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'Room for mischief': Inside the secretive process to fill vacant seats without elections

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 10/7/2021 Amelia Pak-Harvey and Kaitlin Lange, Indianapolis Star
Demonstrators protest outside the City-County Building in Indianapolis on Monday, July 13, 2020. The protest is in response to a Democratic caucus election of Jason Larrison over Karla Lopez-Owens for the District 12 seat on the 25-member council. Lopez-Owens would have been the only Latina member. © Leah Klafczynski/For IndyStar Demonstrators protest outside the City-County Building in Indianapolis on Monday, July 13, 2020. The protest is in response to a Democratic caucus election of Jason Larrison over Karla Lopez-Owens for the District 12 seat on the 25-member council. Lopez-Owens would have been the only Latina member.

Congresswoman Victoria Spartz got her start in politics working behind the scenes for the local county Republican party.

She used those connections in Hamilton County to win her first office when a group of party insiders, not voters, selected her over the more politically established Noblesville and Carmel city council presidents to replace retiring longtime state Sen. Luke Kenley in 2017. At the time, Spartz had no experience or name recognition as an elected official, which would have made winning an election decided by voters more difficult. 

That pivotal caucus vote catapulted her political career, giving her name recognition and a platform to attract conservative donors with deep pockets in order to launch her successful 5th Congressional District campaign 2 1/2 years later. The congressional election was the first time her name showed up on any ballot. 

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More: 'We shouldn't even be doing this' Indiana lawmakers approve redistricting maps

The 93 people responsible for Spartz’s critical journey to the Indiana Statehouse, however, were not everyday Hamilton County voters. They were a little-known facet of Indiana’s political system: precinct committee people, referred to in party lingo as “PCs.”

And the public has no clue who most of them were.

While technically elected officials, many are actually appointed by local party chairs for a variety of reasons. What’s more, the list of appointed PCs who make such decisions is closely guarded by both parties — making it challenging for Hoosiers to track who has the power and if the PCs even live in the precinct they are supposed to represent.

According to an IndyStar analysis, more than a fifth of Republican and Democratic lawmakers currently representing voters at the Statehouse were initially caucused in by these party officials, meaning they were able to harness the power of incumbency to launch political careers without having actually had to win an election. 

Republican candidate for Indiana's 5th Congressional District Victoria Spartz talks with women at a fundraiser coffee in Carmel, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. She removed her mask when the people at the outdoor fundraiser were socially distanced. © Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar Republican candidate for Indiana's 5th Congressional District Victoria Spartz talks with women at a fundraiser coffee in Carmel, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. She removed her mask when the people at the outdoor fundraiser were socially distanced.

It’s a process that plays out at a local level, too.

In Marion County, for example, at least 40 public officials have been either selected by the county’s PCs over the past decade or appointed by the county party chair in cases where there were not enough PCs to vote — from the Indianapolis city-county council to Speedway’s clerk-treasurer to Rocky Ripple town council. That includes at least 11 city-county councilors selected through such a process since 2011.

IndyStar talked with 23 people — including Democrats, Republicans and political experts — and sorted through a decade worth of data on PCs. 

Opponents argue that the system is ripe for abuse in a pay-to-play, good-old-boy networking setup that ultimately concentrates power to the party elite instead of to the people. They say Indiana should either hold special elections for certain positions, reform the current process or, in some cases, simply leave the seats vacant until the next election.

Critics say eliminating such caucuses, too, could cut down on the number of people who rig the system — choosing to retire early in order to try to handpick their successor ahead of a primary or general election. Those who are caucused in have a potential incumbent advantage, giving them name recognition and resources if they later choose to run for a full term. 

“The idea is for voters to make these selections,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for political accountability group Common Cause Indiana, “and so the extreme prevalence of people assuming office because they get there with the support not of voters but of precinct committee people, I think really subverts the democratic process.”

Elected and appointed leaders within both major political parties admit the setup isn’t perfect, but they argue that it provides a proper vetting procedure for candidates and allows parties to fill important seats before the next election. Special elections, they say, cost too much money and attract too few voters. 

A spokesperson for Spartz's campaign, for example, noted that she still won the state Senate seat in a caucus against six other candidates, and that "candidates still have to campaign hard and earn the votes of Hoosiers."

“We don’t want folks to be unrepresented; we don’t want to leave a vacancy until the next election,” said Kyle Hupfer, chair of the Indiana Republican Party. “I think it’s the least bad, probably, of options that are out there when these circumstances arrive.” 

Mike Schmuhl, chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, said that the transparency of the PC process is a regular discussion within the party.

“I’ve been talking with people on both sides of the issue and will continue to do that,” he said. “And continue to see if there’s a way for us to perhaps reform the system in a way that is balanced and that makes sense.” 

The incumbent advantage

Pam Dechert knew from the start that she faced an uphill battle to win a Republican-leaning Statehouse district representing portions of Marion, Hancock and Hamilton counties. 

The Democrat was squaring off against Republican Rep. Chris Jeter for a seat previously held by House Speaker Brian Bosma. In November 2019, Bosma had announced that after three decades in office he would not be serving out his full term. He officially retired eight months later. Republican PCs tapped Jeter, who had just won the district’s Republican primary, to serve out the remaining three months of Bosma's term. 

There was little reason to even fill the seat. Lawmakers had adjourned for the session months earlier and were largely focused on the upcoming election. 

By the November 2020 election, Jeter had all of the benefits of incumbency — the ability to mail fliers as a state lawmaker and easier access to fundraising dollars — but none of the challenging votes that his opponents could pick apart.

The setup, Dechert says, gave Jeter an advantage that meddled with her race. She’s not sure it would have changed who won the election — she lost by more than 18 percentage points as Democrats' hopes to flip suburban districts were dashed — but the competition might have been closer, she said, had there been a “level playing field.” 

“To me that's a bit of hand-picking your successor and guaranteeing an incumbent and an incumbent victory,” Dechart told IndyStar. “It certainly doesn’t feel like the way democracy should work.”

Pam Dechert © Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar Pam Dechert

Bosma and Jeter did not return requests for comment.

The scenario is one of several that opponents of the caucusing process point to as an example of abuse — essentially rigging the system in an attempt to retain party control over certain positions.

Over the past 10 years, 28 state lawmakers were replaced by a caucus vote after they left their Statehouse position before the end of their term, according to a database on Capitol & Washington, a website that tracks Indiana political history and statistics. 

Two of those lawmakers died in office while eight others were replaced because they took another appointed or elected position. The majority simply resigned early instead of serving out the remainder of their term.

Such early resignations can give incumbency advantage to the successor picked by PCs, opponents argue. Incumbents are at a serious advantage, said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“Your name’s in the paper on a regular basis, you get to engage in constituent services, you get to introduce and pass important legislation — you get to do all that stuff,” Downs said. “Hence the desire for party officials to be willing to consider and even encourage people to retire midterm.” 

The setup, too, can help people launch their political careers without the kind of public scrutiny that comes with an election.

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, rumored to be eyeing a future gubernatorial run, got her start in politics when she was caucused into the House in 2005. Secretary of State Holli Sullivan was caucused into that same House district seven years before Holcomb appointed her as the chief elections officer. 

But former Republican Sen. Jim Merritt argued that most lawmakers have legitimate reasons to step down — and most aren’t doing so just to give their party an advantage.

State Sen. Jim Merritt gives a concession speech at Prime 47 Steakhouse, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, Indianapolis. © Grace Hollars/IndyStar State Sen. Jim Merritt gives a concession speech at Prime 47 Steakhouse, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, Indianapolis.

Merritt, who served the northeast corner of Marion County and the Geist area, stepped down last year because he was moving out of the district. 

“No one left because they wanted to keep the seat Republican,” said Merritt. “Everyone had a reason to leave.”

Still, Merritt's resignation gave the Republicans an opportunity to handpick a Republican to run in 2022, giving potential incumbency benefits to a Republican in a district that — even after redistricting — appears to be evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. 

'Nobody gets who they voted for'

The frustration over the setup plays out at the local level as well. 

After narrowly winning reelection in 2020 by just 57 votes, the town of Speedway’s Republican clerk-treasurer Monty Combs resigned just one month into his newest term. 

The announcement frustrated Combs’ Democratic opponent, fueling speculation that Combs intended to use his name recognition to win, then to leave office and keep it in Republican hands through caucusing. 

"It's this process of replacing him that is so antiquated," Bradley Bainbridge, a treasurer for Lidy’s campaign, told the Star at the time. "And it's so close to the election that nobody gets who they voted for." 

At the time, Combs did not address the accusations but noted that state law specified vacancies to be filled by a PC caucus.

Mike Murphy, a former Marion County Republican Party chair and former state lawmaker, said usually elected officials have pure intentions when they resign early.

“But it does leave room for mischief, no doubt about that,” Murphy said. “It's human nature for somebody to try and want to influence who their successor is, because you've worked hard all these years. You don't want to see your efforts or your record or your whatever obliterated in one fell swoop by somebody who completely disagrees with everything you ever pushed for.”

On the current Indianapolis City-County Council, six of 25 members were initially caucused into their position or appointed by the party chair in instances where there were not enough voting PCs. 

Some argued that the setup didn’t give them an incumbency advantage — rather, their previous track record speaks for themselves. Getting name recognition requires putting in work, some noted.

“I think that if I’ve been doing a good job, that would play a much larger role,” said Republican council member Josh Bain, who was caucused into a vacated seat in Decatur township last year. 

Stacking the deck

Accusations of “stacking the deck” with party loyalists have routinely surfaced — particularly among Democrats in Marion County, where the party has a stronghold.

Karla Lopez-Owens said she felt like she was running against a rigged system.

The Democrat faced two opponents for the vacant District 12 Indianapolis City-County Council seat in a caucus race last year, including Jason Larrison — a former city employee who had the backing of Mayor Joe Hogsett. 

The caucus vote came out to a narrow margin of 12-11 in favor of Larrison. The tie-casting vote: Larrison himself, who is a PC person.

The showdown marked a rift among Marion County Democrats, some of whom accused Mayor Joe Hogsett and the county party chair of rigging the votes by appointing loyal PCs in vacant precinct seats. 

“It just didn’t matter how much work I was going to do, it didn’t matter how much work my campaign was going to put in to prove my merit,” Lopez-Owens said. “The race had already been decided.”

Larrison, however, noted that races with such close votes indicate that there isn’t a consolidation of power.

“Thinking about the process itself," Larrison said, 'is it fair, is it not fair?' I don’t think it’s something that can be answered either way. To me, the challenge is it’s more about efficiency and not letting vacant seats stay vacant for long periods of time.”

Hogsett's office fundamentally disagreed with the claim that people loyal to his administration were appointed to vacant precinct committee spots. 

In Marion County, too, PCs decide which candidate gets the party’s coveted endorsement for primary elections, a process commonly referred to as slating.

A small group gathers outside of Ellenberger Park in support of Latina candidate Karla Lopez-Owens as the precinct committee people in District 12 vote for the next council member from three candidates on in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. © Grace Hollars/IndyStar A small group gathers outside of Ellenberger Park in support of Latina candidate Karla Lopez-Owens as the precinct committee people in District 12 vote for the next council member from three candidates on in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 7, 2020.

Following a failed bid to receive the party’s endorsement for the Marion County Treasurer position, Josh Peters released a public statement last year accusing Hogsett and Marion County Democratic party chair Kate Sweeney Bell of appointing nearly 200 PCs loyal to the mayor.

“I was not sure that I could overcome the stacked voter list, but I wanted to believe that with enough hard work I could make an impact and get close,” Peters wrote in the letter. “I was wrong. The newly assembled Hogsett machine went into overdrive.”

Sweeney Bell noted in an email that state law sets the legal framework for precinct officials and vacancies, but did not respond to further interview requests. 

Secrecy of the PC network

The entire PC setup, some opponents say, leaves the system open for abuse.

In party politics, PCs represent the lowest rung of elected office. At a grassroots level, they help register voters, stand at the polls and invigorate enthusiasm for the party. 

But collectively, the hyper-local positions wield substantial power.

Yet in recent years, fewer party members have decided to run for the PC position in Marion County. What’s more, only the rare contested races for the PC position end up on the ballot. 

In the 2020 Republican elections for PCs, just 143 out of the 600 precincts had candidates — only 21 of those were contested. In the 2018 Democratic election, just 279 precincts had candidates, of which 68 were contested. 

That leaves the remaining seats to be filled by the county party chair.

The lack of elected PCs isn’t just a Marion County phenomenon. In Hamilton County Republicans filed to run in only 165 of the 221 voting precincts in 2020. Of those districts, only 60 were on the ballot. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats filed to run in 42 districts in 2018. Only three races were contested. 

That means the county parties have the power to appoint the remaining majority positions. 

The obstacle: The public largely does not know who these appointed people are.

An IndyStar review of those who filed for the position show that they can include powerfully connected people: Republican mayors Scott Fadness of Fishers, Chris Jensen of Noblesville and Andy Cook of Westfield. Republican state Sens. Jack Sandlin and Scott Baldwin.

Multiple employees in Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration also are PCs. So are several city council members in Indianapolis, Carmel, Westfield, Fishers and Noblesville. 

But the PC list in its entirety is largely kept secret: both Democratic and Republican Marion and Hamilton County parties declined to share the list with the Star. 

In Hamilton County, the elections office doesn't even maintain a list of those potential PCs who filed but ran unopposed. Those names are kept off the ballot due to an "agreement of the political parties," Beth Sheller, Hamilton County's Election Administrator, said. Meanwhile, counties are only required to keep declaration of candidacy filings for 22 months, she said.

In Marion County slating conventions, candidates vying for the party’s endorsement can receive the full list — only after they pay a fee to the party, which typically amounts to roughly 10% of the salary of the elected position they’re running for. For council seats, for example, that can mean shelling out over $1,000 just to compete to be the party darling.

The power to appoint PCs, some opponents say, also leaves the system open for abuse.

'It's not rigged if you get involved'

But proponents argue there are a number of benefits to the system.

Giving the party chair the discretion to appoint PCs can help keep damaging candidates from representing the party — particularly in slating conventions where the party gives its official support to a primary candidate, noted Kip Tew, a former chair of the Marion County Democratic party. 

“As a county chairman, you have a responsibility to your party to make sure that there’s not a goofball on that list,” he said. 

People who complain that the system is rigged, he argued, are usually the ones who have not been involved in the process.

“It’s not rigged if you get involved, if you’re rational and you work it,” he said.  

Getting people to run for the PC position, however, can be challenging.

Republican Marion County Party Chair Joe Elsener said his goal is to get as many PCs to run as possible. 

Accusations of rigging the system with insiders, he said, get a little overblown. 

“If you feel like that is happening then get to work in your county,” he said. “Whether it’s Marion County or wherever. Get a group together and start getting people to run for PC, or work with your county chair.”

As a Democratic PC and local ward chair, Elise Hertz tried to do just that. She found two people who were putting in work and filed paperwork with the Marion County party to appoint them as PCs. 

“What I found was that the paperwork never got processed, and the county appointed someone else in both of those slots,” said Hertz, who is no longer a PC. “And I’m like, ‘Wait, wait — isn’t this supposed to be both my privilege and my responsibility?’”

The Marion County Democratic Party did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

The price of transparency

But for all the complaints about the caucus process, some see a compelling reason to keep it in place: its low cost. 

Special elections in nearby states can carry a hefty bill. 

In Kent County, Michigan, where the state estimates roughly $3,600 per precinct for elections, an upcoming special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat translates to $378,000.

In Jefferson County, Kentucky, a special election to fill a statehouse seat cost $38,688 for the 35 precincts included in the district. The turnout: just under 11%. 

“When you look at the amount of cost, the amount of preparation, the amount of manpower, the volunteers that are required for an election... It’s just untenable,” Hupfer, the chair of the Indiana Republican Party said. “While there’s no perfect system probably, it’s probably the best one that can feasibly accomplish what needs to be done.”

Indiana used to rely on special elections to fill vacancies up until the 1970s, but because lawmakers only met every two years, officials didn’t bother holding a special election for nearly half of the vacant seats. 

Leaving vacancies was no longer practical once lawmakers started meeting annually, Trevor Foughty, the writer of Capitol & Washington and an Indiana political history expert, told IndyStar. Lawmakers adopted the caucus process in 1973 and later extended it to local governments. 

“The goal was: how can we quickly fill this seat to make sure that districts are represented during sessions?” Foughty said.

Fixes for the future?

Some lawmakers argue the process isn’t completely broken, but it does need to be revamped. 

In past legislative sessions, Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, has proposed outlawing the process of slating — making it illegal for parties to require a fee in order for candidates to compete to receive the party endorsement, voted on by PCs.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, has also tried to fix what he sees as a glaring problem: appointed PCs can vote for someone to fill a vacancy in a district that PC doesn’t live in.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Sen. Aaron Freeman listens to comments after speaking about a bill during the Indiana Senate session Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021 at the Indiana Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis. © Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar Sen. Aaron Freeman listens to comments after speaking about a bill during the Indiana Senate session Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021 at the Indiana Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis.

“If precinct committeemen that don't live in that district would go and try to vote in that district on election day, they're committing a felony,” Freeman said. “But yet we think it's okay that they can tell the people in that area who their candidates are.”

Those bills have gone nowhere.

Both parties benefit from limited restrictions, so the appetite on both sides of the aisle for reform is minimal, Freeman said.

“(County chairs) right now wield a ton of power,” Freeman said. “They get to appoint all of these vacancies, and they can appoint them with people that believe and think like they do it. And when you go and say okay well we're going to limit that and restrict you… it's I think human nature that people go, ‘Oh no this is awful.’”

But without any legislative changes, the cycle continues: In September, another Spartz got a start in politics. 

Dan Spartz, Victoria Spartz’s brother-in-law, was tapped to fill an empty Noblesville city council seat — by just five PCs.

One of the five: Natasha Spartz, Dan Spartz's own sister.

"She is a PC, she gets a vote," he said. "The election wasn't rigged and I don't think any party rules were broken."

IndyStar reporter John Tuohy contributed to this story. 

Call IndyStar reporter Amelia Pak-Harvey at 317-444-6175 or email her at apakharvey@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmeliaPakHarvey.

Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: 'Room for mischief': Inside the secretive process to fill vacant seats without elections

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