OK, alert readers, what’s in common among these people? Richard Zeile, Lupe Ramos-Montigny, Michelle Fecteau, Kathleen Straus. Stumped? How ‘bout these: Eileen Lappin Weiser, Casandra Ulbrich, John Austin, Pamela Pugh Smith.
Still at sea?
They’re all members of the State Board of Education, elected statewide to eight-year terms and constitutionally empowered to provide “leadership and general supervision over all public education” in Michigan. Just last week, they voted to select Brian Whiston, the current school superintendent in Dearborn, as new state superintendent of education, succeeding Mike Flanagan, who has served in the position since 2005.
Student performance in Michigan schools is among the very top priorities of both our leaders in Lansing and ordinary citizens alike. Because the State Board has enormous constitutional power to maintain/reform/improve/blow up (you pick) our schools, you’d think the names and qualifications of members would be familiar to voters throughout Michigan.
I doubt if more than one percent of Michigan voters know all their names. Before I started work on this column, I certainly didn’t.
But that isn’t to say they’re without qualifications. Democrat John Austin, the chairman of the board, is one of the smartest and most imaginative people in public service today. Republican Eileen Lappin Weiser is an accomplished solo pianist. Casandra Ulbrich is Vice President for College Advancement and Community Relations at Macomb Community College. Other members are just as capable … but largely unknown.
That’s too bad
As a practical matter, elections for statewide education offices – the State Board of Education and the governing boards of the state’s big three universities – have almost never had to do with educational issues or candidate qualifications. Nominees for these offices are selected every two years by partisan party conventions and presented, residing at the bottom of the ballot, by the political parties to voters. Maybe as a result, candidates for “less important” education offices remain almost unknown to the vast majority of voters because they get almost no coverage in what remains of the state’s news media.
Who wins is most often determined by whichever party runs best at the top of the ticket. The average vote for these offices is often less than half the vote for governor or president. Those who vote the straight ticket wind up voting for the party’s choice, willy-nilly, while those who split their tickets often don’t vote because they don’t know enough about the candidates.
This means the outcome of these races is not much more than a crapshoot.
Actually, it’s worse than that. With the public largely uninformed about the particulars of any given candidate, it’s a built-in recipe for special interest influence on important state offices.
Here’s why. Both our political parties are to a significant degree controlled by large special interests: Democrats by organized labor, trial lawyers and ethnic minorities; Republicans by business interests and, increasingly, right-wing ideologues. So anybody who hopes to win the GOP nomination for such an office better snuggle up to business, not to mention the Tea Party. Democrats who don’t toe the party line won’t get nominated at their party’s convention.
Things don’t usually turn out quite as bad as all this suggests. Most of the time, the people (regardless of party) who want to serve in these unpaid advisory positions are thoughtful citizens, interested in making Michigan a better place.
But today’s practice of electing unknown candidates with unknown qualifications and unknown stances on the issues makes no sense. It’s manipulative and deceitful to voters. It encourages partisanship where there should be little. It institutionalizes the influence of special interests. The net result is that those who are supposed to determine education policy in Michigan are unaccountable for performance in office.
I should know. I ran for the U of M board of Regents twice, winning once and losing the other. I used to think that electing regents assured that the people had a direct voice in running our universities. These days, I’m not so sure that the system of uninformed voters selecting unaccountable officeholders is good way of carrying out governance.
Indeed, our practice of electing very dimly known candidates to important offices raises troublesome questions for a supposed democratic political system based on elections.
Should we continue to select people to fill important policy positions by election by voters who know very little? Or should there be change to a system of gubernatorial appointments, with advice and consent by the legislature? Should voting be mandatory? It is in Australia. Voter turnout is low and getting lower; Is this a sign of an alienated citizenry or a large-scale yawn by millions who don’t want to get involved? Indeed, given the avalanche of hidden money now pouring into TV ads designed to manipulate uninformed voters, how much legitimacy do elections really have these days?
While we’re quarrelling over whether to fix our terrible roads, such questions might seem abstract and rather academic. But they’re very important, because they strike to the core of what we call a democracy.