Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fewer Elections? Yup

I tend to disagree with Matt Yglesias on lots of things when it comes to democracy and political reform, so I want to jump in and second him on something on which we mostly agree:
A big country like the United States is never going to have public officials who are as well-monitored as the ones in a place like Denmark. But we make the situation much, much worse by proliferating the quantity of elected officials to the point where most people have no idea what’s happening. How many people can name their state senator? How many people know what things their school board has authority over and what things their mayor decides? And this is all without considering the absolutely insane practice of electing judges.
I love elections, and I'm in favor of  meaningful government at multiple levels.  I definitely like the idea of transformative legislatures, fully separated from their corresponding executive branch, and I like the idea that individual legislators, and not just legislative parties, can be influential.

But I've never seen a good defense for separately electing members of the same executive branch, as is done (to greater or lesser extremes) in the states, but not in the federal government.  No one thinks that Barack Obama should have to work with an attorney general, an EPA administrator, or a Secretary of State elected independently of him, but governors have to do that all the time. I once lived in a county that held elections for auditor...I have no idea what makes a good auditor, and damned if I'm going to find out (and then learn whether the candidates have whatever that is) just so I can cast an informed vote.  Let the county executive (whatever the office is called) select the auditor, if he or she picks a crook (or a bigot of a sheriff, or an incompetent coroner), we'll be glad to bounce the executive in the next election.

If they put me in charge, I'd probably get limit the number of executive branch elected positions for each state and city government to one; get rid of judicial elections; get rid of initiatives; try to do something about consolidating some of the more obscure (but often important) governments -- the various boards and authorities -- and, last but not least, get rid of nonpartisan elections.  Americans would still have far more choices to make at the ballot box than citizens of other democracies, and still have lots of governments with confusing overlapping jurisdictions, both of which I consider features, not bugs.  But the reforms I listed would at least it would give voters a fighting chance to know what they're doing. 

By the way, according to a student I had last year, at least one town does actually elect a dog catcher.

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