Two bills that would change the way the state chooses its attorney general and secretary of state aren’t likely to get very far in the legislative process. That is too bad because the proposals would improve a system now based on political patronage rather than competence or accountability.
Maine is the only state in the country where the Legislature picks the attorney general. Although there was a robust campaign to fill that job last fall, that process was the exemption rather than the rule. Three Democratic lawmakers sought the state’s top law job: Sean Faircloth of Bangor, John Brautigam of Falmouth and Janet Mills of Farmington. Ms. Mills had a wealth of prosecutorial experience and was a good choice for the job.
However, the practice of choosing from among lawmakers, usually those who are about to leave the State House because of term limits, in the majority party severely limits candidates for these jobs. The secretary of state, state treasurer and auditor are also chosen by the Legislature. In most states, the people in these posts are elected by the public or appointed by the governor.
Either would be an improvement over Maine’s system.
Two resolutions from Sen. Debra Plowman, a Hampden Republican, propose to amend the state Constitution to have the public elect the attorney general and secretary of state. Both are scheduled for public hearings today before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee.
A decade ago, the committee strongly endorsed such changes, but they were rejected by the full Legislature.
These bills should not meet the same fate.
A popular election to fill these posts not only woudl broaden the pool of candidates, it would create new and needed steppingstones to higher office. With the governor the only statewide elected official in Maine, there is a very narrow pathway to Congress and the chief executive’s office. A statewide election for attorney general and secretary of state would enable voters to get a closer look at several candidates who may later aspire to the governorship or the U.S. House or Senate. This benefits the public and aspirants to higher office.
Elections, of course, have their downsides. Money sometimes determines the outcome and records are distorted. But this leads to the other major shortcoming of Maine’s current system — accountability.
Because the state’s constitutional officers because they don’t answer to the public or the governor, they’re accountability is limited. Having them elected or appointed by the governor would improve this.
The benefits of changing the selection method — larger pools of qualified candidates, new routes to higher office and more accountability — outweigh the negatives and lawmakers should seriously consider these proposals.