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Wednesday is swearing in day at the Maine Legislature. In addition to taking their oaths of office for the next two years, the members of the 130th Legislature will also elect the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor in a process that excludes Maine people from directly deciding who serves in these important roles.
Under the Maine Constitution, the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are chosen by the Legislature. That’s why these three roles are known as constitutional officers. The state auditor’s selection by the Legislature is based in statute, not the Constitution. In both cases, the result is a process that tends to prioritize political connections and party loyalty over finding the most qualified person for these roles.
Because of this system, Maine’s top law enforcement official, election official, the official that manages the state’s cash and debt, and the official tasked with making sure government funds are spent legally and properly, are frequently former lawmakers or former candidates from whichever party has a majority in the State House at that time.
Take, for example, the crowded Democratic field in this year’s race to replace term-limited Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. It has included six current, outgoing or former Democratic lawmakers: term-limited House Majority Leader Matt Moonen, Sen. Shenna Bellows, term-limited Rep. Craig Hickman, term-limited Rep. Erik Jorgensen, former Rep. Tom Bull and outgoing Sen. Justin Chenette.
Now, those Democratic Secretary of State candidates have distinguished themselves as thoughtful leaders on various issues. We just happen to think that it’s the Maine people who should be assessing their records and ideas for the Secretary of State’s office, not their current or former colleagues. And party affiliation has proven to be too narrow a qualification for these roles, with strong candidates sometimes edged out because they don’t belong to the current majority party.
In appearance, if not in practice, these offices often seem to be a career step for whoever is most popular or best-positioned within the party that has the most seats in the Legislature. Presently, that is the Democratic Party.
Dunlap’s own bid to become the next state auditor is a glaring example of this. He’s done an admirable job as secretary of state. We’ve found him to be open and accessible and he has served the state well on complex issues like ranked-choice voting and REAL ID. But now that he is termed out of that role, he is aiming to fill a position that he will literally be unqualified for at the time of Wednesday’s election.
The state auditor is required by Maine law to be qualified to work as a certified public accountant, certified information systems auditor or certified internal auditor, or to have passed the licensure exams for those positions. Dunlap isn’t currently any of those things, though the law allows someone nine months after being elected auditor to get up to speed on those qualifications. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Dunlap to do so, but it also wouldn’t be ideal.
In an interview, Dunlap stressed his ability to learn quickly in previous jobs and his experience as an administrator. He said he is “not boastful or glib that this will be easy,” but thought he would be able to learn on the job.
“Neither one of the Wright brothers had a pilot’s license,” Dunlap said Tuesday.
Even without currently meeting those qualifications, the Democratic-controlled Legislature looks poised to make Dunlap the next state auditor, as he is the Democrats’ only candidate for the role. But we have to imagine it’s a pitch that would be harder to make directly to Maine voters.
Maine is the only state where the Legislature elects the attorney general. In most states, voters elect their attorney general. A handful of others have their governors appoint the attorney general, and in Tennessee, the supreme court makes the decision.
Maine is one of only three states where lawmakers pick the secretary of state. It’s a voter-elected position in 35 states. The process for selecting a state auditor is more of a mixed bag nationally, with just 24 states in which voters elect their auditor.
With its constitutional officer elections in particular, Maine is basically out on an island, and not in a “we lead” kind of way. Our process more closely resembles the antiquated way that U.S. senators were once chosen by state legislatures, not directly by the people they represent.
Dunlap made a good point Tuesday that the current way of choosing these officials means they can focus more on their jobs rather than campaigning statewide. It’s true that making these popularly elected roles, both constitutional officers and the state auditor, could add another layer of politics. But these roles are already politicized.
It’s largely former, current or future politicians serving in these offices — it’s just that the people of Maine don’t get to select them for these particular jobs. There is still campaigning, at least in contestested races, it just happens among lawmakers. As a result, the state officer elections happening on Wednesday look more like party musical chairs than good governance.