Voter Fatigue: Why Brenda from Bristol wouldn’t complain if she knew what Americans have to put up with.

by Harry on August 11, 2018

Someone on Westminster Hour this week, discussing the idea of a people’s vote, mentioned the poor British voter who won’t be grateful to be drawn back to the polls for yet another vote. Brenda from Bristol was cited.
[UPDATE: in the first comment below Russell Arben Fox points us to this much better piece by the late Anthony King which says the same things and much more…]

Well, they should try living here. I voted this week in the primaries. I voted in only three of the races—Governor, State Assembly, and (because my wife was hovering over me and pressed the button herself), Lieutenant Governor (whatever that is—and I should add that I spelled it wrong 7 different ways before finally looking it up). But there were plenty more races, some uncontested (I don’t vote in uncontested races, unless I feel strongly negative about the candidate, in which case I write in the name of my most distinguished former colleague). Here’s a list of the other races:

Attorney General
Secretary of State
State Treasurer
US Senator
US Congress
County Sheriff
County Clark of Circuit Court

I have to vote again in November in the general election.

Every year we have one or two school board elections—primary, and general (in the spring—there are 4 elections per year in even years, and two a year in odd years).

Here’s a selection of other positions for which there is a primary, and a general, election (some are in the spring, others in the fall):

County Excutive
County Board member
City Council membet
School Board member (2-3 per year, all at large, which ensures very limited ideological diversity, but not, I’m afraid, high levels of expertise either about education or about politics).
State Supreme Court
District Attorney
Some other judgeships
Some other sheriff-like positions
Some others that I can’t be bothered to look up, because if you haven’t got the point by now they won’t help.

Just to make it more difficult to make a reasonable judgment, more than half the races above are ‘non-partisan’ in my State. “Non-partisan” does not, of course, mean non-partisan; what it means is that no party affiliation can be recognised on the ballot paper itself, so that voters cannot use that piece of information to help them make their choice. Voters are, if they are responsible, expected to find out about every single candidate in all these races. In non-partisan primaries, the two top candidates go forward to a general election, unless one candidate got a majority of votes, in which case that candidate is the outright winner, despite the fact that voting turnout in primaries is known to be very low.

And then there’s the point that Seth Ackerman makes in the quotation contained in Corey’s previous post:

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules.

Parties can’t have official candidates at all in ‘non-partisan’ races. In ‘partisan’ races the State organizes the nomination process and effectively opens it up to non-party members—I can contribute to the candidate selection in whichever party I choose, despite not being a member of any of them. This is important because it makes the nomination process readily influenced by money. What prompted this post is that, in the primary for Governor, government control of the nomination process is particularly vicious this time around. 8 candidates are on the Democratic primary ballot. A responsible voter will have tried to figure out which of the 8 has the best function of being able to beat the incumbent and being able to be a good Governor. I’m reasonably attentive to politics in my state—surely more so than most voters?: I can rule out 2 or 3, and have a preference among the others, but it is not a carefully reasoned preference because I have a job, a family, and sometimes like to enjoy some leisure. Oh, and there are hundreds of other races for me to learn about. If the Democratic Party were a normal political party that got to select its own candidates, it would institute a Borda Count, in which I would put my (unreasoned) preference top, and leave off the three who definitely shouldn’t be the candidate. If I were a member of the party, that is: as a non-member, I wouldn’t, in fact, participate.

But I’d still have a large number of elections to vote in for which I can’t gather relevant evidence. Brenda from Bristol should count herself lucky if she gets a people’s vote.



Russell Arben Fox 08.11.18 at 6:18 pm

More than 20 years old, and still the best thing I’ve read on the, if you think about it, obvious, yet rarely discussed, mutually reinforcing problems of voter fatigue and democratic illegitimacy:


johne 08.11.18 at 7:19 pm

Harry doesn’t mention the bond measures, resolutions and referendums that are usually on the general ballot. When I lived in the UK in the 80’s, the BBC’s US correspondent did a piece on the typical US ballot, and used as an example one from his jurisdiction. It had a bond measure whose text included the exact location and construction specifications of the sidewalk that would be built, if voters allowed their city to sell the bond that would finance the project, and levy the taxes to pay it off. (Typically, such a ballot will estimate the tax involved — “If approved, the average Ourtown household is anticipated to pay an extra $1.50 in city taxes annually for ten years.”) The correspondent seemed to find it one of those foreign customs that is as amusing as it is difficult to credit.

Years afterward I read a book on American voting absenteeism (sorry, no citation), that found that Swiss ballots are similar — and claimed that the Swiss have similar low rates of voter participation. Growing up in the US, I’m used to the custom and merely consider it another part of civic responsibility (and no, I don’t necessarily vote for every judge, for example), but I took the book’s comparison more seriously when my Ecuadorian wife attained her US citizenship — only to begin to complain bitterly about the number of elections in which she was expected to vote!


Russell Arben Fox 08.11.18 at 7:29 pm

I didn’t know Anthony King had passed away–nor did I know that that wonderful old article of his was part of a whole book project. I’m going to have to get that book and read it. Once again, Crooked Timber teaches me something new. Thanks, Harry!


Collin Street 08.11.18 at 10:57 pm

Long thought about this that it’s all about adding veto points, in terms of outcomes at least if not in terms of legal frameworks. You want to change your local handling of stray dogs, it’s not enough to vote for the “love-for-puppies” candidates for county commissioner or whatever they’re called to get the by-laws changed, you also need to vote the right way for county chairman, dog-catching commander, police chief and municipal judge, so the laws aren’t just changed in text but also in enforcement.


Alex SL 08.11.18 at 11:13 pm

When I grew up in Germany, I considered it normal to have only three elections in four years: federal, state and local, always on Sundays, with party affiliation clearly marked in all cases, and that the parties decided internally who to nominate as candidates.

In those days older people around me said things to the effect of “those Americans, they have such low voter participation, it’s a shame”, but nobody ever mentioned that they have that many elections, and elections that confusing, and voting on Tuesdays. It all makes a lot of sense now.

Of course, as I tried to express in another thread here, there will be those who welcome electing every functionary and voting on everything directly because they see such a system as more democratic than a mostly representative democracy. And that is certainly a valid position, if one cares most about purity of administrative principle as opposed to actual voters’ engagement and identification with their democracies.


J-D 08.12.18 at 12:24 am

I know it has no relevance to the subject of your post, but I find myself unable to desist from pointing out that your title is a good example of the Redundant Headline ‘Why’. Try the experiment of reading the title with the word ‘Why’ deleted. No meaning is lost, is it? So what purpose is the inclusion of the word serving?


Leo Casey 08.12.18 at 2:08 am

In the United States, the law basically requires the Democrats and the Republicans to set up their internal structures the way that the government instructs them to. The government lays out the requirements of how they select their leaders and runs their internal nominee elections, and a host of other considerations. All this stuff is organized by state governments according to their own rules.

This assertion is made in service of an (old) argument on how the Democratic Party is the party of capitalists, and it embodies all of the lack of nuance and absence of distinction of that argument. Take the most obvious case: parties sets the rules for the selection of delegates to the national conventions which nominate presidential candidates and adopt party platforms, both at the national and state levels. Those rules are different in the two parties. In recent history, the Democrats have often reviewed and revised their rules, and in the process of doing so now, with much internal debate.


Alan White 08.12.18 at 2:40 am

This is apposite to the times: the 1% figured out a long time ago–and now assisted by Citizens United–that name recognition allied with emotions generated by repetition for/negative ads against top ticket names both gets the base out and wins elections. But the 1% couldn’t care less about candidates below the state level–they figure voting the ticket will carry on in local elections. And they are probably right. I can’t tell you the number of times I failed to even recognize candidates for local offices but voted a party line anyway. And Harry–how many local elections at the school board level etc go unopposed? Even some state level elections in strongly historically patterned demographics frequently go with only write-ins as an alternative. Claims we are a democracy in the US are greatly exaggerated in several dimensions.


Martin 08.12.18 at 3:41 am

Why don’t they have how-to-vote cards? In Australia, a party supporter will hand you one of these outside the polling booth, containing mock ballot papers, and you just copy the mock ballot paper onto the official ballot paper. Presumably, this could be delivered over the internet as well. If the official parties are not allowed to do this, presumably someone like the DSA could issue its own how-to-vote cards.


Harry 08.12.18 at 4:07 am

Its very hard to imagine that the Democratic Party, unconstrained by government interference in its nomination process, would have come so close to nominating someone who was so determinedly not a member until he wanted the nomination. The nearest thing I know of is Corbyn becoming Labour leader, but he has been a loyal member of Labour for longer than most Labour members have been alive (I exaggerate. Maybe).

One feature of the plethora of elected offices, including many which should be accountable to, not occupied by, elected officials, is that its hard to know what people are responsible for. And, actually, for officials themselves, often part time officers, to understand what their duties are. I remember the huge fuss over the national anthem and pledge of allegiance in schools in Madison, and how board members revelled in it while completely neglecting instruction and restructuring the career to appeal more high quality teachers.


ph 08.12.18 at 4:30 am

“Brenda wouldn’t…” is a statement with no stated or implied promise of explanation.
“Why Brenda wouldn’t…” is the same statement with an explicit promise of explanation.

Your entire comment is a clear example of muddle-headed verbosity.
Bad as it is, it could easily be much clearer and concise: e.g.

“Harry, why use why, please?”

As for the OP, I was stunned to read that you and your spouse vote as a team.


johne 08.12.18 at 6:31 am

Ph at 11, since my state adopted mail-in voting, it has become common for family members to get together around the kitchen table, each with their ballot and the jurisdiction’s voters’ pamphlet (which provides the details of each candidate along with the brief description they provide of their positions, and also descriptions and the complete text of the election’s bonds, referendums, etc., with statements by interested parties for and against each). Each item on the ballot is discussed (even if only to dismiss it), and each member decides if they are for or against, marking their ballot accordingly. At the end of the evening, everyone has a ballot ready to go in the mail.

The whole process of discussion and argument, agreement and agreement to disagree, played a part in reconciling my foreign-born wife to the American surfeit of elections.


Philip 08.12.18 at 8:54 am

I think the number offices being voted for isn’t the right comparison but the time taken for a general election is more relevant. Yes in the UK people will vote for MEPs, local councillors, a police commissioner and maybe a mayor so it is less voting than America. But I don’t think the fatigue is with the number of times people have to vote but the length of the campaign’s. Americans are used to primaries then a long campaign for the general election. The UK has a short campaign period before a general election with the heads of parties already settled in place. So when we had a 2015 general election, referendum, fighting over Brexit, then a 2017 general election it felt like there had been 2 years of constant campaigning with bad arguments and dishonesty from all sides.

Short version: people aren’t sick of voting but being lied to by politicians.


xav 08.12.18 at 9:51 am

Good lord, not even sure what the topic of this OP really is.

All I’ll say as voter in the US primary season I’m happy to have been a vote to destroy the “right-to-work” law in Missouri against unions and organizing. . I was unhappy that Cori Bush didn’t unseat Lacy Clay. The US would’ve gotten to Medicare for All quicker.

I’m rooting for the BNC and JD candidates here in the USA. Not sure, does that make me a supporter of ‘Momentum’ in the UK? I’m pretty sure I’m for the young and hopeful candidates and voters who choose not to take monies from corporations who rape the Earth and human communities..

Mock me for trying.

Time is running out. Let’s retire these comfortable “networked” folks.


Ebenezer Scrooge 08.12.18 at 11:13 am

It’s worth noting that Southern states have more elected local officials than most other states. This was part of a deliberate policy of empowering local elites, and kneecapping statewide bureaucracies.

Opaque elections–held at odd times, with no party affiliation, and a plethora of candidates–is another deliberate policy, protecting well-organized incumbents. My hometown (Newark NJ) is a good example. Its city government, IIRC, consists solely of employees on the public payroll, rather than the usual lawyers and small businessmen who run for office.


Jim Fett 08.12.18 at 12:21 pm

Harry @11

The whole “Sanders wasn’t even a member of the party” argument has always stuck me as odd. It seems to to misunderstand the nature of party membership in the US. How does one join the Democratic Party? Register or run as a Democrat. That’s all. Basically, say that you’re a member, and you are. And what privileges does membership confer? You get to vote in the primary. You don’t get to vote on the platform, rules or party officials. And the party can’t really kick you out; so when the pedophile white supremacist runs as a Republican, the party can’t get him off the ballot no matter how much they disavow him. So party membership in the US seems pretty meaningless to me. YMMV


mw 08.12.18 at 12:44 pm

“But the 1% couldn’t care less about candidates below the state level–they figure voting the ticket will carry on in local elections. “

I dunno — plenty of 1%ers (or thereabouts) here in gentrified Ann Arbor. We just had a rather bruising and eventful primary election in which the pro-development faction lost their council majority to the preservationist faction. This is likely to kill a $90M new Amtrak station, $55M ‘urban trail’, and possibly, too, a controversial deal with a Chicago developer to build a high-rise hotel/condo development over a city-owned underground garage. The point is that the wealthy (and not-so-wealthy) here care quite a lot about those things (however inconsequential they may seem to outsiders), and they will have very noticeable effects on the fabric of the city.

Since Republicans are all but extinct in AA (Clinton beat Trump here by something like 9:1), the primary is the only city election that matters. If the local Democratic Party were in full control of choosing nominees for local offices (in whatever is the modern equivalent of ‘smoke filled rooms’ and without a primary), there would be, effectively, no local democracy here at all. And the results would have been the opposite of what actually occurred, since the the pro-development faction and the local Democratic party establishment are one and the same.

Also–Ann Arbor is one of a handful of cities in the state that still has partisan mayoral and council races. This is a problem for local democracy too, since, all important decisions are made in the lower-turnout primary election (notably held in the summer, when many are out of town — students particularly) instead of the higher-turnout general election. If the elections were non-partisan, the candidates would still all be Democrats and the slates would probably have been the same, but more voters would have been engaged.

Lastly, I’m not too sympathetic to the complaints of it being all too much work. There are no shortages of lists of endorsements. So go ahead and outsource your choices to a source you trust, and take your ‘cheat sheet’ to the polls with you.


Fake Dave 08.12.18 at 12:48 pm

@Martin 9

We have these promotional mock ballots in the US too. They’re called “slates” and the problem isn’t that the voters don’t get them, but rather that they get too many of them (although restrictions on campaigning at polling places mean they’re generally given out a little bit down the street). Despite what Harry said, the parties — or rather state and local party committees — absolutely can make endorsements in non-partisan races. The problem is so can everyone else.

Every election year, my mailbox gets inundated with slates (mostly simple postcards, but sometimes full pamphlets). Some of them come from nationally-known advocacy groups like the Sierra Club, the big unions, or the NRA (though the latter usually doesn’t waste the postage on me). Others come from more obscure local PACs with sometimes dubious endorsement processes. There are a dozens of local and regional party “clubs,” for instance, and often their names and stated agendas can be misleading. Just last year, I had the distinct displeasure of watching the “Environmental Democrats” endorse an ex-Republican with an abysmal environmental record over the proven progressive. His “come to Jesus” speech may have swayed a few people, but it was all pure theater. His supporters had packed the house ahead of time and the “debate” was just a formality (endorsements aren’t decided by all the club members, but rather all the club members who showed up that day). Often groups arern’t quite what they seem to be (the “young” in Young Democrats/Republicans groups is flexible, for instance), are big on paper, but tiny in practice, or have been hijacked by ideologues or opportunists.

Then there are the purely mercenary operations. There is nothing stopping me from setting up some vaguely named PAC like “Patriots for Progress” or whatever, charging candidates (whoever pays the most) for space on a mailer, and sending it to all my neighbors. I get a dozen of these fake-ish slates a year and candidates actually do pay for them because every shred of name recognition in local races helps.

Somewhere nearly lost in all that paper are the pamphlets with the official party endorsements, but, honestly, these can be less than helpful. State and local party committees can be frustratingly conservative in both senses of the word, so for the races minority of races that aren’t just party line votes (IE the ones I’m looking at the pamphlet for) their endorsement (if they made one) usually just tells you who is better known.


Harry 08.12.18 at 1:05 pm

We have fewer ballot initiatives here than in some other states, but we do have them from time to time — more in other jurisdictions than here. We also have ‘advisory’ referenda, in which voters vote on something over which they, and the elected body which put it on the ballot, have no power (eg, the city might put legalising pot on the ballot).

A few years ago we had a (State) constitutional amendment on the ballot, and voters had power. It set aside part of the state budget as having to be spent on roads (ie, given to construction companies).

“The whole “Sanders wasn’t even a member of the party” argument has always stuck me as odd. It seems to to misunderstand the nature of party membership in the US. How does one join the Democratic Party? Register or run as a Democrat. That’s all”

That’s sort of my (and Ackerman’s) point. The government interferes with the internal life of parties to the extent that it (effectively) forces them to let just any voter ‘join’ and have equal decisionmaking power over the choice of their nominees. If the government didn’t exert such control, its hard to imagine any party choosing as a nominee someone who has refused to join.


Leo Casey 08.12.18 at 3:04 pm

Harry @ 19:
That’s sort of my (and Ackerman’s) point. The government interferes with the internal life of parties to the extent that it (effectively) forces them to let just any voter ‘join’ and have equal decisionmaking power over the choice of their nominees. If the government didn’t exert such control, its hard to imagine any party choosing as a nominee someone who has refused to join.

Is this some sort of reverse of the usual American conceit about democracy? That is, that Americans are so used to equating democracy with the American constitution and the separation of powers that they can’t conceive of a system of legislative supremacy as democratic? (Not even that they somehow oppose it — it doesn’t enter into their conception of the political as a possibility: they are blithely unaware of how British and other parliamentary systems of government are actually organized, much less that before the 1879 constitution there were American states such as Massachusetts that had systems of legislative supremacy.)

So now only the system used for party membership and selection of candidates in the UK is democratic? There are pluses and minuses to having an open primary or caucus system (which, by the way, was a progressive reform designed to break the power of corrupt political machines and open up the political process to more popular participation), just as there are pluses and minuses to the system used in the UK. (The Militants were — and in the current incarnations in UK and colonizing parties around the world remain — pains in the arse, but they had to be thrown out of Labour rather defeated in political debate?) But if the case for the American government “controlling” the political parties comes down to primaries and caucuses being open to all registered party members, that is not a very impressive argument, especially from the Left. For it is precisely this feature which allows democratic socialists like AOC and RT to run and win in Democratic Party primaries, and get elected — and, in the case of AOC, defeating the heir apparent as Democratic leader in the House. I suppose if you think, like Bernie Sanders did until 2016, that one can ignore both a century and a half of failed attempts in the US to establish a third party with explicitly socialist politics and the features of the American political system that doom any third party effort that does not quickly replace one of the two major parties, the ability to elect democratic socialists on the Democratic Party line is just co-optation, delaying the moment (that is always just around the corner) when an explicitly Socialist Party can meaningfully contest elections. But it is the Bernie Sanders of 2016 that shows just how wrong-headed that view is. His failure to register as a Democrat (some sort of symbolic refusal to acknowledge his own change of strategy?) accomplishes nothing but giving neo-liberal opponents in Democratic Party a stick to beat him with.


Harry 08.12.18 at 3:11 pm

“As for the OP, I was stunned to read that you and your spouse vote as a team”

We don’t. We were in the library on an electronic machine and she interfered — I was irritated (mildly), and wouldn’t do that to her. That said, we did agree (pointlessly) to vote for the same candidate in the Governor primary, though we’d probably have landed on the same person without discussing it. We usually vote the same way in major races, though not always in minor races. Even in my first election I was able to convince myself to vote for the same candidate for Governor as she did, someone whose only qualifications were having inherited vast amounts of money, being on a school board, and not being Scott Walker. Deep joy.


Scott P. 08.12.18 at 3:15 pm

Just to show how different things are run from one part of the country to another, I’ve never gotten a mailed slate like Fake Dave mentions above, nor do people hand them out at polling places (political advertising is usually banned outside polls). Instead, the way I generally do research is to go to either the League of Women’s Voters or a site like to research the candidates and draw up my own list of those I want to vote for.


Harry 08.12.18 at 3:16 pm

Oh, on uncontested school board elections. Actually, most are contested – just. We usually have 2 or 3 seats up at a time, and rarely is more than one uncontested. I have to say I find that surprising — I can’t imagine why anyone would be willing to do the job. To do it badly is pointless; doing it well would take 20 hours or more a week, and even then, given who one’s colleagues would be, I’m not sure anyone could do it well.


Scott P. 08.12.18 at 3:18 pm

That’s sort of my (and Ackerman’s) point. The government interferes with the internal life of parties to the extent that it (effectively) forces them to let just any voter ‘join’ and have equal decisionmaking power over the choice of their nominees. If the government didn’t exert such control, its hard to imagine any party choosing as a nominee someone who has refused to join.

Either or both parties could easily change this, but they rarely do, since it is felt that you don’t want to make it difficult for someone to become a Democrat or Republican. Even in states with closed primaries (they do exist), you often can declare a party affiliation when you cast your vote. My state lists all the slates and the only restriction is that you can either vote in the Democratic, Republican or Libertarian columns, but can’t mix and match.


Harry 08.12.18 at 4:31 pm

Thanks Leo

I’m not sure I said anything about one system being more democratic than another, let alone one system being the only democratic system. I do, in fact, think that the American system of government is bad in all sorts of ways that the UK system isn’t (and, to a lesser extent, vice versa), and of course I think the electoral system itself in both cases is badly conceived, and in the US very bad for the left. It works out better (and I think more democratically, though that’s not why its is better) in the UK because the level of government with the largest districts (the Commons) has much smaller districts than in the US (basically, the House of Representatives) thus making it easier for non-major parties to organize effectively and make an electoral impact that goes beyond spoiling.

The system for candidate selection in the UK is much less vulnerable to influence from monied interests, and that’s because parties are free from government interference in the process. The truth is that the Democratic Party is a party of capital — of course it is. The electoral system itself probably suffices to ensure that third parties cannot break the duopoly, absent extraordinary circumstances; the way state governments organise candidate selection ensures that no party can reliably avoid being a party of capital. The primary system also, as you say, prevents the Dems from stopping AOC and Bernie from becoming contenders. On the whole I don’t think this has worked to the advantage of the left but I might be wrong.

In practice, because of the electoral system and the primary system, the Dems are the only game in town, absolutely. As I said in a later comment (sorry about not approving yours sooner, I didn’t see it for some reason) I cheerfully vote for people neither you nor I would give the time of day to in a better system. I’ve even campaigned for some, and will do, more, in the near future no doubt. And that is a fact of life. But my piece (like Anthony King’s much better piece) was really trying to explain that fact of life to people who aren’t from here, and point out to those who are how peculiar it is.


Kurt Schuler 08.12.18 at 6:16 pm

Let’s save ourselves a lot of trouble by making one guy king and just doing what he says.


Karl Kolchak 08.12.18 at 11:59 pm

Just what we need, for our utterly corrupt two major parties to have even MORE say on who wins their nominations.

I have an easier system–I don’t vote at all unless I feel positive that there is a candidate doesn’t just represent more of the the same old, same old. In practice, that means I rarely ever vote.


Harry 08.13.18 at 1:38 am

“Lastly, I’m not too sympathetic to the complaints of it being all too much work. There are no shortages of lists of endorsements. So go ahead and outsource your choices to a source you trust, and take your ‘cheat sheet’ to the polls with you”

My wish was that the state would let me do this by putting party affiliation on the ballot. Wouldn’t help in the primary.

The problem in many of the non-partisan races is that they are for actual jobs, that require competence, in some of which competence matters much more than policy positions. Actually, that is true in primaries for partisan races too (where the competence involved is ‘ability to beat the opponent’ PLUS ‘ability to get good things done’). I don’t really know who to trust about these things when the candidates are, in fact, not far apart politically, because I know (from ample experience) that all sorts of irrelevant considerations factor into choices about endorsement. On the current ballot only two positions actually matter — whom to nominate for state assembly (because whoever it is will win), and whom to nominate for Governor. I suppose the reason this post come now rather than in previous elections is that in this case relevant information is particularly difficult to get.

A while ago we elected a new state assembly person (Dem) who was opposed by a Green (and a Rep and a Lib, but everyone knew they didn’t have a chance). He won (but not by much), despite being known to be highly unbalanced and erratic. Plenty of people who knew that about him endorsed and voted for him in the primary (against perfectly ok candidates) because they perceived him as the most liberal, and plenty voted for him against the Green in the general, despite that candidate being obviously more liberal, and a local, and known by many of those same people to be a highly competent campaigner and political activist (my evidence – plenty of people told me they did that). So, whom do I trust?


CDT 08.13.18 at 2:19 am

I am astonished that well-educated people think it’s an intolerable burden to do a few hours of research on candidates for obscure but important elected offices.


Alan White 08.13.18 at 2:41 am

“On the current ballot only two positions actually matter — whom to nominate for state assembly (because whoever it is will win), and whom to nominate for Governor. I suppose the reason this post come now rather than in previous elections is that in this case relevant information is particularly difficult to get.”

Since I share Harry’s problems here as a Wisconsinite, I must chime in on nominating someone to defeat Scott Walker, Taxes Ranger. While Tony Evers has demonstrable biggest Dem name recognition among potential voters, I can’t say he’s more qualified in Harry’s two senses to beat Walker. In many ways Kelda Roys is better positioned to govern if she could win, and Blue turnout is crucial up and down the ticket, but I worry if Evers if nominated that he could generate enough enthusiasm given that big Koch $$ behind Walker will try to drum up the same Trumpism that gave Agent Orange a whisker win in my Badger State. A good friend and professional colleague of mine who narrowly lost in 2010 for my assembly district and is deeply involved in state Dem politics told me last week he cast his early vote for Evers because of the numbers, but he was less than enthusiastic about it. Primaries are brutally important in state politics, and with participation rates typically far below 25% in many places, here’s another way that the US has less than satisfactory democracy.


Harry 08.13.18 at 4:25 am

“I am astonished that well-educated people think it’s an intolerable burden to do a few hours of research on candidates for obscure but important elected offices.”

Not the point. Merely annoying and unnecessarily time consuming for me. Except in cases like the one at hand where the task is impossible (as Alan White indicates). But the point is that if you set up a system this way you should predict low engagement, and especially low engagement from people who are disconnected from the political world. And you should also predict that a lot of the engagement you get will be low quality and that the people who get elected will reflect that. Lots of other reasons, of course, why we get low quality office holders, but this is one.


CDT 08.13.18 at 5:12 am

“If you set up the system this way, you should expect low engagement.”
I’m uncertain what your point is, then. It must not be that primaries are a waste of time, since as Alan points out the results of them can have important consequences. And there’a obviously no way to shorten the ballot for federal races. I do agree at the state and local levels that some offices, like dog catcher, should be appointed rather than elected. As a resident of Maricopa County who helped vote out Joe Arpaio, I wouldn’t put Sheriff in the category of expendable races. And electing judges is bad because it’s an invitation to corruption. Poorly educated or affirmatively misled voters is, indeed, a problem. But I’m not convinced that giving voters less say on who governs is the cure. By no means do I put you in this camp, but in many places those who call for reducing the number of offices elected rather than appointed are conservatives seeking to expand their control of state legislatures or governorships. “There’s too much voting” is an extraordinarily dangerous attitude for those of us stuck in largely red states.


Collin Street 08.13.18 at 5:30 am

I am astonished that well-educated people think it’s an intolerable burden to do a few hours of research on candidates for obscure but important elected offices.

Because the only burdens that matter or should be discussed are the ones that are individually intolerable. [“hearing impairment isn’t a disability, is it? I mean, you can still hear, right? You can still hear, right!?”]

Why was that post let through the moderation? I mean, it’s plainly erroneous, ill-thought-through: what does anybody gain from having to refute it, or from leaving it unrefuted?


Fake Dave 08.13.18 at 8:41 am

@ Scott P. 22

That’s a good point about regional differences. I’ve spent my whole voting career in a fairly competitive San Diego suburb, so my experience is atypical. During the era of “incumbent protection plan” gerrymandering (California used to let the legislature draw its own district maps, with predictable results), my State Senate and Assembly districts were often one of only a handful in the state where the two parties really competed. The gradual expansion of the Democratic base into once-solidly Republican parts of Southern California (a shift that has been happening my whole life) prompted a desperate rearguard action on the part of the Republican legislative minority who needed to hold onto enough seats so that they could continue to hold the budget hostage every year (don’t ask). All that pressure on just a few seats brought a lot of money with it and distorted the whole landscape.

Eventually, a ballot initiative created an independent redistricting commission and the incumbent protection plan collapsed (people got wise after the 2004 race when every single incumbent Assemblymember, State Senator, and Rep — hundreds of people — was reelected). Since then, there have been more competitive seats statewide (and the Republicans have been reduced to a rump), but all that campaign infrastructure that was built up in the aughts never completely went away and we still probably get more political mail (and goddamn phone calls) than most Americans in non-presidential years.


mw 08.13.18 at 10:39 am

“So, whom do I trust?”

But I don’t see how making all races partisan and putting party IDs on the ballot would solve this problem for you — would you really trust the Democratic party (or any other) to choose all competent candidates (especially in your desired scenario of getting rid of primaries–where insider ‘pull’ and trading of political favors would come to dominate even more than they do now)? Even if the party affiliation is not listed on the ballot, that’s a pretty easy bit of information to turn up. But, as you say, having the right affiliations isn’t any guarantee that the candidate isn’t ‘unbalanced and erratic’ so….


Theophylact 08.13.18 at 1:03 pm

Anyone who’s followed the evolution vs. creationism battle in the US should know how important school board elections are.


Harry 08.13.18 at 1:11 pm

“As a resident of Maricopa County who helped vote out Joe Arpaio, I wouldn’t put Sheriff in the category of expendable races.”

But wasn’t he voted in in the first place (and over and over again for 24 years)? And because it is an elected office it was a potential stepping stone to further power.

I guess I’m in an almost red state too now. I do think there is too much voting, and that the people who are most put off voting are poorer and more disconnected from the system (people who, on average, are more likely to vote left). Of course loads of other things are implicated — the role of money, the normalness and sheer extent of gerrymandering.


Leo Casey 08.13.18 at 1:44 pm

Harry @ 25:

I would make a few points.

First, the problem of money in American politics is not a problem of government interference in electoral politics, but the opposite, the paucity of government regulation which has created an “anything goes” environment in terms not only of the amounts of money, but of dark money in particular. I agree that the US is much worse than UK and other Western democracies in this regard, but that it precisely because the other nations have much more meaningful government regulations on how campaigns are financed, how much money is spent, who can donate, etc. Not so the US. Ackerman’s complaint of “government interference” seems perversely wrong here, in a long tradition of perversely Left syndicalist takes on American politics. It does seem to me that there is sufficient common good interest in having a democratic process for the election of government, if only for legitimacy purposes, for ‘rules of the road’ to be legislated, and that the US needs more — not less — of these rules. The 15th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, 26th Amendments and the Voting Rights Act was precisely the sort of “government interference” in elections which is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary.

Second, the complaint from the Left in NY — at least from some of the Bernie forces — is that the law doesn’t make it easy enough to become a Democrat and vote in the primary. (In NY, one has to register in a party months in advance to vote in a primary.) Some even argue that you shouldn’t have to be a Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary. That is, the complaint cuts against the argument that “government interference” takes the form of forcing parties to accept members. While I have some sympathy for the position that it is too hard to register in time to vote in a NY primary, I find that idea of completely open primaries, in which anyone can vote, as antithetical to any meaningful system of political parties, and to create all sorts of openings for mischievous voters whose sole purpose is to have the opposing party field its weakest candidate. The California system of an all party primary is one variant of this idea, and it leaves open the real possibility — as almost happened this year — of what is clearly the majority political party not having a candidate in the general election simply because more candidates from its party run in the election.

There is a general problem on the Left of looking at these rules only in terms of what maximizes our vote, rather than democratic principle. To wit, it would be a lot easier for the Bernie forces to promote the position that so-called super-delegates to the Democratic Party convention (largely elected officials) are undemocratic, as they were not elected as delegates in a primary, if they were not at the very same time promoting caucuses, which clearly cut down significantly on the rate of participation of voters, but produced many more Bernie delegates. It can’t be what helps our cause is democratic, and what hurts it is undemocratic.


Harry 08.13.18 at 2:06 pm

Leo — thanks again for that. Yes, I think I agree with everything you say. I think of the regulation of campaign finance (in the UK for example) as something that insulates democratic elections (slightly) from irrelevant background inequalities, rather than as interference with political parties, but I can see why it could be thought of as the latter. I would say though that if you compared US campaign finance law with UK campaign finance law you’d spend many more days reading the US legislation than the UK legislation, and find it much more arcane and much harder to figure out whether what you want to do is legal or not. And that’s before you start looking at State laws (I’m in a good government state, which means that if I treat an absurdly ill-paid newly elected official to a $10 lunch he worries about whether he’s doing something wrong — (he’s not)).

“I find that idea of completely open primaries, in which anyone can vote, as antithetical to any meaningful system of political parties”. Yes, I think that is (one of) my core complaint(s).


CDT 08.13.18 at 4:15 pm

@Harry 37:

Arpaio did, indeed, get consistently re-elected until finally losing last time out. That took too long, but he’d quite likely still be there if he had been appointed by the County Supervisors, who would have been fearful of firing him and impacting their own re-election. Taking your own state as an example, would you rather have the voters or Scott Walker selecting subordinate public officials? IMHO, lengthy ballots are the least bad alternative for all, including poor people. There’s a reason why the GOP works so hard to make it difficult to vote.
Arpaio is one of three Republicans running game for U.S. Senate. He might win the primary, but would be handily dispatched in the general.


SusanC 08.13.18 at 5:31 pm

@39: As an academic, I get told that anti-bribery policies are particularly strict for US government employees, so that a US government official most definitely has to pay the $10 for his lunch. (Whereas, for example, a random student who is thinking about doing a PhD at my institution can be bought a $10 lunch without issue). I can see the argument that its well worth being this strict to avoid us being accused of bribing someone.

[ For contrast, I can think of a recent scandal in local politics where it was alleged council members were given a free foreign trip by a company that was putting in a controversial planning application. Cue much outrage, possibly justified. We certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of doing that kind of thing ]


Harry 08.13.18 at 6:17 pm

“Taking your own state as an example, would you rather have the voters or Scott Walker selecting subordinate public officials?”

I don’t think that the voters who chose Scott Walker will, in general, do a better job with subordinate public officials really. I’ve only been in the State for 4 Governors, 3 Republicans and 1 Democrat; 2 of them were people I’d happily have appointing public officials.

But I know that my attitudes are shaped by having grown up in a political environment which valued a pretty independent and highly competent civil service; the current political environment prefers a politicized and dubiously competent civil service (that’s not a partisan issue: Democrats are the same as the Republicans on this), and of course having officials elected is part of that, but it wouldn’t go away if they were not elected. (This, of course, bears on the Arpaio issue: I can see why a Board of Supervisors would be frightened to fire him, and even why, given the absence of a culture that values independence and competence, they might hire him in the first place).


Harry 08.13.18 at 6:20 pm

41. Yes. It is bizarre, though, that I can give phenomenal amounts of money to his campaign, or, if he were like many other legislators, write legislation for him that neither he nor anyone else will read. (In fact, as I understand it, it is not illegal for me to buy him lunch as long as I am not a registered lobbyist).


Cian 08.13.18 at 7:47 pm

Among the people I could vote for in the last election was the coroner.

The whole voting thing reminds me a lot of things in the US. In theory it seems like a great idea. In practice it’s either an unworkable mess (at best), or a corrupt nightmare.


mw 08.13.18 at 7:52 pm

“I find that idea of completely open primaries, in which anyone can vote, as antithetical to any meaningful system of political parties”. Yes, I think that is (one of) my core complaint(s).

Michigan has open primaries, but you can cast votes in only one party’s list, so there’s a built-in incentive against crossover, ‘spoiler votes’. So if a Republican wants to vote for the Democrat’s weakest gubernatorial candidate, they must give up participating in the Republican primary entirely.


Matt 08.13.18 at 9:19 pm

the current political environment prefers a politicized and dubiously competent civil service (that’s not a partisan issue: Democrats are the same as the Republicans on this)

I’m not sure what levels you’re talking about here, Harry, and know nothing about the civil service in Wisconsin, for example, but if you look at the people appointed by, say, the Clinton administration, the GW Bush administration, the Obama administration, and the Trump administration, I think that the “Democrats are the same as Republicans” bit here doesn’t hold up _at all_. This is also so for actual practice, as well as the competence. If you really think this, I think you’re not paying close enough attention. (I don’t deny that every government wants the bureaucracy to implement its policy and goals. Of course that’s true. But the idea that both sides care equally about professionalism and competence – and both equally subordinate this to vulgar politics – is just obviously false.)


Trader Joe 08.13.18 at 9:40 pm

“Michigan has open primaries, but you can cast votes in only one party’s list, so there’s a built-in incentive against crossover, ‘spoiler votes’. “

A number of states have this and it can be very unfortunate in primary ballots. I live in a majority Republican district in a typically bluish-purple state….many times I want to vote in the Democrat primary for the state/national level positions, but would like to vote in Republican primary for the local level positions because more likely than not they will run unopposed or barely opposed at the general election. As such, while I can see why the system is designed how it is – I’m effectively disenfranchised at either one level or the other.

I usually opt for the state/national D primary, but quite often its the sheriff, school board and similar local positions that are more impactful on daily life.

Concerning the OP – amid the clutter of all these elections and the often limited scope of detail available about the candidates and their views I find that all too often the candidates (usually as advised by someone) reach for the stereotypes….republican’s most often focusing on some sort of military or law enforcement credentials and Ds often focusing on some sort of family, education or ethnic theme.

While any of them might be interesting things to know, they rarely make for a good candidate on their own but no doubt they still cause the boxes to get filled in by people who would rather ‘vote for the ex-soldier’ rather than admit they know nothing about the related policy views and leave the box blank.


Harry 08.14.18 at 3:38 am

Matt — sorry, I was thinking about Wisconsin when I wrote that: I wouldn’t differentiate among the administrations I’ve seen here, with the exception probably of the Thompson administrations which were better. And by ‘the same as’ I meant ‘accepts the same principle as’, not ‘gives the same amount of weight to that principle’.

At the national level I agree with you about the timespan you mention (though if you went back a couple of decades the record is less clear), though I’d say that the picture is distorted by Obama really being exceptionally good (Arne Duncan, brilliant, whether you like what he did or not), and Trump really being exceptionally bad (Betsy DeVos, well, what can you say?). Though, on Trump — I only know one (highly competent) person who was sounded out by the team, and that person’s reaction (basically “anyone who would be willing to work for that guy must be insane”) made me wonder whether he’d be able to appoint capable people even if he wanted to. Just to be clear, it did not make me have the further, surreal, thought that “he’s probably trying to appoint good people and can’t”.


CDT 08.14.18 at 3:54 am

Wisconsin’s transformation from a progressive/good government state into a Koch Brothers laboratory is one of the most disheartening developments in the last two decades or so.


Alan White 08.14.18 at 4:30 am

mw @ 45–the same is true in Wisconsin tomorrow for the primaries. Should one cross-over vote from one party to another (so voting both for some Dems and Repugs on one ballot) in attempt to promote weaker candidates against whomever one really favors, the ballot will be disqualified. It’s been this way in Wisconsin since the early 20th century.

I date back in Wisconsin to the Dreyfus and Earl administrations in my first years in UW, times much, much friendlier to higher ed, and when Wisconsin was truly a progressive state. I agree with Harry that the Thompson administration was not horrible, but Walker’s has been actively inimical to UW’s mission, and effectively so to whatever ends the De Voses of the world wish to accomplish in demeaning liberal education. Unless some miracle occurs, I predict that several UW campuses will close in the next five years, both 2- and 4-year. I once was so proud of my adoptive state in its promotion and support of higher ed and the liberal arts. Now I often refer to it as “Wississippi”.

Still, I love UW, proud of my career here, and I’ll fight till the bitter end for what it’s stood for in the Wisconsin Idea–that the extent of the university reaches to the boundaries of the state. Walker tried to sink that too–but it still lives despite him.


CDT 08.14.18 at 4:38 am

@ Collin Street 33
“Because the only burdens that matter or should be discussd are the ones that are individually intolerable? …Why was this comment even allowed through moderation?”

Um, no. My point was that the CT commentariat, of all people, should be willing and able to invest some time in understanding voting options — recognizing that the other alternative is to consolidate power. That’s a different issue, and a lesser one, than the severe ballot access issues faced by POC, people with limited means, and anyone else who might oppose conservative economic policies. I was merely staying on topic.


Fake Dave 08.14.18 at 4:47 am

A couple people have mentioned the “free-for-all” aspect of local races where unlimited spending and semi-corrupt practices are common and suggested that more regulation is necessary. It may be necessary, but it won’t fix the problem by itself.

The reality is there is already a huge raft of restrictions on how candidates can raise and spend money and how they engage with voters and solicit support, and many of these rules are violated broadly and flagrantly with no repercussions. A classic example is financial disclosures. Candidates are obligated to report how much money they’ve raised and spent each quarter and provide the rough details of where that money came from and where it went (PACs and dark money are different, obviously. I’m just talking about campaigns here), but there’s virtually no enforcement. I don’t just mean that regulators fail to conduct detailed audits on campaign funds, but that they fail to do even the basic due diligence to make sure candidates are reporting at all.

Far, far too often, I’ve seen local candidates who do everything right get blindsided by some upstart who, without ever forming something resembling a traditional campaign or reporting significant fundraising, suddenly has thousands of dollars to spend on mailers and robocalls and even after the races are over they often never bother to say where the money came from. These bolts from the blue usually aren’t enough to topple a well-funded and popular candidate, but they can sow chaos in low profile races and peel off votes from more legitimate candidates.

Fundraising hauls for local offices are largely dependent on how competitive the race is perceived as being. If you’re the only “serious” candidate running for city council or something, you can have the support of everyone that matters, but not actually raise much money because they prefer to spend it on more “competitive” races. Then, suddenly, it turns out that someone who seemed to be just a name on the ballot with no campaign has actually been out-fundraising you the whole time, but was breaking the law. I’ve seen first hand how these fly-by-night spoilers and vanity candidates can crush the hopes of people who did everything right and it happens in far more races than anyone seems to want to admit, especially in low-profile primaries (if you’ve ever wondered why so many challengers in potentially competitive general elections seem to be vapid non-entities with no real campaign, consider this).

These candidates blatantly and extravagantly violate the law and it’s sometimes in ways far worse than just missing filing deadlines. Anything from embezzlement and bribery to money laundering and direct mail scams could be hidden in those campaign accounts, but we don’t know because state regulators rarely investigate and almost never punish the crimes of losing candidates in low-profile races. Even winning candidates in federal races can get away with this for years. It’s great that the FBI is finally investigating Rep Duncan Hunter, but given his dad was blatantly violating filing and expenditure laws back in the 90s (and everyone knew), you do have to wonder what took them so long.


Sherparick 08.14.18 at 2:02 pm

There is a good article, and history of voting rights and the restriction of those rights at TPM.

Voting registration and multiple elections are one means of suppressing turn out. Here in Virginia, the State and local election run on the “off” years from Federal elections. That means we primary elections and then a general election every year and turn out is awful, but that is a feature, not a bug of frequent elections where people have to take time off from their jobs to work (and the lower you work on income scale, the less likely an employer will allow a person to take take time off from a job.) Although local Governments and political office holders often have the biggest impact on the day to day services you get as citizen (law enforcement, fire protection, schools, roads, parks and recreation facilities), local news organizations and governments do an awful job covering them and telling you what is going on in your city and county. There are proposals finally going out to create a new, non-profit, business model for local journalism that should be encouraged.


Marc 08.14.18 at 2:27 pm

I understand the reluctance about non-partisan candidates being difficult to evaluate. Having lived in one-party environments, however, I find the partisan endorsements in local elections to be actively counter-productive. Local developers know whether their community is Democratic or Republican, and they funnel their donations accordingly. These candidates in the general election then coast on tribal and national political grounds basically uncontested; it takes an arrest or something close to it to make these races competitive. Democratic areas are no better on the local corruption front than Republican ones are. In effect, the issues that are relevant nationally are not relevant at the level of a mayor or city council. (School boards can be more politicized – but, again, the smart activists choose the local majority party for their local candidates.) When I’ve lived in places with non-partisan local elections, by contrast, the barrier to insurgents is a lot lower – e.g. they can win, while a Republican in a city or a Democrat in a suburban town almost never do so.

I’d also have more sympathy for the “closed primary” crowd if that wasn’t also coupled with policies that actively make it hard to vote (which goes nicely with the corruption issue above.)

On another front, elections for judges and prosecutors actively promote mass incarceration and simplistic “tough on crime” policies, so I’m not fond of there being elected positions in general.


Cian 08.14.18 at 2:29 pm

This seems to be another of those situations where South Carolina, a state I will never defend, is apparently better than many places. Candidates do get prosecuted for even fairly minor abuses of fundraising (not all, not enough – but it happens regularly enough). Also the first state to prosecute (and successfully) a cop for shooting a black man in recent years. It also has open primaries – so yay, I guess…?

Not sure what this says about the rest of the country. Nothing good probably.


bad Jim 08.15.18 at 8:19 am

Here is why I only vote on election day.

One particularly odious City Council member ran a last-moment hatchet job on her opponent, a long time foe of my mother who had come around to an environmentalist stance. The day before the election my neighbor made us put up a sign for him. He lost.

The next election she pulled the same trick on a family friend, and it worked again. However, in 2008, it would appear that the town got wise, and the last-minute smear fizzled.

She’s running again; I see her banners from a Mexican eatery I favor, but so far nowhere else.


MR Bill 08.15.18 at 4:35 pm

I’m registered in the Hemptown precinct of Fannin Co.GA, and, after getting way to much scrutiny and attitude for asking for a Democratic primary ballot: the country is profoundly Republican, since the Civil War (and in denial over its Unionionism during)..I always early vote at the Courthouse, where at least some folks believe in politeness.


Ray Vinmad 08.15.18 at 9:29 pm

Never thought about this issue before–so thanks for that.

I’m sorry I didn’t read all the comments so maybe someone touched on this but it also seems relevant to what you said that sheriff’s offices are far too often little quasi-fascist fiefdoms. There are many Arpaios all around the USA who are less publicity hungry but do as much damage to the civil rights and bodies of those who live in their counties.

Enormous good would be done if local sheriffs were political appointees because the governor would then become politically accountable for their actions, and could put a check on the local power they wield over people, especially in rural areas where citizens don’t have recourse to as many institutions for redress. It is better not to have the direct coercive power in the hands of someone who can retaliate against whomever wants to check them politically. With Arpaio, we saw that not only were political figures threatened by him but he even harassed federal judges.

I can’t find the article that has the goods on this problem but I found this, and it’s pretty fascinating:


Jim Fett 08.16.18 at 12:03 am

Mr. Bill@57

Ugh. Fannin County. I spent a summer on a mountain outside of Morganton 20 odd years ago (the post office in Morganton had an story from Life magazine or some such about how it still had a mule drawn mail wagon in the 1940s). We had to haul our trash to the dump outside Blue Ridge and pay for the privilege. I was young and dumb, a student at Portnoy’s alma mater, but I had the sense to keep my mouth shut around the locals. I got more chiggers there than at my grandparents farm near Diamond, Mo. And the scorpions … On topic, I didn’t vote there.


Chris (merian) W 08.16.18 at 7:59 am

Interesting discussion. These are things I think of a lot, even though I can’t vote. (FTR: Green card interview (through marriage to US citizen) next week, pretty strong misgivings about taking US citizenship, but that’s a different topic. I lived previously in 3 EU countries, in 2 of which I could only vote at local and EUP elections.)

In Alaska, where I am, local elections are also non-partisan. I’m not sure that I think of this as only a negative even though it does require more investigation into who is who. Thankfully, police chiefs don’t seem to be elected, and minor offices are on various boards, such as school and utilities (the most minor of which aren’t even elected — you can just volunteer for example for the animal control board etc.). What seems to be the outcome here in the Interior is that we’ve had two moderate Democrats, local business owner type, as borough mayors, and they seem to go on to stand for state legislator roles afterwards. The outcome is relatively boring and unimaginative, but also reasonably stable and competent local city government in our college town with two large military bases.

One quirk is that the Democratic primary is open: every citizen can vote in it, and it’s actually simultaneously the primaries of the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party and the Alaska Independence Party (!). While the Republican primary is reserved to registered Republicans. The Democrats can change this if they want. Also, they don’t have to endorse the winner of the primaries — not long ago, Lisa Murkowski ran against a Democrat who won the Democratic primary but was widely disliked, and an Independent (Margaret Stock) who was endorsed by the state Democratic party (and who would have made a fine senator, IMHO, given the lack of actual left-wing candidates in this particular field). We also had a governor’s race in which an independent former Republican teamed up, after the primaries, with the Democratic candidate to form a “ticket” to defeat the hard-right Republican incumbent (successfully, though their re-election won’t be easy).

What you say about factors that potentially depress participation is true, but in my observation made up for by other factors. For example, both school board and borough assembly meetings are live broadcast on public radio. In no other country I was so up to date about the who-is-who of local politics, TBH. And the state is small enough that you do get to have an opinion about the candidates for national office, or governor. On the other hand, before the last presidential election I was surprised to find a lot of people who weren’t even registered to vote, and who had no opinion about Clinton vs. Trump, among people of relatively low social status (spouses of enlisted military who work at gas station tills, for example). But would what you suggest really help to alleviate this kind of disengagement?

I’m also worried about a tendency to performative ideological compliance and absence of meaningful policy debate. This is particularly blatant at the school board, and enforced via ritual and rules in meetings. For example, every topic of the schedule has to be related to one of the school district’s “priorities”, which gives rise to absurd introductions such as “re-painting of the guest parking at X Middle School. This is related to the district priority to engage parents and community to create a meaningful learning environment for students” … or maybe “… to establish relevant, inclusive, and consistent two-way communication to enable/encourage student, parent, staff, and community connectedness with the district and increase the diversity of voices within the district”; and if they had re-painted the staff parking, it would have been “… create an environment that supports the needs of staff to enable a school and organizational climate where students thrive.” I mean, I even agree with the priorities, but SRSLY!


DaveL 08.16.18 at 12:35 pm

In Massachusetts, a lot of local stuff is handled in the annual Town Meeting, which is often described as voters sitting as the town’s legislative body. Any registered voter may attend. In my town it often lasts several nights, with varying levels of attendance depending on the articles (proposed laws/actions) that will appear that night. There are often over 40 articles to cover, though many are pro forma. Less than 10% of registered voters typically appear even for truly contentious articles. The meeting is broadcast on local access cable. Some MA towns have “representative Town Meetings,” where there is an election to pick representatives to attend TM. My impression is that towns which have that are not notably better run than towns that have open Town Meetings. Also, it is possible to call “special Town Meetings” if some fairly small number of voters request one.

In our local elections (for Select Board, School Board, and a few other less-contested offices) there is no partisan affiliation. Getting enough people to run to fill the upcoming vacancies is more of an issue than partisanship. By convention, people serve a maximum of two two-year terms. We have a Town Manager hired by the Select Board.

MA also has primaries, and if you are registered as a party member, you can only vote in that primary. If you are “unenrolled,” you can choose which party’s primary to vote in, and optionally make that party your registered party. Until fairly recently, voting in a primary automatically re-registered you. State primaries are (as mentioned in other comments) deliberately set to be a separate election from any other elections (special elections, etc.), the purpose being to limit turn-out by non-party or insurgent candidates. We also have ballot measures in tandem with the usual November election; not as many as some states though. There is a state “tradition” that a ballot measure is put up as a threat to the legislators, who then pass something similar, and the ballot measure is withdrawn by its sponsors.

Statewide offices are effectively non-partisan Democratic, except that every now and then a Republican is elected governor. (I have heard people say that happens as an “insurance policy” or because “we aren’t completely crazy.”) There are a few Republican state senators and representatives, but there hasn’t been a Republican US Senator or House member in a while. Trump received 32% of the state’s votes in 2016, by the way.


MR Bill 08.16.18 at 4:57 pm

JimFett, Sorry you had a bad time.
Fannin has changed some in the recent years, and there has always been some 20-30% of folks who vote Democrat, plenty of oldish hipsters.. the Guardian wrote up Blue Ridge as “gay friendly”(say, rather, money friendly.) it’s become a tourist and rental cabin Mecca..
I lived in Morganton for some 27 years…now you only have to drive a couple of miles to take trash off..and there are commercial trash pickup operations.
And “Hemptown”…what do you reckon they used to grow there ?

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