How Will They Replace Rep. Joseph Moakley?

With the death of Rep. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts, the state’s acting governor, Jane Swift, is contemplating when to call a special election to replace him. What are the rules for filling a vacant House seat?

The guidelines for replacing both a member of the House and a senator are laid out in Article I of the Constitution. Section 2 authorizes the chief executive of the state to call for an election to replace a member who has died, resigned, or been expelled. No one can be appointed to a House seat. The victor of the special election only serves the rest of the unexpired term and must run again–if desired–during the next general election. Senators, however, as Section 3 explains, can be appointed to fill a vacancy. Usually this means the governor of the state appoints someone of his or her own party, who then serves until the next general election, when there is a race to fill the remainder of the term.

When to call the House election is determined by the laws of each state, although usually there is no special election if the regular election is not far off. The Boston Globe reports that Swift, who has the discretion on scheduling the election to fill Moakley’s seat, might wait until Boston municipal elections in September. It is also the governor’s job to officially declare the seat to be vacant. But in the case where a representative is, for example, missing in a plane crash and the governor is reluctant to declare the seat vacant, the House itself can make that declaration.

Once a seat is vacated, it is the duty of the clerk of the House to run the office, i.e., make sure mail is answered and constituent problems are being addressed. Normally the former member’s staff performs those duties, but the clerk has the authority to hire and fire. While the seat is vacant, the constituents have no voting representation. Moakley’s death means there is a total of three vacancies in the House. The other two are also due to deaths, those of Julian Dixon of California and Norman Sisisky of Virginia.

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Explainer thanksJimForbesof the House Administration Committee and readerMattCarrollfor suggesting the question.