December 11, 2018
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Party affiliation too narrow a qualification for Maine’s constitutional officers

Joe Phelan | AP
Joe Phelan | AP
Maine lawmakers will pick the state’s next treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general next month.

Maine will soon pick three people who could have a significant impact on the state’s future, especially when it comes to voting rights, legal battles and borrowing money.

Maine voters are excluded from this decision. Instead, after heavy lobbying and political maneuvering, the majority party in the Legislature — Democrats after November’s election — will pick the state’s next attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer. No Republicans are seeking any of the three positions.

There is a better way. In fact, most state’s don’t use this system, which rewards political tenure and loyalty over finding the best people for these jobs.

Under the state Constitution, Maine’s attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are elected by the Legislature. (So is the state auditor, but the process for filling that office is written into state statute, not the state Constitution, and there is a set term of office.) This often means that the people chosen are former lawmakers or failed candidates from the party that holds a majority in the State House.

Maine is the only state where the Legislature elects the attorney general. In 43 states, voters elect the state’s top lawyer. Governors appoint the attorney general in five states, including New Hampshire. In Tennessee, the supreme court names the attorney general to an eight-year term.

Maine is one of only three states that relies on lawmakers to pick the secretary of state, an office that does not exist in Utah, Alaska and Hawaii. Voters in 35 states elect their secretaries of state; they are appointed by the governor in nine states. State treasurers are elected by voters in 36 states and appointed by the governor in eight and Legislature in four. There is no state treasurer in New York or Texas.

A popular election of these officers in Maine would require candidates to raise funds and garner endorsements, which could lead to conflict-of-interest concerns. But, because the state’s constitutional officers don’t answer to the public or the governor, their accountability is limited now.

Popular elections would also raise the visibility, and public scrutiny, of the constitutional officeholders. Currently, there are only three statewide races — for governor and Maine’s two U.S. Senate seats — a reality that frequently draws lamentations that there are too few good candidates to choose from for the state’s top offices. With more high-profile campaigns, Maine voters would get a chance to see and hear from more people who could make good future governors and senators.

The office of Maine attorney general had mostly been a low-key affair until the current office holder, Democrat Janet Mills, who became a principal antagonist of Gov. Paul LePage. The two vocally disagreed about numerous issues, including executive power and Medicaid expansion. LePage refused to release funds needed by Mills to hire new attorneys for her department.

Mills was elected governor earlier this month, leaving her office the most hotly contested for the incoming Legislature. Five Democrats are vying to fill her seat. Outgoing Republican Sen. Roger Katz, a respected moderate, said he considered a run for attorney general, but decided against it because Republicans don’t have enough votes to get him elected.

The fact that a qualified candidate won’t run because his party is outnumbered highlights the shortcoming of the current system.

Likewise, Democrats are likely to turn out Treasurer Terry Hayes because she is no longer a member of the party. Hayes, an independent candidate for governor, was the first independent to gain a constitutional office. The Democratic candidate for the post is Henry Beck, a lawyer and former House member from Waterville, who says he looks forward to being a partner with the governor and Legislature.

It is short-sighted to pass over Hayes, who is making the Treasurer’s Office more transparent and is the midst of a project to make financial assets more readily available to disabled Mainers, for someone with limited financial experience.

Former Democratic lawmaker Matt Dunlap, who has been secretary of state since 2013 — he also held the post from January 2005 to January 2011 — is running unopposed.

A bill that would have turned these positions into elected ones failed in 2013. Of course, there is little incentive for lawmakers to change the system and amending the state constitution is a high bar to cross.

Yet, we hope similar legislation will be introduced this year. Opening the door to a wider pool of qualified candidates, rather than limiting choices to party loyalists, deserves serious consideration.

 


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