The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Vote Here Part 2

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With the general election just a week away, it’s time to make good on my promise to write about lesser-known elected offices that may (or may not) nonetheless have a bearing on global warming.

In the first How to Vote post, I demonstrated how to research candidates’ stances on climate issues, using a few of the bigger races in my state (Maryland) as examples. I’m not going to repeat the process for the other races (except privately for my own edification). Just to recap:

  • Incumbents for offices with national significance (e.g., Congresspeople) are rated by the League of Conservation Voters according to their voting records on environmental issues.
  • Challengers who have previously served in public office have service records, but these might require some digging to find. It’s important to understand local environmental issues, otherwise it might not be clear which is really the record of climate sanity. Be prepared to sort through political spin.
  • In the absence of relevant records, look at the candidate’s own advertizing to determine whose vote he or she is trying to get. Campaigns are famous for what Mary Poppins called “pie-crust promises–easily made, easily broken,” but if the candidate isn’t even trying for environmentalist votes, he or she is unlikely to fight hard for climate.

In this post I’m going to go through the offices being contested in my district and explain what each of them do; some voters (in the past, me included) ignore some local races to the point of not finding out what the positions involve. Not all of these bear on climate change, but some do–and all are opportunities for candidates to develop name recognition so they can run for something else, later. My ballot might or might not have all the same offices on it as yours, but this should help.

I’m looking at races for the following positions:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor
  • Attorney General
  • Representative in Congress
  • State Senator
  • House of Delegates
  • Comptroller
  • Judge, Court of Special Appeals at Large
  • County Commissioner
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Sheriff
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphans’ Court

Governor/Lt. Governor

This is, of course, two separate positions; in Maryland, the two run on a combined ticket, as the US President and Vice President do. This is not the case for all states. Delaware, for example, elects its Lieutenant Governor separately. Some states actually have no Lt. Governor at all.

The position of Governor is, more or less, similar for all the States and familiar to most people, but Lt. Governor varies a lot between states and even from one administration to the next. In some states, including Maryland, the Lt. Governor is a purely ceremonial post, unless and until the Governor is temporarily or permanently unavailable. In others, the job includes substantial legislative duties. Sometimes the Governor can delegate duties to the Lt. Governor and these might be minimal or major, depending on the Governor’s personal judgment.

In other words, the office of the Lt. Governor might be at most a springboard to possible higher office, or a position with direct bearing on policy, depending on the state in question.

Attorney General and State’s Attorney

These two are not elected together, but I’m covering them as a pair because the easiest way to describe the two is to contrast them with each other. The Attorney General is the state’s lawyer and the state has only one. There are many State’s Attorneys, one per county, and each serves as his or her county’s lawyer. The Attorney General does not supervise the State’s Attorneys, nor do the various State’s Attorneys necessarily coordinate with each other, since each is elected separately by his or her own county (or by the City of Baltimore, which in some ways functions as its own county).

Both offices are involved in deciding how laws are enforced, and so are potentially very important from an environmental perspective; they get to decide whether the book gets thrown at polluters or at protesters. All US states have an Attorney General, though his or her duties vary somewhat, but only a minority have State’s Attorneys.

Legislators

The Representative in Congress, the State Senator, and the House of Delegates are all legislative positions. I don’t know why the ballot lists “House of Delegates,” rather than “State House Delegate,” or something similar. Both the State Senate and the House Delegate are members of the State Assembly, the legislative body of Maryland. The Representative in Congress is, of course, the one we send to Washington. Maryland sends Senators to Washington, too, of course, but neither of ours are up for election this year.

The County Commissioners are also legislators–and executives, a combination of governmental functions usually kept separate. Not all states have them, and it is possible for a state to have Commissions in some of its counties but not others. Some states refer to the same position by different terms, such as “Supervisors” or “Chosen Freeholders.” Some states that do have county-level governments use different systems that separate out the executive and legislative functions into different offices. Where county governments exist in whatever form, they have responsibility for various land management functions including pollution control, parks management, and sometimes planning and economic development.

In other words, a lot of environmental issues hinge on the County Commissioners or their equivalents. Though not all of those issues have direct bearing on climate, some do, either in terms of lowering emissions or in terms of preparing for seal level rise and other such problems. These are not people to ignore.

Comptroller

The Comptroller is the state’s treasurer and accountant. They hardly ever make the news, and many people don’t even know how to pronounce the title (the “p” is silent). However, this is the person in charge of the state’s money–not someone to ignore, either. The Comptroller can even suggest fiscal policy and the State Assembly can and sometimes does draft law on the basis of these suggestions. Some Comptrollers, such as New York’s, even have environmental initiatives that address climate change.

Judges and Related Positions

The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which means that it hears appeals from trial courts  but its decisions can be appealed in turn to the state’s version of a Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals. The judges are appointed, not elected, as vacancies appear, but each judge must stand for an uncontested election after appointment and then at ten year intervals thereafter. Judges who lose one of these votes of confidence are then replaced by a new appointment. The judges represent specific court circuits or serve “at large.” There are fifteen in total, though they usually hear cases in panels of three. This year, two such judges, both “at large” are up for confidence votes.

The Orphan’s Courts exist at the county level in Maryland (though not all counties have them) and deals with both wills and the guardianship of minors. Its judges are elected for four year terms and one is up for election in my county.

The Register of Wills is likewise elected for a four year term, one per county,

The Clerk of the Circuit Court is also a county-level position and essentially handles judicial paperwork, including archiving documents and helping litigants file the proper forms.

All of these apply to Maryland courts. Other states have their own systems for electing or appointing judges and other court officials. Of course judges sometimes can decide cases that bear on climate change, and it is possible to make policy from the bench to some extent, but much of their work–while very important–does not bear on our topic.

Sheriff

Sheriffs in Maryland are responsible for enforcing the law, providing security in courts of law, and administering correctional facilities. Depending on the area, the Sheriff may work alongside the organized police force or may be the only law enforcement around. This state has 24 sheriffs, each elected in his or her jurisdiction. The duties of sheriffs vary from one state to another.

I have, for the most part, left out links to my research sources here, because I used a combination of multiple websites and my own prior knowledge on almost every office and citing such combinations is complicated. Looking up the positions on your sample ballot for your own area is not complicated–an internet search for “what does [this office] do in [this state]” should do it.

Now, the only thing left is for you to go VOTE on November 4th!

 

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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