Opinion Columns & Blogs

February 5, 2013

Davis Merritt: Term limits, at-large elections are bad ideas

Two ideas floating in the Kansas political atmosphere – term limits and at-large local elections – need more careful analysis than they have so far received.

Two ideas floating in the Kansas political atmosphere – term limits and at-large local elections – need more careful analysis than they have so far received.

Implementing them would be steps back from the democratic ideals of citizen control of government and equal representation.

Both ideas are beguiling in that they are proposed as solutions to perceived problems, but both exist in direct contradiction to other beliefs held by their proponents.

Term limits are offered as relief from “professional politicians” who make careers out of what should be selfless public service. If effective legislative or executive duty were simple and anyone could perform it well, then changing officeholders every couple of terms might work. But it is not simple, and most of us are prepared only to be placeholders and likely would be replaced by others similarly unprepared; that’s hardly a prescription for effective governing.

But, it is argued, isn’t that just the point: Government is too big and too intrusive and should not be the province of people who actually want to govern. To control our destiny, that cycle must be broken. The argument ignores an important reality: “Government” isn’t the elected bodies; it’s the professional employees – the bureaucrats, if you must – who operate the departments, enforce the regulations, collect the taxes and implement the programs established by the elected bodies.

Elected officials who know the complex apparatus and its dynamics are best prepared to make it into what they and their supporters want – whether that means reducing it or growing it. That’s knowledge not easily nor quickly acquired. Contending that we must change officeholders before they have that full grasp is akin to saying it’s OK for surgeons to know how to open you up but that they needn’t bother to learn the rest of it.

The less elected officials understand the bureaucracy they create and command, the more authority migrates to the professional staffs. Thus a built-in contradiction: Those who rail most against “unelected bureaucrats” running things are also those most likely to demand underprepared overseers of that bureaucracy.

Term limits already exist, but they’re called elections. People should be able to vote for those who reflect their values, without artificial limits on how many times they may do so.

The impetus to move from district to at-large local elections such as school boards and city councils is a clear case of a solution in search of a meaningful problem. The notion of doing away with district representation is tied to the idea of moving local elections from the spring, when turnouts are weak, to November, when more people vote.

That’s not a bad idea if increasing turnout is the sole motivation. But some suggest that saving money ($80,000 in the case of the Wichita area) is also a reason to move to the fall, and the savings cannot be accomplished when the complicating factor of district elections is moved to November: all those differing ballots, voting instructions and so forth. Their solution: at-large elections.

We’ve been there, and it was not good. Many of us remember when virtually all school board and Wichita City Council seats were filled with residents of one white, wealthy section of the city; minorities and lower-income people need not apply. Abolishing district elections to save a little money would be both undemocratic and immoral.

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