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Time to reconsider how state handles early legislative departures


Time to reconsider how state handles early legislative departures

Sep 29, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Niki Kelly
Time to reconsider how state handles early legislative departures
Is it time for Indiana to join the 25 other states that uses special elections to fill legislative vacancies? (Photo illustration by John McGauley)

In recent months we have seen a spate of state lawmakers retiring early and party insiders choosing their successors instead of the full electorate.

This is how Indiana law works, and both Republicans and Democrats have done it regularly. But is it the right state policy?

One in five of Indiana’s current representatives and senators were first appointed via a political caucus instead of by the voters.

That means the lawmakers get the advantages of incumbency — name recognition, state-paid mailers and more — without having to win an election. The numbers also bear out that once you are in office it is very rare that incumbents are defeated.

Since the legislative session ended, three lawmakers have resigned.

  • Randy Frye left the Indiana House in July, citing health issues and the desire to spend more time with family. North Vernon attorney J. Alex Zimmerman was selected to finish Frye’s two-year term ending in November 2024.
  • Chip Perfect resigned from his seat in the Indiana Senate for personal reasons. It came not even a year after he was re-elected to a four-year term. His replacement, Randy Maxwell of Guilford, was sworn in Thursday.
  • Jon Ford departed the Senate “to pursue new professional endeavors” effective Oct. 16. He also has more than three years left on his term, and his successor will be chosen in a caucus.

And while this piece is about legislative resignations, just yesterday Indiana’s Auditor Tera Klutz announced she is leaving with more than three years left in her term for a private sector opportunity. She is the fourth auditor in a row to resign early.

The history

Indiana’s original Constitution gave the governor the ability to call for a special election to fill state legislative vacancies. Then in 1972, Hoosier voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the General Assembly to set the method for filling vacancies.

And that ultimately led to the caucuses, in which precinct members from a district choose a successor to fill an unexpired term within 30 days.

The Capitol and Washington political blog keeps an ongoing list of members who arrived in the legislature via caucus rather than an election. A 2018 analysis showed that after the caucus process was implemented, there was a 33% increase in vacancies.

But he also found that many of the vacancies were related to legislators assuming other elected offices. For instance, a state House member moving across the building to the Senate. Or a state lawmaker moving to Congress.

Other reasons for leaving run the gamut: new jobs, age, health problems. Sometimes it is used to avoid a scandal becoming public.

Leaving so early after you just ran for election and asked voters to put their faith in you leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is especially worse in the Senate when four-year terms are filled by appointees.

Deaths sometimes occur, obviously, and a caucus makes more sense in those cases because they are unavoidable. For instance, Sen. Jack Sandlin died unexpectedly on Sept. 20.

Additional options

So how do other states tackle these vacancies?

It is split down the middle, with 25 states holding special elections. The rest have some sort of appointment, usually by party insiders or the governor.

There would be an additional expense to these elections, but it could be worth it to make sure voters feel invested in their representative or senator. And maybe it would make sitting lawmakers think twice about fulfilling the commitment they made to their constituents.

Perhaps there could be a middle ground such as appointments when later in a term, but a special election if more than half of a term remains.

At this point, trust in the institution of government in general is precarious. And behind-closed-door caucus votes add to the disillusionment. I think state officials should do everything they can to bring the public into the political process — not keep them out.