Sunday, November 28, 2010

Too many elected offices?

This report by the Denver Post suggests some impropriety at the Adams County Assessor's office, noting that some of Assessor Gil Reyes' biggest campaign backers received highly favorable assessments of their properties.  While the article does a good job documenting the declining property tax burdens of some of Reyes' donors, it doesn't really make the case that something improper or illegal is occurring.  To do that, the authors would really need to show that those who did not donate to Reyes were having a harder time getting favorable assessments than those who did.

That said, this does raise the key question of whether we need elected assessors -- or secretaries of state, or sheriffs, or judges, etc. --- at all.  Does the desire for reelection assure accountability in such races, or does it create problematic conflicts of interest with little added democratic value?  I have no idea, of course, but it would be nice to know whether elected assessors actually do their jobs better than those appointed by county commissioners.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Count me on the side of those favoring a shorter ballot. As a Denverite, of course, our only elected officials are the Mayor, City Council, Assessor and Clerk and Recorder (the last a recent creation in lieu of an election commission that I opposed and would have preferred had been limited to elections if the post was to exist at all).

The list of really disasterous jobs by local elected officials with specialized duties is not short (like an elected coroner in Montrose County, an EMT who just barely won the Republican primary, who declared an organ donation to be murder by the doctor based on something he read on the Internet, like Tracy Baker the clerk and recorder in Arapahoe County who was elected notwithstanding nepotism and sexually harassment that was publicly known). We've also had many very bad Secretaries of State in recent memory (one was so bad that the legislature stripped him of his authority to convert UCC records to electronic form).

Elected justices of the peace in New York State are a constant source of impropriety and abuse of office.

Alas, voters who go to the polls rarely want to reduce their own power, so efforts to shorten the ballot usually fail.

The problem is not just choosing less than ideal candidates, it is also complicating the electoral process in a way that discourages voter participation by people who feel that they aren't sufficiently informed. Countries with high voter turnout also generally have simple ballots.

T.R. Donoghue said...

This has been a hobby horse for Yglesias as well. I am on the side of Andrew and Yglesias, though I'd like to see some evidence that supports my gut instinct that the long ballot is bad for truly responsive and accountable government.

Seth Masket said...

I have my doubts that very long ballots hurt turnout. They create significant rolloff -- a lot of people who vote for president or governor don't stick around to vote for assessor or coroner -- but I don't think it's hurting the votes for president in the first place.

Ballot rolloff itself creates a bit of a problem in that the electorate who showed up for the top of the ballot looks very different demographically and politically from the one that sticks it out to the end of the ballot. Those who end up voting for assessor or coroner are likely wealthier and more educated and quite possibly have very different priorities for the government.

Most voters have very little idea who the down-ballot officeholders are or what they're supposed to do. Conversely, voters have a pretty good idea how to assign accountability for governors or mayors. If the governors or mayors appointed people to these other positions, voters would hold the governors or mayors accountable for the behavior of the appointees. This incentivizes the governors and mayors to not appoint idiots in the first place.

Neither system is ideal, of course, but I tend to think that accountability and responsiveness are greater when you have fewer elected offices and more appointees.

Justin M Ross said...

FWIW, here is one of (my) papers, which demonstrates that appointed assessors do not underassess property as much as their elected counterparts:

As such, I read this story with delight!

Seth Masket said...

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