By Dennis Polhill, Melissa Moses
It could be argued that government under Soviet communism was less hypocritical than America’s. The Soviets made no pretense about democracy, representation, accountability, competitive elections or open government. Citizen participation was mandatory for show. Lack of election alternatives was irrelevant. Besides, the ruling elite knew what was best. Nothing could be gained by inviting the involvement of foolish and uninformed citizens. Americans are openly critical of arrogant Soviet rulers contempt toward their people. The unstated inference is that we know better. We have figured out this self-government thing and others would be wise to copy our example.
Is that so?
Turnover in the British House of Lords, appointed for life, has exceeded that of the U.S. Congress for most of the twentieth century. When Congressional turnover shot from 2% to 7% in 1994, it was labeled a revolution. Congressional elections typically have no more than a couple dozen of 435 House of Representatives seats in play. The power of incumbency combined with the conspiracy by the two dominant political parties to minimize their respective election risk through gerrymandering has resulted in the near-elimination of contested elections. If there is no threat of defeat, if there is no contest between candidates or ideas, is there an election?
Less studied, but equally troublesome are Colorado elections. Every election cycle about 25% of the 100 General Assembly seats are uncontested by one of the two major parties. Over 55% of the remaining races are won in landslides. Only about a dozen races are seriously contested.
Colorado now has over 2,162 governments, each with an elected board and each with taxing and regulatory authority. The distribution is 63 counties, 269 cities, 176 school districts, and 1,654 special districts (water, sewer, parks, recreation, fire protection and more). There are 192 governments in Arapahoe County; 159 in Jefferson County. The number of new governments grew last year by 69.
Though serving on a small district board may be a thankless task and recognition of one’s civic contributions may be deserved, some actions raise questions about motives. When an election date or location is obscure, fewer people vote. Although districts could conduct elections in November, when voter turnout is highest, they conduct elections that produce minimal voting. How difficult is it for someone to manipulate the election outcome? Their only legal obligation is to post a legal notice in a local newspaper. When there are not enough candidates to fill the vacancies, elections are cancelled. Although November elections are less expensive, because costs are shared among many governments, other dates are typically used. A Jefferson County district with a $200,000 budget, increased its taxing authority to $164 million per year. Another successfully opted-out of term limits by a vote of 10 to 4. How likely were these outcomes, except via secret elections?
The General Assembly, outraged at abuses of the initiative process, is currently considering numerous methods to throttle it. The November 2000 ballot had 12 statewide issues: six initiative petitions and six referred by the General Assembly. In 1998, there were eight initiatives and three referred; in 1996: eight initiated and four referred; in 1994: eight initiated and three referred; and, in 1992: 10 initiated and three referred. During the past five election cycles, voters approved 14 of 40 initiative petitions (35%) and 12 of 19 referrals (63%).
Though these numbers are not extreme, several 1990s initiatives were seen by politicians as personal insults. Tax limits said, We dont like what you are doing with our money. Campaign spending limits said, We have concerns about how elections are financed. Term limits said, Dont stay forever. To the career politician, could anything be more insulting, more disrespectful, more unappreciative, more abusive?
In addition to the 12 statewide ballot issues on the 2000 ballot, at least 297 governments placed 537 measures on ballots, seven of which were initiative petitions (1.3%) and 530 of which were referred (98.7%). Of the 530, 328 were tax, debt or spending increases (62%) and 115 were attempts to opt out of term limits (22%).
What alien force has paralyzed our leaders to cease being influenced by the mere will of their constituents? Long ballots are primarily caused by the refusal of elected officials to abide by limits set by the people. Politicians falsely blame long ballots on petitions so that they may work to murder the messenger.
Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow and Melissa Moses is a Research Associate at the Independence Institute, a government reform think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.
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