Many Kansas lawmakers start as appointees to fill vacancies
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — Nearly one-fifth of Kansas lawmakers began serving in the Legislature after they were appointed to fill vacancies, under a system used in just three states.
Under the system, party officials choose a replacement and the governor appoints that person, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Party officials help pick legislative replacements in about a dozen states in total. By contrast, 25 states use special elections to fill vacant legislative seats, The Wichita Eagle reports.
The typically little-noticed replacement process is drawing attention after three senators were elected to statewide office, including Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly as governor. And more vacancies are possible if other lawmakers resign to join Kelly’s administration.
“It is fairly common to see people get appointed to a seat and then the advantages of incumbency mean they can go a long time before they ever actually have a challenger of any kind, in a primary or a general election,” said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. His research found that 18 percent of current Kansas lawmakers first entered the Legislature through an appointment.
Some lawmakers say the system works well, while others contend that ideally all lawmakers would be elected. Senators who resign early in their four-year terms are replaced through a special election held at the next general election. That doesn’t apply to Kelly’s seats, along with Democrat Lynn Rogers, who was elected lieutenant governor and Republican Vicki Schmidt, who was elected insurance commissioner. All three are past the mid-point in their state senate terms.
“I would much rather see these people elected, but again, I just don’t know the ramifications of the costs. You kind of have to weigh that with that,” said Sen. John Skubal, R-Overland Park. “But I think when you have people in those positions, that they should be elected by the populace.”
Precinct committee members, who hold the most basic office in the parties, select the legislative replacements. Democrats and Republicans voted for precinct committee members during the August primary. While some races were competitive, many were decided by just a few votes – and others went unfilled.
Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said the replacement process demonstrates the importance of precinct committee members. Williams also said she hasn’t heard complaints about the current system for filling vacancies.
“Let’s think of the alternative: another election. Would you really want to go through that process of another election when we just went through people spending thousands and thousands of dollars on it,” Williams said.