Interpreting the U.S. Constitution and applying the results to today’s America is like taking a tired and hungry toddler to a Disney store — no matter how many times you give in, the youngster will never be happy.
How do we “get” the Constitution right? Do we rely on the document itself, as originalists do? Should we consider the voluminous writings of the framers, such as the Federalist Papers? Do we pretend to surmise the intent of people who lived before the advent of canned food and apply it to our 21st-century society?
There is no easy answer. We must be able to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously to continue to rely on a document written by men from an era alien to us today.
So, to discuss the Constitution’s intent applied to elections and appointments to vacant political offices is inherently contentious. Should the Appointments Clause of the Constitution — which empowers the president to nominate public officials — be applied to state and even local governments? Are those appointments limited to certain situations, or do they include all vacancies?
And should a governor or supervisor — or even a mayor — be able to appoint legislators or trustees normally elected to office by the public?
The variations among how each state fills a U.S. Senate vacancy show how subjective the process is, even at the federal level. Most states permit the governor to appoint a temporary senator until a special election is held. Eleven states put restrictions on that appointment. And four states mandate that a vacancy be filled only by special election.
And there are further discrepancies between states when special elections are held.
At the local level — especially in villages — it makes little sense beyond political considerations to favor appointments over special elections. The era of waiting weeks for votes from across the state to arrive via dirt roads is long gone. Villages consist of much smaller electorates and geographical areas. Election results for villages are usually available an hour after polls close.
Many villages need but one polling location. Those that are large enough to warrant several locations don’t necessitate saving several thousand dollars at the expense of voters’ rights.
Sitting elected officials and political power brokers cite the cost of holding a special election as prohibitive, thus the need for appointments. That’s a false argument designed to distract the public from the real issue — elections are a gamble, and political parties don’t want to risk losing power.
The power of incumbency is difficult to overcome. Sitting elected officials benefit from mailings, photo ops and name recognition. They are often given special assignments to boost their profile. And they are not referred to as “acting” or “appointed.”
State law dictates that villages must elect a mayor, trustees and justices. All other positions are appointed by the mayor and approved by the trustees. The same concept applies to towns and even counties in New York.
Clearly, the intent is to let the public vote to select its representatives, while giving those elected officials the authority to make appointments to avoid bogging down government business with elections for every position.
But state and local laws are occasionally written to favor incumbents. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this in its 1995 decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, stating that the Elections Clause is “a grant of authority to issue procedural regulations, and not as a source of power to dictate electoral outcomes, to favor or disfavor a class of candidates.”
This is not an issue that favors a particular political party. Across the country, all parties are guilty in some way of having rigged the system. Parties, by their nature, don’t yield power. Four of the six Hempstead Town Board members were first appointed to the position. Throughout much of Nassau County, elected officials appear to lean heavily toward appointing colleagues rather than letting the public elect someone to fill a vacancy.
Americans crave local control over our government through elections. We don’t like being told by a faceless administrator halfway across the state how we should live our lives.
Appointments take that local control out of our hands. Yes, there are times when an appointment is necessary. Yes, those appointed to fill vacancies must still face the electorate in the next general election.
But there are ripe opportunities for political operatives to game the system and make it easier for their people to gain control.
What is the purpose of an election? What is the purpose of an elected official? Do Americans pay for levels of government so we can elect representatives, or do we submit to rule by proxy?
It’s time for Nassau County, at all levels of government, to move to hold special elections instead of appointing people to elected offices.