Order Code 97-1009 GOV
Updated January 22, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
House and Senate Vacancies:
How Are They Filled?
Sula P. Richardson and Thomas H. Neale
Analysts in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Vacancies in Congress occur due to the death, resignation, or declination (refusal
to serve) of a Senator or Representative, or as the result of expulsion or exclusion by
either house. The Constitution requires that vacancies in both houses be filled by special
election, but in the case of the Senate, it empowers state legislatures to provide for
temporary appointments by the state governor until special elections can be scheduled.
In practice, most Senate vacancies are filled by such appointments in the interim,
while all House vacancies are filled by special elections. If, however, a House vacancy
occurs late in the life of a Congress, many states will leave the seat empty until general
election day, when a special election for the balance of the term and a regular election
for the forthcoming Congress are held simultaneously.
Nominations for Senate special elections are usually by primary, while those for
House special elections can be by primary, nominating petition, or party action, as
specified by state law.
A plurality is necessary to win in most special elections, although there are
significant variations in certain states.
Procedures Governing Vacancies
Vacancies in Congress occur when a Senator or Representative dies, resigns, declines
to serve, or is expelled or excluded from either house.
Procedures governing vacancies in the Senate were initially established by Article
I, Section 3 of the Constitution, as later amended by paragraph 2 of the 17th Amendment.
The latter states:
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive
authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided
that the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make
temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the
legislature may direct.
Appointment of Interim Senators. Prevailing practice is for state governors to
fill Senate vacancies by appointment, with the appointee serving until a special election
has been held, at which time the appointment expires immediately. In the event a seat
becomes vacant between the time of a general election and the expiration of the term,
however, the appointee usually serves the balance of the term, until the next regularly
scheduled general election. This practice originated with the constitutional provision that
applied prior to the popular election of senators, under which governors were directed to
make temporary appointments when state legislatures were in recess. It was intended to
ensure continuity in a state’s Senate representation during the lengthy intervals between
state legislative sessions.
The governor’s direct authority to make interim appointments is specified in the
various state laws. Oregon1 and Wisconsin2 do not allow the governor to make interim
appointments, requiring, instead, a special election to fill any Senate vacancy. The State
of Oklahoma also requires that Senate vacancies be filled by special elections, with an
exception. If the vacancy occurs after March 1 of any even-numbered year and the term
expires the following year, no special election is held; rather, the governor is required to
appoint the candidate elected in the regular general election to fill the unexpired term.3
At least five states restrict the governor’s power to appoint interim Senators. Alaska,
Arizona, and Hawaii require the governor to fill Senate vacancies with a person affiliated
with the same political party as the previous incumbent.4 Utah and Wyoming require the
governor to select an interim senator from a list of three candidates proposed by the state
central committee of the political party with which the previous incumbent was affiliated.5
Many states limit the term of office for interim senators to the date set for the special
election. In these cases, the term of the interim senator expires immediately upon the
election of the popularly chosen successor, who serves the balance of the Senate term,
whether it is a few weeks or several years. Moreover, when an interim appointment is
made late in the term, it is often customary for the interim senator to resign his or her seat
immediately after the election, and for the governor to appoint the special election winner
to serve the balance of the term. It is also customary, for the purposes of determining
seniority, for the newly elected replacement senator to be sworn in as soon as possible.
Nominations. Nomination procedures for Senate special elections vary widely
among the states. The majority require a special primary election to determine the major
Or. Rev. Stat. §188.120 (2001).
Wis. Stat. § 17.18 (1999-2000).
Okla. Stat. tit. 26, §12-101.
Alaska Stat. §15.40.010 (2001); Ariz. Rev. Stat. §16.222 (2001); and Haw. Rev. Stat. § 17-1
Utah Code Ann. § 20A-1-502(2) (2001) and Wyo. Stat. § 22-18-111 (i) (2002).
party nominees, while minor party and independent candidates generally qualify by filing
a requisite number of petitions for general election ballot placement. Finally, some states
provide for nomination by party-determined procedures, such as by the party’s state
committee, or at a state party convention. Louisiana and Texas, which provide the major
exceptions to these rules, are treated in the next section of this report.
General Elections. Generally, the governor has the authority to set the dates for
both primary and general special elections within either a window of time or a specific
number of days after the vacancy occurs, according to state requirements. In the interests
of convenience, enhanced voter interest and participation, and economy, special elections
are often scheduled to coincide with regular elections. A plurality of votes in the primary
and general elections is sufficient to nominate or elect in most cases, although a number
of southern states require a majority to nominate, providing for a runoff election if no
candidate attains a majority.
Special election procedures in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas constitute significant
variations from the norm. Georgia requires a majority to elect in all congressional and
statewide special elections. Louisiana and Texas provide for an all-parties special primary
election. All candidates qualifying for placement on the ballot participate in the election,
in which a majority is necessary to elect. Any candidate receiving more than 50% of the
vote is declared elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the two receiving the most
votes, regardless of party affiliation, compete in a second election, termed a general
election in Louisiana and a runoff in Texas. Louisiana mandates the all-parties primary
for regular as well as special elections, while the Texas practice is unique to that state’s
One of the more interesting developments in Senate special elections in recent years
was Oregon’s 1996 decision to conduct both the primary and general elections to fill a
Senate vacancy by mail-in ballot only, with no in-person voting at polling places. 6
Staff Disposition. In the event of a Senator’s death, his or her staff continue to
be compensated for a period not exceeding 60 days (unless the Senate Committee on
Rules and Administration determines that more time is needed to complete the closing of
the office), performing duties under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate.7
House of Representatives
The Constitution provides for cases in which House seats become vacant in Article
I, Section 2, clause 4:
In 1998, voters in Oregon passed a ballot initiative that requires Oregon’s biennial primary and
general elections to be conducted by mail. This “vote-by-mail” system replaces traditional
polling place elections, but voters can still hand-deliver their ballots to designated drop sites.
S. Res. 458, 98th Cong., 2nd Sess., Oct. 4, 1984;as amended by S. Res. 173, 100th Cong., 1st Sess.,
Mar. 4, 1987, “Closing The Office of a Senator or Senate Leader Who Dies or Resigns,” in U.S.
Congress, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Senate Manual, 106th Congress,
“Standing Orders of the Senate,” Sec. 72, p. 108 (Washington: GPO, 2000).
When Vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive
Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.
The Constitution thus requires that all House vacancies be filled by special election.
There is no constitutional provision for the appointment of interim Representatives.
Scheduling. The responsibility for scheduling special elections is vested in the
state legislatures (2 U.S.C. 8):
The time for holding elections in any State, District, or Territory for a Representative
to fill a vacancy, whether such vacancy is caused by the death, resignation, or
incapacity of a person elected, may be prescribed by the laws of the several States and
House vacancies that occur in the first session of a Congress are invariably filled by
special elections. The responsibility for ordering a special election is vested in the
governors of the states. Most states also either set a window of time, or prescribe an exact
number of days after the vacancy occurs, in which nomination procedures and the special
election must be held. Within these constraints, state governors and election authorities
generally attempt to schedule special elections for a regular election day, in the interests
of economy, convenience, and increased voter participation.
Procedures governing vacancies occurring during the second session of a Congress
differ from state to state, and are largely dependent on the amount of time intervening
between the vacancy and the next general election. For instance, if a House seat becomes
vacant within six months of the expiration of the previous incumbent’s term, many states
allow the seat to remain vacant for a time, providing for a special election to be held on
the regularly scheduled election day, at the same time that a regular election for that seat
for the ensuing Congress is held. Other states, under these circumstances, do not provide
for a special election, and the affected seat remains vacant until the ensuing Congress
convenes the following January.
Nominations. Nomination procedures for House of Representatives special
elections vary as widely among the states as do those for the Senate. Some states require
a special primary election to determine the major party nominees, while minor party and
independent candidates generally qualify by filing a requisite number of petitions for
general election ballot placement. A plurality is sufficient to elect in most primary states,
but some southern states require a majority to nominate in the primary. If no candidate
attains a majority, then a runoff, or second, primary is held at a later date, in which the
two candidates winning the most primary votes compete for the nomination. Others
provide for nomination by such party-established procedures as party congressional
district caucuses and conventions, or meetings of party committees or interested party
members in jurisdictions comprising the affected congressional district.
General Elections. Special general election procedures for the House of
Representatives generally mirror those for the Senate, with some variations. Once again,
in most states a plurality is sufficient to elect in the general election. Several states,
however, have adopted procedures for House special elections that effectively conjoin the
nomination and election process, sometimes in combination with other variations. These
include California, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
All qualified candidates for House special elections in California compete in a
special primary, regardless of party affiliation. Nomination is by petition. Any candidate
receiving more than 50% of the vote in the primary is elected, and the general election is
canceled. If no candidate receives the required majority, the single candidate of each
party receiving the most votes competes in a special general election, wherein a plurality
of votes is sufficient to elect. In the event that candidates of only one party compete in
the primary, a plurality is sufficient to elect, and there is no general election.8
As noted previously, Georgia requires a majority to elect in all congressional and
statewide special elections. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, then a runoff, or
second, election is held between the two candidates gaining the most votes.9
Louisiana procedures for House special elections are the same as those applying to
its Senate elections. All candidates who qualify for ballot access compete in the primary
election, in which a majority of votes is necessary to elect. A candidate receiving 50%
of the vote is declared elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the two candidates
receiving the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, compete in a second election,
termed a general election. Louisiana mandates the all-parties primary for regular as well
as special elections.10
Texas provides for an all-parties special primary election to fill House vacancies.
All candidates qualifying for placement on the ballot participate in the election, in which
a majority is necessary to elect. A candidate receiving 50% of the vote is declared
elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the two candidates receiving the most votes,
regardless or party affiliation, compete in a second election, termed a runoff in Texas.
Unlike in Louisiana, in Texas the all-parties primary is unique to special elections.11
Winners of House special elections held concurrently with those for the ensuing
Congress are often not sworn in as Members of the House of Representatives, since
Congress has usually adjourned sine die before election day. They are, however, accorded
the status of incumbent Representatives for the purposes of seniority, office selection, and
Staff Disposition. Staff of a deceased or resigned Representative are compensated
until a successor is elected to fill the vacancy, performing duties under the direction of the
Clerk of the House (2 U.S.C. 92 b,c).
California Election Code, § 10700-10707 (2001).
Georgia Election Code, § 21-2-501 (2001).
Louisiana Election Code, tit. 18, § 511, §512, and §1279. The Supreme Court’s 1997 decision
in Foster v. Love (522 U.S. 67 (1997)) affected only the timing of regular general elections in
Louisiana; the all-parties nature of the procedure was not in question, and remains intact for both
special and regularly scheduled elections.
Texas Election Law, § 203.001-012, 0A; and 204.021.