District voting chickens coming home to roost

Claude Paquin's picture

Our Fayette county commission and school board are currently at the receiving end of a lawsuit seeking to compel our county to adopt district voting, and already fairly large sums of money are being spent on so-called pretrial discovery, with each side hiring alleged experts in the field of demography — the study of human populations, including their size, growth, density and distribution — who claim to be able to divine the race of the voters and who they vote for, in spite of the fact we vote anonymously and don’t disclose our race on the ballot.

A sensible person would immediately realize the absurdity of having an election system which seeks to protect our secret ballot, while others seek to uncover it at great public expense.

After some posturing and a considerable waste of money for lawyers and experts, a likely result is that the county will cave in with some sort of face-saving conciliatory statement alleging the desirability of putting the controversy behind us, and the county taxpayers will end up paying the freight for both sides.

Our politicians don’t pay for their mistakes out of their own pocket: they pick our pockets to cover their mistakes, the reasoning being that, after all, we are the ones who elected them and thus ought to pay for our mistake.

Thus I’d like repeat, word for word, a published letter to the Citizen editor which I authored in February 2005, nearly seven years ago. Please be sure to reread it when you discover the amount of money we, the Fayette taxpayers, end up paying for the current skirmish.

Here’s my old letter:

Why are so many of us disgusted with politics and politicians?
An important reason is that we don’t know our representatives well enough, and they don’t know us either.
And why is it that we don’t know our representatives and they don’t know us? It can be because we have too many of them, and they have too many constituents.
Thus the recent proposal that we consider having representation by district in Fayette County comes as a breath of fresh air, and here’s how it would benefit us.
Right now, if I have a problem with any aspect of county government, I have five county commissioners to contact. Anyone that I would contact would probably ask himself, why is this citizen contacting me rather than any of the other four commissioners? It’s a fair question. The citizen wonders which of the five he’s supposed to contact, or whether to contact all five.
Meanwhile, each commissioner has an incentive and opportunity to pass the buck, telling himself that my problem is not “his” concern as I am no more his constituent than I am a constituent of the other four commissioners.
One commissioner [VanLandingham, since deceased] told me that when he became commissioner he was advised (by the other commissioners) not to engage in email correspondence with the citizens, apparently because he might be overwhelmed. If commissioners won’t respond to email on purpose, that makes them less responsive to the people.
We have about 60,000 voters in Fayette County [in 2005]. That exposes each commissioner to the concerns of 60,000 people. With district representation, with five districts and one commissioner per district, each commissioner would be directly responsible to 12,000 voters.
Why do so many of us favor smaller classroom sizes in our schools? It’s because it makes the teachers more effective, as they know the students better and have more time for each one. District voting has similar advantages.

At election time, the more candidates we have to consider as voters the more confused we tend to get. It’s certainly more difficult to sort out 15 candidates running for five positions than it is to sort out three running for one position.

The candidates have a similar problem in trying to make themselves personally known to the voters. They have to resort to impersonal and costly ads with a limited message, and oftentimes feel moved to use gimmicks to get name recognition.

What we as voters need is to know our representatives, and to know them personally. They need to know us personally too, and to care about us.

District voting makes it easier for us to know the candidates and to choose our representative wisely, and after the election it helps the representative be more responsive because we know who it is we are supposed to talk to, and the representative knows our vote has more weight, and our individual influence is greater, when we are part of a group of 12,000 voters than when we are part of a group of 60,000.

This debate we’re having about district representation in Fayette County is most welcome. As our population grows it is important to reexamine how we can improve the system so it can best serve the people, and I am glad to see someone turn on the heat toward making a positive change. A change is needed.

That was the conclusion of my 2005 letter.

While I do not support the parochial thinking that may motivate some voters to want district voting, nothing has happened since 2005 that would impel me to change my mind about the benefits of district voting.

I simply regret that what should have been a willingness to consider all views and a conciliatory attitude has now turned into a predictably costly ideological battle within our judicial bog.

[Claude Y. Paquin, a Fayette County resident, is a retired actuary and lawyer whose studies in actuarial science included demography.]