Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Long Ballot

The question of the long ballot is back in the news today, with good posts by Jamelle Bouie and Matt Yglesias.

Regular readers know that I'm asking for people's voting stories -- post them here if you've already voted, or I'll do another thread on Tuesday.  It occurs to me though that I haven't actually restated my position recently, which is that while I like American tradition of holding lots and lots of elections, I don't like the progressive innovations of ballot measures (especially at the statewide level) and nonpartisan elections, and I agree with Bouie and Yglesias that judicial elections are just an all-around bad idea.  I'd also prefer a more unified executive branch in state governments, with states following the federal example of appointed (and confirmed) attorneys general and other department heads.  That would still leave Americans with quite a few more elections than most other democracies, but it would give voters a fighting chance of knowing what they're doing.

Also, I strongly agree that beyond a minimal number (such as that that voters in Britain have) there's no relationship at all between the number of elections and "democracy."  I suspect I'm happier with a significantly longer ballot than what Matt Yglesias would prefer in his ideal world, but, really, who thinks that non-partisan judicial elections are a good thing?


  1. Seems to me that if you don't have ballot initiatives, elections for judges, or elections for subordinate state executives, then there's not much left of the "American tradition of holding lots and lots of elections"!

    Especially if you also think that local executive government should be "unified" (i.e., vote for a mayor and a county commissioner, but let dog catchers and school boards be appointed).

  2. I dunno. I guess it depends on where you live, but in an average town, you'd have 3 federal offices (POTUS, Senator, Representative) 3 state-level offices (Governor, State Senator, State Rep.- although yes, a few states are unicameral) maybe 2 county-wide offices (Some kind of County Executive and a County Board Member) and 2 city-wide offices (Mayor and Alderman). That seems like quite a few elections already, and that's without getting into the fact that a lot of states could have "more unified" executive branches while still having multiple elections (I understand why IL wants a separate election for AG and Treasurer, but wonder if it's necessary for SOS and Comptroller), and that some other bodies- like school boards- don't really fit as executive branches, either.

  3. I think the State Attorney General and the State Secretary of State ought to be elected offices. We saw the various debacles at the State level, Ken Blackwell et al, in 2004 with Secs of State, who are charged to enforce voting laws, and this year where State AGs independently decide to to repeal federal law for their state. They need to be accountable to voters (even if voters generally do a poor job of choosing them) and not beholden to the state party machine and the governor.

    I wish the voters did more due diligence on the state- and local-level judiciary. But how are you going to recall a thoroughly corrupt or incompetent judge? What's the mechanism there?

    I contend that, as a general rule, being beholden to the voters has a deterrent effect on bad behavior. Of course, that doesn't apply to South Carolina.

    (PS @Matt, from an earlier thread, I take your point that the picture, with respect to California redistricting, looked a lot different two years ago when you wrote the article.)

  4. Oops. Wrong thread to follow up with Matt Jarvis. Sorry.

  5. Further to this:
    but, really, who thinks that non-partisan judicial elections are a good thing?

    I guess I do. See my observation above about the occasional necessity to remove a corrupt judge, and the deterrent effect of answering to the citizens of the jurisdiction, even if they are basically negligent in their duty of due diligence.

    I don't see how you can get past the "non-partisan" part. It isn't entirely informative to know whether the judge in question is a Democrat or Republican; their job basically is non-partisan. Their job is to make decisions related to legal issues and/or manage criminal trials. You can't tell if they are doing that competently by knowing their party, or who appointed them. I grant that I am talking the ideal world here.

    You can bet, however, that the Federalist Society and the extreme right wing of the GOP does their due diligence on vetting these judges at the local level. In fact, you can go to your local chapter of the "Christian" Coalition or Tea Party and see which judges they recommend. If one wants an easy shortcut to deciding whether to vote for a given judge, or school board member, one can draw upon the recommendations of your local "Christian" Coalition, and take it from there. One can search the archives of the local newspaper for misbehavior or scandal related to the judicial candidates as well. So there are ways for a citizen to do basic diligence on these offices.

    What would be a better method of appointing judges and holding them accountable for the job they do? Appointment and confirmation? By whom, at the local level? I don't think that would be such a great idea.

  6. James,

    OK, I asked! A couple things...first, what you're doing in researching judges is basically just figuring out whether they're Dems or Republicans. Where judges are partisan, you don't need to do that, which makes the choice a lot easier. Second, hardly anyone actually does that much research. Most people are guessing, basically.

    So: yup, I'd rather have state judges appointed and confirmed by pols who think they'd get in trouble if they pick someone corrupt.

  7. Y'know, I think I understand elections for Supreme Courts and even Appellate Courts. Those courts really DO make policy in a way similar to legislatures and executives.

    But at the district level (and a lot of the time in appellate courts) it's often a much more mechanical process of just applying set policy to cases in pretty rote ways. Yes, it's sometimes hard to see how that policy applies, and sometimes it even requires judgment calls, but for the most part, it's a much more...well, bureaucratic environment. And politicizing that environment, like rulings in an average case are just another policy choice, seems pretty dangerous to me.

    I mean, does anyone deny that ruling in favor of most defendants is both often unpopular and often necessary? Exposing a trial judge to the political winds too much makes that a pretty terrible choice. And even if judges make the right decision 90% of the time, the way the election distorts the judicial system for voters- if I just vote out the right set of judges, we'll finally get all these criminals off the street- seems to do a disservice to democracy.

    Of course, we need a way to remove bad judges, but I think there's a way without exposing all of them to an election that might turn on policy choices that are out of the judge's hands.

  8. When I lived in Illinois, my practice was always to vote "no" in judicial retention votes (that is, I voted to kick them all out). Why? I figured if we all did that it might increase pressure to move to an appointed judiciary. (I have a friend--African-American--from college who claimed to have voted for Wallace in 1968 in order to get the revolution here quicker, which struck me then as plausible, so my political instincts may not be the best.)

    Now I live in Indiana...about which the less said the better.


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