Party insiders picking legislative replacements is a shameful affront to republican democracy, and especially anyone who with a straight face calls him or herself a Democrat or a Republican should work to promptly remedy this grotesque perversion of government “by the people.” The existing setup encourages legislators to retire early so that party elites can confer unearned incumbent advantage on their preferred replacements.
“More than 1 in 4 Colorado state lawmakers got their seats without a typical election and instead were picked by a small number of party insiders during vacancy balloting,” writes John Frank. “Colorado is one of only four states to replace lawmakers who depart in the middle of a term with a vacancy committee run by that lawmaker’s political party,” he adds. (See also a Denver Post article.)
Giving political parties this power to select legislators is repugnant. Parties are not arms of the government; they are properly private organizations whose members have no more (and no fewer) rights than anyone else. And yet Colorado government has conferred various illegitimate powers to parties in all defiance of the demands of just governance. I have written previously about some of these unjust powers, including the power to force taxpayers to finance their primaries. But the power to hand-pick legislators who are supposed to represent the people is the worst corruption.
Let us remember that, as of October, unaffiliated voters represent the largest block in Colorado, at nearly 48% of the total. Democrats, on the other hand, are only 27% of the total, while Republicans are 24%. So when a legislator leaves office, the seat is filled by a tiny, elite minority of a party that represents perhaps a quarter of the population (with figures varying by region).
Take the example of Tim Hernández, the “democratic socialist” who initially excused Hamas’s brutal assault on innocent Israelis (he later apologized) and who previously endorsed an anti-capitalist resolution by the teacher’s union. He “won” his legislative seat by capturing a mere 39 votes from Democratic Party operatives. Yes, you read that right. He got 39 votes out of 68 cast. Whatever else you might call this travesty, “republican” and “democratic” do not make the list.
Whatever other reforms we might adopt in this area, stripping political parties of their unjust power to hand-select legislative replacements is a moral imperative. The United States Constitution guarantees “to every state in the union a republican form of government.” I don’t see anything in there about three-fourths republican, one-fourth autocratic being good enough.
Assuming that Colorado’s legislators take seriously their oaths to support the Constitution and immediately upon convening strip political parties of these unjust vacancy powers, what then?
I see several possible basic solutions:
1) Elect a vacancy committee in advance from the general population. This would be far more democratic than the status quo. But, if we had a vacancy committee for every legislative seat, and each committee were fairly large, that would create long ballots. We could give members of vacancy committees six-year terms and elect a third of the crop every two years. Preferably we’d set minimal petition requirements to get on the ballot for this and then implement approval voting (vote for as many candidates as you want) to determine the winners.
2) Let the governor, county commissioners, or some other elected officials select a replacement. Those people, at least, are democratically elected, but letting one or a handful of people elected for some other office fill legislative seats seems not so great. Here’s a variant that might work: Say that every other state and regional elected official who represents any part of the region in question automatically serves on the vacancy committee. So, for example, if we’re talking about a House seat, the vacancy committee would consist of the State Senator in the area, the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the county commissioners, the city councilors, the school board members, and all the state-wide officials. Or (probably better) we could include only the locals.
3) Call a special election. The problem is these are expensive and a hassle for voters. The advantage is they’re maximally representative.
4) Leave the seat unfilled until the next regular election. But this leaves the people of the area without representation for that time, so it doesn’t seem like a great option.
If legislators refuse to do their jobs and instead leave the anti-democratic party-operative structure in place, the least they could do is say that people selected by a party-run vacancy committee cannot run for the seat to which they are appointed during the subsequent regular election. That would put an end to the dirty business of parties moving their House members to the Senate and then filling the House seat with another party insider to gain incumbent advantage. But, again, the legislature should opt for more fundamental reform.
All the people of Colorado deserve representative government. It’s past time for legislators, whether or not they were actually elected, to do their jobs and make this right.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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