Elected officials get the vast majority of the spotlight in political news, often reasonably so given the fact that they are picked by voters to lead their districts, states, or the country. Yet there are plenty of appointed officials all over the country that play key roles in government as well. Not only do the types of officials in government (more so in the state executive branch) vary from state to state, but who is elected versus appointed varies both between and within states as well. They also vary in whether the offices are nominally partisan or nonpartisan. Today’s article explores this topic in greater depth.
Statewide Officials of the United States
While the topic of election versus appointment extends the executive branches of state governments, it is useful to differentiate between each state in this regard. Every state has a governor but this is not the case for most state executive offices beyond that.
There are at least 13 different types of state executive offices, although the exact names differ from state to state. These 13 offices are governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, controller/comptroller, auditor, superintendent of schools, agriculture commissioner, insurance commissioner, labor commissioner, natural resources commissioner, and public services commissioner.¹ Yet as alluded to earlier, not every one of these offices exists in every state. Some examples of the variations follow: 45 states have lieutenant governors, 47 have secretaries of state, 13 have controllers/comptrollers, 48 have treasurers, 47 have auditors, and 49 have natural resources commissioners.¹
There are some cases where multiple offices are merged into one department (e.g. Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, or CFO, was created by a state constitutional amendment in 1998 and merged the previous offices of treasurer and comptroller). Some states also have rather uniquely-tailored offices in their governments, such as Arizona’s State Mine Inspector.
The types of offices can also differ in their functions from state to state. One notable example is who heads the handling of elections in the state. This will most often be the secretary of state, but this is not always the case. The ultimate authority over elections in each state follows:²
- Elected secretary of state (24 states)
- Elected lieutenant governor (2 states)
- Chief election official selected by the legislature (3 states)
- Chief election official appointed by the governor (5 states)
- Board or a commission (9 states)
- Combination of a chief election official and board/commission (7 states)
Which State Government Officials are Elected or Appointed?
Governors and state legislators are elected in all 50 states. For most other offices (if not all) in state government, this is not the case. States like Alaska have very few of their state executive officials elected. In Alaska, this only applies to the governor and lieutenant governor. In my previous post on turnover and term limits, I noted that state supreme courts also differ in whether they are elected or appointed.
It should also be noted that not every election or appointment process is the same. While elections most commonly refer to selection by the voting public, some election processes are actually done through state legislatures. Depending on the state and the office, appointments can be done through the governor, legislature, a board/commission, or some combination thereof.
Elections and Appointments of Local Officials
There is an enormous number of local governments in the country, with plenty of variation in how county and municipal governments are composed and operate. There are also special purpose districts like water management districts that don’t exist everywhere. There are over 90,000 total local governments in the United States: 3,000+ county governments; 35,000+ municipal/town governments; 38,000+ special districts; and over 12,000+ independent school districts.³
Of course, just like with state governments, there is a lot of difference in which local government officials are appointed and which ones are elected. A notable example includes superintendents of school districts. Florida, for example, has 26 appointed superintendents.⁴ It’s hard to get a clear picture as to how many local officials are elected versus appointed in each state, but the data may be out there somewhere.
Things get more complicated, of course, when it comes to the various compositions of state and local governments. Cities and many towns have mayors, but this won’t be the case in other towns. Some counties also have their own mayors or a similar office of county executive. While many counties have their mayors elected by voters, some county commissions pick one of their own members to serve as mayor. There are also some consolidated city-county governments, such as Jacksonville and Duval County in Florida, the city and county of Honolulu in Hawaii, and the Orleans Parish and city of New Orleans in Louisiana.⁵ (The nature of city-county consolidations varies.) Lastly, some cities operate as independent entities, such as Richmond, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri.
When Should Offices be Elected or Appointed?
Clearly, there is no concurrence on whether officials should be elected or appointed, how these processes should play out, and which offices to apply these processes to. Much of the debate boils down to who officials should be directly held accountable by. Should the voters rule on whether these officials stay, or is it better if a single government official or some combination of government officials have this power?
A key part of the foundation of the election argument says that these officials should be held accountable by voters as these officials’ actions ultimately directly affect the people and that it is less democratic to have government officials appoint them. A key part of the foundation of the appointment argument says that officials would be too beholden to political interests in the public if they were elected and that appointment would insulate them from such pressures.
Of course, defenses of each argument also depend on the particular office. There is no clear “right” or “wrong” answer, and the overall topic of election versus appointment is a rather complicated one.
- Ballotpedia. “State executive offices.” https://ballotpedia.org/State_executive_offices (accessed December 20, 2018).
- The information from this list comes from the following source: NCSL. “Election Administration at the State and Local Levels.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/election-administration-at-state-and-local-levels.aspx (accessed December 20, 2018).
- Governing. “Number of Local Governments by State.” http://www.governing.com/gov-data/number-of-governments-by-state.html (accessed December 20, 2018).
- Florida Department of Education. “Superintendents.” http://www.fldoe.org/accountability/data-sys/school-dis-data/superintendents.stml (accessed December 20, 2018).
- National League of Cities. “List of Consolidated City-County Governments.” https://www.nlc.org/list-of-consolidated-city-county-governments (accessed December 20, 2018).