Binary Man: Dump All Special Elections?
Binary Man has come to our planet to settle disputes, solve problems and make life better. Each week, he will confront an issue, weigh the arguments and present a verdict. Got an issue for him? Post it below or e-mail him.
In Fairfax County Tuesday, a whopping 100,000 or so voters out of a population of one million people took time out to vote in a special election to determine the top official in the largest jurisdiction in Virginia or the Washington area. That's a shoddy showing by any measure.
This off-cycle election was held because Gerry Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax board of supervisors since 2003, was elected to Congress in November, and someone has to fill his vacant seat. Binary Man's question today--spurred by pathetically low turnouts in special elections held because politicians ran for or won higher office and therefore abandoned the jobs to which they'd first been elected--is whether it's more fair and productive to hold special elections or allow a high-ranking elected official to appoint a temporary replacement for the departing officeholder.
In general, Binary Man favors democracy. Voting is good. Backroom maneuvering by politicians is not as good. Leaving decisions about who holds high public office to other elected officials is not healthy for anyone, even for those elected officials. Ask Rod Blagojevich, or New York governor David Paterson.
But even if we agree that elections beat cronyism any day, it's also true that elections are truly democratic events only if people actually participate in them, and in the case of the bonus votes known as special elections, that's open to question.
As a rule, special elections are a crapshoot. Compared to the turnout in regularly scheduled elections, hardly anybody bothers to vote. In Alexandria last month, in a special election held to replace Brian Moran, the state delegate who quit the legislature to run for governor in this June's Democratic primary, a sad total of 2,686 people bothered to vote. That's a turnout of 5.8 percent, compared to the also-not-impressive 12.6 percent who voted in Moran's last regular election, in 2007 (but note that Moran ran unopposed that year, depressing turnout substantially.)
The result last month pushed the state's two parties into a frenzy of rethinking about their strategies and chances in northern Virginia. The Democrat in that hugely Democratic district won by a hair--by 16 votes. As a result, Charniele Herring had to wait for an official recount before she could take her seat, and Virginia's Democratic and Republican hierarchies hustled to invest far more energy and money in this week's Fairfax special election than they would have had the Alexandria vote not been so odd.
In Fairfax, Tuesday's turnout was just more than half that of the last time Connolly ran for chairman in a regular election, in 2007, when 191,000 voters cast ballots.
Does it make sense to leave these decisions to the relative few who vote in special elections? The elitist in Binary Man likes the idea that these elections draw the people who are most politically aware and active, and who therefore might be expected to make smarter decisions about who should be in office. But Binary Man's populist side dismisses that thinking as so much rubbish, noting that the wisdom of the crowd is the basis for our system, and noting further that history's judgment on our best presidents aligns pretty nicely with the margins of victory and the considerable popularity of those particular men. (There are exceptions, of course, but nobody, not even the American electorate, is perfect. Richard Nixon won twice.)
More to the point, does it make sense to ask voters to haul themselves out to the polls just because some politician is smitten with Potomac fever and feels drawn to quit his job in local government so he can campaign full-time for Congress?
The concept--and the cost--of special elections offended Don Praisner, the Montgomery County Council member who died last week. Just before he died, Praisner--who himself was elected in a special election held after the death of his wife, Marilyn, last year--sent his colleagues a letter urging them not to waste the taxpayers' dollars by holding a special election to find his replacement:
"The cost of such an election could exceed $1.3 million at a time when our residents are struggling and County government is being forced to cut back on essential programs.
We also know from recent experience that few eligible voters cast ballots in these special elections. Turnout in the District 4 special election equaled less than six percent of the turnout in the recent presidential primary. In fairness to the voters of District 4 and the residents of the entire County, it would be better to appoint an individual who would serve out my term and who would agree not to run in the 2010 election. Such an arrangement would give potential candidates adequate time to share their vision for the county with the voters of District 4."
Alas, Praisner's last-ditch attempt to save his constituents a boatload of money was destined to fail. Council president Phil Andrews announced this week that a special election is mandated by county law and must be held. It will likely take place in May.
Binary Man, who yearns for a day when flexibility will once again hold an honored place in the human toolbox, shed a tear over that one.
It's not even close to a perfect solution to have governors appoint officials who are supposed to be elected. (In Virginia, there's a nice twist on that procedure; when a state official quits office while the legislature is in session, it's the legislators, not the governor, who pick the successor. That's what will happen now in the selection of a new Attorney General, as current AG Bob McDonnell, the Republican who is also running for governor this year, announced Tuesday that he's quitting to campaign full time.)
But the folks who do the appointing do have to pay some attention to the wishes of the voters, or at least they have to make choices that will pass the laugh and smell tests. (Again, ask ex-Gov. Blagojevich about that one.)
In his farewell note to his colleagues, Praisner wrote, "I want to leave you with this one thought: Norman Vincent Peale once said, 'No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities--always see them, for they're always there.'"
Binary Man sees possibility in those who would have the courage to step back from the reflexive belief that more democracy is always better. Voting is a precious and essential right, but a system that taxes the patience and interest level of its citizens toys dangerously with the power of the vote. Picking politicians who will fill important positions on the basis of elections held at odd times of year, with minimal publicity and brief, unnoticed campaigns, cannot possibly breed confidence and trust in the system. Let the elected officials pick temporary successors to those who resign early. If the appointments turn out to be busts, the voters will make that clear in the next regularly scheduled election.
This time, under these special circumstances, Binary Man votes for no vote.
What's your view?
By Marc Fisher |
February 3, 2009; 9:03 PM ET
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