If A Congressperson Dies In Office Their House Seat Is Harder To Fill Than You Realize

Republican representative Jackie Walorski was just 58 years old when she and two of her staff members — identified as Emma Thomson, 28, and Zachery Potts, 27 — were suddenly and unexpectedly killed in an automobile crash on August 3, 2022 (via PBS). Their deaths will undoubtedly leave a gaping hole in the hearts of their loved ones, and their legacies will not soon be forgotten.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke warmly of Congresswoman Walorski, stating, "she was admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her personal kindness." In a speech addressing the issue, she also said, "Our Congressional community also mourns the loss of two devoted members of her staff, Zachery Potts and Emma Thomson." (via ABC 57)

Anytime a congressperson dies, the loss is felt across the country. The shoes of such politicians are difficult to fill, and the same can be said of their House seats.

Senate vacancies are usually filled pretty quickly

According to ThoughtCo., there is no official method by which to fill House seats that exists in the current U.S. Constitution. Historically, the 17th Amendment put this power in the hands of states rather than the people. Today, there are two different approaches to Senate vacancies that are typically applied.

The first approach, which is used by 36 states, involves a governor-appointed temporary replacement who takes the seat immediately, filling the position for a short time. This approach satisfies the immediate need but also requires a special election to take place later down the line. Pew Research reports that because the Senate is split evenly, this method places a great deal of power in the hands of a single governor who could, theoretically, dictate which party controls the chamber by selecting a temporary representative from their own party.

The second approach, taken on by the other 14 states, centers solely on holding a special election. While this means the fate of the chamber doesn't rest on the shoulders of a single governor, it also means the seat remains unfilled until the special election can be held.

House vacancies can take several months to fill

The U.S. House of Representatives faces an entirely different conundrum in filling a house seat. According to ThoughtCo., the current U.S. Constitution does lay out a rigorous process for filling house vacancies. According to the texts, law-abiding politicians must hold a full election in the congressional district where the congressperson died before their term ended. This election must be complete with nominations, primaries, and of course, the general election. As such, the process can take as long as six months to conclude.

Some examples of extremely long house vacancies include the Pennsylvania 1st district's 1997 resignation of The Honorable Thomas M. Foglietta (D), who was replaced six months and one week after he resigned, as well as the resignation of North Carolina's, 12th District Congress Member Melvin L. Watt (D), whose seat remained vacant for approximately 10 months (via History). It's important to note that during this time of vacancy, the people hailing from the affected district lack voter representation until the seat is again filled.