The sheer number of elected officials is a unique factor of the American political system. Jobs that would be filled by civil servants or via appointment in other countries are chosen by the voters. There is something appealingly ‘American’ about such an arrangement; the idea that the democratic values of accountability and popular will should be extended to as many corners of our society as possible. That said, some of the things we know about Americans and elections should give us pause when it comes to filling technical and low profile jobs via the ballot.
It’s a well-known, but still unfortunate, truth that the Presidential elections every four years are high water marks when it comes to voter participation. When one starts going down the list—Congressional elections, Gubernatorial elections, State Legislative elections, and local elections—voter interest, attention, and participation wane at each step. Even in Presidential elections, where turnout is highest, often voters are only voting for many of the offices on the ballot because, well, if you’re already in the voting booth, why not?
The state-level Secretaries of State are a representative example. In 38 of the 47 states which have Secretaries of State, this somewhat obscure office with a confusing name is the chief election official in charge of conducting elections, enforcing rules, and establishing regulations and procedures. Iowa is one such state.
My college years in Iowa were bookended by the 2004 and 2008 elections, so I had the opportunity to attend the occasional campaign event. While I cannot speak for the Republicans, the Democrats apparently had a policy of attempting to have as many candidates as possible at every event. Thus, before one got to hear from the Iowa Democratic Party’s nominee for the United States Senate, one was presented with a series of opening acts. At one such event, the introduction for the Democrat’s nominee for Secretary of State consisted largely of an explanation of what the office even was and why it was important. This was for an audience of the kind of people who consistently show up at political speeches and events.
That nominee was Michael Mauro, who did end up winning in 2006. He repeated that feat in 2008, but was not so lucky this last time around. Iowa’s Secretary of State, as of January of 2011, is Matt Schultz.
There is not much disagreement that Mr. Schultz won courtesy of a good year for Republicans nation-wide, just as Mr. Mauro did in 2006 when Democrats had the wind at their backs. When one considers this fact through the lens of “down-ticket races” it seems so unremarkable as to be truistic; of course the Iowa Secretary of State is relying of the turnout of Congressional, Senatorial, and Gubernatorial candidates. That’s how these things work. But it does seem like a reason for pause when you consider the stated justifications for making the office elected in the first place. In practice, the Secretary of State is not who the voters have picked from the field of candidates and chosen to get behind, but rather whoever’s name is connected to the party that’s having a good year in Iowa. It’s one thing to advocate for a state’s chief election official to be elected, it’s another to say it should be a de facto partisan office of the party that won the Governor’s mansion and legislature.
The campaigning for an office such as this makes for an interesting, if brief, study. Mr. Mauro essentially argued that he’d done the job well for four years and could be counted on to continue in this vein. Campaign rhetoric doesn’t naturally lend itself to bragging about administrative competence, but Mr. Mauro’s campaign did have the virtue of primarily focusing on what is in fact an important part of being Secretary of State. Mr. Schultz’s campaign largely focused on his promise to be “Pro-Jobs” by being an advocate for businesses. This was presumably in reference to the minor role the Secretary of State plays in the licensing of businesses. The only thing Mr. Schultz had to say regarding the oversight and running of elections was concerning voter fraud. While this seems odd in light of the fact that Iowa has never had any problems with voter fraud, it did give Mr. Schultz the opportunity to say things about being vigilant and tough on crime.
So what changes will Iowans be seeing now that they have decided for a change of pace in the Secretary of State’s office? Mr. Schultz railed against the lack of a photo ID requirement at the polls and the fact that Iowans are permitted to register the same day as they vote, so those could fall in his crosshairs. And the type of voting machines that may be used has been a political football in the state legislature so that could also be the target of some changes. But ultimately one is struck by the sense that, after more than eleven months of campaigning for this office, not much has been made clear about what the incoming Secretary of State will be doing vis-à-vis his office’s largest duty.
Christopher Bettis is a third-year student at William & Mary Law School.