This article originally appeared on Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice.
I will cast a vote this year for a public office that deals with a host of pressing public issues: economic development, agriculture, urban infrastructure, environmental quality, and land use, to name just a few. What’s more, the official who wins the office will have some serious authority, including the power to levy taxes and borrow money without approval of other elected officials or voters. I can’t think of another position in my state with that sort of unchecked power (even if it’s limited to certain places and objectives).
Yet, despite these purposes and powers, few voters know anything about the office. Fewer still are talking about the race to fill the seat. Most citizens would be hard-pressed to name the candidates or the outgoing incumbent, let alone explain the goals and authority of the job. In the hierarchy of offices on the ballot, it’s near the bottom.
The office is Drain Commissioner for Kent County, Michigan. Perhaps the name alone helps explain its obscurity. “Drain commissioner” just sounds painfully bureaucratic, technical, and perhaps irrelevant and even a little gross. And the job description doesn’t generate much more enthusiasm. Drain commissioners manage surface water by building and maintaining, well, public drains – or, more precisely, all of those culverts, retention basins, storm drains, and open channels that are hidden in plain sight throughout our communities.
But scratch a little deeper and it’s clear that this public work is as crucially important as it is nitty-gritty. Drain commissioners deal with one of our most basic goods – water – in the most basic ways. The goals of the office, which include implementing state law on flood prevention, storm water management, and soil erosion, are focused on both protection and restoration of the best uses of land. Advancing those goals in practice can be an enormous challenge. Commissioners are frontline public servants who must often make tradeoffs or seek difficult balance among competing purposes: a clean environment, agricultural production, robust transportation infrastructure, health and sanitation, and so on. Some Michigan counties have recast the position as “water resources commissioner” to signal the evolving pressures of a wide-ranging job with a great deal at stake. Yet most of us care about these officials’ performance only when there is a failure of the vital systems they oversee. Just ask the people of Flint in the wake of their water crisis, which was a failure of public leadership that few citizens imagined until it was too late.
In an earlier Capital Commentary article, Stephanie Summers calls Christians to rooted citizenship. As we consider what that means in this election, we should take some of our cues from the lowly drain commissioner, who reminds us that some of the primary decision-makers in policy areas of highest complexity – the environment, for example – are not necessarily officials at the highest levels of government. As justice-seeking citizens, we must confront the special challenges of how to vote “down ballot.”
Raising Our Expectations
Political scientists often say that the US presidency has become a mismatch of capacities and expectations. Citizens demand more from presidential candidates than that highest office can deliver. We imagine that presidents could clean up environmental hazards in low-income housing or restructure energy production or reduce CO2 emissions if they only had the will. Of course, even presidents with that kind of will don’t have the capacities to act alone in a system of separate and federated powers. But we often vote as if they do.
But what about public officials down the ballot? Here I would argue the reverse. While we allow demands on the top-of-the-ballot to overwhelm our attention, we often lack any expectations at all of public works administrators, sheriffs, school board members, local judges, city commissioners, and other public servants at the local and regional level. For presidents, the mismatch is between imagined capacities and impossible expectations; for local officials, it is between real (but limited) capacities and citizen indifference.
So perhaps we should raise our expectations at the local level. But to do so is costly. Consider again access to clean water, which is on the leading edge of environmental policy across the planet. What would it mean to pay attention to the relevance of local offices to water policy?
First, to pay attention to local offices would require that we acknowledge that they are key decision-makers on essential public concerns. From a global perspective, drain commissioners and similar public works officials seem like small players, and indeed they can do relatively little to address many of the knotty water-related disputes that cut across political borders. But those disputes themselves often arise out of local decisions that are plainly elemental.
In the United States, municipal and county governments provide services that are so fundamental – the supply of water, water treatment, sanitation and storm drainage systems – that it’s not an overstatement to say that modern human beings and civilizations couldn’t flourish without them. The recent experience in Flint illustrates the point in tragic ways. Flint residents not only suffered exposure to lead-tainted water, but they also struggled to hold accountable those local officials whose judgment was so deeply flawed. (The governor had supplanted the mayor and commission by appointing an unelected emergency manager for the fiscally mismanaged city.)
Moreover, like many other areas of environmental policy, the decisions in one area inevitably affect others. After all, water moves across political borders in the form of rivers, aquifers, and precipitation. This movement sets up the conditions for conflict, including classic cases of externalities – for example, the industrial plant that discharges pollutants into a river at little cost to itself but great cost to those downstream. So local officials clearly do serve both their own region and downstream neighbors when they use regulation, capital projects, and even litigation to take care of the water that flows through their jurisdictions.
Additionally, to pay attention to the relevance of down-ballot officials also means developing a sophisticated understanding that the nature of political management changes with local conditions. The availability and preferred uses of water and even the way we define a right to water can vary widely by geography and climate. Take the difference between the western and eastern United States. The Colorado River compact and other “reclamation” projects throughout the west were a response to a national policy to move westward into lands that were both fertile and arid. The projects impound snowmelt from the Rocky and the Sierra Nevada Mountains into massive reservoir systems that release water to turn desert into farmlands and attract mass human migration. But those federally funded systems are complemented by a patchwork of state, county, and local efforts – canals, smaller reservoirs, etc. – that bring the water to its final destinations at farms and residences.
These localized systems are often overseen by elected officials in irrigation districts or other political units – and as water users face greater scarcity in the west, they are increasingly aware of the power of these positions. But these same political systems don’t exist in the wetter climates of the east or in regions where agriculture (by far the biggest water user) is less important. The reason Michigan created the office of drain commissioner in the nineteenth-century was precisely to deal with an abundance of water – notably swamps and wetlands – that was often viewed as an impediment to urban development and agriculture.
Finally, paying attention to local offices reminds us that issues are not clear-cut. We talk about single-issue voting – “I vote the environment” – as if issues are discrete and closed off from other concerns. But in reality, an issue like the environment is a sprawling policy domain with many dimensions and lots of linkages to other issues. One of the candidates for drain commissioner in my county is running on a platform that emphasizes environmental quality, which reflects her years of work as an activist with a state environmental action group. But she is also keenly aware that her decisions as a drain commissioner can’t be easily disentangled from the concerns of farmers, road commissioners, housing developers, civil engineers, and budget officers, among others.
Securing access to clean water is just one slice of policy-making that has tremendous implications for the environment. And that one slice of policy-making is itself profoundly complex; I’ve barely scratched its surface. That raises a question: How should rooted citizens approach policy areas that are both perplexing and high stakes?
One response is paralysis. Reorienting our attention to down-ballot races has all sorts of costs. It requires high levels of information that prominent media sources rarely provide. It requires that we understand not simply job descriptions but the underlying moral complexities that public officials inevitably face in their work. It requires that we work through long ballots (we vote on a lot of positions in the United States, far more than most other western democracies – and that doesn’t count ballot initiatives and referenda in many states). All of it can lead voters to throw up their hands in mystified frustration. The result is apathy and ignorance, amply represented in comparatively low voter turnout rates, especially in midterm elections. But I hope we can agree that apathy born of ignorance is not a great picture of the good citizen. As my colleague Jesse Covington argued inan earlier Capital Commentary, a Christian’s posture should be one of civic faithfulness that includes engagement even in the face of confusion and frustration.
An alternative to paralysis is to let someone or something else do the background work for you. An extreme example is straight-ticket voting on a partisan ballot. In principle, the idea is that a voter finds a rough ideological match in a political party and then trusts all the party’s candidates to advance those shared ideological convictions, from the president right on down to drain commissioner. But there are problems here, too. Straight-ticket voting suggests a rough uniformity, but parties in the United States are large umbrellas that gather a range of policy views and even ideologies under their canopy.
Until his recent retirement, for example, my Republican member of the US Congress, a former research physicist, was considered well to the left of his party’s median view of environmental policy. Straight-ticket voters from the Democratic side would miss an opportunity to consider cross-ticket voting for a candidate who might be closer to their perspective on the environment; conversely, straight-ticket GOP voters might select a candidate they wouldn’t have considered if they took a moment to look at his record.
Besides, a party’s predominant ideology might not easily apply to a local public administrator in the same way as a national-level elected official. Is it immediately clear, for example, what it would mean to do the work of drain commissioner consistently with a national party platform? To use the party as a proxy does not necessarily give voters an opportunity for discernment.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should ditch parties as key sources of information about our electoral choices. Far from it. I would argue that parties, their warts notwithstanding, are indispensable to modern democratic government. Political scientists see parties as providing “heuristics,” or cognitive “shortcuts” that allow voters to make a decision without incurring the full costs of gathering and weighing information. Heuristics are not only a fact of political life (not to mention lots of other areas of human experience); they are increasingly important as the complexity of decisions increases.
But I would also argue that the information age provides many shortcuts that complement the heuristic role of parties. In fact, by reading work from the Center for Public Justice, you might be looking for shortcuts that go beyond conventional partisan boundaries. We can also find ideas and frameworks for making sense of political complexity through think tanks, high quality journalism, public presentations at local colleges and universities, or even candidates themselves.
But heuristics are no excuse for deliberation. We deliberate when we move our ideas from the personal to the interpersonal, when we test our perspectives across lines of difference. After all, while voting is an individual act, preparing to vote ought to be a public practice that accounts for diverse perspectives and seeks common goods (for example, clean water). One of the joys of faithful democratic citizenship – yes, I said “joys” – is the bewildering variety of opportunities that down-ballot voting provides to use an inclusive process to advance common goods – and perhaps even the common good. But that means that we are called to a faithful citizenship that is both difficult and good.
I hope my drain commissioner expects nothing less.
- Kevin R. den Dulk is the Paul B. Henry Chair in Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.