Being registered to vote in central Denver, I have two new legislators representing me at the Colorado Capitol. Chris Hansen was appointed to serve as my state senator in mid-January. Just a couple of weeks ago, Scott Woodrow was appointed to be my state representative.
Did you notice the use of the word “appointed,” where “elected” would be more logical and expected?
That’s a function of how Colorado elects (pun intended) to fill legislative vacancies. Instead of consulting district voters as might be indicated by the idea of representative democracy, a vacancy committee made up of a small group of insiders of the party of the departing legislator does the honor and wields the power.
As a voter, I was not asked and had no chance to cast a ballot for either my new state senator or representative. In a Senate district with a population count of over 160,000 Coloradans, an exclusive group of 120 Democratic activists issued the selection. In the House district of roughly 90,000 people, an even tighter circle of 71 party muckety-mucks made the call.
But this is not about these two individuals, including Sen. Hansen whom I know as a bright and impressive leader. Rather, it concerns a problematic process that is being used with what seems increasing frequency to determine who sits in both the Colorado House and Senate.
In Colorado, the math is easy. We have 35 State Senators and 65 State Representatives. For a nice, round total of 100.
Out of those 100 legislators, fully 20 of them took legislative office via appointment instead of election. That’s no small number.
During the same weeks that saw the anointment of Hansen and Woodrow, Republican Richard Champion was appointed to an Arapahoe County House seat by a grand total of 55 party leaders. A few months prior, Mary Young claimed a State House seat from Greeley by action of a Democratic vacancy committee of nine people (yes, you read that right).
Some legislators have been chosen by vacancy committees of as few as six people.
Even the able House Speaker, KC Becker, first took this route to legislative office.
Certainly, lawmakers so appointed must face voters if they want to stick around beyond that current term. But the appointment gives them the toehold of incumbency with all its political advantages. In districts safe for one party or the other, a vacancy selection is tantamount to a grant of long-term legislative tenure. In more competitive districts, it provides a huge and most often decisive leg up.
Moreover, this process is exclusive and overly partisan. It is common for many people to assert that, “I vote for the person, not the party.” That’s all well and good. But when that person decides to move on and vacate his or her legislative office, all of a sudden partisanship becomes all-important as the party of the departing official automatically claims the appointment.
As an unaffiliated voter, where’s my voice in this? Ditto for that of every unaffiliated, independent voter in Colorado, the largest slice of the electorate.
In a time of dangerous political polarization, this process adds to that polarity. No, it is not the largest such cause. But it is a contributing factor in giving this authority to narrow groups of hard-core party activists. Those activists skew left on the Democratic side and right among Republicans. Given that such vacancy selections are an increasingly common path to the legislature, over time it is inevitable that the Democratic and Republican caucuses will drift still farther apart.
Hardly what the patient needs or the wise doctor ordered.
Defenders of this system reliably argue that it is efficient and inexpensive. Okay, yes, but democracy was not designed to be always easy or cheap.
A congressional district is about nine times the size of a Colorado state House district; and five times that of a state Senate district. Yet, if a member of Congress departs the post between election cycles, a special election is required to fill the vacancy.
If an election can be managed on that scale, why not on the far smaller scale of seats in the Colorado Legislature?
A smart reader might wonder what is causing all this turnover and churn in our state House and Senate. For sure, some of the departures are the result of life circumstances — illness, a job change, and the like. But those are the exceptions and few in number.
The vast majority of legislative vacancies are the consequence of a particularly active political game of musical chairs. Legislators nearing their term limit leave early to move to the other chamber or take an administrative position or decide that being a county commissioner might make for a nice, new gig.
A Senate resignation often creates a ripple effect where a House member seeks appointment to the Senate seat, thereby creating a House vacancy as well. One departure triggers a chain of events that leads to two legislators assuming office absent any voter approval or mandate.
How about a double-barrel fix?
First, for those few vacancies legitimately caused by non-political considerations, hold a special election. Let the voters sort it out instead of just a few party big-wigs.
Second, let’s undertake an earnest effort to reduce the number of legislative vacancies by proscribing mid-term departures for political advancement.
In a state famous for its sunshine and sunset laws along with term limits and other political reforms, how about a citizen-led effort to prohibit the constant political shuffling and climbing?
The call could be a simple one — do your job and don’t leave halfway through. State senators would be require to complete the full four-year term they sought and state representatives their two-year stint before taking the next notch on the political ladder.
None of this will be popular with legislators and the political class. But who works for whom around here?
Many in Colorado wish to put a “no vacancy” sign at our borders. That is not practical or advised — but perhaps we can dim the bulbs on the often-lit “vacancy” sign above our legislative chambers.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears Sundays in ColoradoPolitics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann