Electing the coroner?

Published 8:27 pm Wednesday, April 30, 2014

By Daniel Sutter

This is an election year, the first state elections since I moved to Alabama.  I was surprised to learn that Alabama elects county coroners.  Each state seems to elect at least one unexpected office, but this is an unusual one.
The Pike County Coroner race will apparently be uncontested this year, and I am unsure if this is fortunate or unfortunate.  On the one hand, I have no idea how to evaluate candidates for coroner, and so I am relieved to not face this choice.  But an election for coroner might be quite educational.  Do the candidates hold debates?  Do they argue about how best to conduct an autopsy?
The elections of coroners or dog catchers (apparently Duxbury, Vermont actually elects this office) illustrate the limits of voting.  The limits of voting in no way undermine the important role elections play in protecting our freedom.  Government holds a legal monopoly over the use of force, and history sadly provides too many examples of nations living in oppression and poverty under a tyrant.  Regular elections provide the best defense against tyranny.  A ruler seeking to enrich himself at the expense of a nation cannot hope to remain in power if he must face a free election.
Elections become “institutionalized” when officeholders accept the results and voluntarily leave power.  Thomas Jefferson’s victory over John Adams in the bitterly contested presidential election of 1800 signaled the entrenching of elections in the U.S.  Establishing the institution of elections is often difficult.  Many African nations began independence as democracies but collapsed into tyranny, and have remained mired in poverty over the past fifty years.
Elections provide insurance against a would-be tyrant, but are blunt instruments which we today try to use for microsurgery.  Fire alarms sometimes have the instructions, “Break glass in case of emergency,” and voting a scoundrel out of office is our weapon behind the glass.  The anticipation of electoral defeat also deters officials who might be tempted to act inappropriately.
Today we ask too much of elections, which are far less effective than advertised in selecting “the best” person for an office or providing a “mandate” for an officeholder.  A coroner’s election illustrates why.  Most of us have no idea of the true qualification for coroner, and little incentive to learn about the candidates or the job.  Consequently even an overwhelming reelection does not necessarily mean the current officeholder is doing a really good job.
Many citizens are equally uninformed about more consequential offices and issues.  For instance, only about 25 percent of Americans can name both of their state’s U.S. senators.  While many Alabamians are following the implementation of the Common Core and the Medicaid expansion debate, others know little about these questions.  A referendum will often be decided by people who do not know what they are voting on.
Some commentators decry this and think Americans should learn more about politics and government.  Public choice economists who study political institutions counter that Americans’ ignorance reflects the costs and benefits of information.  Knowledge benefits a voter by lowering the chance of casting a “wrong” vote, or voting differently than if fully informed.  But a “wrong” vote is costly only if it decides an election, which almost never happens.  After all, how many elections end in ties?  Learning about the candidates and issues is costly, especially given the misinformation around in election season, and people exhibit what economists call “rational ignorance” in keeping up with the Kardashians instead.
By contrast, people will often know when a politician really needs to be voted out of office.  The American colonists in 1776 were informed enough about England, King George III, and the Stamp Act to have voted for independence if given the chance.
The importance of elections probably leads us to expect too much from voting.  If democracy and freedom are worth fighting for, it is only natural to want to use elections to select a host of government officials.  But just as a good craftsman knows to use the right tool for the job, we need to remember that elections are also only designed for certain tasks.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on Trojan Vision.  Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

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