Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article provided an incorrect percentage of lawmakers who had first entered the Legislature through an appointment.
Nearly one-fifth of Kansas lawmakers entered the Legislature without being elected, under a system Kansas shares with just a handful of states.
Three Kansas Senate seats will be vacated after the senators won statewide offices. More legislative seats may become vacant soon if other lawmakers resign to join Gov-elect Laura Kelly’s administration.
Voters won’t decide who fills them.
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In each case, local party officials from the same party as the resigning lawmaker will pick their replacements. The governor will then sign off on the appointments.
Kansas is one of three states where 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 Kansas system for replacing lawmakers has received little attention in the Statehouse and doesn’t appear controversial among lawmakers. But several upcoming resignations are highlighting the typically little-noticed process for filling vacancies.
Some lawmakers say the system works well, while others contend that ideally all lawmakers would be elected. Everyone raises concerns about the cost of holding special elections, however.
“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.
In the district of Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat resigning to become lieutenant governor, 17 precinct committee members will choose his successor. If all precinct posts were filled, 56 would decide. Kelly is currently a Topeka state senator and her district has 66 elected precinct committee members out of 166 positions.
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.
Local Democratic precinct committee members will gather Thursday to select a replacement for Kelly. On Saturday, Democratic precinct committee members will choose a replacement for Rogers.
Republican precinct committee members will also eventually meet to choose a replacement for Sen. Vicki Schmidt, who was elected insurance commissioner. A meeting has not yet been scheduled.
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, Rogers or Schmidt’s seats because they’re past the mid-point in their terms.
People who want to serve in the Legislature may find it easier to first win appointment than to win an election. While thousands of votes may be needed to win an election, the support of just a dozen or fewer precinct committee members may be enough to gain an appointment.
The people who will replace Kelly, Rogers and Schmidt will have nearly two years in office to build their political reputations before facing election — a potentially powerful advantage against challengers.
“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.
One example given by Miller: Rep. Adam Lusker, a Frontenac Democrat who was appointed to the House in 2013. Lusker, who lost on Nov. 6 to Republican Kenneth Collins, spent his entire five-year legislative career without winning a single contested primary or general election contest.
Eighteen percent of current Kansas lawmakers first entered the Legislature through an appointment, according to Miller’s research.
Sixteen percent of current representatives and 25 percent of senators were first appointed, he found. Those percentages are based on lawmakers currently serving, not those who have just been elected but have not yet been sworn in.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, got her start in the Legislature through an appointment to the House in 2003. She said the process was fair, with precinct committee members making nominations and then giving speeches about who should fill the vacant seat.
Campaigning for the seat involved reaching out to precinct committee members and sending them letters, she said.
“That’s the reason we have elections for precinct committee people in the first place,” Faust-Goudeau said. “This is one of their roles and they don’t get to do this often and sometimes people think, ‘Why is it important to be a precinct committee person?’ For this very reason.”
Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle