Political Reforms in the Post-Trump Era: Direct Election of Attorney General


Elections can sometimes be quirky. Two of the past three presidents in the United States lost the popular vote, thanks to our electoral college system. In state and local elections the winner is sometimes determined by just a handful of votes, or even a coin toss.

Elections also typically have binary outcomes, where one side wins and the other loses. When a high-stakes binary outcome meets a close election and a little weirdness (or fraud), you can have history-making events driven effectively by chance.

Thus we have President Donald Trump. And Brexit.

One way to reduce the impact of electoral quirkiness is to lower the stakes of each individual election. We don't mind when a congressman is elected by a dozen votes, or a small-town mayor is chosen by flipping a coin, because the stakes are usually lower. But when we have a historically bad president chosen through the confluence of a few thousand votes in the right states plus an outdated electoral college system, it seems like there's too much at stake for such an oddball system.

Electing the Attorney General of the United States would help reduce the stakes of presidential elections, and lower the consequences of random happenstance.

Historically, of course, the Attorney General is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. But many states have elected Attorneys General, and it seems to work just fine.

This would require a constitutional amendment, so changing to an elected AG is not going to be an easy path. But I can see a lot of benefits:

  1. It separates the functions of running the federal bureaucracy from enforcing the laws. This lets the two sides of the executive branch serve as checks on each other.
  2. It creates another nationally elected office, which reduces the impact of the electoral college without having to abolish it--the power dynamics of the electoral college and the constitutional amendment process mean that it's almost impossible to actually get rid of the electoral college. The United States Attorney General can be popularly elected without having to touch the system for electing presidents.
  3. It makes it impossible for a President to stop an investigation by firing the Attorney General. This specific tactic has been tried twice in my lifetime, and is an obvious weakness in our system of checks and balances.

If you want to take this idea to an extreme, you can divide up the powers of the Executive Branch among several elected cabinet officials, but it's important to balance this against the need to have a reasonably unified approach to policy and administration.