Too many elective offices in N.C. turns off voters and also doesn't advance true needs of government
Asheville Citizen-Times (editorial) Aug. 21, 2004 9:51 a.m.

Tuesday's North Carolina runoff will have served a purpose far beyond settling a single Democratic nomination if it alerts people and policy-makers alike to the absurdity of having so many elective offices.

The only word for Tuesday's turnout is pathetic. Nearly 2.4 million Democrats were eligible to vote in the superintendent of public instruction runoff between June Atkinson and Marshall Stewart. So were many of the state's 881,545 unaffiliated voters, specifically those who had voted in the Democratic primary or had not voted at all.

The turnout of 79,719 works out to only 3.3 percent of the Democrats and an even lower percentage when unaffiliated voters are factored in. Not a single voter showed up at the Santeetlah Community Center precinct in Graham County, and only 51 residents, 12 of them poll workers, voted in the entire county. In Buncombe County, which had 63,376 Democrats and 28,988 unaffiliated voters eligible for the first primary, only 2,340 showed up for the runoff. At best, that's a turnout of only 3.6 percent.

"It's kind of depressing," said Rebecca Gibson, deputy elections director of Clay County, where only 84 people voted. "It was sad that people didn't care enough to vote."

Beyond that, it was expensive for the counties, especially small ones such as Clay and Graham. It cost Graham $6,300 to hold the election, which works out to $123.53 per voter. The cost was $7,000, or $83.33 per voter, in Clay and $40,000, or $17.09 per voter, in Buncombe.

"I don't know why the turnout was low," said Max Haner, Democratic Party chairman in Buncombe. "I know both the candidates worked hard in Buncombe County, and the party worked hard to let people know there was an election."

The answer is simple. Almost no one turned out because the election was meaningless. To paraphrase what Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," it doesn't amount to a hill of beans who is superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina. The office has been stripped of what little power it did have and today the superintendent is little more than an adviser to the State Board of Education, which consists of the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer and 11 gubernatorial appointees.

Actually, the superintendent does have some powers. They derive not from the education job but because the commissioner also is a member of the Council of State, an obscure body dating from 1776 that today shares an assortment of executive powers with the governor. The intent was to put a check on executive power but what it really does is confuse the public as to where power lies.

North Carolina's November ballot will include elections for all 10 members of the Council of State: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and treasurer. Also elected statewide will be two state Supreme Court justices and three judges of the Court of Appeals.

Add to that the races for president, Congress and county offices and you have a ballot so long that many voters either skip a lot of offices or vote in races where they haven't a clue about either the candidates or the office.

North Carolina clutters its ballots with too many offices that should not be elective. Self-government means electing those people who govern. Commissioners of agriculture do not govern. Neither do auditors, or secretaries of state or any of the other Council of State members except as relates to collegial duties that could easily be eliminated. That would give the governor the powers everyone already assumes he has and that are inherent in the name of his office.

Locally, Buncombe County elects its sheriff, school board, register of deeds and clerk of courts. Why? Asheville gets along nicely with an appointive school board, and none of the other offices has anything to do with governing.

The danger in situations such as Tuesday's is that they will lead to elimination of runoffs. That would be very bad. Runoffs assure that parties put forth candidates who represent the views of most of their members. To illustrate the importance of runoffs, consider the case of Spiro T. Agnew, who was driven from Nixon's vice presidency by corrupt acts committed while he was governor of Maryland.

Maryland did not have runoffs. In 1966 the Democrats wound up nominating racist George Mahoney with far less than a majority of the votes. Agnew became governor due to the votes of liberal Democrats who hadn't a clue as to who he was. All they knew was that he wasn't George Mahoney.

If North Carolina were to clean up its ballot and elect only those people who should be elected, the problem of low turnouts should be cured.

People would care enough to vote if they saw that the person they were electing could make a difference in their lives.

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