More than 20 percent of Indiana’s lawmakers weren’t elected traditionally

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INDIANAPOLIS –  When a state lawmaker steps down or passes away in Indiana, the political party associated with that lawmaker hosts a caucus to replace them.

That caucus includes precinct committee members who ultimately decide who will fill the vacant seat.

This process isn’t new, in fact, it has been in place for many years. However, some feel it is time to change it.

Right now, 20 percent of Indiana lawmakers were originally put in that seat by a private caucus.

Bipartisan group, Common Cause Indiana said that number is too high and speaks to the advantage given to lawmakers who were chosen by their party rather than people at the polls.

Common Cause Policy Director Julia Vaughn said it automatically makes that candidate an incumbent in the next election.

“Incumbents have an overwhelming advantage,” said Vaughn. “It is the exception– and certainly not the rule– that challengers defeat incumbents in Indiana.”

Like State Sen. Tim Lanane, who got his position during a caucus back in 1997. He’s now Indiana’s Senate Minority Leader. Another example is Victoria Spartz. Vaughn points out Spartz was caucused into the State Senate in 2017 and is now a Republican nominee for Congress.

“She’s a textbook case of how you can quickly acquire power even though you obtained that position without voters’ approval,” said Vaughn.

“There is certainly some benefit to the incumbent being into the office in advance,” said Republican Party Chair Kyle Hupfer.

However, Hupfer said the advantage doesn’t outweigh the cost of a special election to replace a seat holder.

“It’s very difficult to run a special election, the other piece is turnout in special elections. If you look across the spectrum, it is extremely low, people aren’t used to it,” explained Hupfer.

“It is not cost that is our prohibitor,” said Indiana Democratic Party Chair John Zody. “We are interested in making sure that the right to vote is expanded.”

Though neither state party took an official stance on this process both said they’re open to review.

Vaughn said she thinks it makes sense to hold a special election for anyone who steps down with more than six months left of their term.

The latest state lawmaker to announce their resignation is Republican State Sen. Jim Merritt. His replacement will serve the two years left on his term. That’s equivalent to an entire term for a State Representative.

Right now, there are talks of a bill next session that would allow for special elections to fill vacancies on the local level but not necessarily the state.

Common Cause would like to see voters get the final say whenever a person in power steps down.

“If you think this process is wrong, if you want to have more of a say in who represents you in the statehouse, ask your legislator to look at this problem,” said Vaughn.

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(This story was originally published on Sept. 9, 2020)

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