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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Firing restores accountability; and Lamont boosts ‘ranked choice’

    By firing TaShun Bowden-Lewis, the state's chief public defender and the first Black one, Connecticut's formerly obscure Public Defender Services Commission has struck a belated blow for the public's sovereignty over its own institutions. But it almost didn't happen.

    Last year the commission was upset by Bowden-Lewis' insubordination, whereupon she accused the commissioners of racism, accusations of racism having replaced patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. But instead of standing up to this additional insubordination, four of the five commissioners — two of them Superior Court judges — resigned, leaving the public defender office without supervision.

    Eventually new commissioners were appointed and Bowden-Lewis' insubordination and accusations continued. She even broke into a commissioner's e-mail. An outside law firm's investigation confirmed that she had retaliated against employees for disagreeing with her. The commission's unionized staff overwhelmingly voted no confidence in her. (Of course Bowden-Lewis saw racism in that too.)

    So last week, having concluded that Bowden-Lewis could never accept accountability and couldn't get along with her staff, the commission dismissed her. Now she will negotiate a hefty severance payment using as leverage a lawsuit charging that her dismissal was improper. Her presumption all along has been that, because she is Black, she doesn't have to answer to anyone.

    The commission and the governor may be tempted to throw $100,000 or more at Bowden-Lewis to make her go away quietly, but that will only compound the bad precedent that already has been set with her and will invite more opportunistic accusations of racism to distract from incompetence or misconduct in state employment.

    The Bowden-Lewis case has reiterated the lack of accountability in state government. Indeed, the resignations of four of the five original members of the Public Defender Services Commission proclaimed that state government is generally terrified of accountability. Now that a modicum of accountability is back, Bowden-Lewis should be told to peddle her race mongering in the private sector from now on. It often works there too.

    Ranked-choice voting

    Most legislators seem unable to see the danger to democracy in elections where the winner does not receive a majority, but Gov. Ned Lamont sees it. He has appointed a politically balanced committee to study how Connecticut might adopt "ranked-choice voting," a mechanism that provides an "instant runoff" election when no candidate has received more than 50% of the vote.

    Ranked-choice voting invites voters to signify how they would change their vote if their preferred candidate does not finish first. Votes are transferred in accordance with a voter's preferences until a candidate receives a majority and is elected.

    There are two main arguments against ranked-choice voting.

    First is that it's complicated. Yes, it requires some explaining but essentially it is the equivalent of having a second election without incurring the expense of a second day of voting.

    The second complaint is that ranked-choice voting gives people more than one vote. But it really doesn't. It just gives people the option of changing their vote in a runoff.

    Ranked-choice voting would take some getting used to. But getting used to ranked-choice voting is better than getting used to elections in which the plurality winner doesn't really reflect the views of the majority. In recent decades Connecticut has elected governors and U.S. senators who received less than a majority of the vote and well might have lost a runoff.

    Ranked-choice voting will diminish the ability of minor-party candidates to function as blackmailers and spoilers. In Connecticut that means diminishing the ability of the far-left Working Families Party to push Democratic candidates farther left by threatening to nominate the WFP's own candidates instead of cross-endorsing the Democrats as is typically done. Splitting WFP votes away from Democrats in the first round of voting wouldn't be such a threat since WFP voters would make moderate Democrats their second choice.

    Encouraging elections by majority vote rather than just plurality vote will strengthen the political center against left and right extremes — another reason to welcome the governor's initiative.

    Chris Powell has written about Connecticut government and politics for many years. He can be reached at CPowell@cox.net.

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