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Once again, a bill to change the way Maine selects its constitutional officers — our secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer — has been introduced in the Legislature. If history is our guide, the legislation will be rejected.
It shouldn’t be.
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.
This means that, most often, the winning candidates are members of the party that controls the Legislature. Often, they are recent former lawmakers, who did not win reelection or couldn’t run because of term limits.
Changing this system could open up these jobs to a wider pool of candidates and increase transparency and accountability, both of which are needed.
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, an office that does not exist in Utah, Alaska and Hawaii. It’s a voter-elected position in 35 states. 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.
There have been 103 failed attempts over the years to change how the state’s constitutional officers are elected, according to the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.
Earlier this month, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee voted 7-3 in favor of LD 874, which calls for the popular election of these officers.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor, still faces several large hurdles. The change would require an amendment of the Maine Constitution, necessitating a two-thirds majority in each legislative chamber and a majority approval by voters on a statewide ballot.
A change is overdue. Having the voting public elect these officers will likely widen the pool of candidates while also bringing more public accountability and transparency to these jobs.
We’re not holding out hope that the 104th time will be the charm, but it should be.