Blame Steve Lebsock’s party-switch stunt on Colorado’s outdated laws

Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A last-minute move to leave the Democratic Party by a state lawmaker accused of sexual harassment is only the most recent evidence that Colorado’s legislative vacancy laws need to be changed.

After a long, surreal day at the Colorado Capitol last Friday, state Rep. Steve Lebsock became the first lawmaker to be thrown out of the Legislature in more than 100 years. But the turmoil didn’t end there.

Not long after 52 of Lebsock’s colleagues voted to expel him over sexual harassment complaints made by at least five women, including a fellow legislator, it emerged that the Thornton Democrat had changed his party registration to Republican less than an hour before the vote.

While legal questions remain, Lebsock’s switch appears to have given Republicans the power to name his replacement.

Lebsock has denied the allegations made against him, but his last-minute act of reprisal against his party continued the pattern of strange, dishonest, and retaliatory behavior that ultimately helped seal his fate during Friday’s debate over his expulsion.

Lebsock alone, of course, is responsible for his petulant party-switching stunt. But it wouldn’t have been possible if Colorado law required legislative vacancies to be filled through the most common and democratic method for doing so: special elections.

The laws of 25 states stipulate that legislative vacancies should be filled by special elections, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states give appointment power to the governor, while another eight require elected commissioners in the county where the vacancy occurred to vote on a replacement.

Only five states, including Colorado, explicitly prescribe what is arguably the least democratic method of all, in which the party of the departing lawmaker appoints a replacement. In Colorado, appointments are typically made by vacancy committees consisting of at most a few dozen party officials from the relevant district.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these small, exclusive vacancy committees are frequently the subjects of controversy. In December, a Republican official filed a complaint challenging the selection of state Rep. Shane Sandridge by a Colorado Springs vacancy committee on the grounds that one of its members was ineligible.

A challenger also alleged impropriety in an Otero County committee’s selection of state Rep. Judy Reyher in November. Reyher, who earned her seat thanks to the votes of just six GOP officials, faced outrage and calls for resignation after social media posts surfaced in which she described the “black population” as “hatred filled beings.” Reyher is currently running unopposed in her district’s Republican primary.

At best, vacancy committees are an outdated concession to the burdens of holding a special election — which are vastly reduced now that many Colorado residents cast their votes through the state’s new mail-in ballot system. At worst, they’re a relic of a bygone era in which corrupt party bosses in smoke-filled rooms manipulated the electoral process as they saw fit.

As we’ve seen across the country over the last year, special elections can be vital for the health of a democracy. They help focus grassroots organizing efforts in the long stretches between regular elections, and serve as both a material and symbolic check when parties defy the will of the people.

Efforts to switch to a special election system are underway in at least one other state. A group of lawmakers in Maryland are pushing a bill that would change the state’s vacancy process, which currently allow parties to appoint replacements, subject to approval by the governor.

Ultimately, the impact of Lebsock’s party switch will likely be negligible; Democrats held a nine-seat majority prior to his expulsion, and his solidly Democratic district will vote on a permanent replacement in November.

A brief statement released by the Colorado Republicans on Friday suggested that the party may simply decline to name a replacement, passing the appointment off to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat.

But Lebsock’s move is the latest evidence that Colorado needs to reform its antiquated, anti-democratic vacancy laws.

Coloradans deserve the right to elect their representatives no matter when or how legislative seats become available. Preventing future petty shenanigans like Lebsock’s is all the more reason to enshrine that right in state law as soon as possible.