The Diminishing Marginal Return of Elections.

Radley Balko wants a little less democracy in the criminal justice system:

But there is one change that could at least stop the bleeding: less democracy. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out in a 2008 article, America's soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world. In most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more susceptible to slogan-based crime policy and an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse.

I don't have hard data, but I suspect that Balko is right; it's hard for our prosecutors and judges to be fair when they have to pacify the demands of a fickle and easily scared public. The theoretically simple act of stopping judicial and prosecutorial elections could open up needed space for discussion and reform.

To move away from criminal justice, though, this goes to show -- further -- that Americans vote way too much. Voters in Alabama will choose an agricultural commissioner, voters in New Orleans will choose a coroner, and voters in Los Angeles county -- in addition to voting in candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, Senate and House -- will vote for controller, treasurer, insurance commissioner, member of the state Board of Equalization, member of the State Assembly, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, associate justice of the state Supreme Court, presiding justice of the Court of Appeal, associate justice of the Court of Appeal, judge of the Superior Court, superintendent of public instruction, county assessor, and nine ballot initiatives.

To choose correctly for a judicial position, a voter would have to know when that judge was appointed, who appointed her, and how she has performed on the bench. To do this for more than a dozen candidates across five different courts is beyond a tall order; it's insane. A well-informed voter -- our editorial assistant, for example -- could easily spend hours sorting through candidates and positions, assuming the information is on the Web and readily available. I can't imagine how the average low-information voter would fare; odds are good that he wouldn't bother to vote for most offices.

And therein lies the problem. Elections are a way to hold our leaders accountable, but we have a limited capacity for accountability. There's only so much attention to go around, most people -- even political junkies -- don't have the time, ability, or inclination to evaluate a dozen-plus candidates. For most people, the rational choice is just to choose a few candidates to focus on, and go from there. A whole group of other, obscure candidates are left to their own devices, and can keep themselves in office without actually having to account for anything to the mass of voters.

Americans tend to equate "democracy" with "elections," but as much as we can damage democracy by holding too few elections, we can undermine it by holding too many.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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