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Elections 2004

U.S. Voters Elect Officials from "Dogcatcher" to President
Diversity of elective posts a hallmark of American democracy

"I wouldn't vote for him if he were running for dogcatcher." This traditional American insult springs from the vast opportunities for elective office in the United States, from the lowly public servant driving a truck around a city impounding stray dogs to the nation's president.

The race for president has attracted most of the headlines and debate in this election year. Many overseas audiences are aware that the entire 435-seat United States House of Representatives and a third of the 100 Senate positions will also be contested. Fewer, however, realize that each of the 50 states has its own state legislature, a total of more than 6,000 positions, most of which are up for election this November. Add to that 11 elections for state governor (most of the 50 gubernatorial positions come up during the "off-year" elections two years from now) and the total number of elective offices starts to look pretty large.

These positions, numerous as they are, though, barely scratch the surface of the number of posts on state and local ballots. It may be no surprise that mayors in thousands of cities in the United States must for run for election, from the mayor of New York City, with a population greater than that of many countries, to the mayor of Greenhorn, Oregon, with a population of three.

This is still only the tip of the iceberg. Americans elect state treasurers, state labor commissioners, city commissioners, county commissioners, school board members and the boards of fire departments. They elect county auditors, the boards of cooperative regional governments and sheriffs. They elect circuit court judges, appeals court judges, state supreme court justices and the precinct committee members for the political parties. In many states, the head of the state's school system is elected. In the state of Louisiana, the officials in charge of assessing property tax values are elected. California alone has thousands of special governmental districts, many of which have elective positions. The fact is, according to Washington political consultant Earl Bender, that the United States has more than 176,000 elective offices spread throughout its tens of thousands of governmental entities.

In most countries, the great majority of the posts mentioned above either do not exist or are filled by appointment. Why have Americans chosen to elect so many of their officials?

This richness of elective offices goes back to the foundation of the U.S. federalist system. From the beginning, Americans have had a deep aversion to centralized political power. To guard against it, the new United States placed a great deal of authority in its state governments, each of which has the privilege of electing its own officials. The country's founders also realized that the sheer vastness of the country called for the devolution of power to state and local institutions. A small community on the edge of the wilderness several weeks travel from the capital could not wait for the state governor, much less the president, to appoint municipal authorities. Settlers had to take matters into their own hands. And they did so, electing their neighbors to posts such as mayor or judge. These settlers might lack education and governmental experience, but there were always natural leaders among them who had integrity and sound judgment.

Despite the fact that communications and travel have vastly improved since the country's founding, the very size of the country still makes local control a practical necessity. According to Professor Rodger Randlel of the University of Oklahoma, who is also a former president of the Oklahoma State Senate and a former mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, "The United States federal system puts real decision making power in the state and local levels of government -- like a cascade of power. We not only elect these posts, but these people are going to have real authority, without a check by the federal government, other than the basic guarantees of freedom contained in the constitution."

State legislators, mayors, county commissioners and other local officials have the ability to make law and regulation, levy taxes for local purposes and administer the local government institutions that supply such basic needs as water, roads, police and fire protection.

"This federalism means that most of the things that affect our daily lives are decided at the local level. By electing these officials, we gain strong and immediate accountability from them. If I have a pothole in the road in front of my house, I can call someone on the phone that I elected," Randle said.

Not surprisingly, this complex system of decentralized government encompasses great diversity. In addition to the federal constitution, which sets the basic rules of governance, each state has its own constitution, which can differ in determining which posts are elected and what powers officials can wield. In some states, judges are elected by the voters; in others, the governor appoints them. In some states, the sheriff is appointed by the county commissioners; in other states, they are elected by the county's residents.

In addition to their sheer number, the salaries for these positions can also prove a real surprise. Often there is none. Members of school boards and the boards of fire departments are seldom paid. Of Oregon's 239 elected mayors, for example, only two receive any salary. These officials give countless hours of service simply for the privilege of serving their communities and having a stronger say in how their institutions are run. These positions also serve as a proving ground for those who wish to run for higher office. Many candidates for state legislature and other positions cut their political teeth on school boards or other unpaid elective positions.

Not only do many of these office holders not receive salaries, they do not have political parties -- at least not officially. In a country whose founders hoped to avoid political faction altogether, many positions, especially at the local level, are by law non-partisan; the political affiliation of the candidates is not listed on the ballot and candidates are forbidden to advertise which party they belong to. This helps assure citizens that the delivery of local services and, in the case of elected judges, the administration of justice will be above the fray of partisan politics.

Randle cautions that the system is not perfect. "The more people you elect, the more you have to pay attention to what they are doing. Not all citizens are willing to do this," he said.

But many are. The United States is a participatory democracy. Counting all of the candidates for office, their campaign staffs and the countless volunteers, literally millions of Americans get involved in each campaign season. They will be out there this year again, putting up lawn signs, handing out campaign buttons, mailing leaflets, going door to door among their neighbors asking for support for their favorite candidate for office, from President of the United States to school board member. And maybe, somewhere, for dogcatcher.

Steve Holgate - Washington File Special Correspondent
Created: 31 Aug 2004 Updated: 31 Aug 2004

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Updated: August 2004