The Economist ran a special report last week about the dysfunctional mess that is California’s finances. Along with providing their outsider’s perspective on the out of whack initiative process and legislative supermajority rules that make the Senate filibuster look sane, the Economist considered, with gentle British mockery, the multitude of elected state officials. Californians vote for nine statewide offices, including such politically explosive positions as Insurance Commissioner and the Board of Equalization. With so many elected officials looking to ensure their own reelection, California policy is pulled in a dozen different directions and voters have no idea whom to hold accountable.
This problem isn’t restricted to California, and it isn’t even peculiar to state government. It’s the byproduct of a different era of machine politicians and industry-controlled elections, when progressive reformers sought a way to return power to the people. Today, though, there are just too many offices for non-obsessives to track. Try to name every official you could have voted for in the last 4 years. You probably thought of at least the President and your governor, mayor, senator(s) and congressperson. What about the representative to your state’s lower house? (That’s a trick question for the Nebraskans among you!) Lieutenant Governor? State Comptroller? County Legislator?
Bemoaning the collapse of civic virtue or America’s public education as the root cause of voter apathy is appealing, but given the massive number of elected officials, the time and effort required to evaluate their policies once elected and the generally closed door nature of state and municipal politics, a degree from the Kennedy School might be a prerequisite to tracking them all. The Comptroller has a complicated job requiring substantial specialized expertise. There’s no way for someone without a background in public finance to know the difference between a good one and a bad one. The interplay between these different elected officials is even harder to follow: it’s difficult to tell whether the state’s shoddy school finances are a result of the governor, the comptroller, the superintendent of schools or the legislature. Every elected official lowers accountability for all the rest.
Even more concerning, from a progressive perspective, are the people who do have the resources to pay attention to these minor races: vested interests. Local developers know exactly how each city councilperson voted on every land use and economic development issue. Mining companies in West Virginia know exactly which legislators opposed a mine safety bill. These groups will rationally protect their self-interest by heavily supporting candidates who vote for them on the issues they care about. Most voters suffer only minor costs from such special interest friendly policies; not enough to make paying attentionworthwhile. Every elected official creates another place for money to flow into the system and further divides voter’s attention.
The answer is simple: have fewer elections. At each level of government, voters should select only one member of the executive branch: the chief. If the point of electing the Attorney General is so that he is independent of the governor, then let the state legislature pick him or simply make it impossible for the governor to remove him after appointment. This reform will mostly have an effect on the state level, but many municipalities elect their district attorney or sheriff.
A more controversial proposal would be eliminating a few levels of government. While going after states is probably a bridge too far, some states have begun to make headway eliminating unnecessary municipal government. Taking it one step further and merging entire municipalities into the county could not only eliminate elected officials, but also save millions in administrative costs. Even more out there, but possibly even more beneficial, would be making state legislatures or even Congress unicameral. Ideally, the idea is to get the elected officials down to about a half dozen, so that voters can easily follow the performance of everyone they vote for, and know who to blame when things go wrong.