JOHN HOOD: Time to Tighten the State's Electoral Reins
I'm in favor of competitive, frequent, high-profile elections. They are essential elements of constitutional self-government in a free society.
Some readers are already snickering. "Uh, way to go out on a limb there, Hood," they are muttering derisively. "Why do you end the suspense and come out for sunshine and apple pie, too?"
But the reality is that my position is not the norm among North Carolina's political class. Judging by both word and deed, politicians favor uncompetitive, infrequent, and obscure elections that preserve their own power and keep public opinion from unduly inhibiting their grandiose schemes.
The leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly, for example, have sought for years to reduce the threat of competitive electoral politics to their own positions. Unashamed of their handiwork in gerrymandering House and Senate districts, they have pushed for additional measures to starve voters of information and candidates of the wherewithal to give them that information.
Several years ago, fearful of GOP gains among the judiciary, they stripped the party labels off judicial elections and instigated a public-financing system that quickly devolved into coercing the state's lawyers and taxpayers into financing the campaigns of judges with whom they disagree.
By restricting the flow of private dollars, this "reform" guaranteed that judicial campaigns would be so inadequately funded as to be virtually irrelevant. Having neither party labels nor advertising to assist them, voters are picking North Carolina's appellate judges -- who protect our constitutional rights and hear the appeals of death-row inmates, among other things -- almost entirely on the basis of vague impressions and guesswork. This is a scandal.
Now, lawmakers and their cheering sections in the media and activist community are gradually expanding this grotesque mutation of republican government into the Council of State. Most would like to import it into the General Assembly, too. Its advocates sound idealistic. But the policy is wholly cynical, as political professionals now scramble to recruit candidates whose names sound like famous people or female or both.
As part of the package, some "reformers" also argue that state lawmakers should serve four-year rather than two-year terms. It will save money on campaigns and promote statesmanship in office, they assert. But reducing the expenditure of campaign funds simply means taking away information and power from voters. The two statements are interchangeable.
As for statesmanship, what the political class really means is that North Carolinians are too ignorant and easily misled to be trusted. Right now, there is widespread fury in the halls of government about the overwhelming failure of local-tax referenda in the vast majority of counties that have held them since last year.
You can bet that the new plan will be to give localities more taxing authority without that pesky voter-approval requirement. And look at the budget debate now playing out in the state capital. Outgoing Gov. Mike Easley doesn't have to face the voters again, so he's proposed a spending plan that relies on significant tax increases on cigarettes and alcohol. Legislative leaders agree with Easley that state government is too small and costs too little. But it's an election year, so they can't say that. Wait till next year.
To say that I favor competitive, frequent, high-profile elections is not to say that I favor subjecting every office or policy issue to annual votes. Indeed, I have long favored shortening the ballot by making most of the Council of State offices appointed, thus increasing the competitiveness and importance of the governor's race. And while I think North Carolina should allow citizens to put issues directly on the ballot through initiative, there ought to be a high-enough bar of signatures to exclude cranks and ensure that only matters of great public interest are subjected to referendum.
But in general, I say the more competitive electoral politics, the better. Reform redistricting. Abolish restrictions on campaign giving and spending, and junk taxpayer-funded elections. Put party labels on all elective offices. Restrict the use of non-voter-approved bonds.
And the next time lawmakers propose four-year terms, offer them one-year terms instead.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.
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