Rod St. Aubyn: Is North Dakota Electing Too Many Offices?


What do the offices of State Auditor, State Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, Public Service Commissioners, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Secretary of State, Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner and Tax Commissioner have in common? In North Dakota all of these offices have elected heads of the respective agencies. That is not the case in many other states. Many of these agencies are typically appointed by the state’s Governor. For some reason, North Dakotans like their many elected offices. I believe that question has been put before the voters in the past for some of the offices, but North Dakotans rejected the idea of making some of the agency heads appointed by the Governor.

However, as time has passed, I wonder if the public feels differently now about that option? Of course when the Republicans hold the office of the Governor they would have no problem with these other agencies being appointed positions and the Democrats would be staunchly opposed to that option. In that scenario, the Democrats would want the option to win some of these seats during elections to enhance their candidates’ chances for other public offices in the future.

I was approached with this question after the recent controversies with the Agricultural Commissioner and the Tax Commissioner. There are pro’s and con’s for each option. Having the agency heads elected versus appointed reduces the power of the Governor. It puts accountability directly into the hands of the citizens. The problem with that option is if the office holder does something early during their term that is egregious, but not illegal; unless they can be impeached the public is stuck with that individual until the next election. There is always the possibility for public pressure to force the elected official to resign in that circumstance, but that is highly unlikely.

If the agency head is appointed by the Governor, the Governor would have the responsibility and duty to deal with issues regarding that appointed official. The public could then make the Governor accountable for actions of his or her appointed officials.

Besides the Governor and the Lt. Governor, states typically elect the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. However, it is really a mixed bag among the other states for the other state offices. If ND were to switch some of these elected offices to ones that are appointed, another significant public policy issue would need to be considered – should the appointed officials be required to be confirmed by the ND Senate similar to what happens at the Federal level?

Establishing more of these agencies as appointed offices would not only give the Governor more authority, but would also make these agencies more accountable to someone other than the public every 4 years, or 6 years in the case of the Public Service Commissioners. My guess is that the public is satisfied with the system as it is, but I could be misjudging that sentiment. What would you prefer – appointed or elected, and if appointed should the appointments be confirmed by the ND Senate?