Opinion: Reform how vacancies are filled
The news that a Kansas legislator is resigning midterm for health reasons presents a good opportunity to think about the process that Kansas uses to fill legislative vacancies. This is probably not an enthralling topic to most, but it matters because that process is a rotten anachronism that unnecessarily mutes average voters.
When Kansas legislators leave before their terms are completed, local precinct chairs from the same party as that politician choose their replacement. The governor approves their choice as a formality. This happens fairly frequently. Nearly a fifth of legislators in the 2017-2018 session, for example, originally entered the Legislature by appointment.
Only three states use this same process. Most others fill vacancies via special elections, though others also use appointments of some type.
Voters elect precinct chairs in party primaries, but most chair slots are vacant, and there is no competition for most who are elected. Thus, a few party activists who are likely unrepresentative of their districts can select new legislators.
Some recent examples illustrate concerns with this process.
When Gov. Laura Kelly left the Legislature, the Wichita Eagle reported that 100 of 166 Democratic precinct committee positions in her district were vacant, leaving just 66 activists to select her replacement for a district of over 70,000 residents.
As a moderate Republican, Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt represented a swing legislative district that voted Democratic for governor and Congress in 2018, but narrowly went for Donald Trump in 2016. Rather than replacing her with another moderate who likely would have fit district voters better, activists chose a far right replacement.
In 2015, western Kansas Republicans rejected a local mayor and instead appointed someone who was serving as a school board member in Nebraska until days before his selection.
Beyond the fact that voters are competent enough to select legislators themselves, this process is troublesome for how it can decrease political competition. Most Kansas legislative races are already relatively uncompetitive, given voter party preferences, the quality of campaigns and widespread uncontested elections.
Politicians often get appointed to the Kansas Legislature and subsequently face few, if any, electoral challenges, primary or general. Incumbency itself can discourage challengers, but, once appointed, legislators can use the advantages of incumbency — fundraising, media coverage and official party support, for example — to deter challengers.
Take, for example, former Rep. Adam Lusker. Once appointed, the southeast Kansas Democrat served five years with no opponents before losing in 2018 when challenged for the first time. That’s a long time with zero electoral accountability.
Yes, legislators often win seats through the normal process and go years without opposition, but appointments discourage competition for voters when a seat is initially open, which is exactly when competitive elections are most likely to occur.
This is not a critique of parties per se. I firmly subscribe to E.E. Schattschneider’s famous quote that democracy is “unthinkable” without parties. Despite their flaws, parties organize government, structure elections and promote electoral accountability. And yes, there is a role for party precinct chairs in ensuring strong local parties.
But in filling legislative vacancies, the party “middleman” and “middlewoman” should not intrude between voters and their elected officials. The process as is only serves activists and insiders with the right connections to the select few who make these appointments.
Absolutely, it is far cheaper to have these activists select our policymakers than to hold special elections. And it saves local election officials from having to organize these elections — even though that is their job. You get the democracy that you pay for, though, and easy democracy on the cheap is not necessarily democracy at its best.
— Patrick R. Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.