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A friend of mine posted on Facebook about her recent election in Pennsylvania. The results page showed a whole bunch of results that are really, really odd to me as an Australian:

  • Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Treasurer
  • Coroner
  • lots of district judges
  • lots of school directors
  • lots of tax collectors

Most of the candidates are also listed with party affiliations. I've heard previously of people also voting for sheriffs or other police officials.

What's going on? Why are these public servants being directly elected rather than appointed? Surely these elections make these roles hard in terms of stability. And why are they politicised? Shouldn't judges be non-partisan, or at least as much as possible? How do you ensure the candidates are qualified and competent? Why make these government officials waste their time campaigning?

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    Which municipal offices are elected vs. appointed really varies quite a bit. – PoloHoleSet Nov 13 '17 at 18:04
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    Possibly because the US is (supposedly) a democracy. It seems as strange to me that other countries are apparently content with such positions not being elective. As for being qualified & competent (let alone unbiased), how do you ensure that the people doing the appointing don't just appoint their friends & political supporters? (See e.g. recent news about some of Trump's judicial appointments.) – jamesqf Nov 13 '17 at 19:01
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    @jamesqf It's not anti-democratic to delegate the appointment of public servants to your local representatives when that's literally a core part of the role you elect them for! Safety comes through the entire parliament needing to appoint them, and the very loud noise from the law societies etc if bad appointments are made. – curiousdannii Nov 14 '17 at 1:11
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am Nov 16 '17 at 6:34
  • It varies hugely by state, better to list a table. Don't generalize 'Pennsylvanians' to 'Americans'. The short answer is the US is a weakly federal country, whereas Australia and many other developed-world federal states are strongly federal. Add to that the US is not really one country at all, but nine separate countries cohabiting (very) uneasily under one federal roof. Really you're enquiring after "states' rights" and the delegation clause of the US Constitution, which is an entire topic... – smci Nov 16 '17 at 21:47
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Federalism

Before we talk about anything else, let's note that the United States is a federal system. Each state sets its own rules. Even the titles might be different. So the following discussion will be centered on how things are done in Pennsylvania, which may be quite different from how they might be done in other states. Another state might even work more like you expect.

Judges

It's worth noting that in Pennsylvania, the common pleas, commonwealth, superior, and supreme court judges are only elected when they first take the office. After that, they stand for retention every ten years. Only the magistrates (the lowest level of judge) stand for reelection.

In terms of stability, judges almost never fail retention. For example, Russell M. Nigro is the only Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice to have lost a retention vote since they were established in 1968.

School directors

I'm not sure that it is clear what a school director is. In the US, there are typically five levels of government: municipal; school district; county; state; federal/national. The municipality could be a city but states have various other options, which may include town, village, borough, or township. The municipal selection will vary by state. The relationship between municipalities, school districts, and counties is not clearly hierarchical. For example, there are multiple counties inside the municipality of New York City, which I believe has one school district.

A school district may contain one or more than one municipality. Or it may have the same boundaries as a municipality or county. Anyway, the point is that the school directors are the council for the school district. They set property taxes and approve the budget. They typically meet once a month for a stipend rather than a salary. They hire a chief executive of the school, who is a salaried employee. They have the same type of qualifications as any other council position. Educators may have a step up the way that lawyers do in more legislative positions.

Unlike your other examples, school directors are not full-time employees. They are elected representatives like county commissioners or city council members.

Pros and cons

Some might argue that voters have as much ability to evaluate judges and coroners as elected representatives do. On one side, this is true. The special quality needed to be elected is popularity, not judgment. On the other hand, most voters don't actually do this. They vote for the candidate endorsed by the local party. So the result is essentially the same as if the local executive chose them; the party rewards those who support it.

It is possible for voters to choose a different person from the party selection. It just rarely happens. When it does happen, they don't necessarily choose better.

For regions that are relatively balanced in partisan terms, having offices be elected instead of appointed by the government can have an auditing effect. A treasurer or coroner of the opposite party from the executive or sheriff can review certain cases and ensure that money is spent as it should or that justice is done. But too often they are of the same party and thus reluctant to actively disagree with each other.

The real weakness is that if the voters choose, each individual voter has little reason to take the time to understand the qualifications. So they vote based on other estimates, e.g. party or newspaper endorsement. Elected politicians at least want to avoid later scandals. So they don't want to appoint someone who will later prove obviously unqualified. They are more likely to pick milquetoast candidates than unqualified ones.

Of course, the candidates chosen by politicians won't be the most qualified. First, the politicians don't know who is most qualified. They know who has supported them. They tend to pick strong supporters with moderate qualifications. Just as they do in picking who to endorse in elections where voters choose. Neither politicians nor voters are really set up to make the best picks.

If we really wanted to maximize qualifications, we'd come up with a system that worked more like a jury. Pick a hundred voters randomly, pay them a stipend, and let them choose the candidate. They can take the time to really evaluate the candidates, knowing that their vote was actually important, not just one of thousands or millions. The stipend should be enough that they can take time off from their regular job to do this one.

Or we could maximize stability by allowing judges to select their successors. Judges are far more qualified to tell if someone is qualified and has the right mindset. The incentives would be to pick mindset more than qualification, but not by so much that candidates would be much less qualified than sampled elections. They would probably be more qualified than those chosen by voters or politicians.

Political appointments maximize unity. The judges will have similar beliefs to those of the politicians that appointed them.

It's like with anything else. How much do you value control (direct election) over best qualifications (sampled election) or unity (political appointment) or stability (successor selection)?

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    Thanks for the info on school directors! If that's basically another level of government, with the ability to set and collect taxes, then of course they should be elected. – curiousdannii Nov 14 '17 at 1:01
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    Your jury idea is interesting. But I guess I'm just less suspicious of our elected representatives. They're already hired full time to appoint people, and they themselves hire more people to assist them.They should already be listening to the courts, the solicitor-general, the law societies etc to know who would be good to appoint. And when there's no expectation that judges and coroners will be politicised, most will keep their affiliations hidden, and so the politicians won't be picking who would be most supported by their parties because they won't know. – curiousdannii Nov 14 '17 at 1:05
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    +1 for Federalism--a lot of folks may not realize that the constitution specifically gives states the power to set their own rules for most things, including how local positions are elected or appointed. – Ogre Psalm33 Nov 14 '17 at 13:25
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    @OgrePsalm33 - Good point. I've found that really shocks a lot of Europeans, particularly eastern Europeans. The whole country isn't run by our national government. For example, often times if the POTUS doesn't like something the state of New Jersey is doing, there isn't a damn thing he can do about it. Yes, we really mean all that federalism stuff. For the most part... – T.E.D. Nov 14 '17 at 17:18
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    @T.E.D. nobody likes what the state of New Jersey is doing. Including most people in state of New Jersey. – user4012 Nov 15 '17 at 2:14
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  • What's going on?

    This is a leftover from earlier historical tradition, which had lots of lower-level democracy.

    For example, coroners being elected was a tradition not just from early days of USA, but actually from English common law:

    Electing a coroner is a holdover from medieval English common law, where the coroner's job was to determine how and when people had died in order to collect taxes. That system worked in early America, too.
    And in a lot of places, if the sheriff committed a crime, it was the coroner's job to make the arrest.

  • Surely these elections make these roles hard in terms of stability.

    This assumes that "stability" is the goal. Often, the goal is accountability and responsiveness to the people that the public servant serves - which is much better achieved by election than either appointment or lifetime position.

    Look at it from risk standpoint.

    If you elect a bad person to the position, the downside is that you have a bad official for a couple of years, and can replace them with a good one next time having learned your lesson.

    If you have appointed bureaucrat in a position, that's forever, with virtually no recourse (yes you can vote against people who appointed, but due to diffusion, that's unlikely to succeed - that higher level election is likely to turn on much higher level issues).

  • And why are they politicised? Shouldn't judges be non-partisan, or at least as much as possible?

    • First, let's just agree that "non-politicized X" is a blatant fiction that doesn't exist in the real world. Everyone's politicized. Some people are better or worse at hiding their biases from others. Some people are better or worse at hiding their biases from themselves. But everyone has biases, especially political ones.

      As such, it's better to have someone whose biases are known and explored, than someone whose biases are hidden and unknown.

    • Second, this allows people to practice checks and balances.

      If your legislature/executive is all Democrat controlled, the official positions will ALL be democrats, appointed by those politicians and always siding with them, due to both partisan reasons and personal "I owe you for the position" ones.

      If you get to elect local officials, you can at least elect ones independent of higher level politicians, who might hopefully check their power ("yes, Mr. Pro-Cat mayor, I know you want me to arrest all dog lovers in town. Tough luck, I'm not anti-dog, I ran for Sherriff on anti-squirrel platform").

    • As an ironic side note, back when US was created, people were actually idealistic enough to actually try and avoid factionalism (as partisanship was known back then) in politics.

  • How do you ensure the candidates are qualified and competent?

    If you notice, these are all positions that are incredibly local. As such, the idea is that the candidates are well known to local community, and as such are pre-vetted - if not for their expertise then for their character.

    Which, incidentally, how "non politicized" side was supposed to have been ameliorated - the idea is to elect someone respected and with integrity who would at least try to do a good job.

    Additionally, what makes you think a local elected official is any better at vetting competence and qualifications of a candidate for official position than the voters? Elitist much? People in aggregate are rarely dumber than a random politician; AND don't have a habit of appointing corrupt officials under patronage, qualifications be damned.

    And ensuring qualifications isn't exactly rocket science: one coroner candidate says "I am more qualified because I finished forensics college degree from UPenn" in electoral materials, another says "I'm more qualified because I like cats". Bang, anyone but the most die hard cat lovers know who's qualified who's not of the two.

  • Why make these government officials waste their time campaigning?

    Because that's how constituents get to know them and judge them. That's really how representative democracy works.

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    @BaardKopperud - is there any data that shows that locally elected coroners are professionally unqualified? – user4012 Nov 13 '17 at 17:19
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    @BaardKopperud Again, back in the day logic applying, especially in small very local communities, the Local Coroner might have been the guy to say "He's dead Jim" in official paper work. Jim may have been riddled with bullets, is clearly dead to anyone who happens onto the scene (you thought I forgot a comma, didn't you), but you need someone to sign the legal paper work. It could also be that he is the administrator of the morgue... meaning he's the guy who runs the doctors who do the real work. Keep in mind, being a doctor with an actual degree wasn't much a thing until the 20th century. – hszmv Nov 13 '17 at 17:24
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    w.r.t checks&balances, questionable plausibility. If the town elected a single-party admin. they'll probably elect everyone else from the same party too. In other countries the low-level jobs are not direct political appointments anyway and will have an entire organization through which candidates advance normally. – Leushenko Nov 13 '17 at 20:09
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    +10 First, let's just agree that "non-politicized X" is a blatant fiction that doesn't exist in the real world. Everyone's politicized. – WernerCD Nov 14 '17 at 12:28
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    This answer appears to assume that it's either the voters or politicians who appoint coroners, tax directors, or school directors. The former happens in the USA, the latter in some corrupt countries, but neither seem remotely desirable. Tax office employees are in the best position to rank job applicants for tax director. Teachers, school employees, and even students are in the best position to rank job applicants for school directors. Involving politics (either by appointment or by voting) in them is needlessly politicising a role that should be non-political. – gerrit Nov 14 '17 at 12:42
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I used to live in Pennsylvania, and I know exactly what you mean. When I lived there, we actually had to vote for dogcatcher. Seriously.

Even here in Oklahoma, we have to vote for judges. I usually end up talking to local lawyers I know whose opinions I respect so I can make an informed vote.

But lets look at the alternative here. Let's say these people are instead appointed by politicians. Doesn't this question then still apply? :

How do you ensure the candidates are qualified and competent?

If we make all those positions appointed, then what will often happen is that whenever the party in charge changes hands, they will get rid of the old heads of these kinds of services, and hand them out to their own supporters as patronage jobs.

Some politicians might take care to make sure the head coroner is actually someone capable of being a coroner, but often times they do not. It could be some donor's unemployable son who can't stand dead things. It could be some rich guy who likes the paycheck, but has no intention of ever showing up to work.

Some large cities were famous for doing things like this. Many smaller ones did the exact same thing, but without the fame. To a certain extent it still goes on at the Federal level (particularly with low-importance ambassadorships).

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Have you ever seen the 1938 film "The Adventures of Robin Hood" where King John, would scheme with the High Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisborne?

Hammered into most Junior High students is the notion of the balance of divided powers is a check against tyranny. Elected officials receive their mandate through the ballot box. An elected Mayor can't remove an elected Judge by themselves because they have independent mandates. While some officials become corrupt, it is likely that others remain honest.

Of course, this doesn't always work.

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    Australia(mentioned in the question) and many other countries without elected public servants also have strong separation of powers. This really has more to do with constitutional protections on each role than the selection method of officials. Basically you can't just remove a judge on a whim, there are clear procedures and reasons etc that need to be followed. – Jack Nov 14 '17 at 5:17
  • why Australians don’t vote isn’t the question. Nobody votes for the Queen. Each US state has it’s own written constitution and history of populism. – user17932 Feb 9 '18 at 13:05
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  Because they are public servants, and public that is paying for their services has right to elect them. Instead, you should ask yourself why would supposedly "free" people allow some strange person that they no nothing about, and cannot replace, to have power over their life, liberty, family etc ...

   We already have thousands of examples where "public servants" in supposedly democratic EU countries push for something that general population does not want. All for supposed "greater good" determined by unelected "elites" with secretive agendas .

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    It's not anti-democratic to delegate the appointment of public servants to your local representatives when that's a core part of the role you elect them for! – curiousdannii Nov 14 '17 at 0:56
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    Then why do you not have elections for every police officer? They are also public servants, paid for by the public. – pipe Nov 14 '17 at 11:59
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    Why don't we elect the generals and admirals of our armed forces? You should ask yourself why would supposedly "free" people allow some strange person that they no nothing about, and cannot replace, to have power over their life, liberty, family etc ... – curiousdannii Nov 14 '17 at 12:10
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    @pipe Actually, there are elections for sheriff office in US, and they are responsible for people they hire . – rs.29 Nov 14 '17 at 18:28
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    "We already have thousands of examples where "public servants" in supposedly democratic EU countries push for something that general population does not want." I am highly doubtful about this argument. In the EU, it is often brought up by radical parties that claim that they are the voice of the silent majority. This is simply an unfounded claim which seems questionable in the light of actual voting results. Many undemocratic regimes used this argument to justify their one-party rule: The party was the voice of the people and thus this was true democracy. Beware this line of argument. – Thern Nov 15 '17 at 10:25

protected by Philipp Nov 14 '17 at 15:25

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