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By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

October 6, 2023

Saturday, the Indiana Republican Party will hold its fourth caucus of the year to replace a legislator who is exiting before his term ends, renewing concerns that the premature departures and appointments by party faithful are depriving voters of their choice.

“It’s not particularly easy to vote here in Indiana, people aren’t particularly motivated,” Kaitie Rector, co-founder of the nonpartisan grassroots political organization MADVoters Indiana, said. “Then, when you have several people who you vote for step down … it adds to that sense of ‘Why bother? Why vote because someone else is going to make that choice for me.’ That’s frustrating. It’s a disservice to Hoosiers.”

At least one more – and likely two more – caucuses will be held before the end of the year. Republicans have scheduled a caucus for Oct. 18 to fill the vacancy created by the unexpected death of state Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis. Also, Democrats may have a seat in the Statehouse to fill after the Gary mayoral election Nov. 7, if Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, who is the favorite after unseating the incumbent Mayor Jerome Prince in the May primary, wins.

Still, the number of lawmakers who have exited so far this year is not unusual. Ever since the 118th Indiana General Assembly, convened 2012-2014, five to seven legislators have left early every legislative session, according to data collected by the Capitol & Washington blog. A high in premature departures came during the 2006-2008 session, when 13 lawmakers vacated their seats.

A 2018 data analysis by Capitol & Washington creator Trevor Foughty found legislators were leaving for one of four reasons. Either the exiting legislators resigned for non-political reasons; they died; they assumed another elected office; or they left for other political reasons (like being appointed by the governor to lead a state agency).

Currently, 32 of the 150 lawmakers in the Indiana General Assembly arrived through a caucus election, according to Capitol & Washington.

Of the four lawmakers who have resigned this year, only one, Rep. Randy Frye, R-Greensburg, gave a reason for leaving, citing health issues. The other three – Rep. Anne Vermilion, R-Marion, Sen. Chip Perfect, R-Lawrenceburg, and Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute – did not provide any explanation for exiting less than a year after they all had just run for reelection.

Echoing others, Ed Feigenbaum, former director of legal affairs for the Council of State Governments who has been writing about Indiana state politics and government for more than 35 years, sees the dropout rate as a consequence of a part-time legislature. Members of the House and Senate may have family demands, get a promotion at work, get a new job or have a major health issues, he said, which could prevent them from continuing their duties in the public sector.

“If you pick any 150 people out of society in any walks of life, I think it would be very difficult for you to follow that group for two years or four years and not have considerable turnover in employment among that group,” Feigenbaum said.

‘He should finish his term’

Even so, voters can be left frustrated.

Anna Thompson is a resident of Aurora, which is in the senate district formerly represented by Perfect. Twenty-three years ago, she moved from the Philippines to southeastern Indiana, where she and husband farm and raised two children.

Before the caucus to pick Perfect’s replacement, Thompson said she was very surprised the senator was vacating his legislative seat so soon after winning the 2022 election and securing a third  term.

“He should finish his term,” Thompson said. “If he really wants to serve the county and Indiana, then he should finish his service. Unless it is for health reasons, then I truly understand, but if it’s not, then why did he run and then plan to resign? That doesn’t make sense.”

The caucus process resembles a mini-campaign season. However, instead of meeting the general electorate, candidates for the empty seat focus on meeting and talking with a much-smaller group — the handful of party precinct committee members in the district who will be voting in the caucus.

At the caucus, the precinct members politely sit and listen while each candidate goes to the podium and makes a three-minute speech that can be a mix of introducing themselves and explaining why they are running. The candidate who captures 50% plus 1 of the votes is declared the winner. If none of the candidates meet the vote threshold in the first round, then the candidate with the lowest vote total is removed from the ballot and the precinct members vote again. That process will continue until someone gets enough votes to win.

Problem with political endorsements

State law mandates the caucus must be held no later than 30 days after the vacancy occurs. The caucuses to replace Vermilion and Frye were convened a little more than 20 days after they announced their decisions to step away from the legislature.

However, Perfect’s caucus was held just 13 days after he submitted his resignation. Moreover, he immediately endorsed Guilford businessman Randy Maxwell as his replacement. Maxwell later defeated two challengers to win the GOP caucus election, garnering 70% of the votes cast on the first ballot.

Going into Saturday’s caucus, the departing Ford has endorsed Greg Goode to fill his seat.

Feigenbaum noted voters have concerns about the caucus procedure. Troublesome is the way some legislators have handled their departures, namely advocating someone as their successor, and also problematic is how the state party may have accelerated the caucus dates for the benefit of the favored candidate.

“It seems like in certain cases, particularly where there’s no open seat yet, there’s no real rush,” Feigenbaum said. But “the party … moves up the caucus date, so that it’s very difficult for someone to make the inroads necessary to, perhaps, defeat the party choice or the outgoing incumbent’s choice.”

The truncated caucus for filling Perfect’s vacancy caused supporters of Joe Volk, one of the candidates vying for the senate seat, to help him campaign. Before the Sept. 12 caucus at the Dillsboro Civic Center, Volk’s neighbors and friends gathered in the parking lot with balloons and homemade signs – trying to convince precinct members to vote for the underdog.

Rhett Dennerline, holding a sign that said “Republicans want Joe Volk,” said the shortened time frame between Perfect’s announcement and the caucus, plus Perfect’s endorsement of another candidate, had created obstacles difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, prior to the caucus, Dennerline had helped Volk by driving around the district and handing out campaign brochures to precinct members.

Having a longer period to campaign might have benefited Volk, who garnered just seven of the 80 votes cast in the caucus, Dennerline said. But the best process, he added, would have been for Perfect to serve the full four years, giving candidates more time to mount their campaigns and letting voters decide in the 2026 election.

“I understand he runs more than one business, but it would have been good, since he was just recently reelected, if he finished out more than just this part of his term,” Dennerline said of Perfect. “You’re entitled to resign. But, if he could, I would have liked to have seen him allow an election to occur for the next successor in the senate seat, rather than this process, which I know it follows the rules, but it’s a little bit difficult for the normal folks to understand why this is happening this way.”

Voice and choice of voters

Until the Indiana Constitution was amended in 1972, the governor had the power to call special elections to fill legislative vacancies, according to Capitol & Washington’s Foughty. At that time, the Indiana General Assembly met just a couple of months every other year, so there was no urgency to replace an exiting lawmaker before the next general election.

Of the 216 legislative vacancies in the Statehouse between 1852 and 1972, special elections were called to fill 116 of them, Capitol & Washington data shows.

That changed in 1970, when the state constitution was amended so the General Assembly could meet every year. This created more pressure to fill empty seats because waiting until the next general election could mean that constituents would not be represented for two sessions. Another issue: Special elections were expensive.

A 1972 amendment to the state constitutional led the legislature to fill vacancies by party caucuses.

Joe Elsener of the Indiana Republican Party conceded no one wants as many caucuses in a single year as the state has had in 2023, but he saw the process as the best answer. Precinct committee members are active and engaged in their parties and their communities, so they are qualified to represent the residents’ interests and pick someone to fill an empty legislative seat, he said. Also, he said, legislators who were caucused into office will still have to run at the end of their terms if they want to stay in the Statehouse.

“If you held a special election every single time somebody stepped down, imagine the cost, imagine handling it logistically,” Elsener said. “So yes, I do believe the (caucus) process is working. And, I hope it encourages more people to get involved and become precinct committee people, get civically involved on both sides of the aisle.”

Rector admitted she could not think of an alternative process for filling empty legislative seats midterm.

Forcing legislators to serve their full terms could lead to mediocre representation, she said, but, even so, the caucus deprives voters of their “voices and choices.” As an example, she pointed to Jefferson County, where some residents are now represented by legislators who did not appear on the 2022 ballot, because the lawmakers who won the election, Perfect and Frye, both resigned.

Rector acknowledged special elections are expensive but, she said, general elections are expensive, too.

“We’re talking about wanting to be mindful of how we spend money,” Rector said. “Well, not even a year ago, we had this big election, this big to-do. T-shirts and parades and flyers and buttons and stickers, this person’s name all over it and it was such a big deal, but now you’re telling us it’s not. You just have a group of people select their replacement and that’s it. It does sort of cheapen the idea of elections, I think.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal. 

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