Without benefit of ballot box

A representative democracy requires a couple of key ingredients: A. Candidates who are willing to run for office. B. Citizens who are willing to cast votes.

We’re learning the hard way that competition within Group A affects participation among Group B.

In last year’s general election, the Snohomish County voter turnout was 41.5 percent, which was below the state average of 45.3 percent and the fifth lowest among all of Washington’s 39 counties.

Why do we seem to be falling out of love with democracy? The unfortunate case of Rep. Mike Hope and the maneuverings over his replacement offer a clue. But the episode is not wholly unusual.

For starters, political appointments to posts that are supposed to be elected offices have become rampant. Such key positions as state senator, state representative, county executive, county sheriff, port commissioner, Everett city council member and Everett school board member have largely gone to individuals who never asked voters to select them for these jobs. No, these positions were handed out by current officeholders, often after some not-so-public horse trading.

Reasons for these vacancies were varied. At least one Everett council member and one school board member simply bailed on the terms they’d pledged to serve. The county executive slithered away from scandals. The school board chairman quit for unspecified personal reasons. Sometimes there was a domino effect. Incumbents were elevated via appointment to higher offices, and their jobs were then filled by appointments.

Once they attain their jobs without benefit of the ballot box, many appointees willingly campaign in the next election — with the substantial advantage of incumbency. Republican Hope left his 44th District position this year after admitting to political bigamy — he’d not only set up residence in another state but actually registered to vote there. It fell to the overwhelmingly Democratic county council to pick his replacement from a list of three Republicans. Did the council act decisively to ensure the 44th District was represented? Did the council discuss the merits of the nominees openly so their choice would be subject to public scrutiny? No and no.

As with almost all of these appointments, politically tinged discussions behind closed doors were followed by a pro forma public vote. In the end, the council punted the decision to the governor, ensuring that no elected official from Snohomish County will be accountable for the decision. Now, that’s democracy in action.

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