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It is that time of year again, friends. Yes, that’s right, it is our biannual moment in the sun to show the rest of the country how not to choose some very important governmental positions.
Maine’s attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and state auditor are once again being selected by the full body of both houses of the Maine Legislature. As I write this column, the selections have not yet been formally made, but we still know who is going to ultimately end up in each position. Aaron Frey is slated to be once again selected as attorney general, current state senator Shenna Bellows will be elevated to secretary of state, Henry Beck will once again be the state treasurer, and current secretary of state Matt Dunlap will become the auditor.
This process is an embarrassing and ridiculous one, and every two years or so many among us complain about it. Yet, it never changes, because the people who are required to make the change — the Legislature — are the ones who currently hold all the power, and they have no interest in giving it up, and the people of Maine are barely aware that such an antiquated system of swamp creature politics even exists.
Let’s be clear, Maine is an extreme outlier in the selection of these offices. Each one of the offices in question is vitally important in Maine government, but particularly so when it comes to the attorney general and the secretary of state. Maine happens to the only state in the country where the attorney general is elected in this way. It is one of three states where this system is used to select the secretary of state.
Most states prefer to conduct elections for these positions. Forty-three states elect their attorney general, 35 states elect the secretary of state, 36 states elect their treasurer, and even 24 states elect the auditor. In those states that don’t elect the position in question, the alternative method is almost always a gubernatorial appointment with state Senate confirmation. Maine is essentially alone in the wilderness in doing things this way.
“But Matt,” you might say, “we have typically had good people in these offices over the years, so why is this such a problem? Why should we change?”
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I’m glad you asked. First, please understand that changing the system does not present a choice between “the good people we have had” and “the monsters we would have otherwise.” It is entirely possible — nay probable — that we would probably end up with decent people serving in these positions in any scenario.
Put another way, if you like who has served in these roles recently, the reason you like them is not because the Legislature chose them. The people in these roles are nearly always more popular and more widely regarded than the higher stakes offices like governor, or U.S. senator.
No, this system is wrong because it is insular, closed, concentrates power in the hands of few, and guarantees that only political insiders and professional politicians will ever hold these positions.
If you want to be elected to any of these positions, you don’t even need to convince the entire Legislature to vote for you. Instead, you really only need to appeal to the party that has the most votes in the Legislature at the time, which can frequently be only slightly more than half.
Thus the narrow constituency of lawmakers grows ever narrower, and appealing to them becomes a matter of swamp politics.
Worse still, the two bodies of the Legislature can be split, but still keep the ultimate control of the body in the hands of one, as was the case in the second term of Gov. Paul LePage, when the Republicans held majorities in the state Senate, but Democrats held the majority in the more numerous House. This makes winning the Senate pointless to the overall choice, but also makes a mockery of the idea that it is the “upper chamber” at all.
It is well past time to change the system, and while I would certainly be more happy with statewide elections, I actually think we should follow the lead of the states that have the governor appoint these positions.
Realistically, that would give the Senate an opportunity to advise and consent, it would open up the positions to non-politicians and political outsiders, and perhaps most importantly, it would allow a healthier functioning of government, preventing constitutional officers from working in direct opposition to elected governors, as has occurred several times in the past.
Then again, almost anything would be better than the system we have now.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.