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Mass. Democrats shouldn’t change laws on US Senate openings

Over the past eight years, Democrats who control the Massachusetts Legislature twice changed the rules for filling a US Senate vacancy to favor their party. Changing them a third time to avoid a special election would be an act of epic political arrogance. Unfortunately, Governor Patrick isn’t ruling it out.

The possibility that President Obama will tap Senator John Kerry for his Cabinet has become a source of anxiety for some Democrats. Because of the possibility that Republican Scott Brown might win a special election next year, there’s been talk of changing state law yet again — this time to let the governor appoint a replacement until the next regularly scheduled election.

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Asked during a recent radio appearance to respond to such speculation, Patrick said: “If it came to me, I’d sign it. But I don’t think it’s going to come to me. I don’t think anybody is interested in that.”

That’s not a rejection on principle. It’s a cool assessment of political possibility, and could change in a Beacon Hill minute. When they’re consolidating power, Massachusetts Democrats know how to move fast.

In 2004, legislators changed state law to strip Republican Governor Mitt Romney of his power to appoint a replacement — just in case Kerry won the White House as the Democratic presidential nominee. The new law called for a special election to fill such an opening.

The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 2009 led Beacon Hill Democrats to tweak the law yet again. This time, they authorized Patrick to appoint a temporary replacement until a special election could be held between 145 and 160 days after the vacancy occurs. Patrick appointed a longtime Kennedy friend and aide, Paul G. Kirk Jr., as a caretaker. But when the special election came around in January 2010, voters shocked Democratic leaders by electing Brown over Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Last month, Brown lost his bid for a full term. But now there’s speculation that Kerry might be nominated as secretary of state or defense, giving Brown another shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, Patrick said he now prefers the law as it stood before 2004. That would give him sole power to appoint an interim senator until 2014, the end of Kerry’s current term.

Changing the rules a third time to avoid a special election would be an act of epic political arrogance.

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“Frankly, I think we have a certain amount of election fatigue,” explained Patrick during the radio interview. But when the state’s ruling party makes repeated adjustments to election rules, it starts to look like a case of democracy fatigue. Beacon Hill should leave the current law alone.

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