Replacement process for empty seats may be legally indefensible | Guest Column

When Everett Democrat Nick Harper abandoned his state Senate seat earlier this month, you might have thought voters would be the ones to pick his replacement. You’d have been right 100 years ago. Not today. Washington’s original state constitution required that special elections be held to fill vacancies in the House or Senate. A change enacted in 1929 shifted the state to an appointment process and put county councils in charge of finding suitable successors from any political party.

When Everett Democrat Nick Harper abandoned his state Senate seat earlier this month, you might have thought voters would be the ones to pick his replacement.

You’d have been right 100 years ago. Not today.

Washington’s original state constitution required that special elections be held to fill vacancies in the House or Senate. A change enacted in 1929 shifted the state to an appointment process and put county councils in charge of finding suitable successors from any political party.

Since 1956, when a state lawmaker leaves office, regardless of the reason, their political party retains control of the seat and dictates who sits in it.

Voters themselves put this perk of power into Article II, Section 15 of the state Constitution by approving an amendment placed on the ballot by the Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature.

They would need to be the ones to remove it. But lawmakers from the two major parties will probably never give them the chance by offering up a constitutional amendment repealing this provision.

Washington today is among a minority of states allowing political parties such a strong hand in the process. Most states, including California, Texas and New York, conduct special elections when there is an opening.

There’s some thought Washington’s process may no longer be legally defensible. The state’s switch to a Top 2 format for elections – which voters strongly embraced – means the Democratic and Republican parties are no longer assured a berth for their candidates on the general election ballot.

Some believe the changeover extends to the appointment process as well, but it’s not been tested in court as of yet.

As a result, the person who will be taking Harper’s seat is a question 28 dyed-in-the-wool Democrats will help decide. That’s a teeny-tiny fraction of the 36,981 people who cast ballots in the 2010 election won by Harper.

Those two-dozen-plus Democrats are precinct committee officers in the 38th Legislative District, which encompasses Everett, Tulalip and a slice of Marysville.

They will meet Tuesday, hear speeches from at least four hopefuls, then nominate their top three choices for a successor.

The following morning the Snohomish County Council – which includes four Democrats — will pick one of those three to serve.

State Reps. Mike Sells of Everett and John McCoy of Tulalip are competing for the job. So too are Kelly Wright of Marysville and James Trefry of Everett.

Sells or McCoy is expected to be chosen for the Senate gig. Then this process will repeat itself to find someone to fill their House seat, possibly by Christmas.

So by the time state lawmakers settle in for the 2014 regular session in January, two of the three people representing Everett will be there thanks to a few friends in the Democratic Party, not the thousands of voters in the city.

 

 

 

n Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com

 

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