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Good Question: Why Vote For Judges And Sheriffs?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans came out to vote on Election Day, most were motivated by the Governor’s race or a race for U.S. Representative. Few were motivated by their county’s Soil and Water Commission race. Or the Court of Appeals. So why do we have to vote for races that most of us know nothing about?

“America is one of the most election-hungry countries in the world,” said Larry Jacobs, Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

“The idea was, let’s have them accountable to voters. It’s part of the election mania we have in America,” said Jacobs.

The Soil and Water Commissions came after the Dust Bowl, when President Franklin Roosevelt told states to set up elected boards to deal with farm erosion and water conservation issues.

“If these offices have responsibility, the bias in America, in Minnesota is, ‘let’s put them up to voters. Let’s see what the voters think,'” said Jacobs.

Minnesota statute sets up the Soil and Water Commission, 90 counties have a commission, and by law the commissioners have to be elected.

One of the candidates in Hennepin County, Amber Collett, said, “By having an elected Soil & Water Board, we have some sense of accountability to the landowners that our programs impact.”

So what about the office of sheriff? “We don’t elect a police chief, why are we electing a sheriff?” asked Jeff Haage from Rochester.

“It has to do with the history,” said Jacobs.

There’s no question that colonial Americans worried about unchecked law enforcement.

“In its earliest and most pure form, it was intended to be a check and a balance system by the people electing their county sheriff,” said Jim Franklin, director of the Minnesota Association of Sheriffs.

Some of Minnesota’s county sheriffs were elected prior to the establishment of Minnesota as a state. When the statues were set up, lawmakers “envisioned some law enforcement purpose would be responsible for courts, the jails, all the things that happen in the judicial process,” said Franklin.

As for why police chiefs are not elected, “police chiefs have no duties under state statute,” said Franklin. Cities aren’t required to have police chiefs, but counties are required to have a sheriff.

So how to explain that giant list of judicial candidates? Elizabeth Wolf in Oakdale e-mailed asking, “Why do we vote for judges?”

“This is an issue of growing contention,” said Jacobs.

Minnesota’s Constitution requires that judges be elected, but many worry that it’s getting out of control.

“With lots of money coming in, with judges taking positions, a lot of folks would be uncomfortable with going before them. You don’t want a judge who’s run on a platform. You want a judge with absolute impartiality,” said Jacobs.

Some states only appoint judges. Others only do retention elections, where voters simply get a list of incumbents and then choose to keep them or fire them.

“The lack of accountability and the ability to throw people out seems to be the driving force here,” said Jacobs, noting that even though most voters don’t know about these races, they also don’t really want to give up their right to vote on them.

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