It’s an election day in Massachusetts but odds are you’re not seeing many “I voted” stickers around your office. One reason turnout is expected to fall below 10 percent is that the ballot is stuffed with unfamiliar names and little-known races.
Citizens are being asked to decide who should be county sheriff, who should sit on the governor’s council, even who should run the register of deeds office.
It’s hard to imagine that even the most news-hungry and informed Bay Staters have strong opinions about races with such attenuated political consequences.
While there are also a handful of high-profile contests, those who show up for the headline races will also be asked to vote on the undercard. That’s not necessarily a good thing for governance in Massachusetts.
Elections are sometimes essential, but not always
The great virtue of democratic elections is that they help divided communities make difficult political decisions in a way that’s considered fair, transparent, and binding.
But today’s primary ballots are full of races with virtually no political import. What contentious issue lies behind the race to be register of deeds? It’s simply a question of who’s more competent to manage state records.
Even county sheriff isn’t really a political position, especially in a state like Massachusetts where county governance is virtually nonexistent. After all, we don’t elect police commissioners, who are much more powerful figures in the world of criminal justice.
If we didn’t elect these officials, what then?
The governor could simply appoint people to fill these posts.
In the case of sheriffs, that would require a break not only with Massachusetts tradition but with standard practice all across the country. Still, “everyone else is doing it” isn’t always the best defense.
For register of deeds, appointment makes even more sense, since it’s a non-political, administrative job.
And while it’s true that moving to an appointment system would take power out of the hands of voters, part of the rationale for representative democracy is that voters pick the major decision-makers — and then we let them make decisions.
Already, the governor gets to appoint a host of officials with much more power, like the secretaries of education and transportation.
More to the point, if the governor abuses his appointment powers to help friends or create cushy sinecures for political allies, voters can oust him at the next gubernatorial election.
How about the governor’s council?
This is another of the confounding downballot races in today’s Massachusetts primary, with voters selecting representatives for a body whose exact role is worthy of an extra-point question on a civics test.
The governor’s council is a holdover from colonial times, a check on the governor’s fairly-wide power to make judicial appointments and issue pardons.
There are other ways to accomplish this goal, however — without involving voters.
Council members could be chosen directly by the legislature. Or we could just eliminate the governor’s council, handing its limited power to provide “advice and consent” directly to the Senate.
Excess voting is a problem all over the country
Massachusetts is hardly the only state where voters decide some unusual races.
In Maryland, citizens choose the county clerk as well as the “register of wills.”
In Alabama, they decide who should be agricultural commissioner.
In Georgia, voters pick the coroner.
And election-day ballots in Texas can include races for Commissioner of the General Land Office and Railroad Commissioner.
Is this just a nuisance, or a deep democratic problem?
It’s possible that with the right combination of low turnout and uninformed voters, a dangerously incompetent candidate could end up winning the election for sheriff, but the odds are fairly remote.
Still, it seems like a tremendous waste of energy and resources, this practice of mounting campaigns to see who will run the registry of deeds — not to mention the burden for voters asked to take time from work and head to the polls.
Elections are for resolving difficult, political issues, and they work best if voters can choose among clear, distinct options.
When the ballot is full of names you’ve never heard before, each with a viewpoint that is either unknown or irrelevant, something has gone wrong.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz