Government Efficiency’s Crown of Achievement

University of Oregon Football Coach Mike Bellotti held his usual press conference before a game against University of Southern California during its dynasty years. A reporter asked Bellotti if his Ducks had any chance of beating the Trojans that Saturday.

Bellotti paused for bemusement, then replied, “I don’t know. That’s why we play the game.”

This story seems relevant as the Lane County Board of Commissioners contemplate an ordinance that would give them the power to preempt any ballot initiative they deem to be not “of county concern.”

Preventing county citizens from voting on certain issues after they’ve collected sufficient signatures to place it on the ballot is worse than a patronizing pat on the head. It advocates a model of government efficiency that threatens to rotten its roots.

On its surface, the reasoning seems sound. Why should the county bear the expense to have voters choose between Nike and Birkenstock as the county’s official footwear? Or a plebiscite that gauges residents’ desire for GMO labeling? Or declaring Lane County a Nuclear Free Zone?

Why should any of these votes be worth the trouble or expense, if they cannot be enforced at the local level? Who wants to see time, energy or taxpayer money wasted? Well, sometimes the taxpayers do want to take a flyer, tilt against a windmill, defy the odds, or just do something ridiculous. That is their right.

Efficiency is overrated, especially in any democratic society.

Pollsters have gotten terribly accurate at measuring outcomes before voting begins, so why don’t we just skip the expense of holding an election whenever pollsters determine that the outcome is nearly certain? Uber-poll analyst Nate Silver correctly predicted all 50 states’ presidential preferences in 2012. Why not empower him to decree who will win, saving millions of Americans the trouble of standing in line to cast their votes?

Elections may seem expensive, but the cost of sending ballots and counting votes pales in comparison to the campaigns that seek to persuade voters. Every radio spot and every lawn sign costs money. And for everyone except the winner, those expenses were completely wasted.

Even some of the winners don’t end up with much to show for their effort. If they don’t vote with the majority, why should they bother voting at all? Why would minority members even bother to show up, if they feel certain that their vote won’t make a difference in the outcome?

Once those in the minority stopped showing up, we’d have a more efficiency. No more contentious debates. No boring but thorough inquiries. Everything would be smooth sailing if we ran a much tighter ship.

Do we really need five county commissioners? They so seldom agree! Most of Oregon’s smaller counties get by with only three commissioners. Furniture is so expensive — why pay for three chairs instead of one really nice one?

Having only one county commissioner would be so much more efficient — especially if we let him or her serve for as long as they wanted, saving us the expense and trouble of elections altogether. They might stay longer if we gave that person a special hat, and a scepter, and a throne.

Our nation’s model of divided government is inefficient by design. No state has voted on more ballot initiatives than Oregon. It’s messy on purpose. We like it that way, and it’s our money being “wasted.”

The truth is that we enjoy an eerily even split of perspectives and priorities across Lane County. Roughly half of the county’s residents live inside Eugene’s friendly confines. The county sprawls from ocean to mountain, with plenty of ridges and valleys in between. It’s a blessedly diverse landscape, populated with people who only amplify that diversity.

We elect commissioners to have some of the arguments we don’t have time to undertake ourselves. The role those five play is to articulate our arguments — not to answer them all as expeditiously as possible.

One former county commissioner once described a particular vote to me this way: “As I recall, it passed unanimously. The vote was 3-2.”

Yes, indeed. It’s why we play the game.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.