Why are judges elected in the United States?

USA explained

This author has now received his documents for the elections on November 7th and is now faced with one of the most important questions an American in Germany can ask himself when exercising his democratic rights: If mandatory number 2 pencil is prescribed, what kind of pencil hardness is that in the HB system? There was a good reason for the previous entry.

The second question is, of course, why pencil and not ink, but that is a requirement of the New Mexico state responsible for this author for postal votes. The notes are placed under supervision in counting machines that want a number 2. Allegedly not a problem. Hmmm.

The third and most important question for us today is where is the sharpener, because there are many, many circles to fill in. The ballot paper from the responsible New Mexico community, about 8 by 40 centimeters, contains the following items:

A Senate seat (federal), a seat in the House of Representatives (federal), governor and vice-governor (state), a seat in the house (state), secretary of state (state), state auditor (state), state treasurer (state), Attorney General (state), Commissioner of Public Lands (state), County Commissioner (township), County Assessor (township), and the Sheriff (township).

There are also:

Five state district judges, six Metropolitan Court justices, 16 judges who may be voted out or sustained, three votes on the issuance of earmarked treasury notes of the state (for retirement institutions, for education and for the country's libraries), six votes on earmarked ones Treasury notes from the community (for investments in flood protection, in the community library, in security measures for public buildings, in parks and swimming pools, for handicapped-accessible reconstruction measures and in streets and cycle paths), a vote on a specific tax increase for cultural projects and four requests for changes to the State Constitution.

Some posts and offices that one would otherwise expect are missing on the ballot paper, the authorities of the school districts for example. Either they will be excluded from overseas postal voting or they will be elected with the president in two years. That couldn't be clarified in a hurry.

Regarding the second group: We spoke of direct democracy in the USA, and this is what it looks like in practice. The choice of judges and the ability to remove them from office will be discussed in a later entry.

We'll deal with the first group today. For each of these positions there are at least two names on the list (in some cases candidates can be added by hand). Almost all of them have a party behind them, but only as background information. There is no two-part vote like in Germany. This is one of the biggest differences between Europe's parliamentary democracies and the American Congress: in the US, people are elected, not parties. Why?

Three main reasons:

1. Control and accountability.

The incumbents should only be accountable to the voters and only be dependent on them, not on a party. Otherwise, this shields the candidate from the people: The most important thing for him is to get on a party list and get as high a place as possible there. He focuses on pleasing the party bosses rather than the citizens.

(In general, parties in the US have been an unavoidable evil at best from the start, as we will discuss in a separate entry. George Washington has already railed against them. Americans are perplexed that other countries are building their entire state with them.)

In contrast, every single MP in the United States has to fight personally for his or her post. He also has to raise the money for this himself. From the longest serving party chairman to the smallest backbencher, no one has a guarantee that they will survive the next election. The system of the primaries only exacerbates that: the party leadership cannot even decide who their candidate should be.

Theoretically, the entire House of Representatives could be replaced every two years and the entire Senate every six years without changing the majority structure: the same parties, completely different people. In practice, however, larger "cleaning waves" are rare. We have seen some senators have been in power for decades.

But not only MPs are directly elected. If we look at the list again, we find the State Treasurer or the Attorney General - a cabinet position. This is again the compulsion to compromise built into the system. But also offices that are appointed in Germany are determined by the population: The county assessor determines the value of land and of course we also have the sheriff of the community (the police chiefs of the cities are employees). These posts bring us to the second point:

2. Independence.

Since the elected is only accountable to his voters, everyone else can slip his back. Ideally, he always follows his conscience and not only when the party leadership graciously removes the parliamentary group obligation.

The disadvantage for the MP, however, is that he is entirely alone for his decisions. No senator or member of the House of Representatives can talk himself out of having submitted to party discipline. In New Mexico, Republican MP Heather Wilson was for the Iraq war, her challenger Patricia Madrid (previously Attorney General of the state) is now demanding a clear timetable for the withdrawal from the Democrats.

Almost more important than for politicians is this independence for civil servants, as they would be called in Germany. For example, in Arizona (but not New Mexico), the State Mine Inspector is elected, who is responsible for mine safety. The direct election should enable him to say politically unpleasant things without having to fear for his job. Elections are organized in New Mexico by the respective county clerk, who is also responsible for the administration of certain files. Here, too, the incumbent should be shielded from political power games. Presumably this person is also responsible for the pencils.

If something goes wrong, the responsibility is clear: it was him. Citizens do not have to hope for a committee of inquiry or an "internal disciplinary procedure" in which the saying with the crows and the eyes often turns out to be correct. You can throw the person out yourself. It is important that the incumbent knows, because that brings us to the third point:

3. Better service.

A useful side effect of such offices is that every happy customer is a loyal voter. This author has had only the best experiences with authorities that have had an elected leader - the staff are friendly, courteous, helpful and quick because their boss wants to be re-elected. These posts are not elected at the federal level, which often creates a stark contrast and confirms the common US citizen's belief that the feds are a bunch of inefficient wasters of money.

There are a number of secondary reasons for direct voting. The whole mechanism is easy to understand, in contrast to the mixed electoral system of the Bundestag, which even a depressingly few Germans can correctly describe. There are also no things like “overhang mandates” in direct elections.

But the US system also has disadvantages. The first is the volume already described in this blog: Each and every one of these elected politicians and officials has to make a name for themselves and show the citizens why they should be re-elected. This is only bearable because elections are held every two years in November and only then. Whether the influence of lobbyists is greater is controversial. The Americans have the Abramoff scandal and the Germans have the Flick affair, so no system is immune. An undisputed disadvantage is that the candidates are measured more by their public appearance and behavior than some would like.

The direct vote leads to some effects that Europeans are not aware of. The elected are not only completely free to express their personal opinion, moreover, citizens often ask them to take a position.

And so the New Mexico firefighters are campaigning for the re-election of MP Wilson. Your rival Madrid has the teachers behind her. In deeply republican Arizona, the Democratic governor Janet Napolitano is supported by eight sheriffs, six local attorneys and the highway police, among others. The sheriffs appear in full uniform in their election spots. In referendums, judges also feel called to give their opinion on one or the other proposal, for example when it comes to tax increases for the construction of prisons. Such endorsements can be decisive for the election.

The pencil sharpener turned up in the playhouse of kid number one at the end. Where else?

(Corrected Oct 23, 2006: Senate could be changed every six years (a third every two years), not every 18 years. First discovered by FL, thank you very much)

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2006 at 10:53 am and is filed under Entry.