Now that we’ve voted in the August primary, here’s a pop quiz: Can you name the current state superintendent of public instruction, the commissioner of public lands or the insurance commissioner? Do you know what these officials are responsible for?
Don’t worry if, like most people, you answered no.
Washington is an outlier when it comes to the large number of statewide elected officials voters are asked to hold accountable.
We currently elect nine statewide offices (not counting justices to the state Supreme Court). These offices are governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of public lands and insurance commissioner.
Is this the most effective and accountable way to structure our state government?
Some say using the “long ballot” institutes direct democracy and accountability. This reasoning dates from the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Others argue a “short ballot” approach is better because the people choose a limited number of top officials, who are then held uniquely responsible for the proper functioning of government.
In contrast to the nine elected positions, all other senior officials in the executive branch are appointed by the governor. They make up the governor’s cabinet and include many important positions. Examples include directors of ecology, agriculture, financial management, transportation and revenue.
The duties and responsibilities of these appointed officials are similar to other elected officials, like the secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of public lands or insurance commissioner. They are primarily administrative in duty.
Today, Washington’s other statewide elected officials are independent of the governor. They lobby the legislature independently and can work against what the governor is trying to accomplish. Any such conflict is easily resolved in departments that are administered by appointees. If a policy disagreement arises among cabinet officers, the governor settles it by formulating a single, unified policy for his administration or by dismissing the offending cabinet officer.
The reason this works is that the governor has direct authority over the performance of appointed officials. They serve at his pleasure and are answerable to him. The governor in turn must report to the voters for the overall performance of the administration.
To help improve the accountability of executive agencies, the state constitution should be amended to provide for appointed secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and commissioner of public lands. The way the insurance commissioner is selected can be changed by the Legislature.
These four positions should then be restructured as cabinet agencies headed by appointees subject to confirmation by the Legislature, making the governor fully accountable to the people for the actions of these departments of the executive branch.
The treasurer, auditor and attorney general carry out an oversight role, working to ensure government agencies are following the law. It is because of this distinction that independent election of these offices makes sense. As “watchdog officials,” the treasurer, auditor and attorney general should be restructured as nonpartisan offices as is the case for state Supreme Court justices.
To ensure the successful transition of power in the event the governor is incapacitated, it makes sense to have an elected lieutenant governor ready to step into the top office. That does not mean, however, that the lieutenant governor needs to be elected independently of the governor.
Instead, Washington should model the office of lieutenant governor after that of the vice president of the United States. This would mean that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor would run on the same ticket.
If problems arise with public education, insurance regulation or management of public lands, voters would know that the solution lies with the governor, who could change the top managers of these policy areas at any time. If the governor fails to use his or her appointment powers to improve the management of these departments, voters could take that failure into account at election time.
Reducing the number of statewide elected offices would shorten the length of the ballot and, more importantly, focus public accountability in a way that people can understand and remember. This would increase accountability both during a governor’s term and in election years when voters are assessing candidates for the state’s top offices.