Nuts & Bolts: Inside a Democratic campaign—law enforcement and judicial elections

In 2014, I and a few others ran polling data in several U.S. municipalities. What we discovered shouldn’t surprise anyone: Very few (as in, below the margin of error) residents in counties knew the names of their elected judges, sheriff, or district attorney. You can informally check this anytime you want: Walk into a party function, or even a PTA meeting, and ask people if they know the district attorney or any of the sitting county or city judges. Unless you are in a room full of practicing attorneys, most of the time the answer you receive will be “No idea.” This lack of information about who serves in these roles is the single largest hindrance to recruiting. The default position of voters is simple: If they don’t hear about anything, they assume things are okay and don’t make changes. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California published this breakdown ahead of a recent community sheriff’s race:

The sheriff has the power to:

  • Run the county jail system.
  • Use alternatives to incarceration.
  • Minimize crime by providing opportunities for rehabilitation.
  • Influence state policy.
  • Listen and respond to the community.

Judicial elections have also turned into major policy fights for conservatives. The Economist wrote about this in regard to races in Tennessee:

Judicial elections are becoming a lot like any other. Tennessee’s recent race was a good example. A few days before the poll Gary Wade, the chief justice on the state’s Supreme Court, sat in his office, a room enlivened by a bearskin rug on the floor, complete with paws and snarling mouth. Mr Wade had faced the voters five times before, but this election was the first time he had to do any actual campaigning. Tennessee’s race became unexpectedly political: the three judges up for retention were hit with adverts denouncing them as Obamacare-loving liberals, though their court has never ruled on the subject. The judges responded by raising over $1m to buy adverts of their own.

County prosecutors and district attorneys also have their own major roles in your community. In 2018, the ACLU of Vermont sent out questionnaires to potential candidates for state’s attorney. These questions sought to discover the candidates’ views on the use of bail, rates of incarceration vs. non-jail sentences, and the use of diversion in handling cases of those with mental health issues. These are major questions that have real impacts on voters. Whether you think of them as moral or fiscal concerns, these issues can cost taxpayers real money at the same time as they set a moral standard for the way we treat the indigent and those with disabilities.

As we move on this month and discuss the recruiting and development of candidates for these offices, the first place to start is to find out more about the people who currently serve in these roles in your community. The goal is to create a safer, better community with law enforcement officials that use their positions to improve their community. How they do these things—differences in enforcement methods and outcomes—can help you determine how you start to recruit candidates.

Next week: Who can run for sheriff and district attorney?

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