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What happens when a Senator dies? How are vacancies filled?

The death in office of Diane Feinstein raises the question of a successor and California law means the governor has the power to appoint them.

A pictures of Democratic U.S. Senator for California Dianne Feinstein, who died at age of 90 is seen at San Francisco City Hall, California, U.S., September 29, 2023. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In the Constitution, in Article I, Section 3, requires that each state be represented by two Senators. So, even if a Senator from a particular state dies or leaves office, there must always be two Senators representing that state in the Senate.

In California, where Diane Feinstein recently died in office, there are a few rules. If the vacancy occurs more than 148 days before the regular primary, the election is held the following November. If the vacancy occurs within 148 days before the primary, the vacancy election is held at the second November election after the vacancy occurs.

The procedures for filling the resulting vacancy depend on the laws and regulations of the state from which the Senator was serving. Here’s a general overview of how it works.

Governor’s Appointment:

In most US states, the Governor has the authority to appoint a replacement Senator to fill the vacancy. The individual appointed is usually a member of the same political party as the outgoing Senator. This appointment is typically temporary until a special election can be held.

Special Election

Many states require a special election to be held to fill the Senate vacancy for the remainder of the term. The timing of this election varies from state to state but is often held within a few months of the vacancy occurring. These are:

  • Alaska
  • Connecticut
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island

Temporary Replacement

In some states, the Governor’s appointment is in place until the next regular general election, at which point the voters choose a Senator for the remainder of the term.