Cindy Miles says she was denied her right to vote on the replacement of deceased Rep. Ron Howard, two days after she congratulated a Democratic opponent who beat her in a Wichita City Council race.
A Republican Party-run election to pick a new state representative from Wichita was clouded Friday when a precinct committeewoman alleged that she was barred from voting by order of the chairman of the Sedgwick County GOP.
Precinct Committeewoman Cindy Miles said Republican Chairman David Thorne blocked her out of the special party convention election Thursday night to replace the late Republican Rep. Ron Howard.
Thorne confirmed they had a confrontational conversation outside the party meeting but denied he withheld Miles’s credentials to vote, which would be a violation of state law.
The thrust of the dispute is over Miles congratulating a Democratic opponent online after losing Tuesday’s City Council election.
Miles said she’s planning to file complaints with the secretary of state and attorney general, demanding an investigation of the Thursday night vote that selected Cyndi Howerton to replace Howard.
“According to the law, I am elected by the people to carry forth a vote in those conventions,” Miles said. “They denied me that right to carry forth the vote of the people that I represent in Precinct 316.”
Under Kansas law, party committees fill vacancies in the state House when a member resigns or dies mid-term.
Howard died last month from an extended illness that kept him away from Topeka for much of this year’s legislative session.
Miles finished third in the primary election for Wichita City Council District 3 on Tuesday night.
Mike Hoheisel, a Democrat, and Jared Cerullo, a Republican, were one and two in the race and advanced to the November general election.
“I made a comment the other day on social media and said ‘Congratulations Mike Hoheisel, I expect that we’ll see you as the next D-3 (District 3) city councilperson,’ because that’s what I expect,” Miles said. “He got the most votes in the election.”
City Council elections are technically nonpartisan, but it’s a thin veneer. Both parties have invaded the local races to boost their favored candidates.
Thorne said he expressed disapproval to Miles that she addressed her congratulatory post to Hoheisel.
“I explained to Cindy Miles that it was inappropriate for a Republican precinct person to publicly support a Democrat and I asked her not to support a Democrat. And she left,” Thorne said.
Miles tells a very different story.
“I tried to check in with the ladies who were doing the check-in.” Miles said. “I said, ‘‘I’m here,’ and they said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘Can I have my nametag?’ and they said, ‘You need to talk to David.’”
She said they called Thorne over and he asked her to step outside.
“He told me that part of the duties of being a Republican precinct committee person was to always support Republican candidates and he felt like because I made that comment on social media that I was supporting a Democratic candidate,” Miles said. “And we kind of went back and forth with a long conversation, and he didn’t allow me to vote. He can’t legally do that and I’ll be filing a report with the secretary of state’s office and the attorney general’s office.”
LEGAL OR NOT?
Kelly Arnold, the Sedgwick County clerk and a former state Republican Party chairman, served as parliamentarian for the meeting.
He said if the question of Miles’ eligibility had come to him, he would have ruled that she had the right to be seated and to vote.
“I saw the conversation being held outside and (Thorne) came back in,” Arnold said. “It probably wasn’t much longer after that we were trying to get everybody rounded up to start the meeting . . . After that somebody texted me and said, ‘We think David told Cindy she couldn’t come in.’”
Arnold said precinct committee members have both party duties and state duties, each of which has its own set of rules..
If a member is found to violate Republican rules mandating party loyalty, they can be punished, but only within the party organization itself.
For example, they can be removed from leadership positions and denied the right to vote at party meetings, Arnold said.
However, when they’re called on to fill vacancies in state offices, precinct committee members are acting on behalf of the state and that process is spelled out in state law.
“Those rules state that a duly elected precinct committee person has the right to vote in a special convention and they cannot be barred or denied the right to vote,” he said.
NEXT STEPS HAZY
If the law was violated, it was unclear Friday what, if anything, can be done about it.
Technically, replacement lawmakers are appointed by the governor; in this case Laura Kelly, a Democrat.
But state law binds her to accept the choice of the precinct committee members and if she doesn’t, Howerton would take office automatically.
Secretary of State Scott Schwab regulates elections, but his spokeswoman Katie Koupal said, “The process to fill the remainder of an elected official’s term is a party function and our office has no oversight in the process.”
Attorney General Derek Schmidt prosecutes election crimes, but his office did not respond to messages seeking comment.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman indicated in a statement that he wouldn’t stand in the way of Howerton being seated in the chamber.
“The precinct members overwhelmingly elected Cyndi Howerton to represent the district,” the statement said. “We look forward to having her experience and perseverance in the Legislature.”
In Howerton’s case, overwhelmingly consisted of eight votes, six cast in person and two by proxy.
She was the only nominee.
Each precinct has the opportunity to elect two committee members and state law specifies that one be a man and the other a woman.
The number of precinct committee members varies from legislative district to district, based mostly on the number of people who choose to run for the unpaid positions.