Sunday, August 01, 2010

I Didn't Elect the Sheriff

I drove about 200 miles (one way) through Wisconsin this week, and I was reminded that it is political season. Despite a gubernatorial and a U.S. Senate primary coming up next month, the most prevalent yard signs were for county sheriff races. In fact, I found that I didn't have to pay attention to signs announcing that I had crossed a county line--if I was curious, the change in yard signage would amply inform me of the political boundaries.

Seeing all of the sheriff signs, with the inevitable images of starred badges prominently displayed, made me nostalgic for 2002. That fall, during my brief career as a radio news reporter, I covered a contentious county sheriff race involving about seven candidates. I also covered a two-person district attorney race. County races usually aren't that interesting, since incumbents usually rule for as long as they want, but that particular year there was no incumbent D.A., and the incumbent sheriff was an appointee who had never been elected. Adding to the unpredictability, there was no scientific (or unscientific) polling done, so until the actual primary, there was no firm reason to expect any one of the candidates to win.

As I did not reside in the county I was covering at the time, I personally did not cast a vote in the elections. And I was kind of glad about that-- not only because it helped to ensure my impartiality covering the races, but also because I had no idea who I would have voted for. It obviously wasn't for lack of information. Not only did I attend candidate forums and hear the candidates speak in a variety of settings, I personally interviewed them (conducting one on-air forum for the D.A. candidates myself), and in some cases, I observed them do their duties in a way that few citizens do. But at the end of the day, I couldn't say with certainly who would have made the best sheriff or prosecutor.

Electing a legislator seems to be an easier task. As my high school civics teacher advised, the test for voting for a candidate is to say: "I don't have time to run for office this year, so which one of these people would do the job the most like I would?" While we can align ourselves ideologically with a lawmaker, how do we confidently do that for an administrator of justice?

Take nothing away from the two individuals who won the elections and their qualifications for the respective jobs in 2002, but I have to think that in each case, a sizable portion of the citizenry cast their votes on external factors. The winner of the sheriff's race may have benefited from having his father serve in that same capacity several years prior, and the winner of the D.A. race probably picked up a number of votes when he made a pledge to donate a sizable chunk of his salary back to the county. Cronyism may be a bad, but is populism necessarily any better?

I doubt you will find much support from anyone for taking away from voters the power to employ these officials (heck, it's hard enough to take away the power to select baseball all-stars from voters), but I would suggest that it wouldn't be that far outside of the existing status quo. We may elect sheriffs, but we don't elect police chiefs. We elect the D.A., but not the other prosecutors who try cases on behalf of "the state" (nor do we elect public defenders, for that matter).

As a check against cronyism or a spoils system, perhaps we could allow for public recalls of certain government offices. But much as I enjoyed covering the elections of 2002, and much as I enjoy using campaign signs as geographical guides, it wouldn't bother me to remove a little bit of power from the people.


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