Why do Americans vote on coroners, magistrates, school directors, and tax collectors?

  • A friend of mine posted on Facebook about her recent election in Pennsylvania. The results page showed a whole bunch of results that are really, really odd to me as an Australian:

    • Justice of the Supreme Court
    • Treasurer
    • Coroner
    • lots of district judges
    • lots of school directors
    • lots of tax collectors

    Most of the candidates are also listed with party affiliations. I've heard previously of people also voting for sheriffs or other police officials.

    What's going on? Why are these public servants being directly elected rather than appointed? Surely these elections make these roles hard in terms of stability. And why are they politicised? Shouldn't judges be non-partisan, or at least as much as possible? How do you ensure the candidates are qualified and competent? Why make these government officials waste their time campaigning?

    Which municipal offices are elected vs. appointed really varies quite a bit.

    Possibly because the US is (supposedly) a democracy. It seems as strange to me that other countries are apparently content with such positions not being elective. As for being qualified & competent (let alone unbiased), how do you ensure that the people doing the appointing don't just appoint their friends & political supporters? (See e.g. recent news about some of Trump's judicial appointments.)

    @jamesqf It's not anti-democratic to delegate the appointment of public servants to your local representatives when that's literally a core part of the role you elect them for! Safety comes through the entire parliament needing to appoint them, and the very loud noise from the law societies etc if bad appointments are made.

    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

    It varies hugely by state, better to list a table. Don't generalize 'Pennsylvanians' to 'Americans'. The short answer is the US is a weakly federal country, whereas Australia and many other developed-world federal states are strongly federal. Add to that the US is not really one country at all, but nine separate countries cohabiting (very) uneasily under one federal roof. Really you're enquiring after "states' rights" and the delegation clause of the US Constitution, which is an entire topic...

    @smci Yes each state is different, but PA is only an example. I've heard the same thing multiple times before, PA was just the most extreme. I think states rights is a different issue. You can have strong states and a weak federation without directly electing judges and other public servants, as it is in many European countries.

    "What's going on?" Different political system obviously. Also democratic but less indirect, more direct. If this is better or worse... is a very interesting question but probably another one?

    To be honest, almost everyone just ticks the box that has an R or D depending on their preference. They know nothing about these local people. Some people follow city council and school board elections beyond party affiliation, but even that is rare. IMO, it's a terrible system because it assumes an educated electorate. Most people only care about federal positions (if at all) which runs counter to our founders' intentions.

  • Brythan

    Brythan Correct answer

    4 years ago


    Before we talk about anything else, let's note that the United States is a federal system. Each state sets its own rules. Even the titles might be different. So the following discussion will be centered on how things are done in Pennsylvania, which may be quite different from how they might be done in other states. Another state might even work more like you expect.


    It's worth noting that in Pennsylvania, the common pleas, commonwealth, superior, and supreme court judges are only elected when they first take the office. After that, they stand for retention every ten years. Only the magistrates (the lowest level of judge) stand for reelection.

    In terms of stability, judges almost never fail retention. For example, Russell M. Nigro is the only Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice to have lost a retention vote since they were established in 1968.

    School directors

    I'm not sure that it is clear what a school director is. In the US, there are typically five levels of government: municipal; school district; county; state; federal/national. The municipality could be a city but states have various other options, which may include town, village, borough, or township. The municipal selection will vary by state. The relationship between municipalities, school districts, and counties is not clearly hierarchical. For example, there are multiple counties inside the municipality of New York City, which I believe has one school district.

    A school district may contain one or more than one municipality. Or it may have the same boundaries as a municipality or county. Anyway, the point is that the school directors are the council for the school district. They set property taxes and approve the budget. They typically meet once a month for a stipend rather than a salary. They hire a chief executive of the school, who is a salaried employee. They have the same type of qualifications as any other council position. Educators may have a step up the way that lawyers do in more legislative positions.

    Unlike your other examples, school directors are not full-time employees. They are elected representatives like county commissioners or city council members.

    Pros and cons

    Some might argue that voters have as much ability to evaluate judges and coroners as elected representatives do. On one side, this is true. The special quality needed to be elected is popularity, not judgment. On the other hand, most voters don't actually do this. They vote for the candidate endorsed by the local party. So the result is essentially the same as if the local executive chose them; the party rewards those who support it.

    It is possible for voters to choose a different person from the party selection. It just rarely happens. When it does happen, they don't necessarily choose better.

    For regions that are relatively balanced in partisan terms, having offices be elected instead of appointed by the government can have an auditing effect. A treasurer or coroner of the opposite party from the executive or sheriff can review certain cases and ensure that money is spent as it should or that justice is done. But too often they are of the same party and thus reluctant to actively disagree with each other.

    The real weakness is that if the voters choose, each individual voter has little reason to take the time to understand the qualifications. So they vote based on other estimates, e.g. party or newspaper endorsement. Elected politicians at least want to avoid later scandals. So they don't want to appoint someone who will later prove obviously unqualified. They are more likely to pick milquetoast candidates than unqualified ones.

    Of course, the candidates chosen by politicians won't be the most qualified. First, the politicians don't know who is most qualified. They know who has supported them. They tend to pick strong supporters with moderate qualifications. Just as they do in picking who to endorse in elections where voters choose. Neither politicians nor voters are really set up to make the best picks.

    If we really wanted to maximize qualifications, we'd come up with a system that worked more like a jury. Pick a hundred voters randomly, pay them a stipend, and let them choose the candidate. They can take the time to really evaluate the candidates, knowing that their vote was actually important, not just one of thousands or millions. The stipend should be enough that they can take time off from their regular job to do this one.

    Or we could maximize stability by allowing judges to select their successors. Judges are far more qualified to tell if someone is qualified and has the right mindset. The incentives would be to pick mindset more than qualification, but not by so much that candidates would be much less qualified than sampled elections. They would probably be more qualified than those chosen by voters or politicians.

    Political appointments maximize unity. The judges will have similar beliefs to those of the politicians that appointed them.

    It's like with anything else. How much do you value control (direct election) over best qualifications (sampled election) or unity (political appointment) or stability (successor selection)?

    Thanks for the info on school directors! If that's basically another level of government, with the ability to set and collect taxes, then of course they should be elected.

    Your jury idea is interesting. But I guess I'm just less suspicious of our elected representatives. They're already hired full time to appoint people, and they themselves hire more people to assist them.They should already be listening to the courts, the solicitor-general, the law societies etc to know who would be good to appoint. And when there's no expectation that judges and coroners will be politicised, most will keep their affiliations hidden, and so the politicians won't be picking who would be most supported by their parties because they won't know.

    Alternative: the school decides who to hire to run the school, the tax office decides who to hire to collect taxes. Neither politicians nor voters are involved.

    +1 for Federalism--a lot of folks may not realize that the constitution specifically gives states the power to set their own rules for most things, including how local positions are elected or appointed.

    "[School directors] set property taxes and approve the budget." Given that this is a matter of state law, not surprising that this is not globally true. In my city, while the school board is elected, they develop and _propose_ a school budget to the city council, but the final approval is a city council vote, and rarely occurs on the first proposal from the school board. The school board also sets no property taxes (although their proposed budget obviously heavily influences the annual tax rate the city council will set).

    @OgrePsalm33 - Good point. I've found that really shocks a lot of Europeans, particularly eastern Europeans. The whole country isn't run by our national government. For example, often times if the POTUS doesn't like something the state of New Jersey is doing, there isn't a damn thing he can do about it. Yes, we really **mean** all that federalism stuff. For the most part...

    @T.E.D. nobody likes what the state of New Jersey is doing. Including most people in state of New Jersey.

    @user4012 - That's why they made such a good example. If I'd picked Texas, I would have had to balance it with "or California". Florida wouldn't work, because nobody even *understands* what they are doing. (seriously, WTF, Florida?)

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM