A sensible solution to an overcrowded ballot

Only in America, where apathy sometimes rings as loudly as freedom, could a 46 percent voter turnout for a primary election be considered “strong.”

That’s the predicted turnout, and the characterization of it, made this week by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed about the Aug. 19 primary. That 46 percent figure, by the way, only considers registered voters, not the thousands who are eligible to vote but don’t even bother to sign up.

To the extent that voter overload is part of the problem — and we suspect the length of this year’s primary ballot has raised a lot of voters’ eyebrows — the Washington Policy Center is out this week with an intriguing proposal. The Seattle-based think tank asserts that too many statewide policy offices are elected. The list: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of public lands and insurance commissioner.

(Quick: How many elected officials in those positions can you name? Hint: We’ve already mentioned one.)

The WPC suggests lightening voters’ load by reducing the number of statewide elected policy posts to five, and having candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run jointly, just as those who run for president and vice president do. Voters would also still elect the attorney general, treasurer and auditor, “watchdog” offices that should be made nonpartisan, because voters don’t expect politics to influence how they’re run. (Voters would also still elect judges.)

The other currently elected offices would be appointed by the governor, just as the heads of Cabinet-level offices are now.

Generally, we like the idea. Why, for instance, does it make sense to elect the lands commissioner, but not the secretary of transportation? Why elect a state schools superintendent when key policy issues regarding education are decided in the legislative process?

We would argue for keeping the secretary of state as an elected post, given that the office oversees elections — an area sensitive enough (see Gregoire vs. Rossi, 2004) to require direct accountability to voters.

If problems arise in an appointed position, voters will know the ultimate responsibility lies with the governor, and they can register their concerns at election time.

Would these changes result in greater voter turnout? Hard to say. But they would make the ballot a little easier to navigate and understand, which we suspect most voters would applaud.

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