JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House members passed legislation Wednesday that would revise the procedures for filling openings in statewide elected offices and clear up a presidential primary schedule that threatened to create confusion in the national nomination process last year.
The election legislation, approved 115-45, was the first bill passed by a House chamber that now is controlled by a Republican supermajority. The bill now goes to the state Senate, where Republicans also hold a two-thirds majority.
Under the bill, Gov. Jay Nixon could appoint an acting officeholder to fill a midterm vacancy such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor or U.S. senator. The office then would appear on the statewide ballot during the next general election. Supporters said the bill would prohibit the acting officeholder from immediately running for that position to mitigate the advantages of incumbency.
Missouri law currently allows the governor to appoint a replacement such as secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor or U.S. senator. But there has been uncertainty about how to fill an opening for lieutenant governor. Clarifying that process has gained new importance with newly re-elected Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder among the candidates competing for the GOP nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who resigned from Congress on Tuesday.
If Kinder wins the southeastern Missouri congressional seat, Nixon has claimed the authority to appoint a replacement while citing history. House Speaker Tim Jones has said he believes a special election is required. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey has called the situation "unclear" but says he does not believe the governor can appoint the lieutenant governor.
The elections legislation is sponsored by Rep. Jason Smith, who also is seeking Emerson's seat in Congress. Smith, R-Salem, has sponsored similar legislation previously and said that requiring the election of statewide officials would "give the power back to the people of Missouri."
Missouri's most recent lieutenant governor vacancy occurred in 2000 when Democratic Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson became governor after the death of Mel Carnahan. After that year's election, Wilson appointed just-elected Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell to start his term early. Before that in 1969, Gov. Warren Hearnes appointed just-elected Lt. Gov. William S. Morris to serve the remainder of Thomas Eagleton's term. The appointment triggered a fight with the state Senate leader, who refused to recognize it and threatened to throw Morris out of the chamber if he came to preside.
Numerous House Democrats voted against the elections legislation Wednesday. Rep. Stacey Newman of St. Louis questioned the constitutionality of barring the appointed acting official from immediately running for the position.
In addition, the elections measure would push back Missouri's presidential primary from early February to early March. The change comes after there was significant controversy in the months before Missouri's 2012 presidential primary.
The national Republican Party had warned that states holding their contests too early would lose half their delegates to the party's national convention — a penalty intended to avoid a scramble among states to be near the front of the presidential nominating line. Missouri lawmakers sought to comply and delay the primary, but a bill that included the change was vetoed by Nixon for unrelated reasons. A second effort then bogged down during a contentious 2011 special legislative session.
Seeking to avoid the penalties, the Missouri Republican Central Committee opted to make the primary nonbinding and instead hold spring caucuses to allot delegates. However, state law still required the primary to be held. The nonbinding primary attracted few voters and was won by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
The legislation also would require that elections be closer for candidates to be entitled to a recount. Current law allows candidates who lose by less than 1 percentage point to ask for a recount. The margin would be lowered to 0.5 percent in a cost-saving move.
The bill also would require that elections be held within six months to fill vacancies in the state legislature.