State’s many elected execs actually dilute accountability

By Richard S. Davis

Friday I filled out my primary election ballot aided by the online voters’ guide. While I miss lining up with neighbors at the polling place, I like the being able watch to the video statements and check out endorsements as I vote. Outside of the publicized frontrunners for the top offices, most candidates labor in relative anonymity.

Unless you’re an extraordinary voter, the ballot probably raised two questions: Who are all these people? And why do we vote for so many offices here?

There were eight candidates for the U.S. Senate seat, nine for governor and a host of folks seeking the lower profile statewide offices. Seven people aspired to be the next secretary of state, six for lieutenant governor, five for superintendent of public instruction, four each for insurance commissioner and auditor, three each for attorney general and lands commissioner. State Treasurer Jim McIntire was unchallenged.

In all, 42 candidates vied for nine statewide executive offices, plus nine for the three state Supreme Court positions. Then there were the legislative, county and superior court candidates. Scrolling through the voter guide, however, reminded me of the odd satisfaction some people get from reading obituaries, the serendipitous discovery of people you have never heard of who quietly lived interesting lives. There are a remarkable number of people with impressive community, military, business and professional experience willing to stand for office, even now when politicians rank below street mimes in public esteem. At least you don’t have to listen to a mime.

A cornucopia of candidates is not a problem. The winnowing process is straightforward. Serious candidates will eventually gain the recognition and support they need to make it to the finals. It won’t be because we’d like to have a beer with them or because they have the best 57-point plan for fixing the economy. It will be because we believe they share our sense of right and wrong, of what makes this a good state, and a general vision for what would make it a better place.

That doesn’t mean they’ll ever be well known. Polls show Americans have a hard time identifying elected politicians. One-third of those surveyed can’t name the vice president or governor without prompting. The numbers fall off dramatically from there. Holding political office confers a peculiarly obscure form of celebrity. Those who care know the players all too well, but many don’t care.

The focus on top offices, a rational response to an abundance of candidates and offices, presents some accountability problems, particularly in the executive. We expect presidents and governors to deliver.

The genius of our system of government is that the structure makes change difficult. Substantive change in Olympia, which is much less polarized than gridlocked D.C., requires extraordinary cooperation among groups with disparate interests. Checks and balances were designed to keep things from happening too quickly. Gubernatorial power is far from absolute. Any candidate’s prescriptive agenda serves only as a general guide to priorities. Once it’s tossed into the legislative Mixmaster it’s obsolete. Even when, as has been the case in recent years, one party controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, we’ve required multiple special sessions to adopt a budget. Party discipline has limits. Narrow majorities increase the influence of centrists, allowing them to shift temporarily the balance of power.

In our state, the challenges are compounded by our populist predilection for dividing executive power among nine statewide office holders. Distrust of a powerful executive is central to the American identity. It’s particularly pronounced here. Only a handful of states elect nine or more executives.

Diluting executive authority, however, frustrates accountability. Moreover, it allows special interests an inordinate influence on offices that matter mightily to them, but receive comparatively little media attention or public scrutiny. Gubernatorial candidates feel compelled to offer an “education plan,” but the elected superintendent of public instruction, who runs the state education bureaucracy, has no obligation to support the governor’s plan. Similarly, with health care and environmental regulation critical to most Washingtonians, independently elected insurance and lands commissioners diminish the governor’s control. As voters consistently hold the governor responsible for performance in those areas, eliminating these three elected positions would improve accountability, consistency and efficiency.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.