In filling out my ballot yesterday and posting it off to Oregon, one of the decisions I had to make was for Clackamas County Sheriff. This decision was nearly as easy as President, seeing as how the incumbent sheriff is running unopposed.
On November 15th, English and Welsh voters get their first chance to vote for such a position, which they’re calling the Police and Crime Commissioner. This has generated criticism from most points on the political spectrum, and both regarding the fundamental need to its botched implementation. The criticisms include a violation of the separation of powers, the politicisation of the police, that it will be a low information election both in terms of the office and the date the government chose to hold it, and that turnout will be perilously low to the point where the election itself will be illegitimate.
The Electoral Reform Society are particularly critical of the implementation and, according to their analysis, 18.5% predicted turnout. I agree with much of what they have to say. However, they’re rather fuzzy on how they arrived at the 18.5% estimate, and even then, judging the legitimacy of an election based on turnout is an ultimately arbitrary game.
I’ve been doing the usual bit of local media for the BBC during an American election cycle. This year has brought something new — a seven day run on BBC Radio Devon called ‘pause for thought’. Instead of the normal back and forth of an interview, it’s a set piece of about two minutes where I have clear air time. The hardest part of it has been waking every morning to be in the studio around 6am. Otherwise, it’s like writing blog posts, but pitched to an entirely different sort of audience, and read live on air.
I addressed a couple of the critiques mentioned above in this morning’s piece. Specifically, while it’s a low information election, the partisan label of the candidates (those not running as independents) does serve as a voting cue and communicates some information. Furthermore, local media have a role to play. Radio Devon is trying to raise awareness on the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary election, and pieces like this in the Seattle Times (on the current election for King County Sheriff) are not uncommon in US media.
Second, using turnout as a metric for legitimacy is never going to fly due to its inherent arbitrary nature. I get the normative problem: public policy in a democracy should represent the general will of the population (however measured and defined), but ultimately, and rationally, instead represents those who vote. When the composition of the electorate is systematically different from that of the general population, policy will likewise deviate.
However, again, where to draw the line and claim an election illegitimate? In 2005, Tony Blair was re-elected with 35.5% of the vote on a turnout of around 62%, resulting in a durable parliamentary majority that governed for five years. Yet, when examined closer, 78% of the population either explicitly voted for someone else or failed to participate. Labour’s re-election in 2005 was predicated on the support of 22% of the population.
Furthermore, while the position here is laudable for devolving accountability and some policy to a more local setting, it remains largely bereft of policy responsibility, so I’m not sure how far one can take the turnout critique. Indeed, if the Seattle Times piece linked above is any measure, the election for King County Sheriff is about administrative and personality qualities, not policy.
I’m not terribly sure how to address the critique that these offices somehow violate a separation of powers. The entire concept is, at best, muddy in the British constitution. This isn’t a violation in the US context. We might legitimately argue whether or not these positions should be selected by vote or on pure merit (as we might likewise debate voting for judicial positions), but I don’t see this as a separation of powers issue, much to the chagrin of an ex-student of mine.
This leaves the politicisation question. On one level, this is a trade-off — adding the partisan label, useful as a cue for voters, by definition politicises the office. However, claiming non partisan offices to be de-politicised is laughable. Poring over the list of non partisan offices in Clackamas County and the State of Oregon yesterday, one cue I used to make decisions were endorsements. Every candidate for “non partisan” positions have endorsements that cluster in readily identifiable, partisan clusters. While removing an office from the electoral purview would seem to aid in its de-politicisation, that itself is superficial.
The theme of my piece this morning was that expanding democracy is a normative good, especially in the UK. While extending democracy in England and Wales to the office of Police and Crime commissioners is open to criticism, the most damning are about implementation. While spreading democracy is good, a much better place to start expanding democracy might have been giving local government real policy power (additionally, with few exceptions, there is virtually no relationship between local government as its understood in the UK and policing). At present, only about 25% of the local council budget comes from local taxation, and the council’s ability to vary this is tightly restricted by central government. These positions don’t really matter much at all, and, unsurprisingly, turnout to local elections is unsurprisingly modest.