Periodic Elections: A Necessary Pillar of Republican Government

The recall election now being carried out in California against Governor Davis should provide evidence to the whole nation that the Founders had a much better way to ensure good government. The whole recall procedure now being played out would be considered very objectionable and suggests that republican government of the people is very cumbersome, inefficient, and even laughable.

The Founders, once again, had a much better way, with much better results.

Regular Elections Provide Less Disturbance to Public Tranquility

The matter of elections was much debated in colonial America and in the Constitutional Convention. Dr. Skousen writes:

“Originally, several of the states, especially Massachusetts, had a penchant for annual elections. Their slogan was, “Where annual elections end, tyranny begins.” However, experience soon demonstrated that delegates to a national Congress need training and experience to function effectively. Nevertheless, the Founders did not want to follow the pattern of the early parliaments in England, where the members of the House of Commons remained in office until a political crisis occurred and the majority party could not get a vote of confidence, thereby requiring a new election. The Americans wanted their representatives to return home and face the voters at regular intervals.” (The Making of America, p.269)

There was something appealing to the Founders in having regular elections. Regular elections give the feeling of stability in government. They provide a basis on which people can plan to have a voice in their government. Getting the people involved on an irregular or frequent basis gives the feeling of instability. The regular machinery of government is interrupted, giving opportunity for other non-republican ideas to be introduced. Too frequent appeals to the people leave them tired and apathetic. It is the political activists who benefit most. Those of a more independent and conservative nature are frustrated because so much dialogue becomes emotionally based.

How Then Are People to be Protected From Bad Government?

To the Founders, referring important questions to the people at irregular intervals or even at regular intervals had an element of danger. In discussing how to provide an effective system of checks and balances the Founders concluded that mechanisms inside the government are much more effective than looking outside the government, even to the people themselves, to provide the remedy.

But how do the people protect themselves? There must be adequate legal machinery provided so that the representatives of the people have more direct input to project the will of the people when the officials of government are ignoring it. James Madison discussed the various overseer devices which had been considered in the past to keep the departments of government within their Constitutional channels. None had proven particularly successful.

Pennsylvania tried out a Council of Censors to enforce its constitution. The council was effective in determining what violations had occurred, but was powerless to remedy the evil.

Others suggested that the people be allowed to vote on critical constitutional issues at specified times. However, the tremendous emotional anguish displayed during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution demonstrated that this was not something to be undertaken very often. Said Madison:

“The danger of disturbing the public tranquility by interesting too strongly the public passions is a still more serious objection against a frequent reference of constitutional questions to the decision of the whole society. Notwithstanding the success which has attended the revisions of our established forms of government [the ratification conventions] and which does so much honor to the virtue and intelligence of the people of America, it must be confessed that the experiments are of too ticklish a nature to be unnecessarily multiplied.” (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 209)

What is to be done then with a “bad” public official?

The beauty of the pattern set up by the Founders and which was followed in many states, is that no one public official has enough authority to do a whole lot of damage if the system of checks and balances is kept vibrant and used. Even a “bad” governor can be kept in check by the legislature until his term expires. Meanwhile it will provide a frame of reference for the people to make a better choice in the next regular election.

Of course, all states have laws in place which will remove a person from public office upon conviction of a serious crime.

Sadly, our system of checks and balances both on the state and federal levels are so inoperative now that it is easy to look at other unwise solutions.

What about Recalling of Public Officials?

On the surface, recalling is appealing to some who advocate a fresh start, but it is fraught with danger. It also sets a precedent, similar to our present divorce laws, which give people the idea, that if it doesn’t work out we can always start over again. Numerous examples can be given that such an action has not really provided a better solution in most cases of either divorces or the recall of public officials.

During the Convention, the Founders discussed adding a provision for the recall of Senators to the Constitution. The idea was rejected. While the discussion centered around Senators who were originally sent to Congress by the state legislatures, the principles involved are applicable to any public office. Robert Livingston made this argument:

“The state legislatures, being frequently subject to factious and irregular passions, may be unjustly disaffected and discontented with their delegates; and a senator may be appointed one day and recalled the next. This would be a source of endless confusion. The Senate are indeed designed to represent the state governments; but they are also the representatives of the United States, and are not to consult the interest of any one state alone, but that of the Union. This could never be done, if there was a power of recall; for sometimes it happens that small sacrifices are absolutely indispensable for the good and safety of the confederacy; but, if a senator should presume to consent to these sacrifices, he would be immediately recalled. This reasoning turns on the idea that a state, not being able to comprehend the interest of the whole, would, in all instances, adhere to her own, even to the hazard of the Union.

“… It would open so wide a door for faction and intrigue, and afford such scope for the arts of an evil ambition. A man might go to the Senate with an incorruptible integrity, and the strongest attachment to the interest of his state. But if he deviated, in the least degree, from the line which a prevailing party in a popular assembly had marked for him, he would be immediately recalled. Under these circumstances, how easy would it be for an ambitious, factious demagogue to misrepresent him, to distort the features of his character, and give a false color to his conduct! How easy for such a man to impose upon the public, and influence them to recall and disgrace their faithful delegate! The general government may find it necessary to do many things which some states might never be willing to consent to. Suppose Congress should enter into a war to protect the fisheries, or any of the northern interests; the Southern States, loaded with their share of the burden which it would be necessary to impose, would condemn their representatives in the Senate for acquiescing in such a measure. There are a thousand things which an honest man might be obliged to do, from a conviction that it would be for the general good, which would give great dissatisfaction to his constituents….” (Making of America, p.292-3)

What About Term Limits as a Protective Devise?

During the Convention, some of the Founders raised the question of limiting the terms of Senators and Congressmen because they feared the development of power blocs among those who had served over an extensive period of time. After careful discussion it was decided not to limit the length of service, and therefore no reference is made to it in the Constitution. These same principles against term limits are applicable to any level of government. Listen to four of the Founders give compelling arguments against term limits.

    1. Limited Terms of Office Abridges the Rights of the People to Have Represent them Whom they will

      Robert Livingston: “The people are the best judges who ought to represent them. To dictate and control them, to tell them whom they shall not elect, is to abridge their natural rights. This requirement of constant rotation is an absurd species of ostracism — a mode of proscribing eminent merit, and banishing from stations of trust those who have filled them with the greatest faithfulness. Besides, it takes away the strongest stimulus to public virtue — the hope of honors and rewards. The acquisition of abilities is hardly worth the trouble, unless one is to enjoy the satisfaction of employing them for the good of one’s country. We all know that experience is indispensably necessary to good government. Shall we, then, drive experience into obscurity? I repeat that this is an absolute abridgment of the people’s rights.” (Making of America, p.305)

    2. Limited Terms Will Debilitate the Sense of Enthusiastic Service

      Richard Harrison: “Gentlemen … say that a rotation in office ought to be established; that the senators may return to the private walks of life, in order to recover their sense of dependence. I cannot agree with them in this. If the senator is conscious that his re-election depends only on the will of the people, and is not lettered by any law, he will feel an ambition to deserve well of the public. On the contrary, if he knows that no meritorious exertions of his own can procure a reappointment, he will become more unambitious, and regardless of the public opinion. The love of power, in a republican government, is ever attended by a proportionable sense of dependence.

      “As the Constitution now stands, I see no possible danger of the senators’ losing their attachment to the states; but the amendment proposed would tend to weaken this attachment, by taking away the principal incentives to public virtue. We may suppose two of the most enlightened and eminent men in the state, in whom the confidence of the legislature and the love of the people are united, engaged, at the expiration of their office, in the most important negotiations, in which their presence and agency may be indispensable. In this emergency, shall we incapacitate them? Shall we prohibit the legislature from reappointing them? It might endanger our country, and involve us in inextricable difficulties.” (Making of America, p. 305)

    3. Limited Terms Will Tempt Legislators to Lose Interest in Their Work

      Alexander Hamilton: “When a man knows he must quit his station, let his merit be what it may, he will turn his attention chiefly to his own emolument: nay, he will feel temptations, which few other situations furnish, to perpetuate his power by unconstitutional usurpations. Men will pursue their interests.” (Making of America, p. 305-6)

    4. Limited Terms Might Rob the Nation of Its Finest Leaders

Theophilus Parsons: “There are great and insuperable objections to a [required] rotation. It is an abridgment of the rights of the people, and it may deprive them, at critical seasons, of the services of the most important characters in the nation. It deprives a man of honorable ambition, whose highest duty is the applause of his fellow-citizens, of an efficient motive to great and patriotic exertions. The people, individually, have no method of testifying their esteem but by a re-election; and shall they be deprived of the honest satisfaction of wreathing for their friend and patriot a crown of laurel more durable than monarchy can bestow?” (Making of America, p. 306)

Of course, the very best and natural term limit devise is at the ballot box.

Once again the Founders have answers to problems plaguing Americans today. Somehow we must help popularize again their formula for true liberty.

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