Saturday, August 2, 2008

Electing Council of State is the Right Thing to Do

With all due respect to my many good friends who may have a different view, in this day and age it is all the more vital that North Carolina continues to elect certain Council of State offices, if not all of them, as they are presently constituted.

Some well-intentioned opponents have stated that our Statewide ballot is too long. These same folks promote the concept of shortening the ballot; in other words, taking voters out of the equation and making most of the Council of State offices appointed rather than popularly elected. Of course, that conclusion does not appear to fit with the original premise prompting recent proposals – which was that it is a sad situation when such a low number of voters turned out for the 2008 runoff election for Labor Commissioner and at the cost of $5 million.

For the moment let's skip that original premise and go straight to what I perceive is the crux of my argument.

Why do I believe that we should maintain the election of our Council of State officers?

First, as I am wont to do, let's take a look back at history. Eighteenth century North Carolinians rejected the horrid treatment by the Royal governors from our pre-Revolutionary War days, and decided from that point forward, and moreso later in the 19th century, that never again would we allow a Governor to have unchecked, consolidated, unitary power. Tar Heel leaders then and through the present decided to apportion the authority of various State agencies among elected officials charged with leading their respective agency. Those officers include Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Attorney General, and Insurance Commissioner. In addition to serving as an agency head, these officers serve an additional Executive Branch role as members of the Council of State, deciding matters pertaining to State property and the like, and advising the Governor on various and sundry things. The theory – and the practice – was that democratization of State power would keep authority in check and protect the inalienable rights of our citizens. And it would preclude the rise of a dictatorial governor in the State. (Furthermore, one must also note how long it took our Governor to gain the right to veto legislation, again for the same historical reasons.) Tinkering with the current format would upset the balance among the three branches of government, and ultimately give any Governor too much authority. In my opinion, history bears out that North Carolina has done what was best for its people with the current formulation.

Second, why is appointment of all or most Council of State officials a bad idea? In addition to it being contrary to the direction of our State's Founding Fathers, appointment would mean one thing and one thing alone: an insider – a person wed and fed by the entities regulated by the agency – would be appointed. For example, if our Insurance Commissioner were an appointed position in North Carolina, then I'd bet my lunch from now until the Winter Olympics come to Fuquay-Varina that any future Governor would appoint – read "award" – an insurance industry insider with the post. Now don't get me wrong: Such an appointment is not illegal; it just smacks of cronyism and rewarding special interests who have most likely contributed heavily to the campaign of such hypothetical Governor. The power of special interests would be an overwhelming factor for any Governor as he or she considers whom to appoint to current Council of State positions. Appointment of these offices is a bad idea because it strips away the independence of these officials and almost certainly assures that in fact or in perception these officials will be beholden to some group other than the people at large.

Third, there is the issue of continuity. Think about it: Presently the people of North Carolina elect the Council of State and, if an official is doing a moderately good job, the voters re-elect that official. In the appointment process there will almost necessarily be a change in officials every four to eight years, and a change in the focus of the respective agency, depending upon if a Governor is re-elected or not. The great benefits we have had in continuity of leadership in the Department of Agriculture under the late Jim Graham, or in the Department of Insurance under Jim Long, or in the Secretary of State's office under Elaine Marshall, would never be. Making these offices appointed also means that a Governor could fire them at will, even if that officer is doing a great job and perhaps pointing out waste, fraud or errors in that Governor's administration.

One corollary to the issue of continuity is this: If Council of State offices are appointed instead of elected, and their tenure might be six months to eight years only (if that), then the unelected Department staff becomes all the more powerful. That would appear anathema to a representative democracy where we prefer having officials whom are accountable at the ballot box.

And even if you do have continuity in these offices among one or more Governors, do you think these officials – if appointed – would be free and independent to criticize another Department or the Governor's own administration, even if there is potential wrongdoing? Human nature is that appointed officials in this hypothetical scenario will be less likely to bite the hand that feeds them.

Fourth, would not conversion of these offices from elected posts to purely appointed posts essentially mean that the State is afraid of and not trusting of the people, and their power at the ballot box?

Fifth, some commentators have time and again stated that Tar Heel voters allegedly do not know enough about candidates to vote intelligently for these offices and, accordingly, the people should then have taken away from them the power to choose the holders of these offices. No matter how many voters do or do not turn out at the polls, or how many fail to vote further down the ballot in a given election, without question today's voters have much greater access to information about every candidate and the jurisdiction of the respective offices than ever before. We should not excise - we should not remove - the right to vote for these leaders just because some voters – even many of them – fail to use available resources to research the backgrounds and platforms of the respective candidates. Should we contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy by declaring that voters are dumb when, in fact, a large number are, at worst, either lazy or too busy with their lives and trying to make ends meet instead of studying up on candidates appearing on their ballot? Clearly I posit that the answer is "no." I respectfully contend that every voter should consider it her civic obligation to prepare before voting.

Now let's zero in for the moment on the office of Insurance Commissioner as part of this conversation.

Because every person, every family, every business, and every government is affected by the question of, the presence of, or the lack of insurance, as well as affordability of insurance, the ability to elect the Insurance Commissioner is all the more vital versus mere appointment.

In 2008, and for the foreseeable future, the Insurance Commissioner will conduct hearings that determine the ultimate maximum rate for automobile insurance for North Carolina drivers. The same Commissioner will necessarily be involved with the effort to address homeowners insurance on the coast, both its affordability and the presence of a competitive market. The Commissioner will also have an actual and a bully pulpit role on the question of health insurance. Do we truly want an UNELECTED official who is NOT independent of special interests serving as Insurance Commissioner as these duties are discharged? Is not it in our best interests to have an Insurance Commissioner that is behold to no one but the voters – the people – of North Carolina?

Again examining the question, in North Carolina any effort to appoint the Insurance Commissioner is dangerous, and would have many more negative effects for people and businesses alike than positive ones, most notably the almost certainty of higher insurance rates. Why might an appointed Insurance Commissioner allow rates to increase faster and/or higher? Because in that scenario she or he would not be checked by the voters but will act with carte blanche by responding to the special interests so long as it is within existing law.

So, in returning to the original problem, it would be the proverbial "throwing away the baby with the bathwater" if the proposed remedy to meager participation in runoff elections is removal of elections from the process. In North Carolina we believe in a strong representative democracy and in decentralized authority. To believe otherwise is to distrust the people and I, for one, trust an enlightened electorate every day over backroom appointments at the urging of special interests..

By promoting the abolition of elections for most Council of State offices, have not those persons fallen for what the special interests actually want – that is, hand-picked officials not beholden to the people?

In my opinion, the remedy is for the news media to join with me and countless non-profit organizations whose mission is voter education.

Let's promote both civic participation at the polls and representative democracy, and not consolidation of power in one elected office by abolishing election of Council of State officials. Voter education and voter empowerment would be the right way – the Carolina way, the Jeffersonian way, and the American way – to solve the problem at hand. In this instance, electing our Council of State must remain.

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Chris Telesca said...

I agree that we should continue to elect these Council of State offices. But I do not agree with other people - including some of those non-profit education and election reform groups - that Instant Runoff Voting is the cure for those low-turnout races.

We need to do more and better voter education. Here in Wake County we have make more of an effort to educate people about how to take out their trash and recycling than about how to register and vote.

Until we can increase both voter turnout and decrease the residual ballot rates (the rate of under and over votes), it would be a serious mistake to ask voters who don't vote for president separately and who don't make a single choice for some of the down ballot races to rank more than one candidate on a ballot.

On top of that, IRV does cost more than having rarely used runoff elections when you factor in the costs of software, hardware, training for election administrators and poll workers, and voter education that must be on-going. And IRV doesn't always ensure a majority win in a single election - so even after you have paid for all that extra IRV expense you might still need to have a runoff election. Like they should have done in Cary after no one got 1512 or more votes out of the 3022 votes cast in the first round after all the IRV ballots were exhausted. That no traditional runoff was held is something that should be investigated before we use IRV anywhere else in our state!

While our state has done no significant study of IRV costs, other states have. Maryland considered and rejected IRV three times - mainly because it cost more than traditional elections. Multiplying MD's costs per registered voters to our state's nearly 6 million registered voters, we'd end up spending close to $20 million to implement IRV and between $2.8 to $4 million for voter education each year. Compare that to the cost of a statewide runoff at $4 million once every four years. Traditional runoffs are a bargain!

But certainly there are ways that we could spare our state and counties the expense of a low-turnout runoff election for statewide races and still keep electing Council of State officers. One way would be to lower the thresholds for those seats. In the San Francisco IRV elections held since 2004, the eventual IRV winner was the same person who had the highest number of votes in the first round.

Another choice would be to make the thresholds slide based on the number of candidates running for them before the election.

But with a large number of voting-age adults in NC having literacy issues that affect their turnout at the polls, it would be a mistake to place more demands on them before we can remedy the problems they have with voting RIGHT NOW.

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