Voting for State and Local Government

The federal government is comprised of millions of officers and employees working in hundreds of departments, agencies, commissions, boards, and other entities. Each American, however, may vote for a maximum of only four federal officials: one Member of Congress, two U.S. Senators (hardly ever at the same time), and the President (through the electoral college).


State and local governments, in contrast, offer the possibility of much more pervasive democratic input. Indeed, one reason local government is so fascinating from the perspective of election law is that a diversity of electoral structures exists across the nation. In some jurisdictions, voters are able to vote on only a handful of offices: town council, school board, county commission, and perhaps a few county-level officials, such as sheriff and prosecutor. In other states, dozens of different positions appear on the ballot. In places such as Cook County, Illinois, most of those offices are typically judgeships, to be filled through either retention elections or (often uncontested) races to fill vacancies. In some Florida counties, in contrast, the electorate may have the opportunity to vote for representatives to a wide range of special-purpose governmental entities such as fire districts, community development districts, mosquito control districts, municipal service improvement districts, and health system districts. Some ballots can go on for multiple pages; press accounts exist of ballots containing as many as 93 offices.


Generally speaking, the push to have greater numbers of elective offices was a hallmark of nineteenth-century Jacksonian democracy; the “short ballot” movement and shift toward appointive positions arose in the early twentieth century Progressive Era. These periods predated both the Civil Rights Era and the Supreme Court’s constitutionalization of voting rights in the mid-twentieth century. Most modern conversations about the right to vote focus on the question of who gets to participate in elections and the procedures for casting ballots, rather than the threshold issue of whether a particular position will be subject to election at all. We have seldom asked whether substantial differences in the number of elective offices among different states or localities—generally accepted as a byproduct of federalism—means that the right to vote is being implemented in meaningfully different ways that should be troubling. Is quantitatively “more democracy” in this respect either theoretically or practically more desirable?


As Jacob Gerson describes, when we elect “general-purpose” legislators or executives who exercise sweeping control over a wide range of issue areas, we are forced to make trade-offs among our preferred policy positions. The decision to vote for a particular candidate “must be a weighted average of voter approval (or disapproval) on all relevant dimensions.” In contrast, when governmental power is unbundled by issue area—the environment, the economy, education, health, public safety, etc.—and dispersed among multiple elective offices, voters may separately vote for the candidate in each field that best reflects their policy preferences concerning that specific issue.


Establishing a greater number of elective offices, whether legislative or executive, with narrower substantive ranges of responsibility may also increase public accountability in some respects. The ballot is a blunt mechanism for enforcing accountability because it yields only two possible results for an incumbent: re-election or defeat. It can be difficult for voters to hold an incumbent accountable for poor performance in certain fields if that person has performed well in others. A voter must make constant trade-offs among the bundle of policies and actions that candidate represents.


On the other hand, unbundling policymaking responsibility to different, independently elected officials along these lines could lead to inconsistent, uncoordinated policies. Such disaggregation may preclude the government from adopting the type of comprehensive policy approaches that are often necessary to achieve optimal results. Transportation policy, for example, cannot easily be divorced from environmental policy or economic policy. Moreover, independently elected officials who each focus exclusively on a single specialized issue area may collectively impose inefficiently high levels of regulation and taxation, since none of them must make tradeoffs among competing major public priorities.


Establishing a surfeit of elective positions raises a range of practical considerations concerning the electoral process, as well. As we proceed beyond high-salience elections like President and Governor, fewer voters tend to know much about the candidates running. Many elections for local offices or special-purpose governmental entities are non-partisan, preventing voters from using party affiliation as a signaling mechanism about whether they are likely to agree with a candidate’s ideas. When a substantial number of voters lack information about an election, the outcome may hinge on random choice, name recognition, or ballot-order effects, rather than meaningfully reflecting the electorate’s policy preferences. Lengthy ballots also may contribute to longer waiting times at polling places and voter drop-off, whereby people cast votes for only the top offices on the ballot, skipping the lower ones. Some voters, faced with scores of offices on a ballot, may be deterred from voting at all.


States have served as true laboratories of democracy in striking the balance between elective and appointive office in a wide variety of ways. As public attention re-focuses on enforcing the right to vote, we should not overlook how the structure of state and local governments directly determines the opportunities we have to exercise that right. Unbundling governmental authority and allowing people to vote for a wider range of state and local offices may ensure that government officials more finely reflect people’s policy preferences and promote accountability by narrowing those officials’ scope of responsibility. Increasing the number of state and local elective offices also places correspondingly greater burdens on voters to learn about and monitor a wider range of officials and candidates, may lead to less coherent overarching policies, and promote overregulation. From the perspective of election administration, more elective offices can lead to longer ballots, which raises a risk of both longer wait times at polling places and the possibility of intimidating voters, who may be deterred by the prospect of a ballot with dozens of positions and hundreds of candidates.