Opinion: Diminished democracy in Topeka
In democracies, majorities rule, right? The candidate with the most votes wins the election, and a majority vote in the Legislature means that a bill is passed.
In Kansas, the math seems remarkably simple. The candidate with the most votes wins, and the way to assure victory is to attract 50% plus one of all ballots. Likewise, in the Kansas Legislature, the mantra remains “63 and 21” — the necessary numbers of votes to pass a bill in the House and Senate, respectively.
Still, legislative math is rarely this simple, nor is that of elections. And this year, the math of obstruction has reached new levels in both the Legislature and within the Republican race for the U.S. Senate. Most notably, even incredibly, the obstruction in both instances flows from Kansas Senate President Wagle, R-Wichita.
As the Legislature considers Medicaid expansion, her blocking tactics are especially troubling. Consider this: Clear evidence exists that (a) both the House and Senate contain clear majorities in favor of expansion, based on previous votes and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning’s proposal with 22 co-sponsors; (b) Kansas residents solidly support expanding Medicaid, with 62% approval in the respected “Kansas Speaks” survey from Fort Hays State University; and (c) Gov. Laura Kelly ran her successful 2018 campaign with Medicaid expansion as her top priority.
In short, legislative and popular majorities have spoken conclusively in favor of a policy that 80% of American states have already adopted; it is scarcely radical or experimental.
Wagle’s response is essentially “So what?” She used her clout and procedure to deny the Senate’s consideration of expansion in 2019, and now she has tied a vote on an abortion-based constitutional amendment to moving ahead in 2020. In 2019, senators fell one vote short (23 of 24 needed) to overcome Wagle’s opposition; those same numbers hold this year.
Although the Senate approved an amendment to overturn the Supreme court’s ruling that abortion in a right for Kansans, the House failed by four votes to move the amendment forward. One sticking point is that Wagle and her House GOP allies demand to hold the ratification vote at the August primary, with its small, unrepresentative, and overwhelmingly Republican turnout, as opposed to a November date, which would reflect most Kansans’ wishes and might defeat the amendment. Again, profoundly anti-democratic.
Moreover, the August primary to nominate a GOP U. S. candidate pits former Secretary of State Kris Kobach against a field that includes Wagle, who recently polled in single digits. The far-right Kobach offers Democrats a real chance to win this seat, reversing almost a century of Senate losses. The more the Republican primary vote is split, the greater the chance that Kobach will become the nominee and place the seat in jeopardy.
Wagle has no realistic chance to win, yet she is denying Republicans a clear opportunity to shelve their weakest candidate. Even within her own party, Wagle brings her anti-democratic tendencies to the fore, without a hint of regret or remorse.
Ironically, by denying decisive votes on popular Medicaid expansion legislation and by helping a Kobach candidacy, Wagle will likely hurt her party’s chances in both the U.S. Senate contest and in state legislative races. Come November, Kansas voters and Democrats could get the last laugh.
— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.