Have you ever wondered why county positions like sheriff, treasurer, auditor and even county attorney are elected positions? Probably not, but these are the things that I think about during brief quiet moments.
Though Iowa’s codes don’t answer the question of why, they do answer the question of what, as in what kind of experience candidates need to have. Iowa code 331 lays out the requirements and duties of elected county officials. It’s an invigorating read.
According to the code, Except for county attorney, which requires you to “be admitted to the practice of law in the courts of this state as provided by law,” you don’t need any skills or experience to run for these positions. For sheriff, you don’t have to have any prior law enforcement experience, you just have to “…complete the basic training course provided at the Iowa law enforcement academy's central training facility or a location other than the central training facility within one year of taking office. A treasurer doesn’t have to have any accounting experience and an auditor doesn’t need to be familiar with election law.
According to Wikipedia, sheriff elections date back to medieval times. ‘The word "sheriff" is a contraction of the term "shire reeve". The term, from the Old English scīrgerefa, designated a royal official responsible for keeping the peace (a "reeve") throughout a shire or county on behalf of the king.
According to a historical document on the Iowa State Sheriff’s & Deputies’ Association website, law enforcement was present in Iowa before it became a state. In 1836, George W. Cummins was the first elected sheriff in what was then known as the Dubuque Mines. It later became Dubuque County, which at that time was all of northern Iowa, southern Iowa was DeMoines County.
Though a cursory search of the internet didn’t turn up history on other elected positions, I’m guessing they’re elected today because, like many other things in life, that’s the way we’ve always done it.
Which begs the question: Is popular vote still the best way to select people for these positions?
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After all, most cities have administrators, finance directors, public works directors, and other officials who are hired by city councils that, presumably, find the person they think is most qualified for the job. Police chiefs are not elected officials either. Why then, do we run our counties this way? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the County Board of Supervisors to be in charge of hiring the most qualified people for these positions, similar to the way a city council handles it?
The National Sheriff’s Association has thoughts about this question. They have a three-page paper on the topic that begins: “The Right to Vote is the Essence of America's Democracy: It is the long-standing popular democratic practice of our American Republic to elect all local, state and federal executive offices. A political issue arises periodically in various local jurisdictions around the United States as to whether or not the present status of the Office of Sheriff should be changed from elected to appointed. The elected Office of Sheriff is directly accountable and responsible to eligible voters and an elected Office of Sheriff is not directly controlled by local county board/commissioners, supervisors, mayor, etc."
As to why the sheriff’s association thinks we should continue electing our sheriff’s, they make this argument: “The Office of Sheriff provides a check and balance as an elected law enforcement officer who is directly responsible to the citizens, and the Office of Sheriff protects the populace from undue political influence by members of the county board/supervisors, etc. on local law enforcement and public safety issues.”
The rest of their argument comes down to “because this is the way we’ve always done it in America.”
Two states don’t have sheriffs at all, Alaska and Connecticut. In Rhode Island, the governor appoints sheriffs. In two Colorado counties and in Dade County, Fla., sheriffs are appointed by the county executive. A county executive is like a city administrator.
Preserving our history is a good thing, at least in some cases. In the case of elected county officials, maybe it’s time to stop living in the past. What do you think?