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When the elected, like Palin, exit badly

Public office is a contract with voters. The exit bar should be high.

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When Sarah Palin announced her intention to resign as Alaska's governor last week, she pointedly said she did not want to mimic the saying on her parents' refrigerator: "Don't explain: Your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway."

Alaskan voters do deserve an explanation. But despite her lengthy statement on July 3, a follow-up on July 4, and elaboration from the state's lieutenant governor on July 5, it's still not clear exactly why the former Republican vice-presidential candidate of 2008 has decided to quit the governorship with 18 months to go in her first term.

Leaving public office is not the same as saying goodbye to a private-sector job. Public office is a contract with voters who (hopefully) take the time to inform themselves and fill out a ballot. Candidates win their trust, and in return, the public expects them to do the job – which is to represent citizens' interests and bring their own wisdom for the term of service. The bar for exit must be high.

Since 1949, 45 governors have resigned from office, according to the National Governors Association. The causes generally fall into two categories: a handful of ethics breaches and violations of the law (in which case states are usually better off without that particular executive); and migration to other offices – judgeships, congressional seats, appointments as cabinet secretaries and ambassadors (still a broken contract but at least a continuation of public service). [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of governors who have resigned.]

Ms. Palin will join a small club of only 10 governors in the last 60 years who resigned before their first term was up. Almost all of them were appointed to or sought other public offices. In 1969, for instance, Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew – like Palin – ran as a vice-presidential candidate (with Richard Nixon).

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