Nearly 1 in 3 Colorado lawmakers got their seats through vacancy committees

An effort is underway to get rid of the vacancy committee process and allow voters to fill seats through special elections
colorado capitol
Posted at 6:48 PM, Jan 04, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-04 20:48:27-05

DENVER — Nearly one-third of Colorado lawmakers won their seats through a process some call undemocratic. There’s now a push underway to get rid of that process and replace it with special elections.

People living in the southern portion of Arapahoe County got a new state representative Wednesday. Chad Clifford, a Colorado ranger, emergency management expert, and lobbyist, will replace State Representative Ruby Dickson, who resigned last month.

“I couldn’t be more pleased or excited to go and make a real difference for the people of the state of Colorado, most importantly, the people in our district,” said Clifford.

Clifford will represent nearly 90,000 people, but he wasn’t elected by Arapahoe County voters. He was chosen by a vacancy committee made up of 41 members of his political party.

Colorado is one of a handful of states that allows vacancy committees to choose replacements for lawmakers who resign their seats. According to Denver7’s analysis, 29 of the 100 lawmakers who will be in the general assembly this year were picked for their seats by a vacancy committee at some point, including 11 senators and 18 representatives.

The following state lawmakers were selected by a vacancy committee at some point:

  • Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, D-Larimer
  • Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe, Denver, Jefferson
  • Rep. Kyle Brown – D-Boulder, Broomfield
  • Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Arapahoe
  • Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, Delta, Dolores, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montezuma, Montrose, Ouray, and San Miguel
  • Rep. Elect Chad Clifford, D-Arapahoe
  • Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Adams, Arapahoe
  • Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Arapahoe, Denver
  • Rep. Lorena Garcia, D-Adams County
  • Sen. Joann Ginal, D-Larimer
  • Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver
  • Rep. Tim Hernandez, D-Denver
  • Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, D-Pueblo
  • Rep. Richard Holtorf, R- Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Weld, and Yuma
  • Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder
  • Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Larimer
  • Rep. Mandy Lindsay, D-Arapahoe
  • Rep. William Lindstedt, D-Broomfield
  • Sen. Dafna Michaelson Janet, D-Adams
  • Sen. Dylan Roberts, D- Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat,Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit
  • Rep. Manny Rutinel D-Adams
  • Sen. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Douglas
  • Rep. Ron Weinberg, R-Larimer
  • Sen. Perry Will, R- Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Montrose, and Pitkin
  • Rep. Don Wilson, R-El Paso (appointed by Polis)
  • Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver
  • Rep. Mary Young, D-Weld
  • Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Adams, Jefferson
  • Replacement for former Rep. Sharbini (Adams, seat currently vacant)

Many lawmakers originally selected by vacancy committees have gone on to win elections in their own right, but they did so with the advantage that comes with being an incumbent.

“We do our best to run vacancy committee elections with the highest accountability for transparency and access to members of the media and the public to meet the candidates and engage in the process,” said Shad Murib, the chair of the Colorado Democratic Party.

Murib said vacancy committees serve an important role in making sure vacant seats are filled promptly.

“Look, we agree that elections are the first and best place for voters to pick the representatives. And in this scenario where we do have [lawmakers] moving on, this allows for every district to at least have representation instead of potentially going months and months without a voice on policies,” said Murib.

“To have 41 people or a dozen people choose someone who's going to represent an entire district is just undemocratic,” said Chris Hubbard, the spokesman for an initiative that would ask voters to get rid of vacancy committees.

Hubbard argues vacancy committees give party insiders too much power.

“The system as it exists took party insiders and said that you, this small handful of people, will decide who the representative for this entire district is going to be,” said Hubbard. “Our view is that voters should have that say.”

Murib said it’s not voters who would benefit if vacancy committees were eliminated, but wealthy donors backing the initiative.

“I wouldn't call it so much citizen-led as led by some of the most wealthy individuals in Colorado who are trying to create an election system that might benefit those types of folks running for office,” said Murib. “We're taking a look at that entire package to see where we agree and where we don't.”

If vacancy committees were eliminated, special elections would need to be held in each district. Supporters of the vacancy committee process say it saves taxpayers money by not requiring an expensive special election. But Hubbard said the cost is worth it.

“Democracy is not inexpensive,” said Hubbard. “Costs shouldn't be the concern about whether or not voters' voices are represented in the legislature.”

Supporters of the initiative are hoping to get on November’s ballot, but it must go through a lengthy review process — including a hearing and signature collection — before that can happen.

Nearly 1 in 3 Colorado lawmakers got their seats through vacancy committees

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