Elections vs Accountability

Jonathan Bernstein on one of my favorite themes, the undermining of democratic accountability by America’s insane proliferation of elections:

Yesterday was election day in Texas, and I voted. And I voted. And then I voted some more. If my count was correct, I voted fifty-two times. I voted for Governor, and I voted for U.S. House and Texas House and Texas Senate…OK, I didn’t actually know the candidates for the state legislature, by I did feel a bit guilty about that. I voted for Lt. Governor (which is a big deal here in Texas). I voted for Attorney General, and Commissioner of the General Land Office, and Commissioner of Agriculture, and Railroad Commissioner. I don’t know what the General Land Office is, no. I voted for judges — judicial judges, and the county judge, who is the head of the county government, not a judicial judge at all. I voted for more real judges. We know someone who is running for “Judge, County Probate Court No. 2.” I voted for her. I voted for District Clerk. I don’t know what kind of district the District Clerk is clerk for. I’m pretty sure it’s not pronounced the British way, though. I voted for party chair…actually, Party Chairman, although I voted for a woman, but what do I know?


Larry Bartels did a great paper once (PDF) about how in US political culture, the answer to every government reform problem is always that things need to be “more democratic” and this often proceeds without any real effort to think about what you’re trying to achieve. There’s obviously a sense in which subjecting more and more officials to popular election is “more democratic” but if you think that what’s good about democracy is that it creates accountability you’ll see that asking people to vote for Commissioner of the General Land Office is undermining accountability.

No real people are paying attention to what these different offices are, what the incumbents are doing, how they interact, who’s doing a good job, etc. Special interests who are able to hire professionals to monitor elected officials for them, by contrast, are able to make out like bandits.