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The sanctity of elections

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If you care about our city, state and nation, you vote. Most likely, right now, you have a ballot on the kitchen table for the 2007 election unless you've sent it in already (the deadline is Tuesday).

This one was a breeze for El Paso County voters, without a single ballot issue for everyone to decide together. Area school districts have their separate matters, from filling board spots to a few funding measures. Smaller municipalities, such as Fountain and Manitou Springs, are choosing mayors and some councilmembers.

But nothing, not a single initiative, at the county or state levels. That made it an easy call for the cash-strapped county to conduct a mail election, though it's difficult to imagine the voter response will be satisfactory.

In fact, the most arousing election-related issue over the past month isn't even on the ballot. And that, in itself, tells us there's a problem.

We're talking, of course, about state Sen. Ron May cleverly stepping down with a year left in his final term, allowing the county's Republican leaders to appoint a replacement who then will have the advantage of being called "incumbent" in the 2008 election. It's so convenient for state Rep. Bill Cadman, who will soon be term-limited and happens to live in that district, to slide into May's seat for the next Legislature session. County Commissioner Douglas Bruce can replace Cadman, while yet another Republican, Amy Lathen, takes over for Bruce, since she conveniently had already announced her candidacy for 2008.

Nothing about that passes the smell test, as Cara DeGette discussed last week in her Public Eye column (csindy.com/gyrobase/content?oid=oid%3A21810). But let's face it: The way the system is set up, nothing is illegal about this smooth and crafty little game of sidestepping the voters. It might stink, and it might not be the intent of any law, but it's acceptable given the current standards.

The next step is simple. Immediately, in 2008, state lawmakers must do something about it, closing the loopholes and setting up a clear-cut method for dealing with such situations. Democrats control the state House and Senate as well as the governor's office, so the ball is in their court to develop a fair, bipartisan measure protecting all voters, regardless of party affiliation. It starts with checking to see how some other states handle replacing legislators, and going from there. But nothing will work unless there are consequences for any party trying to bend the rules.

Using the May-Cadman-Bruce-Lathen situation as a case study, let's start with one basic premise: All state legislators must be elected, not chosen. No exceptions.

First, the law should be changed so that whenever a vacancy occurs, an election must take place within 90 to 120 days. Second, any lawmaker deciding to resign must make that decision within the timing of regularly scheduled elections; otherwise, that legislator's political party will be responsible for the expense of any special election to determine a replacement. There could be exceptions: If a resignation is due to illness or death, taxpayers would foot the bill, as they do now.

Now, apply these rules to this case. It had been obvious for months that May was thinking of leaving. If he had announced in July, we could've had something very democratic: an election. With a resignation in October, May would leave his seat vacant until a special election, paid for by his political party, around January 2008. Same with filling Cadman's seat. The county could be different; any county should be able to make or modify its own rules.

It would not have to be a mail ballot. In some areas, an election day with voting locations would be cheaper.

Granted, we're talking about solidly Republican districts in this case, but the new law would apply to everyone. Never should a select committee of any party's leaders be able to determine who serves the people in the Legislature. What if, for instance, Democratic state Sen. John Morse were to take a position in Gov. Bill Ritter's cabinet? Democratic state Rep. Mike Merrifield could not be handpicked to fill Morse's seat, but would have to run in a special election to move into the other chamber.

That's how it should be, and it's up to the Legislature to fix the problem. As soon as possible.

routon@csindy.com

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