Short of a Full House: The Increasing Length of Vacancies in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1997–2021

By Tyler Ritchie

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives provide the most immediate and localized connection between their constituents and the federal government. When those positions are left vacant for extended periods of time, Americans are deprived of an agent to advocate for their interests at the national level. Article I of the Constitution gives state executives authority to set dates for special elections to Congress. In some instances, governors have taken advantage of this nearly unlimited power to deny these seats to their partisan rivals. This Note presents the data from every open seat in the House over twenty-five years and shows that the average vacancy has become substantially longer during that period—almost twice as long on average. This Note then uses the seat in the 20th District of Florida, which was left open for 287 days in 2021 and 2022, as a case study to show the negative impacts of such vacancies. To avoid these increasingly common outcomes, this Note urges the adoption of an upper limit on the length of a vacancy in the House of Representatives. Article I also provides the U.S. Congress with authority to overrule the states and pass laws to regulate the times of congressional elections. Congress should use this power to pass a new law regulating vacancies. Such action is necessary to address potentially severe harms to representative democracy.

Download Article