- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

It was Election Day, and looking at my sample ballot, I was seized by panic. It was like that dream where you have to take the final exam in a class you never attended. Governor and senator I can cope with, and even state senator, but what about all the other offices? This ballot had more names than a Division I college football roster, but a lot fewer that I recognized.
I couldn't have begun to guess who would do the best job as state comptroller, even if I knew what job the state comptroller does. I just know I never learned how to comptrol. Treasurer? My guess is you want somebody with a good calculator and no felony record.
County clerk? Regional superintendent of schools? Trustee of the sanitary district? (Who runs the unsanitary districts?) On these obscure posts, I had no clue. And then there was that long list of judicial candidates, which induces such despair that the only option I could think of was to write in Judge Judy.
Says Paul Taylor, director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington: "Americans are the world's hyper-democrats. We hold more elections, more frequently, for more offices than any other nation in the world."
Letting ordinary people choose their government officials is a good idea in principle. But we don't really need to elect the person who does the state's banking, any more than we need to elect the custodians who mop the floors of the Capitol.
In Illinois, the formula seems to be: When in doubt, put it to the voters even if they couldn't possibly be competent to decide. Citizens vote for a vast multitude of local offices, including township land commissioner, fire protection district, park district and library board. Keep in mind that at last count, the state had some 6,800 units of government.
The glut of offices extends from coast to coast. You can print out a list of all the certified candidates in California, if you don't mind killing a tree it takes up 71 pages. And that's just the state and federal offices. Local ones are extra.
In California, the citizenry is obligated to select candidates for such mysterious state offices as insurance commissioner and equalization board. Coloradans have to choose state university regents and directors of the Regional Transportation District. In Texas, the ballot demands your input on agriculture commissioner, railroad commissioner and state board of education. Do you think there are a dozen people in Texas who would know their railroad commissioner if he showed up on their doorstep?
If those were all we were expected to know about, we might be able to make an intelligent choice. But elective offices are even more abundant locally. Every Texas county has regular elections for county surveyor, justice of the peace and "Inspector of Hides and Animals." Ohioans get to vote for county engineer and county coroner.
In Nebraska, you may have to make a judgment of the people running for the local power and irrigation district. Virginia expects you to choose soil and water directors. Personally, I think soil can generally get along without any direction whatsoever, and I suspect the person elected to this post would probably be no help on those occasions when I need water directed out of my basement.
I'm sure there are some voters with passionate convictions about the work done by the state treasurer or the county surveyor but not enough to justify cluttering the ballot with those posts. No one no one who is sane, anyway could possibly have an informed opinion about so many offices.
For filling some positions, democracy is not just pointless it's downright dangerous. Federal judges are appointed for life to insulate them from popular passions that can foster unfairness. But most states choose judges in elections, giving them a strong incentive to show off how tough they are on bad guys. Not many judges get elected by promising to scrupulously respect the constitutional rights of every defendant.
Judicial elections thus impose a burden on people charged with crimes, as well as a burden on all the people who are expected to vote in elections. Most of us can't know enough to cast sensible votes. We might as well fill these offices by picking names out of the phone book.
Americans love democracy, but do we need so much of it? A woman with two cats is an animal lover. A woman with 50 cats is touched in the head. When it comes to self-government, likewise, there's a difference between a healthy impulse and an uncontrolled mania.

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