Are you ready for the next election?
No, I’m not talking about 2020 and the chaos of a presidential year. To all of our chagrin, that will start far too soon. Rather, the next election is the “secret” race for Maine’s constitutional offices.
We’re an outlier in the United States. Our attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer are not elected by statewide ballot. And, unlike in Washington, they are not chosen by the head of the executive branch. Instead, the 186 elected representatives and senators will meet in a joint convention and cast secret ballots to determine who will hold each office. The state auditor, who is not a constitutional officer, is also chosen this way every four years.
At least, that is the official story. And over the last few years, it was the reality. With Democrats holding the House when Republicans secured the Senate, the margin meant a unique candidate could bridge the partisan gap. In 2014, that candidate was Independent (yet former Democratic leader) Terry Hayes.
However, the most recent public election swept Democrats into complete control of the Legislature. That means, as a whole, Democrats will decide who fill these offices. To predetermine the winner of the joint convention, they will hold a closed-door “caucus” and let the prospective candidates make their pitch. Out of the public eye, they will decide amongst themselves who “wins” and then come into the open to cast their ballots.
This isn’t a knock on Democrats per se; the GOP would likely do the same had they secured complete control of the Legislature. But, when literally every other state faces this same issue and comes to a different solution, it is probably worthwhile for Maine to be a bit introspective.
The attorney general is the top prosecutor for Mainers and provides legal services to state departments. The treasurer signs all the checks drawing on public funds and borrows money backed by the full faith and credit of Maine. And the secretary of state gets to issue license plates and file corporate and legal documents. Oh, and oversee state elections, responsible for safeguarding the very legitimacy of our government.
In short, they are jobs which probably deserve a little more than a closed-door meeting by a subset of our elected officials.
With Gov. Paul LePage leaving office, maybe a reasoned conversation can arise on how we should choose these officials. Gov.-elect Janet Mills campaigned on fighting with her soon-to-be predecessor. Other state attorneys general position themselves politically by doing the same. However, the vast majority of other states choose their AGs through a statewide ballot. Both their attorneys general and their governors can — rightly — claim public legitimacy.
Yet having those offices — attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state — serve as political stepping stones presents political danger. Georgia Gov.-elect Brian Kemp was the secretary of state, responsible for overseeing elections. He was accused of inappropriately removing voters from registration lists for an advantage in his own election. Whether true or not, the appearance alone is problematic.
A solution could change this process and limit the potential for hijinks. The governor — whether LePage, Mills, or anyone else — should have officers of state aligned with them in pursuit of their policy objectives. Maybe we should let the governor choose the candidate, and the Legislature can confirm them, as we do with countless other offices. If there is concern that a disgruntled executive will simply force out attorneys general with whom they lose confidence, a firm term could be established.
Similarly, if we are adjusting the rules governing officials, we could prohibit the secretary of state from standing as a candidate in a partisan election. If they want a new public job, they need to go seek it, without simultaneously guarding the electoral hen house.
There has been talk over the past several years about changing the way constitutional officers are selected. Maybe, with Mills moving into the Blaine House, we can finally find a better way.
It shouldn’t be a secret.