This October, 63 parishes in Louisiana held sheriff elections. Fifty seven of those parishes elected a white sheriff or will do so after the run-off election in November. (Run-offs occur if no one candidate receives more than 50% of the votes.) Three parishes elected a Black sheriff outright, and three more have a Black candidate still in contention for the run-off election. Most of the sheriffs in Louisiana will remain white even though at least one-third of the state’s population, and 65% of the prison population, is Black. The racial disparity in Louisiana’s elected sheriffs is particularly stark considering the state’s place as one of the top incarcerators in the world.
Louisiana is not an outlier. Sheriffs are mostly white men across the country. They also remain in office longer — very few states have term limits on sheriffs — and are more likely to win re-election than other elected offices. The scholar Michael Zoroob points out that the incumbency advantage for sheriffs “far exceeds that of other local offices and even members of Congress.”
Electing diverse sheriffs — especially Black sheriffs in the ex-Confederate states of the South — has a history that dovetails with Reconstruction and the ensuing Redemption, when southern Democrats did their best to erase Black Americans’ hard-won rights. Once Black men could vote in the South, there was a surge in Black local elected officials, sheriffs among them. As historian Eric Foner points out in his book on Reconstruction, sheriffs impacted everyone’s daily lives. Republicans, who at the time opposed chattel slavery, sought the office of sheriffs in order to mete out some measure of justice by arresting white, racist terrorists.
Jim Crow laws erased these electoral gains, ensuring sheriffs would be white men for over a century. Many counties in the South wouldn’t elect a Black sheriff until the 2000s. As one Black man running for sheriff in Georgia (in 2020 no less) said, “You want to give people the benefit of the doubt on the racial issue…But everything around here is Black and White.”
The thing is, electing diverse sheriffs isn’t important just for the sake of representation or other potential benefits. The failure of most counties in this country to elect diverse sheriffs shows how local elections are deeply impacted by voter suppression and the county structure, which prioritizes land over people and ensures that sheriffs remain disproportionately more conservative and whiter than their constituents.
In most states, people convicted of felonies cannot vote, a direct descendant of voter suppression in the ex-Confederacy. Furthermore, people incarcerated in county jails — those most imminently impacted by a sheriff’s policies — can only vote at the whim of the sheriff. Voting in jail requires the use of a mail-in ballot, but in most states, mail-in ballots must be requested weeks in advance, before most people know they might be in jail. Laws that require advance registration or that place onerous burdens on absentee voting — like confusing rules on how to fill out ballots or short deadlines to return ballots — further hamper the ability of people in jail to vote, even though they are legally guaranteed the right to do so.
Sheriffs are elected by county, not state or city. Most counties consist of an urban area or small city with the adjoining suburbs or rural areas. Voters in the exurban areas tend to vote conservatively and are much less likely to vote for candidates of color. White rural voters also tend to turn out to vote for sheriffs simply because they are more familiar with the office, since sheriffs are generally the sole law enforcement for rural regions.
Much like the Electoral College, this presents a lopsided advantage for rural residents, who, while composing only 20% of the U.S. population, reside on 80% of the land. County sheriffs are much more conservative overall than other elected offices, lagging years behind in terms of policies. Counties dilute the votes of urban dwellers, just as the Electoral College dilutes the votes of more populous states. In 2016, for example, over 80% of counties voted for Trump, yet only 46% of the population did as a whole. This means 80% of sheriffs are elected in Trump-favoring counties. No wonder sheriffs look so conservative nationwide. They simply are.
This is all not to say that rural areas do not have diverse communities or diverging interests. I have spoken to many people in rural regions who are not happy with their far-right sheriff and seek more equitable law enforcement. County voting simply gives the far-right more of an advantage.
Sheriffs are, put simply, part of an office that is no longer relevant. They do not represent the interests of the people and are more likely to commit misconduct, including everything from murder-for-hire plots to corruption. Rather than provide public safety, sheriffs are slightly more likely than city police to kill people on the street and are responsible for the high number of deaths in their jails. The independent nature of the sheriff’s office encourages sheriffs to rely on politics to hobnob with white supremacist groups to make racist statements (and enact racist policies) about immigrants and, even, to steal money from the people in their care. The office is not one that advances the interests of the people nor has it proven itself up to the task of healing communities and providing what people need to feel safe and secure.
For this very reason, groups like the National Sheriffs Association have vigorously defended the office of sheriff. They argue that the office has historical relevance and importance, offering such sweeping historical narratives like a link between sheriffs and the time of King Arthur or even the Bible.
These fights are most contentious in counties where the population has diversified, but the sheriff’s office has not changed. That’s because sheriffs want to make sure their office endures the same as it ever was, the same as it did during Jim Crow. Maybe they are right. Maybe the sheriff’s office should be relegated to history books. There, it could remain a relic and the rest of society can move on.
Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.