25 January 2010

Meaningless Elections

[David] Schleicher is an assistant professor at George Mason Law School and a rising star in the field of election law. Both pieces explore what he calls the “mismatch” problem—what happens when we ask voters to perform a constitutional role without the tools they need to do so. The first piece explains why local elections in the U.S. don’t do much to hold local officials accountable. The second piece explains why the European Parliament lacks “any semblance of democratic control” despite regular elections.

How is it possible to have elections without accountability? Schleicher isn’t making any of the by-now-familiar arguments about incumbents’ use of gerrymandering, campaign finance, and other election devices to keep their seats. Instead, he makes a far more provocative claim: election laws interact with the voters’ own shortcomings to produce elections that are, in Schleicher’s view, meaningless. . . .

[In local elections:] The problem is that we don’t have enough media or campaign spending in local elections to make local party brands meaningful.

From here.

I don't always agree with Schleicher's conclusions, but the problems he investigates are near and dear to my heart. I particularly agree with his analysis that a lack of information, rather than excessive campaigning, is a critical problem in many elections.

Who is closest to the people?

In particular, I am deeply skeptical of the conventional wisdom that local officials are more representative than top of the ticket officials because they are closer to the people. In general, in American politics, the conserve is true. More senior elected officials are closer to the people because more people participate in their elections and that participation is more informed, furthermore, they are more competent on average than more local officials.

At a given level of local government, there is a U curve. The largest political entities are closer to the people than smaller ones, because the media covers those races better. The very smallest political entities, low population towns, for example, tend to be closer to the people than those a little larger, because voters have personal knowledge of the candidates.

Partisanship in local elections

I mostly agree with him that it is appropriate to debunk the idea that "local elections are noncompetitive in the U.S. because local issues are non-ideological and thus can’t give rise to party politics." General purpose local governments routinely make ideological decisions, or at least, decisions that would be ideological if framed in that manner, like zoning decisions.

But, while local issues do raise ideological issues that could give rise to party politics, a significant share of local issues aren't partisan. For example, the budget issues faces by county commissioners, or the law enforcement discretion that a sheriff has do have the potential to raise partisan issues. But, by and large, the issues faces by a county surveyor, a coroner, or a county treasurer are ministerial, technocratic or otherwise inherently non-partisan. In these offices, competence, rather that ideology, is what matters.

In races where competence rather than ideology matters most, partisan affiliation is a poor filter for voters to use to make good decisions. Voters aren't great at making competence decisions prospectively, but aren't bad at throwing out grossly incompetent people, given a choice in a non-partisan election, something that partisan affiliations can confound. Manifestly corrupt candidate Tracy Baker's election as clerk and recorder in Arapahoe County on the Republican ticket in an overwhelmingly Republican area is a perfect example of how that can happen.

Schleicher also argues that one secret to better local government is to have different local parties than there are at the national level (a la Glendale, Colorado's Tea Party or the emerging trend in Colorado of school board elections with a pro-teacher's union and anti-teacher's union division), because local issues are different than state or federal issues.

In my view, this is one of the weaker parts of his analysis. It fails to adequately explain why many European local governments, organized on a partisan basis, manage to stay in step with national political parties to present a coherent multi-level political organization in a way that seems to be beyond the capacity of American local governments.

Instead, in my view, the disconnect between local government partisanship and national partisanship comes to a great extent from American electoral laws, mostly from the progressive era, that deliberately neutered political parties. He also doesn't adequately account for the fact that governmental entities themselves in the American context, where they are less partisan, are deliberately neutered in order to make them less ideological than they could be, in theory.

Finally, there is virtue in having elections even when they don't provide much ideological direction to the government's whom they purport to direct. Few elections are truly meaningless.

Elections have symbolic value, even when they are uncontested.

Elections also provide an arbiter of political contests, which is a function that has merit, even when the choice is effectively random. As a result, elected officials are able to act independently of each other, until most appointees who owe, at least symbolically, some loyalty to the person who appoints that official. This is one of the bigger virtues of non-partisan government in places where one party is dominant. Independent voices are more important than ideological guidance when everyone involved in politics believes the same things at the resolution of party identification. For example, in Denver, there are only one or two elected officials who aren't affiliated with the Democratic party, but allow elected officials to escape coordination with each other through a county Democratic party chairperson, so these elected officials instead speak with independent voices. Most local governments have populations that aren't very ideologically diverse. Indeed, this would hold true even if political parties were local rather than national brands.

And, elections have the potential to lead to political change, even when they usually don't, and that potential can change how elected officials act.


Michael Malak said...

Since local leaders often get elected later to state or national office, it is important to know their party.

Ever since the advent of the web, I don't see how anyone can claim a dearth of information -- perhaps a dearth of motivated voters, but not a dearth of information.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

There is a difference between information acquired in fact about candidates and information that could be acquired candidates (or in general). A hallmark of modern political theory is that it is rational for a typical voter to be uninformed about candidates, since doing the research necessary to find what you need to know takes more time than any information acquired would be worth.

Also, getting information about candidates on the web turns out to be considerably more difficult, particularly in smaller jurisdictions than you would think. Not all candidates have web pages that provide meaningful information. Local newspapers will often have only a single story in a single issue on the topic and this may be hard to find on the web. Searching by name is difficult at times because it is often hard to tell if the named person revealed in a search is the same as the person you want to know more about. I've done it and it isn't always very fruitful (and often omits the most important information, like positions on key issues facing the locality).