A Participatory Democracy
for American voters
Many overseas audiences are aware that the entire 435-seat United States House of Representatives and a third of the 100 Senate positions were also
contested in the 2004 elections. Fewer, however, realize that each of the 50 states has its own state legislature, a total of more than 6,000 positions, most of which are up for election this November. Add to that 11 elections for state governor (most of the 50 gubernatorial positions come up during the "off-year" elections two years from now) and the total number of elective offices starts to look pretty large.
These positions, numerous as they are, though, barely scratch the surface of the number of posts on state and local
ballots. It may be no surprise that mayors in thousands of cities in the
United States must run for election, from the mayor of New York City, with a
population greater than that of many countries, to the mayor of Greenhorn,
Oregon, with a population of three.
This is still only the tip of the iceberg. Americans elect state treasurers, state labor commissioners, city commissioners, county commissioners, school board members and the boards of fire departments. They elect county auditors, the boards of cooperative regional governments and sheriffs. They elect circuit court judges, appeals court judges, state supreme court justices and the precinct committee members for the political parties. In many states, the head of the state's school system is elected. In the state of Louisiana, the officials in charge of assessing property tax values are elected. California alone has thousands of special governmental districts, many of which have elective positions. The fact is, according to Washington political consultant Earl Bender, that the United States has more than 176,000 elective offices spread throughout its tens of thousands of governmental entities.
In most countries, the great majority of the posts mentioned above either do not exist or are filled by appointment. Why have Americans chosen to elect so many of their officials?
This richness of elective offices goes back to the foundation of the U.S. federalist system. From the beginning, Americans have had a deep aversion to centralized political power. To guard against it, the new United States placed a great deal of authority in its state governments, each of which has the privilege of electing its own officials. The country's founders also realized that the sheer vastness of the country called for the devolution of power to state and local institutions.
According to Professor Rodger Randall of the University of Oklahoma, who is also a former president of the Oklahoma State Senate and a former mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, "The United States federal system puts real decision making power in the state and local levels of government -- like a cascade of power. We not only elect these posts, but these people are going to have real authority, without a check by the federal government, other than the basic guarantees of freedom contained in the constitution."
State legislators, mayors, county commissioners and other local officials have the ability to make law and regulation, levy taxes for local purposes and administer the local government institutions that supply such basic needs as water, roads, police and fire protection.
"This federalism means that most of the things that affect our daily lives are decided at the local level. By electing these officials, we gain strong and immediate accountability from them. If I have a pothole in the road in front of my house, I can call someone on the phone that I elected," Randall said.
The United States is a participatory democracy. Counting all of the candidates for office, their campaign staffs and the countless volunteers, literally millions of Americans get involved in each campaign
for full text]
[ Back to