[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/06/28/art.byrd.flag.gi.jpg caption="The flag flies at half staff at the Capitol building on Monday following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd. There is confusion about the process that will be used to fill his seat."]Washington (CNN) - The timing of Sen. Robert Byrd's death is contributing to confusion about filling the remainder of his term.
Under West Virginia law, Gov. Joe Manchin has the power to appoint a successor. Since Manchin, a popular two-term governor, is a Democrat, it's expected he will name a fellow member of his party to succeed Byrd, who was also a Democrat, thereby keeping Democrats' caucus in the Senate at 59 seats.
But questions surround how long Byrd's appointed successor would serve before another election is held.
West Virginia law also says that if the "unexpired term of any other office named in this section is for a period of less than two years and six months, the appointment to fill the vacancy is for the unexpired term." That means that if Byrd had died within two and a half years of the end of his term, his successor would serve out the remainder of the term.
Byrd was re-elected in 2006 and his seat was not up for re-election again until November 2012. His current term was scheduled to end on January 3, 2013, which is just a few days more than the than two and a half years dictated by West Virginia law.
The law does not clarify when a vacancy occurs. For example, is it when the death occurs, when the Senate informs the state of the vacancy, or when the governor of the state declares the seat vacant? The timing is crucial, since this upcoming Saturday, July 3, marks two and a half years until Byrd's term ends.
So the question of when the next election for Byrd's seat will take place – in 2012 when his term ends, or possibly as early as this November, is unresolved for now.
Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @psteinhausercnn