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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are elected officials more responsive if they have to run for office more frequently?

Efforts to make our elected officials responsive to the wishes of the electorate have been attempted in many ways.  Term limits and having our elected officials run more frequently are two methods most frequently tried. Today my second guest blogger, Jason Booms, argues for the second method of shorter terms.

"In 1788, when Maryland ratified the Constitution, Article I provided for an original apportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives based on the provision of one Representative “for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one…”

Had the same formula been in place following the 2010 census, the U.S. House would consist not of 435 Members, but over 10,000.  Maryland alone would have 192, instead of the present eight, Representatives.  Under this scenario, our “alternate universe” Congressional delegation would be slightly larger than our actual state legislature, the General Assembly (which consists of 188 Members including 47 Senators and 141 Delegates).

While a legislative body numbering in the five figures would be, among other things, unwieldy, the U.S. Constitution allows Congress the flexibility to expand the size of the House of Representatives.  Congress has done so, from time-to time.

Our Founders designed this provision, with a mechanism for revision, to ensure adequate representation among the various states at the federal level.  Moreover, they mandated that elections for the U.S. House of Representatives would be held every other year.  This measure was intended to help ensure that Congress would be subject to a frequent, and regular, formal check by the electorate.

Like the federal government, our state government has adopted revisions to adapt to changing needs and priorities.

Maryland’s General Assembly has increased in size from 152 members in 1960 to the current composition of 188 legislators.  Given the current political and economic climate, an additional expansion is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Of course in Maryland, the Office of Delegate is up for election only every four years.  In addition, the average number of constituents per State House district is now up to 40,947.  This number rises to 122,842 for the many multi-member districts in our state.

All of these facts and figures lead this writer to one conclusion: in Maryland, our elections are too infrequent and our districts, in many cases, are too large to provide for the optimal degree of legislative accountability and responsiveness to the citizenry.

Under the present system, legislators can spend the first year or two of their term casting multiple votes that are not aligned with the will of a majority of their constituents, recognizing that the electorate will not have the opportunity to judge them at the ballot box for another couple of years.  As is often the case, there may be good reasons for Delegates to adopt such stances.  However, given the sheer number of votes that occur every session as well as the considerable passage of time, the Delegate should be held accountable for their votes every other year, as is the case in 44 other states.

I have heard criticisms of my proposed measure from thoughtful individuals, including some policy-makers.  Many of them center on the additional campaigning and fundraising involved with holding elections every two years instead of every four years.  Some say that governing decisions will become politicized with the shorter election cycles.  Others are concerned that the legislative learning curve will be too steep for a two-year term.

My solution is not only greater than the sum of the problems; it also addresses each of the problems individually.

Concerned that your Delegate is becoming a captive of special interest largesse?  Vote him or her out of Office.  Contributors can already donate to the campaign(s) of their choice, for whatever reason(s), for most of each calendar year.  It seems, at best, unseemly that voters can express their judgment at the ballot box for this Office only every four years.

Would there be more money in politics?  Sure, the need for fundraising is an unfortunate aspect of modern-day electioneering.  That said, doubling the number of campaigns does not mean that the amount of funds raised per election cycle would be doubled.  In short, this is a price worth paying for the voter to have the ability to exercise his or her right to vote twice as often.

What about requiring legislators to spend more time on the campaign trail?  Won’t this detract from policymaking?  I say no.  In a democracy, campaigning is an extension of governing.  Voters are listened to, issues are debated, popular support for various policy measures is ascertained and ideologies are ratified or rejected.

To those who say that Maryland is a part-time legislature, and that requiring legislators to juggle the needs of their full-time job with their public responsibilities would prevent some citizens from seeking office or learning the ropes of their new position, I respond there are multiple examples that illustrate that such a balance can be achieved.  Maryland is one of several states with what the National Conference of State Legislatures describes as a “70%+ full time” state legislature.  Other states in the same category include Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington.  All of those states have a lower legislative house (akin to our House of Delegates) with two-year terms of office.  Surely, our Delegates are every bit as capable as those legislators.

Maryland is without a recall provision.  We have seen examples of policymakers who have engaged in unethical, even illegal, behaviors and who have attempted to cling to office.  Why should their unfortunate constituents have to wait years for the next election cycle to have the opportunity to remove such bad actors from their positions of responsibility?

Two-year terms were the case for the House of Delegates from 1845 to 1922.  America was in the midst of an anti-Progressive backlash during the time when Maryland shifted from two to four year terms for the lower state house. I say it is time that we re-adopt the two-year term as the ideal performance review point for the House of Delegates by the voters who elect them.  As was said during President Cleveland’s Administration, “a public office is a public trust.”  Let the people renew, or establish anew, the bonds of that trust every other year."

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