Friday, December 30, 2011

Mr. Butler, Mr. Butler, and the Future of Derby, Connecticut

A curious news item from Connecticut came to my attention recently. While the off-year 2011 elections were just a warm-up for 2012 for most of the country, for the Butler family of Derby, Connecticut, they were quite eventful indeed. James R. Butler, a Democrat serving on the town's Board of Apportionment and Taxation, was running for reelection, but when he walked into the voting booth he noticed something unusual: he was listed on the ballot as James J. Butler, which just so happens to be the name of his son. It would have been an innocuous typo anywhere else, but on a ballot, it was legally binding. As a result, the son, not the father, was declared the winner of the election. Not without controversy, he was sworn in on December 3, despite uncertainty over whether he would stay on or yield the seat to his father.

How to interpret the 1,526 ballots cast for James Butler is the political and legal equivalent of the age-old debate between grammatical prescriptivism and descriptivism. Proponents of the latter believe that a phrase like "I could care less" is correct if enough people accept it as such; therefore, if voters believed they were electing James R. Butler, then he should be elected irregardless. Prescriptivists, however, would say that the only ironclad application of the law is to seat the man whose full name was checked off—and, by the way, there's no such thing as a chaise lounge. (It's a chaise longue.)

I tend to take the prescriptivist view, so I'm sympathetic to the argument that, with such ambiguity present, obeying the letter of the law is the safest course. But being a prescriptivist often means two things: having a rigid grammatical philosophy and examining all questions on the most micro scale. However, the law (and grammar, I readily admit) requires consideration of the context and substance surrounding every nitpicking question. In the Butlers' case, even the most die-hard prescriptivist taking a broad view of the matter must see the serious legal, even constitutional problems with declaring James J. the winner. No matter what the ballot actually said, we have to use common sense about voters' intent, which almost certainly was to reelect the elder Butler. For better or for worse, most voters that day probably did not know what "their" James Butler's middle initial was—and if they did, most people probably didn't spot the typo. More troubling is that the candidate declared the victor (the younger Butler) was placed on the ballot improperly, maybe even illegally, evicting from the ballot the rightful Democratic nominee, his father. The son should never have been in a position to be sworn in in the first place!

At the same time, the name on the ballot still matters, and I don't think you can swear in James R. either. In Derby, we essentially have a situation where an ineligible candidate was nevertheless legally elected. But in order to assume a political office, you really need to do two things: get elected to it AND qualify for it. In this case—similar to if a 24-year-old won the presidency of the United States—no candidate has satisfied both requirements, and so the office should remain vacant. Then, as soon as practicable, the position should be filled through whatever means normally fill a vacancy (e.g., death or resignation) for that office.

Dubiously, Derby didn't take that seemingly sensible path. Instead, the younger Butler essentially staged a mini coup d'├ętat of the Derby Board of Apportionment and Taxation. (Yes, that's a provocative term to use, but, strictly speaking, it's pretty accurate.) If there were to be an identical error on a larger stage (e.g., on a presidential ballot in a swing state), it would be a full-blown constitutional crisis; there isn't enough money in the world to pay all the lawyers' fees that would result. Additionally, the fact that James J. was sworn in even after the mistake was exposed makes it hypothetically possible for future ballot-printers to purposefully tamper with elections and affect their outcomes, at least if they feel like being an evil genius that day.

Really, what kept this from being a far nastier affair was the fact that the two "candidates" involved were father and son. Given the drama, there's an eerie lack of animosity apparent in interviews with the Butlers. At his son's swearing-in ceremony, James R. Butler sat in the front row, saying afterward, "If he wants it, it's his" and—betraying no interest in putting up a fight for a position he wanted badly enough to run for office to get—"It's my son's decision now on what he wants to do." As late as December 5 (almost a month after Election Day), James R. told reporters that father and son hadn't even talked about the issue yet. And rather than having the issue decided in court, the Butlers said they would discuss it as a family over dinner. (Eventually, James J. did resign and James R. was appointed to the seat via Derby's regular vacancy procedure—the elder Butler even earned a promotion to board chairman.)

I can't decide if this is dangerous or noble. On one hand, it doesn't matter how small your scale is—legal concepts are the same. There is no minimum threshold beyond which they can be ignored. While acrimony is never desirable, a legal dispute should be settled in a legal setting; especially when the legal concepts are this stark and the consequences this weighty, it's important that an appropriate and well-founded precedent be set. On the other hand, this self-settling controversy seems a reminder of a simpler time embodied by small towns like Derby. In hamlets where everyone still knows their neighbor, business can occur on an intimate basis, and compromises are easier to reach because they are personal and forged among friends. Where on a larger scale accusations of power-grabbing and corruption would fly, no one in this tiny town thought the Butlers were trying to install an unelected monarchy, despite the presence of all the legal loopholes discussed above. Even with such big concepts at play, this was an innocent mistake; who can blame the town for saying, "We're all responsible adults here—ethical, law-abiding citizens who trust each other and know that this is just a weird accident with our Board of Apportionment and Taxation. Surely we can come to a consensus solution and agree that it doesn't mean anything beyond who gets to crunch numbers for a couple years for a town whose budget isn't worth a fortune anyway." Why overcomplicate things? Would that all politics be so simple.

The addendum to that would be that the cause of all this was something equally simple. Somewhere, someone misprinted a single letter. That's all. If a rural Connecticuter sitting in a drab town-hall office could touch off such a turmoil with one innocuous mistake, surely it can all be fixed, equally informally, without leaving the walls of that same town hall... right?

I'm not sure. And the only thing I take away from the Derby debacle for sure is this: if a constitutional crisis or the seminal debate over local control could arise from your work, be sure to double-check it for typos.

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