Maine voters vs. legislators: Who should pick attorney general, secretary of state?

Ethan: One of the most undemocratic events in Maine politics is going to happen soon: the “election” of constitutional officers. Our secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and auditor will be appointed by secret ballot of the Legislature. Isn’t it time we joined almost every other state in the nation that elects one or more of these positions by popular vote?

Phil: I’m not with you on this one. I don’t characterize it as undemocratic to have these folks elected by legislators. The thought of amending the Maine Constitution, so we can have four more candidates running for statewide office — raising money, demeaning their opponents and making the position more partisan — is not going to serve Mainers better.

Ethan: If you think the people running for constitutional offices aren’t already partisan, raising money and demeaning their opponents, then you served in a very different Legislature than I did. The difference here is that all of this campaigning is completely outside the view of the voters.

Phil: Be that as it may, the constitutional officers function more for the benefit of the governor and Legislature in regards to running the affairs of the state. Therefore their campaigns should focus on convincing them they are qualified.

Ethan: What about the separation of powers? Remember, these officers are in charge of making sure the elections of those who appoint them are fair. They also make sure these same people operate within the laws of the state of Maine. It is the definition of conflict to have the people you oversee be the people who can fire you.

Phil: Your party was in charge for 40 years. Apparently this conflict hasn’t bothered Democrats in the past.

Ethan: Interestingly, when we were in charge, Republicans always put the bill in to change this law, and it was my side that wanted to protect its own power. Then, when your party had control, Republicans got awfully quiet. Look, the secretary of state is in charge of our elections and all who drive on our roads. These functions affect every person in Maine and should be accountable to the people. The attorney general is our chief law enforcement officer. It is imperative that this person be completely independent of backroom influence and be accountable only to the residents of the state.

Phil: The secretary of state approves who is allowed on our roads — yet it’s the Legislature and governor who decide what changes may be needed. Meanwhile, the attorney general runs one of the largest law firms in Maine, adjudicating murder trials and environmental violations. Do you really want “the Firm” to be run by the best partisan campaigner?

Ethan: I want it to be run by someone beholden to the people through a direct democracy that rewards or punishes their performance and vision. Let’s take the controversy last year with Treasurer Bruce Poliquin. Some serious allegations of unethical behavior were thrown at him by Democrats. Republicans shouted back that the allegations were way out of bounds. The courts said they had no jurisdiction. Without choosing sides, wouldn’t it have been better to ultimately let the people decide whether Poliquin was right or wrong?

Phil: You just proved my point. Imagine the media circus and political maneuvering surrounding the most qualified person in decades to serve as treasurer. The Legislature voted Poliquin in and will not re-elect him next week.

Ethan: Au contraire, mon cheri. The point that has been proven is mine. If indeed Poliquin is the most qualified treasurer the state has ever seen, then why should he lose his job simply because he is a Republican? Let the people decide, and perhaps he would still be able to put his greatness to work for the state.

Phil: Have you gone Franco on me with the French? My point is simply that the Legislature and governor have to interact with these folks and so should have the ability to influence who sits in the office.

Ethan: Right now, the only people who have a chance at getting one of these positions is someone who is close to the majority party in the state House. That’s a small and elite universe.

Phil: Using your rationale, why aren’t you promoting the popular election of the president of the Senate?

Ethan: First of all, the individual serving as president of the Senate is elected by the people. Second, even in the role of president, he or she has the same number of votes on policy as everyone else. The constitutional officers, on the other hand, make significant policy decisions all by themselves. For example, former Secretary of State Bill Diamond made national news when he affirmed the right of homeless people to vote. Likewise, current Attorney General Bill Schneider sued the federal government to overturn Obamacare. Whether or not you agree with these positions, the people should have been allowed to affirm or deny these actions at the ballot box.

Phil: I believe the voters just did by returning Democrats to the majority. But remember, legislators can respond to their constituents’ requests much sooner than the ballot box. If people were angry that Schneider made that decision, you better believe they will let their legislator know. That’s democracy.

Ethan: Now that everything in the Legislature has switched around, let’s see if your party goes back to its old position and if my party will put the power in the hands of the people as they should.

Phil: I can see it now: campaign commercials exclaiming why Suzy Smith is the best state auditor in the nation, and don’t vote for Sam Small for treasurer because he can’t count!