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About Electing and Appointing Senators | Filling Vacancies

If a senator does not complete a term in office, a state may select an individual to serve out the remainder of the term or until a special election is held. The manner in which a vacancy is filled is governed by the U.S. Constitution, state law, and the Senate’s rules and precedents.

Prior to 1913, when state legislatures held the power to elect senators, the legislature, if in session, could fill a vacancy by electing a new senator to serve out the rest of the term. If a vacancy occurred while the state legislature was not in session, Article 1, section 3 of the Constitution provided that “the Executive thereof may make temporary appointments until the next meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such vacancies." In the 19th century, vacancies often arose when a state legislature failed to elect a candidate before the commencement of a Senate term. On such occasions, the state's governor frequently appointed an individual to serve until the legislature could fill the vacancy by election to ensure the state would not be left without full senatorial representation. Such appointments were occasionally challenged in the Senate. Between 1794 and 1900, the Senate reviewed at least 14 cases, seating only half of the appointees. In those cases, partisan advantage was as important as the rules in swaying the votes in favor of an appointee.

The Seventeenth Amendment, which ushered in the era of direct election of senators by the people of each state, provided that state legislatures could empower the governor “to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.” The appointed senator serves until a new senator is elected and “qualified,” meaning the Senate has accepted election credentials and administered the oath of office. The decision of when, or if, to hold a special election to fill out the remainder of the term is determined by the laws of the individual states.

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