georgia.

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Nick has been the co-host and Education Outreach Producer for Civics 101 since 2018, where he creates episodes and works with teachers across the country to design lesson plans to pair with the show.

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