Political Ignorance and the Proliferation of Elected Offices

Prominent political blogger Matthew Yglesias recently wrote an interesting post arguing that the proliferation of elections increases the difficulty of acquiring enough information to vote in an informed manner. He quotes a post by Jonathan Bernstein, which expresses bewilderment at the range of offices he voted on in a recent Texas election:

Yesterday was election day in Texas, and I voted. And I voted. And then I voted some more. If my count was correct, I voted fifty-two times. I voted for Governor, and I voted for U.S. House and Texas House and Texas Senate…OK, I didn’t actually know the candidates for the state legislature, by I did feel a bit guilty about that. I voted for Lt. Governor (which is a big deal here in Texas). I voted for Attorney General, and Commissioner of the General Land Office, and Commissioner of Agriculture, and Railroad Commissioner. I don’t know what the General Land Office is, no. I voted for judges — judicial judges, and the county judge, who is the head of the county government, not a judicial judge at all. I voted for more real judges. We know someone who is running for “Judge, County Probate Court No. 2.” I voted for her. I voted for District Clerk. I don’t know what kind of district the District Clerk is clerk for.

Yglesias himself comments:

[I]n US political culture, the answer to every government reform problem is always that things need to be “more democratic” and this often proceeds without any real effort to think about what you’re trying to achieve. There’s obviously a sense in which subjecting more and more officials to popular election is “more democratic” but if you think that what’s good about democracy is that it creates accountability you’ll see that asking people to vote for Commissioner of the General Land Office is undermining accountability.

No real people are paying attention to what these different offices are, what the incumbents are doing, how they interact, who’s doing a good job, etc. Special interests who are able to hire professionals to monitor elected officials for them, by contrast, are able to make out like bandits.

I completely agree with Yglesias that most voters know little or nothing about these offices, and that this creates an opening for interest group influence. I have made similar arguments myself. The problem is exacerbated by the reality that for most voters, it is actually rational to devote little or no time to acquiring political information. It’s also rational for them to do a poor job of analyzing the political information they do know.

At the same time, I am skeptical of the solution that Yglesias implicitly seems to advocate: making these positions nonelected offices. If the Commissioner of the General Land Office becomes a bureaucratic position appointed by the governor, that doesn’t eliminate the problem of voter ignorance. It merely shifts it to a different election. Now, the question of who the governor is likely to choose as the next Commissioner is added to the long list of issues at stake in the gubernatorial election. Realistically, most voters won’t pay any attention to the office when they vote for governor, and small interest groups will still dominate the process. Instead of doing so by influencing the election of the commissioner, they’ll do it by lobbying the governor and the state legislature. The US and Switzerland are unique in having an extremely large number of elections. But there is little if any reason to believe that interest group “capture” is more of a problem in these countries than in the many European and East Asian democracies where more government positions are held by appointed officials. Indeed, Switzerland is widely believed to be one of the best-governed nations in the world.

The lack of “accountability” that Yglesias deplores is caused not by elections as such, but by the sheer size and scope of the modern state, a point I discussed in greater detail here and here. Texas has so many officials because the state government has taken on so many different functions. Ultimately, the best way to increase democratic accountability to voters is to have less government. That will make it easier for rationally ignorant voters with limited time and attention spans to monitor the officials we do have.

The connection between voter ignorance and democratic accountability isn’t the only issue we should weigh when we consider how much government we should have. But it is an important one that is too often ignored.

UPDATE: I am not certain that Yglesias’ preferred solution to this problem is to have more appointed offices and fewer elected ones. I think some such claim is implicit in his statement that “asking people to vote for Commissioner of the General Land Office is undermining accountability.” Presumably, this means that he wants there to be a Commissioner of the General Land Office (or some other official tasked with the same responsibilities), but that the holder of the job should be chosen by some means other than elections. Reducing the number of elected offices and increaseing the number of appointed ones is in fact the solution advocated by Jonathan Bernstein in the post that Yglesias linked to approvingly. However, if that’s not what Yglesias means, I’m happy to correct the record.