We live in a democracy, right?
Kansas apparently needs to be reminded of that basic fact, because as things stand today, just a handful of Kansans is allowed to fill certain vacancies that crop up in the state Legislature.
Under a system used by Kansas and precisely two other states, low-ranking precinct committee members pick replacement office-holders when many state House or Senate seats go vacant.
That may not sound like a big deal to you, but consider this: Nearly one-fifth of the current crop of Kansas legislators stepped into legislative roles without first being elected by the people, The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman found.
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Fortunately, Missouri is one of 25 states that uses special elections to fill vacancies in its General Assembly. However, the big knock on the Missouri method is that those elections cost money. No question they do. But we do live in a democracy, and we believe that’s the price of doing business.
The problem with Kansas’ approach is best illustrated in state Senate District 25 in the Wichita area. There, state Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat, is about to resign to become Governor-elect Laura Kelly’s lieutenant governor. The task of choosing a replacement for Rogers in the Senate will be left to a mere 17 Democratic precinct committee members. They’ll make the pick, then forward the name to the governor, who must sign off on the selection.
That’s 17 out of the 71,721 Kansans who reside in the district. If more than one candidate seeks the seat, a majority of just nine people could wind up making that pick. That comes out to one one-hundredth of a percent of the district’s residents.
In District 25, there are 56 precinct committee slots, but only 17 have been filled.
That’s simply ridiculous, and it makes a mockery of the well-trod system now in place to elect representatives and senators following months-long political campaigns.
In Kelly’s former Senate district, 49 of 80 precinct committee members on Thursday picked state Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, for the post.
Kansas law does provide for special elections to be held at the next general election when senators resign early in their terms. But that doesn’t apply to Kelly or Rogers because they’re past the midpoint of their service.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, has done some research. He found that 18 percent of current Kansas lawmakers entered the Legislature by taking the appointment shortcut.
“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,” he said.
Miller pointed to state Rep. Adam Lusker, a Frontenac Democrat who was appointed to the House in 2013. Lusker spent five years in the Legislature and never once won a contested primary or general election race. He lost in the Nov. 6 election to Republican Kenneth Collins.
Kansas lawmakers should take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if this is really the right way to go.