RALEIGH – Among the civil rights afforded to citizens of our Republic by our federal and state constitutions, few are as precious as the right to participate in elections. For centuries, far too many residents of our Republic were denied this right based on their skin color, their chromosomes, or their wealth. Few stains on our history are as deep or embarrassing.
Still, the right to vote is a civil right. That is, it is not one of the natural rights with which all human beings are endowed by their Creator. It is a right created by the institution of government, as a necessary means of carrying out the basic functions of that government.
And while any representative, constitutional government must protect the equal rights of citizens to elect public officeholders, it need not require that every public office be elected. Indeed, that would be impractical and preposterous – which, as it happens, are good adjectives with which to describe North Carolina’s system of electing statewide executive and judicial officers.
Every two years, the state asks millions of voters to choose among candidates for North Carolina’s supreme court and court of appeals. The vast majority of voters have no personal experience with the lawyers or judges in question. They have no significant information about the candidates’ qualifications and legal philosophies. Thanks to past Democratic legislators and governors, voters aren’t even told which political parties the candidates belong to, a handy piece of information that proved inconvenient when voters kept opting for Republican judges.
As a friend of mine put it recently:
“You can spend millions of dollars and 18 months’ worth of your time to shift maybe 2 percent of the vote,” said Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist at the General Assembly who ran appellate court campaigns in the 1990s for Republican Bob Orr. “That could be enough but ... we might as well say 'rock, paper, scissors' and save a lot of money.”
Furthermore, every four years the state asks millions of voters to elect not just North Carolina’s governor but also a lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, secretary of state, state auditor, and heads of agencies devoted to issues involving education, insurance regulation, agriculture, and workplace safety. With the exception of the governor and perhaps a couple of other offices, voters have little personal experience with or knowledge of the candidates or state agencies in question.
So what do voters do? Some make their selection based on a vague sense that they might recognize one of the names on the ballot. Some make their selection by guessing that one of the names indicates a female candidate and preferring that candidate given no other relevant data. In executive-branch elections, at least, many voters make their selection based on party affiliation, concluding (reasonably) that in choosing among unknown candidates, party may be a useful indicator of how a state official would approach the job.
None of these decision rules ought to make North Carolinians the least bit confident about the outcomes of down-ballot elections.
In the original federal system, the framers of the Constitution opted for a mix of strategies for selecting public officials. Members of the U.S. House were to be selected through direct popular election. Members of the U.S. Senate were to be selected by states through an indirect but representative process of legislative elections. The president was to be selected indirectly by an Electoral College representing the general preferences of the voting public of the various states. And federal judges were to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
At the state level, mixed constitutions are also the norm – but the details of the mixture vary across the country. In North Carolina, we’ve long had a system that leaned heavily on the side of popular election of public officials while simultaneously limiting the ability of citizens to place issues on state and local ballots for voters to settle via referendum. I don’t think our system serves North Carolina well, if ever it did.
I’d suggest the following revisions:
• Shorten North Carolina’s ballot and strengthen accountability for results by giving an elected governor the power to appoint all executive-branch officers except an independent state auditor and, perhaps, an independent attorney general.
• If we want to shorten the ballot still further, give the governor the power to appoint candidates for supreme court and court of appeals, subject either to legislative confirmation or subsequent retention elections, or both.
• If we want to retain judicial election, then restore partisan affiliation to the ballot so that voters have something to go on other than name recognition and guesswork.
• Give North Carolinians the power of initiative, allowing them to place issues on the ballot for statewide vote without the approval of the legislature – but only if they can secure a large number of signatures to ensure that the ballot isn’t littered with trivial and confusing propositions.
If you don’t agree with my proposals, perhaps we can still agree that the current system is broken and ridiculous. What’s your solution?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.