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Elected Police Commissioners — Why?

[ 28 ] October 31, 2012 |

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.

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Comments (28)

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  1. bexley says:

    While spreading democracy is good, a much better place to start expanding democracy might have been giving local government real policy power

    Well maybe. I’m suspicious of devolving too much power down to local government because the possibilities for corruption at that level seem to be greater. I’m guessing its cheaper to “buy” a councillor than an MP and there is less media scrutiny of what they do.

    • Major Kong says:

      I agree. It at least takes someone like Boeing or General Electric to buy the Feds. It seems like any moderately successful real estate developer can buy the city or township.

    • bradP says:

      I’m guessing its cheaper to “buy” a councillor than an MP and there is less media scrutiny of what they do.

      I don’t know about that. Media in local elections can just as easily be word of mouth rather than a broadcast.

      With sturdy constitutional boundaries set at a higher level of government, I think obsfucation could be more difficult on the local level.

  2. Matthew Heath says:

    I suspect the answer to “why” is largely about putting a Labourite “in charge” of crime in the industrial cities.

    • IM says:

      as far as I understand the background is generally that the Tories have a good chance to win everywhere. That giving them good news they can’t get otherwise right now.

  3. guthrie says:

    Power has been centralised more throughout the last 2 or 3 centuries in the UK. But in the 80′s it was centralised even faster in a trend which has continued to today. And if you control the budget allocation from the centre, you greatly influence what is done more locally. Hence lack of real power in councils and suchlike.

    The why is uncertain, although being in Scotland I don’t have to worry about this particular piece of madness. It does seem that it fits with the ConDems privatisation agenda, which is seeing more large companies running Police services. (And we know how well that works in US prisons etc)

  4. bradP says:

    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).

    Agree with this 100%, but still think personality and adminitrative qualities would still be the most influential factor.

    • Malaclypse says:

      a much better place to start expanding democracy might have been giving local government real policy power

      Two words: Joe Arpaio.

      • bradP says:

        There are plenty of horror stories about Arpaio, and I can’t describe on here what I think should be done with Arpaio, but…

        I won’t really concede this point until you can point me to the level and/or branch of government from Arpaio on up that operates from a position of respect and sympathy for immigrants.

        Strapping pregnant immigrants to their hospital bed is abhorrent. But against the backdrop of thousands of broken familiies as a result of the million plus deportations that have occurred under Obama, its not an entirely convincing point in the context of this argument.

        • Malaclypse says:

          I know which level of government was better on civil rights from 1954 onwards, and it was not small-town cops.

          • DocAmazing says:

            True in most places, but here in California, we’ve got bad input from the Feds to local cops (DEA, FBI and ICE all mess with local policy and screw up improved civil rights policies) and they move very slowly at reining in bad local cops, like Oakland PD, LAPD and LA Sheriffs.

            I’m sure the Feds are preferable to status quo in Jesusland, but they’re a real problem here in California.

        • parrot says:

          dude, throwing ‘bama dust on the problems related to America’s Toughest Sheriff … what are you working this out with an empty chair beside you? …

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:

          On the contrary side, Hunter Thompson got elected coroner in his home district (IIRC). The one official that could legally “depose” the sheriff for medical or mental issues.

          Hunter, of course, was an expert in mental issues.

      • parrot says:

        nobody messes with America’s Toughest Sheriff … just saying …

      • rea says:

        The British (or maybe English) system is so different, you can’t make comparisons to someone like Arpaio.

        There is something to be said for local accountability, at least for the kind of details that can only be handled locally, like traffic enforcement or emergency response time. A lot of the bad stuff Arpaio does (apart from simply being corrupt) involve him sticking his nose into state or federal matters.

  5. Quercus says:

    Democracy in general is good, but there’s a good reason we generally have a representative democracy — nobody who also has another job can pay attention to all the decisions that a government must make. And the same logic that applies to passing laws applies to hiring employees (for instance, police). There’s no way that an average voter — even a well intentioned, moderately involved and reasonably intelligent person — can keep track of 100 elected officials and their performance, or even 20 or so in my opinion. So if we have too many elected officials what happens is either elections happen on part lines (which is in effect the same as having the candidates appointed by an elected chief executive), or elections are dominated by special interests who can afford to pay attention and vote (which is worse).

    I wonder if there’s research on how many elected officials an average person can pay attention to and track. My guess is it’s no more than 5 or 6. (and in the U.S., the average voter has at a minimum POTUS, two fed Senators, fed Rep, a state Governor, Lt. Governor, state Rep, state Senator, two to three primary local officials and God-knows how many obscure state and local officials like Clerks of Courts, State Treasurers, etc.)

    • rea says:

      A good general rule for local elected officials is that if they’ve come to your attention, they ought to be voted out. If the sheriff’s department is working well, you won’t notice it, unless you are committing crimes.

    • Cody says:

      On a related note, here in Indiana I voted against retaining a single one of the five judges on my ballot.

      I have no clue of who they are or what they did. I’m also 99% sure everyone else probably just hit “Yes” to retain them.

      But we have a lot of Republican Governors here, so I doubt they were good judges…

      • John says:

        Your logic seems rather flawed. Indiana had Democratic governors from 1989 to 2005. I’d guess that means a fair number of Democratic judges still on the bench. And any new appointments would come from Daniels.

    • tt says:

      I would go even further. The midterm electorate is whiter, richer, older than the presidential year electorate. I so no good justification for giving such an electoral bias to groups which already hold a disproportionate share of the power. One vote every four years, for party.

  6. parrot says:

    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.

    … and another might be to take a pleasant stroll through Lane County and discuss the issue with the wild mushrooms … wisdom and knowledge can be found in unlikely places …

  7. Anderson says:

    But nonvoters are making an express choice to accept what the voters choose. It’s like they’ve delegated electoral choice to those who know or care more than they do.

    So I’m not buying an illegitimacy argument based on low turnout … at least, not in a real democracy that doesn’t work overtime to discourage blacks, etc. from voting.

  8. Chris in OR says:

    Matt Streb has got a book that deals with the expansive use of elections in the U.S. called Rethinking American Electoral Democracy (just came out in a second edition, I think). He argues that we have too many elected positions, making it harder for voters to make informed choices and making each race less significant. This has always struck me as convincing- he identifies all kinds of positions that are elected that voters know very little about. Endorsements and party cues help, certainly, but they remain proxies for informed choice, particularly as interest groups, parties, and candidates become more savvy (and manipulative) about the use of heuristics. This strikes me as applicable in this case as well- devolved control may be desirable, but local elections may not be the best way to devolve control to the local level.

  9. Pithlord says:

    Democracy is a sensible principle for removing governments of whom the people have tired because it is preferable both to armed insurrection and unremovable governments. It is a terrible principle beyond that.

  10. Pithlord says:

    Complaining that the UK is more centralized than it was 300 years ago is complaining that a system of more-or-less arbitary rule by the local gentry has been replaced by universal suffrage. The grievance should only be offered in conjunction with complaints about the gout, the rise of the Hanoverians and the toleration of non-conformist churches.

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