Voter poses a good question

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 19, 2007

A recent e-mail from a reader struck a chord with me.

The reader prides herself on being an informed citizen and voter. She wants to cast a ballot in the Nov. 6 election, but a couple of high-profile races on the ballot have her scratching her head.

“I’d like to vote, but I really don’t know anything about Clerk of Court or Commissioner of the Revenue,” she wrote.

Her point was to ask the newspaper for some explanatory journalism about these offices and their responsibilities. We’ll oblige with a special voters guide to be published as a supplement to our Wednesday, Oct. 31, edition. The guide will contain information about the candidates and the offices they seek.

But the reader posed another question that we’re less qualified to answer: Why are these elected positions?

Why indeed?

The short answer is that the state constitution says so. But as for a philosophical defense of why we elect the holders of jobs that are entirely administrative in nature, I can’t make one.

Charley Reese, the feisty syndicated columnist, makes the case for electing all public servants - from president to dogcatcher. Changing a public office from elected to appointed is an infringement on the power of the people in a democratic society, he believes.

Perhaps. But do we voters really derive any power or particular benefit from electing people to administrative positions? These are important jobs whose holders should be chosen based on their qualifications and relevant skill sets rather than popularity and political affiliation.

Here in Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County, we are blessed to have several highly qualified, competent candidates on the ballot for clerk of court and commissioner of the revenue. They shouldn’t have to run a political campaign to be considered for the jobs they seek.

But I suspect that’s not the case in many counties. Somewhere, I predict, someone will win a popularity contest for court clerk or revenue commissioner who doesn’t have a clue about being a custodian of records or tax dollars. Citizens in those counties will pay for the incompetence and inefficiency that surely will result.

It’s true, of course, that appointing a public servant won’t take politics out of the process. Those who would do the appointing - county boards of supervisors, most likely - are political creatures themselves.

But they would be accountable to the voters for their appointments.

I’m good with that: Let me choose my policymakers and chief executives, and let them hire the people who make government work.

STeve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is