Politics for architects, or how fewer elections can be good for democracy

This week the Senate narrowly approved a bill to change how several state officials get their jobs. Under SB622, the State Treasurer, Labor Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner, State Superintendent, and the three-member Corporation Commission would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate instead of being elected. Statewide elections would still be held for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, State Auditor and Inspector, and Attorney General.

If approved by the House, the measure will go before voters as a state question. The bill does not specify how soon it would go into effect after being approved by voters or what would happen to existing officeholders. It does eliminate term limits for the appointed positions (which were put in place only last year through SQ 747), so governors could choose to appoint officeholders across multiple administrations.

In some corners, the initial reaction was to label the bill a “Fallin power grab.” Unfortunately, we tend to approach most electoral reforms in the United States this way – too often viewing voting as the beginning and end of democratic participation, so that any attempt to limit direct elections is akin to cutting the public out of the decision.

Yet there’s a reason we operate under representative rather than direct democracy. Too many elections for offices that the average voter is not equipped to understand may actually reduce accountability of public officials. The most obvious example is elected judges. For many voters, the first time they see the names of prospective judges is when they pick up their ballot. The same is often true of down ballot offices like insurance commissioner or labor commissioner.

But it’s not because of apathy or ignorance. We have the good fortune in America to be able to care about other things. To quote a founding father (John Adams):

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Of course, students of porcelain deserve some say in how their government is run. So for those who only engage with politics in the voting booth, it’s important that voting not require expertise. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it, “Voters shouldn’t be made to feel like idiots when they step into the booth and are confronted with offices they’ve never heard of. Voters — as voters — shouldn’t be asked to put in hours sorting through their choices.”

Races with little public knowledge of the issues involved can also be more easily captured by special interests. For heads of regulatory agencies such as the insurance commission, sometimes only candidates supported by the industry they are tasked with regulating are able to raise enough money to win. Even for those who try to research the choices, little information may be available on more obscure races that go unreported in the media. That may be why Oklahoma’s track record on this position is not so great.

In the context of Oklahoma politics, the change comes at a good time. If state offices were split between parties, it would be more obviously a power play, since a governor of one party could overturn an elected officeholder from the other side. But with Republicans in every statewide office, this may go forward with bipartisan support. Next time the governor’s office changes hands, the new administration would be empowered to build a team more interested in working together for the best interest of the state than feuding over politics.

Voters will still decide who becomes governor, and public opinion will of course play a role in who the governor appoints and who the Senate is willing to confirm. Meanwhile, those who want to can easily find ways to engage in politics beyond voting. They might advocate for a particular issue or become involved within a political party or interest group. Others who just want to vote and get back to their lives will be presented with choices that are more accessible and appropriate to their level of knowledge.

Update:  For an update on this bill, see Where Are They Now? Bills we kept our eye on

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry joined OK Policy in January 2011. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

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