Management & Labor

Electoral Overload

Abolishing elected treasurers, auditors and commissioners would probably do more good than harm.
by | August 2001

The most ridiculous elective office in American state government is about to pass out of existence.

As the result of a law that cleared the legislature in June, Louisiana voters will no longer be asked to vote every four years on who should be entrusted with the job of maintaining the state's voting machines. When the current term is over, at the beginning of 2004, this awesome responsibility will be given to a civil servant working under the Secretary of State.

That's actually where it resided until the late 1950s, when Governor Earl K. Long, embroiled in a feud with then-Secretary of State Wade O. Martin, decided to teach Martin a lesson by taking his jurisdiction away. Long created a position called Custodian of Voting Machines and made it an official state office with a comfortable salary and a four- year term.

Reformers, embarrassed by the triviality of the title, managed in the 1970s to change the name to Commissioner of Elections. But they didn't change the duties much: Louisiana's citizens continued to go to the polls every four years to pick a constitutional officer whose job consisted largely of buying and repairing machinery and remembering to deliver it to the right polling place when it was needed.

It was not only a cushy job, it was also the personal possession of a single family. When Long created the post, he promoted the candidacy of a loyal crony, Douglas Fowler, who held it from 1960 until his retirement in 1979. Then Fowler's son, Jerry, a former lineman for the Houston Oilers, took over and won reelection four times.

The odds are the job would still be a Fowler fiefdom if the second occupant of the office hadn't been caught looting the till in 1999. A legislative auditor found that Jerry Fowler had been taking kickbacks on the purchase of voting machines and occasionally paying friends of his to haul them around even when there was no election scheduled. Fowler was indicted on eight counts of malfeasance in office, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to prison for five years.

In between, he was defeated for reelection by a challenger who said she would have no objection if the office were simply abolished. A state legislator who had been introducing bills to abolish it for years finally succeeded in getting one through, and Governor Mike Foster signed it into law June 25. So it's virtually a done deal that the current commissioner, Suzanne Haik Terrell, will be the last.

No other state has a political culture remotely resembling Louisiana's, so no other state faces a challenge anything like the one that confronted the Louisiana legislature in mustering the political support to undo Earl Long's office-creating constitutional mischief. But there are some lessons in this bizarre tale for state governments just about anywhere.

One is that mixing up politics and election administration is a dangerous risk to take at any level of government. Florida proved that last year; Louisiana has proved it more than once. Even if Jerry Fowler had been as honest as George Washington, he was still a partisan Democrat who ran for office on a partisan ticket and involved himself in the campaigns of other politicians whose votes he was supposed to count. Republicans still insist that in 1996, when a U.S. Senate election depended on the tabulation of a final few hundred votes, Fowler's employees tampered with the result by breaking the seals on the voting machines. Nobody has ever proved that. But the whole unpleasant business was the direct result of partisan management of the election process--whether you call the person in charge a custodian, a commissioner, or any other name.

It won't happen anymore in Louisiana. Attached to the new law eliminating the post of election commissioner/voting machine custodian is a provision barring any official in charge of future election management from raising political funds, assisting any candidate, or participating in party activities of any kind. Secretaries of State will remain elected officeholders, but they will be able to campaign only for themselves. This will be, in a sense, the positive legacy of both Jerry Fowler and Katherine Harris.

An even better legacy would be a nationwide reexamination of all the other offices in states throughout the country that are filled on a partisan elective basis and don't need to be. The vast majority of states have elected lieutenant governors and attorneys general, and a good case can be made for that. One of these is normally second in line to the governorship, and the other is the state's chief legal officer. Probably the voters are entitled to some say in who holds those offices.

But voters also choose agriculture commissioners in 12 states, education commissioners or superintendents in 14, and insurance commissioners in 11. In Louisiana, voters elect not only a governor and secretary of state but also a lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, and commissioners of insurance and agriculture. The insurance job, another elected post created by Earl Long to punish his rival, Wade Martin, has generated even more embarrassment than the voting-machine job. Three commissioners in a row were sentenced to prison.

Not that there's any consistent relationship between the number of constitutional executive officers a state elects and the quality of the government it gets. North Dakota elects more of them than any state in the country--a dozen, not counting the governor--and it has a long history of honest and competent leadership. It is the only state that has an elected tax commissioner (arguably just the sort of position that should be divorced from politics), but the tax commissioner's office has been a springboard to leadership, producing both current U.S. senators and the most recent nominee for governor. Maine, on the other hand, has the smallest possible number of constitutional officers--only the governor is chosen by the voters-- and, it too, has a history of being relatively well governed.

But structure does make a difference. A state that elects a large slate of executive branch officials is opting for a system of diffused power, multiple checks and balances, and numerous restrictions on the governor's ability to create a program and implement it. A state that elects only the governor often is opting to place its entire executive branch more or less under his personal control.

It's possible to make intelligent arguments either way. What seems beyond dispute is that the stated rationale for creating multiple offices--the need to give voters more of a say in the way they are governed--doesn't really hold up. The elected insurance commissioners and agriculture commissioners that still serve in capitols around the country are mostly a legacy of Progressive-era reforms meant to take power out of the hands of political bosses and promote direct democracy.

But let's face it: Not one voter in a thousand has any clear idea of the kind of job his auditor or insurance commissioner is actually doing. Placing these offices on an election ballot doesn't empower the electorate--it empowers the regulated interests that finance the campaigns.

State Representative Chuck McMains, who has been trying unsuccessfully to abolish Louisiana's elected insurance commissioner post for years, puts it this way: "You've got a statewide office that takes a million dollars to run for, and the only place somebody can go for campaign funds is to the people they regulate or the people they do favors for. It's not an appropriate position that should be elected." He's right.

Admittedly, doing away with elected treasurers and auditors and commissioners does run the risk of giving the governor more authority than some will feel appropriate. But given the realities of our current political system, it's a choice that for many states probably carries with it more good than harm.

New Jersey is a good object lesson. As everybody knows, it's a state with an endemic political-corruption problem, one where the past few decades have witnessed the indictment and conviction of mayors, legislators and other elected officials in both parties. But the state executive branch, all of whose leaders are appointed by the governor rather than elected, has been by comparison a model of honest administration. That may not be entirely because the executives don't have to run for office, but somehow I doubt that it's a coincidence.

Of course, a system such as the one in New Jersey generates its own dilemmas. Early this year, when Governor Christine Todd Whitman resigned to join the president's cabinet, there was no statewide elected official who could take her place. The succession devolved on Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, who had to serve as a legislative leader and as acting governor at the same time, creating an obvious separation-of-powers problem.

Still, if states are moving in any direction, it is toward the New Jersey model, not the North Dakota model. They are eliminating superfluous constitutional offices, not creating new ones.

Florida is one of those. The statewide referendum that abolished the Secretary of State's position also did away with the elected education commissioner and combined two elected financial posts, reducing the number of independent constitutional offices to three. There are those who say that will give too much power to Governor Jeb Bush, but most voters seem to go along with the argument Bush himself made when the issue was on the ballot in 1998: "Most people in this state believe the governor is accountable for all this anyway, and he might as well get the power to be able to carry out what people expect him to do."

As with everything in government, there's no perfect system. Some states no doubt have the right number of elective offices to make things function smoothly. Some could use one or two more. But most would probably be better off getting rid of some of the constitutional baggage they have grown accustomed to carrying around. Louisiana is definitely one of those.

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