Money doesn’t always win elections. Just ask Jim Hogan, who finished first this week in the Texas Democratic Party’s primary election for agriculture commissioner. Hogan spent less than $5,000 on his campaign, most of which went to his filing fee. In contrast, the party-backed candidate spent $40,000 and had another $85,000 left on hand – and wound up finishing third behind Hogan and country singer, Kinky Friedman.
At first, the story seems almost quaint, especially at a time when money is flooding into political campaigns: the former dairy farmer who bested his well-known and well-funded opponents. But examining some of the likely reasons behind Hogan’s victory is troubling.
Hogan may have finished first because, well, voters liked his name.
In this post, I’ll discuss both the benefits and unintended consequences of using elections as a means of selecting administrative and regulatory offices (as opposed to legislative and executive offices, which must be selected via election in a democracy). I will argue that many voters are unaware of these types of down-ballot races and use indicators like what a candidate’s name is and where on the ballot her name appears in order to decide for whom to vote. Finally, I will propose that states consider moving to an appointive system for certain offices, similar to what the Founding Fathers established at the federal level, and then conclude by proposing some broad principles for reform.
But first, back to Jim Hogan.
By his own admission, Hogan did not do much in the way of campaigning. He has mainly mounted his campaign by making phone calls and checking his Facebook page. Hogan does not have a campaign website where voters can read about his platform and life story; he decided he does not need a website because “All you gotta do is Google my name—’jim hogan ag commissioner’—and there’s enough on there.”
That is not to say he is unqualified to run for agriculture commissioner. After all, he apparently has more than 30 years’ experience in the dairy farming industry. And he said that he has been studying the position for the past six years. The trouble is, it is very like that many voters knew nothing about Hogan when they cast their ballots for him.
The Texas agriculture commissioner is just one of many statewide positions up for election this year, including U.S. senator, governor and lieutenant governor. When a Texas voter stepped into the voting booth for the primary election this year, he or she faced several pages of candidates.
It is both unlikely and unreasonable to expect that most voters knew anything about most of these candidates.
As much as it would be ideal if voters were fully informed about all of the candidates on the ballot, the unfortunate reality is that people have limited time and resources. People have work, school, families, social lives, and any number of other commitments. When faced with a crowded ballot, they may not know where to even begin. They may not even have a clear idea of which candidates are on the ballot or where to find this information.
As a result, people often prioritize the most high profile races in the election, usually president, senator, congressman, governor, or mayor, depending on the election. The media reinforces this urge by giving people the coverage they demand. Covering the governor’s race will sell papers and boost clicks. Covering the comptroller’s race? Not so much.
Candidates know this. That is why they seek to differentiate themselves in any possible way during the campaign: to stand out in the hopes that voters will remember their name when they walk into the voting booth.
Take former Texas State Rep. Wayne Christian, for example. Christian is currently running for Texas Railroad Commissioner, a position you might wrongly assume had something to do with railroads (it instead regulates the oil and gas industries in Texas). Christian calculated that it might be worthwhile to tout his pro-life credentials as part of his campaign for an office that has no authority over abortion rights in the state.
Whether that helped him or not, Christian finished first in the four-way primary election.
Still, not every candidate is able to differentiate themselves in a way that translates to name recognizability in the voting booth. Instead, they must often rely what a voter sees when he or she walks into the voting booth. That is, when a voter walks into a voting booth knowing little to nothing about the candidates in a given race, he has two choices.
He can either not vote in that race or he can find some way to decide who to vote for given the information he has at hand in the voting booth.
There are three main strategies (other than random choice) our hypothetical voter could use to decide in this situation:
- Decide based on party preference.
- Decide based on ballot position.
- Decide based on the candidate’s name.
The first strategy (party preference) cannot occur in a primary election because by definition all of the candidates belong to the same party. But in the general election, for instance, a Democratic voter may vote for a down-ballot Democratic candidate because they believe that candidate, as a Democrat, may share their values. The same principle applies to Republican voters.
The second strategy refers to where on the ballot a candidate’s name appears. Someone’s name has to come first on the list and research suggests that candidates whose names appear first outperform their opponents. In other words, many voters vote for the first candidate they see. Indeed, the impact of this effect may be large enough to actually swing some elections one way or another.
The third strategy seems to be the one that lifted Hogan from obscurity and into the media spotlight: deciding based simply on the candidate’s name. In his race for agriculture commissioner, Hogan faced off against country singer Kinky Friedman and rancher Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III.
Friedman, like Hogan, spent little money on the race. But unlike Hogan, Friedman likely had fairly good name recognition among voters, known for his music career and his failed 2006 bid for governor as an independent. This name recognition would not necessarily translate into broad support. Some Democrats blame Friedman for playing the spoiler to their 2006 gubernatorial ambitions, while others simply do not see him as a serious candidate.
After ruling out voting for Friedman, a Texas Democrat would be faced with two candidates about whom he likely knows little to nothing. And in this scenario, it is possible that many Democrats opted for the candidate with the more folksy, homey name.
Hogan essentially predicted as much himself in an interview with the Texas Tribune from before the election:
“They either don’t vote at all — now, this is the primary — or they say ‘eenie, meenie, miney, mo,’ or they look at a name. They see Kinky Friedman and think, ‘That looks familiar. … Naw. Asa? Naw. Jim Hogan? I’ve heard of Hogan! Yeah, I think I’ll vote for him! He sounds like a nice guy!”
Of course, the fact that some voters select candidates based on party preference, ballot position, or name indicators (and the fact that these effects may be large enough to decide elections) does not necessarily mean we should take these candidates off of the ballot. There may well be compelling reasons why these positions should remain elected. But the discussion as to whether the benefits of electing certain administrative and cabinet-level positions outweigh the unintended consequences is one worth having.
I believe that the evidence demonstrates that the benefits of electing these administrative and regulatory offices do not outweigh the very real negative consequences of the system we see in practice. The main benefit of electing these types of offices is the direct accountability it provides to the voters. If an individual is performing poorly, voters may oust him at the next election.
However, this does not often occur in practice, for reasons I’ve already examined in detail: time-strapped and resource-limited voters are often unable or unwilling to adequately research down-ballot candidates, prioritizing the ‘top of the ticket’ races instead. As a result, many of these important positions are selected on the basis of their party affiliation, ballot position, or name, rather than their experience or performance.
Before I continue, I should be clear: I am not criticizing democracy or the democratic process. I believe very strongly in both. I am simply suggesting that we, as a society, may want to consider whether to transfer the selection process for some of our public officials from election to appointment or merit selection. (I discussed, at length, some of the implications of using an election process over merit selection or appointment in a previous blog post.)
I would propose that the officials we consider this transfer for offices where the primary function is administrative or regulatory, not lawmaking or executive. Essentially, executive branch leadership (governors, lieutenant governors, and mayors) and legislators (senators, representatives, county commissioners, and city council members) should always remain elected while judges and cabinet-level positions (attorney general, agriculture commissioners, railroad commissioners, comptrollers, etc.) may be transitioned to an appointment or merit selection process.
The logic behind this is simple. Legislators and executive leaders have two crucial authorities that these administrative and regulatory officials do not have:
- Lawmaking Authority. Legislators and executive leaders write, pass, and approve laws, while administrative and regulatory officials function within the boundaries laid out by those laws.
- Oversight Authority. Legislators and executive leaders oversee these administrative and regulatory officials.
Legislators and executive leaders have these authorities because we defer our self-governing authority to them as our representatives. They govern in our stead, whereas administrative and regulatory officials function within the governing framework legislative and executive leaders establish.
(For judges, the logic is similar, but a bit different, since they are a completely separate branch of government; I laid out my proposal for a judicial selection system in another post, so I will not focus on that here.)
Put another way, I would argue that we elect legislators and executive leadership because doing so is a basic tenet of representative democracy; in contrast, we elect administrative and regulatory offices only as a way to choose who fills these positions. After all, the U.S. Constitution does not provide for election of these latter types of offices. If we accept, then, that the Founding Fathers established a democratic system in the Constitution, then appointment of these administrative and regulatory offices (and judges, for that matter) must be compatible with democracy.
Of course, there are a number of different ways to do an appointment or merit selection process. In general, I believe such a system should meet two basic criteria. It should be a system of:
- Checks and Balances. Power of appointment or selection should not be concentrated in a single branch of government, but should be spread over two or three in order to provide a check against abuses.
- Democratic Accountability. These officials should still be accountable to voter, either directly or indirectly.
The federal system that the Founding Fathers established meets both of these criteria. The president appoints members of his cabinet with Senate approval (checks and balances). Voters are able to hold these cabinet members accountable indirectly, through their elected representatives. For instance, public opinion may pressure the president to fire a cabinet member, voters may elect another president who will appoint a new cabinet, and the people’s representatives in Congress may impeach and try a cabinet member.
In this system, the executive has an incentive to appoint qualified and effective individuals to these cabinet-level positions because their performance will reflect upon the executive’s own administration.
Texas — and many other states across the nation — may seek to use this federal model, or try one of their own.
A potential state system, for instance, could mirror the federal system, but also include a ‘triggered retention election’ for direct democratic accountability. Essentially, this system would allow citizens the ability to oust these officials directly. First, citizens would have to gather enough signatures to trigger the retention election. If the number of signatures crosses a certain designated threshold, then a retention question (‘Should X retain his position as Agriculture Commissioner?’) would be added to the ballot at the next scheduled general election.
Unlike most recall election systems in which the state holds a special election to decide the question at hand, voters would decide this ‘triggered retention election’ during the general election. General elections often see larger turnout than special elections and are probably a better venue for deciding such questions.
This proposal and the federal system are only two models for how to address the issue discussed in this post. States could pursue a number of different systems characterized by both checks and balances and democratic accountability. The politics of implementing any system will likely be difficult. Voters will naturally (and rightly) be suspicious of any attempt to remove an office from the ballot. Also, many politicians use these positions as launching pads for higher offices and may not want to remove that opportunity.
Still, it is worth having the discussion as to whether or not to transition cabinet-level offices from elected to appointed positions. Doing so could help ensure a more effective government, while also maintaining a system of checks and balances and democratic accountability.
 Searching ‘jim hogan ag commissioner’ on Google News for results from before the 2014 primary election (all news results from anytime before March 4, 2014) yields about 131 results. By the day after the election (that is, a news search range of between March 4 and 5), there were 820 new hits. Searching Google more broadly for results from before the 2014 primary election yields about 14,600 hits. By the day after the election, there were already 1,790 new hits. (Search conducted on March 9, 2014.)
 And while Hogan contends that there’s enough information online about him without him pulling together a website of his own, some voters may not be very skilled at tracking down legitimate sources of information online. Or they may not even realize he is running for office in the first place.
 States have different methods for choosing ballot order, ranging from random selection to chronological filing order.
Byrne, Gary & J. Kristian Pueschel. “But Who Should I Vote for For County Coroner?” The Journal of Politics.
Gaudini, Michael. “Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed.” Diniverse Major.
Gaudini, Michael. “Justice For Sale: How Judicial Elections Are Corrupting Our Court System.” Baines Report.
Greenblatt, Alan. “How To Pick A Candidate In Texas: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe.” KUT.
Krosnick, Jon. “In the Voting Booth, Bias Starts at the Top.” New York Times.
Matson, Marsha & Terri Susan Fine. ”Gender, Ethnicity, and Ballot Information: Ballot Cues in Low-Information Elections.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly.
Satija, Neena & Jim Malewitz. ”In Crowded Primaries, Names Can Be Everything.” Texas Tribune.
Tilove, Jonathan. “Jim Hogan: Dem Ag candidate may be “some hayseed from Cleburne,” but he’s nobody’s fool.” Austin-American Statesman.