The Ballot Is Too Damned Long

By Seth Masket
from Pacific Standard

I received my Colorado ballot last week. It contains nine legislative and executive races, including that for the presidency. There are also 29 judicial retention elections. And there are 15 state and local initiatives and referenda. That’s 53 elections on one four-page ballot.

I don’t know what a reasonable amount of time is for a voter to consider any given race. But if I spent two minutes per contest, I’d be spending almost two hours voting. Fortunately, I can vote by mail for this election, so I can take this time at home rather than wait in a long line while dozens of other people work through their lengthy ballots.

Look, I’m a passionate advocate for free and fair elections and for public participation in them. But this is too much. As a political scientist who specializes in American elections, I’ve just got to be toward the upper end of the informed scale, and there’s no way I’m going to cast an informed vote on all these contests. The presidency? Sure. Congress and state legislature? I can handle that, although I’ll probably fall back on party labels in making many decisions.

What about county court and state court of appeals elections? The chances are slim I’m going to do a whole lot of work on those. Now, if there is a truly corrupt judge, I might well hear about it and vote against that person for another term, but this isn’t a great system for ensuring that judges do their jobs well. Granted, it’s not obvious that this system is worse than lengthy or even lifelong appointments by elected officials, as Chris Bonneau and Melinda Gann Hall note. But, barring significant news about these justices, I’m not going to be casting a very informed vote. It wouldn’t bother me terribly if governors and other executives took this power out of my hands.

And what about the 15 initiatives and referenda? There are some legitimately interesting ones, including an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of a new public health-care system, and switching from a closed caucus to an open primary in presidential nominations. But is the ballot really the right place to hammer these things out? Do I and other Colorado voters have the necessary expertise to decide whether a substantial restructure of our public-health system will be in the state’s best interests? Here again, I’ll likely follow some cues, such as by looking at who’s supporting the measures and who’s opposing them, rather than trying to become an expert on these matters. That’s not necessarily a bad way to vote, but it’s far from obvious that I should be voting on these matters in the first place.

Interestingly, one of Colorado’s ballot measures this year is Amendment 71, which is designed to make it harder for amendments, which currently require only a simple majority of votes, to pass. Amendment 71 would raise the vote threshold to 55 percent. Perhaps more importantly, it would make it harder to get an amendment on the ballot at all, requiring the signatures of 2 percent of registered voters in each of the state’s 35 state senate districts. This would mean that anything that gets on the ballot would have more substantial and broader-based support.

This is an imperfect reform. It, perhaps, as its opponents note, biases the initiative process more in favor of those measures backed by wealthier industries. But by simply making it harder to put initiatives on the ballot, it’s a move in the right direction.

As Jonathan Bernstein notes, if we want elections to be taken seriously, we shouldn’t drown voters in them. It’s possible for voters to select a handful of elected officials — presidents, governors, legislators, etc. — and for those elected officials to nominate judges and enact public policy and be judged on those decisions in the next election.

I’m not sure what the optimal number of choices is on a given ballot, but it just has to be lower than 53.

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