One of the key reasons why school systems need to be less dependent on political processes is because, at best, the political process is a “sausage factory”. Expecting too much from the political process, especially refusal to acknowledge obvious limits on the ability of the electorate and public officials to process information will make the outcomes of an inherently ugly process, increasingly ugly, and destructively dysfunctional. Even the voters and legislators that want to cast only informed votes confront major difficulties, not the least of which is the huge number of informed votes expected of them. Some of the symptoms are obvious and unsurprising; for example, very low turnouts and very low levels of informedness for state board of education and school district school board elections.
The situation in Bexar County, Texas is a good example. Each Bexar County resident has a chance to vote for nearly forty representatives; everything from President to U.S. Senator, County Clerk, Land Commisioner, School Board, Edwards Underground Water District and Sheriff. Since many races are contested in a primary, and then a general election, that’s over one hundred office-seekers to pick from. There are also judges (over 30) to pick and state and local ballot issues to decide. Is it any wonder that voter turnouts are low in the vast majority of races, microscopic in many, and that the reason for voting for someone is often trivial (leading in the polls?!?!), based on scant information, or misinformation?
With so many races to cover, is it any wonder that the media are over-extended too. Many races are invisible to the vast majority. We are asked to vote on so many things that only an unemployed political junkie could make an informed choice in each race. The implications are unacceptable and unsustainable. Only with broad-based, informed participation in the political process can government be “by the people and for the people”.
Over-extension of the electorate is often a self-reinforcing process. Small percentages of the electorate elect people that most people know very little about. Poorly scrutinized candidates are more likely to make decisions (appointments, policies) inconsistent with mainstream views. The resulting disappointments and cynicism about government produce yet lower voter turnouts and reduced informedness, and they produce demands that voters be closer to the decision-making process by having direct election of previously appointed officials, and initiative and referenda to directly decide or overturn policy decisions. That is a curious reaction. We get upset with politicians, and then demand that more be created. The assumption persists that citizens will make additional informed choices, even though it is clear that informedness and turnout are already microscopic just below the top of the ballot.
The fragmentation of political power in more elected offices also reduces the accountability of elected officials. Extremely unpopular policies can survive a long time because it is hard to fix blame. Complaints lead to finger-pointing rather than change. Fragmentation of power, and over-extension of the electorate, also increases the power of special interest groups. The small turnout of largely uninformed voters makes it more likely that a small cohesive bloc will be decisive. For example, in the majority of states where Teachers’ Unions are more powerful than they are in Texas, it is widely understood that most school board members are handpicked by the local leaders of the teachers union. It is not inconsequential here, including for other races involving school system policies.
Since I doubt that “big government” can be made to be “by the people and for the people” my preferred solution to the over-extension of the electorate is a lot less government. Taking some choices out of the realm of politics, and relying more on private initiative, markets, and charities, means fewer elected offices.
Without drastic cuts in the scope of government, the only way to spur a broad-based rise in voter informedness and turnout is to have fewer races to monitor, and make the outcomes more important to voters. That would mean lengthening terms of office, and concentrating power locally in fewer elected officeholders. Reducing the number of elected officials and the frequency of campaigns facilitates informedness. Shifting power from federal to state, and state to regional and local governments, and concentrating power in fewer elected offices would strengthen the incentive to be informed and to vote, and it would increase competition among local jurisdictions. That means consolidating some overlapping jurisdictions (cities and counties, various special districts), converting some elected positions to appointed positions, and increased reliance on political parties.
The concentration of power can bring serious abuses. I propose two safeguards against such abuses: 1.) Streamlined recall procedures for all elected officeholders; and 2.) An accessible petition and referendum process for overturning decisions.
I can only comfortably offer the suggestions above as a starting point for debate and research. The substantial lack of either on this critical subject is very troubling. The details of any reform proposals are critical, and the implications of inaction are bleak. Microscopic voter turnouts, and rising voter alienation and cynicism about politicians and government, cannot comprise a true republic, much less be true to our founding fathers’ vision of government (eloquently stated by Lincoln) of the people, by the people, and for the people.