Take that, GOP schemes to rig ballot measures! On this week’s episode of “The Downballot,” co-hosts David Nir and David Beard gleefully dive into the failure of Issue 1, which was designed to thwart a November vote to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The Davids discuss why Republican efforts to sneak their amendment through during a summertime election were doomed to fail; how many conservative counties swung sharply toward the “no” side; and what the results mean both for Sherrod Brown’s reelection hopes and a future measure to institute true redistricting reform.
And joining us as our guest is political science professor Emily Farris, whose research sheds light on an elective office that usually receives too little attention: sheriffs. Farris explains how American counties came to elect their sheriffs in the first place; how they differ from police chiefs; the dangers posed by far-right “constitutional” sheriffs; and why it’s so difficult to find committed reformers willing to run against the worst incumbents.
A complete transcript of this week’s episode is below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: The wins just keep on coming, don’t they, Nir?
Nir: They keep on piling up. We are going to be talking in depth about the extraordinary victory for the “No” side on Ohio Issue 1, which was designed to make it harder to amend the state constitution. It went down in flames on Tuesday night. We have a lot to talk about.
And then we are going to be interviewing Professor Emily Farris about a set of elections that simply do not get enough attention in the United States. I’m talking about races for sheriff. There is so much to learn. We have a fantastic, exciting episode coming up. Let’s get rolling.
Beard, I was raised with this very Fiddler On the Roof mentality. You can never take anything for granted. If there is good news, it’s always going to be followed by bad news. Never get too optimistic. The czar is always coming. And I don’t know what to make of the year 2023 because it has just been a cavalcade of good news. And Ohio Tuesday night was absolutely incredible.
Beard: Yeah, I mean, I think this is what we thought was probably the most likely outcome, but to see it actually roll out, to see this double-digit victory was just an incredible result. For anyone who was under a rock and somehow missed it, Issue 1 on this August ballot that the Republicans in Ohio brought back just for this issue, would’ve raised the percentage required to pass a constitutional amendment from 50% to 60% of voters. There were some additional requirements to make it harder to get on the ballot, but the voters were like, no, we don’t want to make it harder on ourselves to change Ohio’s constitution when we want to, we as the voters. And so they voted no, 57% to 43%, and they turned out to do it. More than 3 million Ohioans voted early and on Election Day, which is really, really impressive. The 2022 very competitive Ohio Senate election had just over 4 million voters.
So we’re looking at 75% turnout of that really competitive race from last year, which is really incredible for an August special election that had nothing else on the ballot. It was just this one issue, but people heard about it, they were pissed, and they turned out.
Nir: And let’s not forget, this is a state that Donald Trump won by eight points. Issue 1 failed by 14 points. That is a 22-point swing. It really is remarkable what happens when you decouple issues from candidates on the ballot because we saw something very similar happen last year in Kansas again, where Republicans tried to sneak things through with an August election. But we also saw it even during the regularly scheduled general election in a state like Kentucky, that voters have different feelings about abortion than they do about Democrats. And this is just a huge, huge, huge problem for Republicans. And they absolutely refuse to learn this lesson and internalize anything.
Beard: Yes, they are not going to sneak through, something we’ve talked about before, any abortion-related vote. It’s not going to just go under the radar and get passed with just the Republican base turnout. That’s not going to happen in any state across the country. And the sooner the Republicans learn that probably the better off they’ll be. I guess for our purposes, getting this big victory I think it probably feels good for Ohio Democrats; makes them believe in their ability to reelect Sherrod Brown next year. So lots of good things for Democrats as long as Republicans keep putting them up and we keep knocking them down; that’s pretty good news.
Nir: And I’m reminded of what happened in Kansas last year after that August abortion vote because Democrat Laura Kelly won reelection as governor in a super-red state in what should have been a really difficult year. And I have no doubt that the abortion vote played a role because it brought this issue front and center. It energized voters. It brought new people to register. It brought people who were already registered, who might’ve been irregular voters, back to the ballot box. And that makes me feel good about the November vote that this was all designed to stop — Republicans were super, super clear about this — to enshrine abortion rights in the Ohio Constitution.
Beard: Yeah, Ohioans will have two measures on the ballot, most likely in November. One for sure on reproductive rights and then one likely on recreational marijuana as well. And so I think this has been a great point to jump off to get folks inspired to get people to learn about the importance of voting on these types of measures. And I think we’ll see really good turnout in November, just like we saw here in August.
Nir: Yeah, let’s drill down a little bit into the turnout patterns that we saw throughout the state because you had some deep red counties that maybe they didn’t necessarily vote to reject Issue 1, but they voted in favor by a much, much smaller margin than they favored Donald Trump by, just three years ago.
Beard: And it’s definitely the case that overall there was a big shift in almost every county. There were a handful where the shifts were very, very small, but overall there were big shifts everywhere. But there were definitely some distinctions within those counties that I think are definitely worth highlighting. The “Yes” vote, which was the conservative Republican vote, held up relatively better in northwest and western Ohio, which is really the bedrock of old-school Republicanism in Ohio. It’s got a lot of similarities to rural Indiana. It’s a lot more Catholic than parts of the rest of the state. So there are some reasons there where you could see why the “Yes” vote would hold up better there than in other parts of Ohio.
The Republican vote really didn’t hold up nearly as well in two main places, which are the suburbs and exurbs of the big cities of Ohio, which have traditionally been very, very red, as well as southeast Ohio. And I think there are two different things going on there. In southeast Ohio, which is really Appalachia, turnout was down worse than in most of the rest of the state. So I think you saw a lot of folks there used to be Democrats a long time ago now are very, very Republican, but they’re also the type who maybe didn’t turn out. They’re not very engaged in these issues, and so didn’t turn out as much for this vote. And that’s part of why the Democrats that are left in that area did turn out and help kept the margins down in southeast Ohio.
But in these suburban counties, Delaware County is a great example. It’s a suburban county outside of Columbus. The “No” vote won it comfortably. This is a historically Republican county that Republicans have won for decades. There are also three suburban Cincinnati counties that are blood-red normally, that the “Yes” vote did carry, but by pretty narrow margins compared to how normally Republican they are.
So we saw slightly larger shifts in these suburban and exurban counties, which I think makes sense. Obviously, they tend to be more educated. We’ve seen how that shift has been going on nationwide. And I think it’s also important as we’re looking towards future elections — thinking about Sherrod Brown in 2024 — he’s probably going to need to do better than he ever has before in these suburban Republican counties to offset the increasing Republicanness of rural areas despite his historical strength in parts of rural Ohio. And so it’s good to see these counties and these folks voting on the pro-choice more progressive side, hopefully getting them used to the idea that maybe they want to vote for Sherrod Brown next year.
Nir: That is such an interesting point about getting voters used to voting a certain way. In a way, maybe Republicans did us a favor. I mean, look, we had to spend a ton of money and waste a lot of resources on this BS. But yeah, if Republicans are giving voters a chance to see what it feels like to pull the lever for the more progressive side, that’s fantastic.
Talking about southeastern Ohio and Appalachia, Kyle Kondik — from the UVA Center for Politics we’ve had on this show before — he also had an interesting point about that. A lot of those counties are included in media markets that are based outside of the state, generally in West Virginia. And when you’re deciding where to run ads on either side of this issue, you don’t want to air TV ads in media markets where most of the people who are going to watch those ads can’t even vote.
So you probably don’t really want to run ads in a West Virginia TV market just to catch a few counties on the periphery of Ohio’s border. And it turns out that some of those counties on the edge of Ohio saw some of the lowest turnout. So that might have something to do with the explanation for why Appalachia didn’t quite show up as strongly as it could have.
But I also think it points to potentially another much, much, much broader and bigger problem for Republicans. It wasn’t that long ago that as Democrats, we were constantly terrified of these oddly-timed elections because our base tended to vote much more often in even years and especially presidential years. And in these off-year races, we often saw turnout among many segments of our base decline. The kind of people who tend to show up most often for these oddly-timed elections are usually more affluent, better-educated folks.
And so as more of these affluent Republican suburbanites migrate over to the Democratic coalition, and as former Democrats who are in rural areas and maybe have lower levels of educational attainment become a more important part of the Republican coalition, well, that creates a huge problem for Republicans when you have these oddly timed elections. They thought they were going to sneak this one through, but I think it wound up biting them in the ass.
Beard: Yeah, the reality is better-educated folks are always going to be more in tune with politics and elections, and they’re going to be more likely to vote. That has a very long, very definitive history. If you’re the party that better-educated voters tend to support, you’re just going to do better in these off-year, oddly timed elections. And Republicans have absolutely not internalized that. We’ve seen that over and over where they still keep thinking that they can do well with strangely-timed or off-year elections, and it’s simply not the case anymore. Of course, they can go and point to maybe 2021 in Virginia, but I think that was just a bad year for Democrats. That wasn’t a case where there was a big turnout differential. There was just a bad confluence of events and people got persuaded to vote for Youngkin, the Republican. But other than that, we’ve seen pretty consistently since Trump first became president that Democrats are motivated. They’re going to go out and they’re going to go vote in these specials.
Nir: The other half of this that we have to talk about is just how bitter the GOP infighting is. I was watching these tweets come in on Tuesday night and they were just giving me life. The most amazing thing is that one of the architects of this was the Republican president of the state Senate, Matt Hoffman. Amazingly, amazingly, he claimed on Tuesday night, one of the reasons that Issue 1 failed is because Republicans didn’t have enough time. They’re the ones who put it on the ballot! In fact, they’re the ones who resurrected August special elections to do so. Just earlier in the year, they had killed August elections precisely because they generally had low turnout. And then they decided, oh, well, August is the right time to do this: A, because we’re hoping for low turnout, and B, because we’ve got to get it in there before November. And the abortion amendment, they had all the time in the world.
And hell, in March when this stuff was making its way through the legislature to get on the ballot in the first place, Hoffman said, “This is something that has been percolating for a long time.” That is a direct quote from him. They knew exactly what was coming, and they are just pointing so many fingers at one another. But the thing that really gets me is the other thing that Hoffman said, which is he said he expects Republicans to put Issue 1 on the ballot again at some point in the future. I mean, that is the definition of insanity.
Beard: Yeah. I would be pretty surprised if they actually ran that play. That feels like day after, I don’t want to embarrass myself too much. I’m going to be like, oh, we’ll just do it again. We’re going to do it again, and we’re going to pass it. Don’t worry, this isn’t as bad as it seems. I would be pretty surprised if the Republican Party in Ohio was actually serious about running this after it lost by 14 points in this off-year. It’s not going to do any better if you put it on a November ballot or something, or tried it another year. So that one I think is mostly just CYA.
But absolutely, I think Republicans maybe thought that they could just slide through and not have to do anything. It really did seem like they were genuinely like, “Oh, we didn’t have enough time to do this,” which is an insane thing to say. And the only way that makes any sense is if they thought that they could just slap it on the ballot and it would just sail through without them having to run any sort of campaign for it, and they could just wash their hands of the whole thing. And then when Democrats actually were like, “No, we’re going to try to stop this and tell people to vote no,” they were like, “What? You’re going to make us campaign for this idea?” So that’s the only thing that sort of maybe makes sense to me. They really didn’t have any good answers on the night when it was defeated.
Nir: But that’s nuts because the abortion amendment had been in the works for quite some time and also so have other ballot measures, and we need to talk about those because this vote to destroy Issue 1 is going to have a broader impact on Ohio than just the abortion amendment. And don’t get me wrong, the abortion amendment is enormous. It’s enormous, and it’s not a foregone conclusion but there are some other ballot measures that are likely to come up next year as well. Two really, really big ones. One, would increase the minimum wage in Ohio. It’s currently at just $10.10 an hour.
And the other, which I think could have a real titanic impact, would be to finally create a genuinely independent redistricting commission in the state, not the BS amendments to the Ohio constitution that created this rigged system that Republicans could completely ignore. And as berserk Republicans went in trying to pass Issue 1, and as nasty as they’re going to be in trying to stop the abortion amendment in November, if redistricting makes the ballot next year, I think it’s going to be meltdown city. Because then we’re not just talking about voters imposing their will on Republicans in passing, say, abortion rights. We’re talking about voters really booting Republicans out of office because if there are fair maps, Republicans will still almost certainly have majorities in the legislature, but there will be a lot fewer of them.
Beard: Yes, and I think one thing you see here is that states that have parties that are really established in power, like now the Republicans in Ohio are, they get very arrogant and they get very complacent, and they don’t like it when anybody, including the voters, challenges them or makes life hard for them. And I’ll say absolutely honestly, there are some blue states that have the same problem with the state Democratic parties that are just as entrenched and just as arrogant and just as complacent. But obviously in this case, in Ohio, it’s the Republicans. And that’s why they’re like… They tried to do this because they didn’t want to hear from the voters. They were like, “Let’s make it 60% so the voters will stop bothering us with all of these changes trying to make our life harder.”
And then they’re going to feel the same way about this redistricting amendment. They’re going to be like, “You want me to run in a competitive district? You want me to raise money and ask for independent people to vote for me? No thank you.” And so they’re going to, I’m sure, go to the Ohio Supreme Court and try to block it or do anything they can to delay it or make it not happen. But we’ve seen in other states, voters have been able to get these on the ballot, make it happen, and hopefully that will happen next year for Ohio as well.
Nir: Yeah. There was this great tweet on Tuesday night by Steven Dyer, who is a former member of the Ohio House of Representatives. And what he said was, “The message tonight is that when you’re in a gerrymandered legislature, you start thinking you really do represent 67% of the people. What we’re seeing is the result of gerrymandered groupthink.” I love that phrase. Gerrymandered groupthink. It absolutely has completely consumed the Ohio GOP and in particular, Republicans are just so ready, willing, and able to bury themselves deep in this bubble where contrary facts and contrary opinions just don’t matter to them. They don’t recognize them. They don’t recognize the legitimacy of outsiders. And that’s why I think that if redistricting passes next year, that is just going to spark the ultimate meltdown because they will finally, finally, finally be smacked in the face by a power that is greater than them. And they don’t think that such a power exists, but it does.
Beard: Yes, voters get frustrated. We’ve seen this time and time again. Voters get mad when they’re taken for granted, and we see why voters want to implement these redistricting statutes so that they can have a better and more fair say in who represents them.
Nir: One last party favor we need to hand out is to Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Thank you, you magnificent bastard. I mean, he fucked up the Issue 1 campaign for their side so bad. We’ve talked about him before. This is the guy who super explicitly said that Issue 1 was 100%, that was his term, 100%, about stopping the abortion vote in November. And his comments appeared in tons and tons of ads for the “No” side in endless articles about the issue to the point that… Beard, I was looking at the New York Times results page on Tuesday night, and oh God, a lot of the times, the way things will get phrased is that, oh, opponents say that Issue 1 is about trying to thwart abortion rights. But the little summary on the New York Times results page said that the measure, “Was meant to make it harder for voters to pass a November ballot measure that would establish a constitutional right to abortion.” No beating around the bush.
Republicans made it so freaking explicit that this was exactly what they were doing, and LaRose was leading the charge. He really was the number one cheerleader for this. And now he’s heading into this Senate race. He’s trying running against Sherrod Brown. He faces a primary, with this massive failure around his neck, and with any luck, there’ll be a second one added to that necklace in November when abortion passes.
Beard: Yeah. You can blame a lot of the Republican legislators for arrogance and stupidity, but at least they weren’t putting their own careers on the line for this initiative. They were just like, “Sure, whatever. Let’s vote for it.” But Frank LaRose was like, “Hey, I’m going to gamble everything on this,” and defeating this abortion amendment this way or November, it’s pretty unlikely to happen in November. He failed miserably here in August. Now, I almost sort of wish he would get the nomination because he’s clearly so bad at running campaigns, I’m sure Brown could run rings around him, but I assume that he’ll get battered around in the Republican primary pretty easily because he has nothing to show for his time in office except utter failure.
Nir: Oh, man. Yeah. I don’t know what to wish for either, but I’m certainly glad to see him suffer. Well, on that note of schadenfreude, we are going to wrap up our weekly hits. Coming up, we are talking with Professor Emily Farris about her book and research on the role of sheriffs in the United States. This is a totally under-covered topic and a fascinating one. Please stick with us after the break for our interview.
Nir: Joining us on “The Downballot” this week is Emily Farris, an associate professor of Political Science at Texas Christian University, and the author of an upcoming book on a topic that definitely does not get nearly the amount of attention it ought to, the power of sheriffs in America. It’s called Power of the Badge. Emily, thank you so much for joining us today.
Emily Farris: Thanks for having me.
Nir: Oh, it’s our pleasure. So if you could start us off by telling us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in politics and political science and in particular, what ultimately drove you to study this topic of sheriffs?
Farris: Yeah, it’s not the common kind of topic for many political scientists either in terms of thinking about politicians, right? Most are studying the President or Congress or maybe others in local politics. For me though, growing up where I grew up and kind of my own life experiences, really led me to this. So I grew up in Alabama and became really interested in local politics because my mom was a local reporter who was covering local politics, so curious about things like mayors and city councils. And I grew up also in a place with just a lot of political history as well too. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and so was really fortunate to get a very good education on the civil rights movement and was thinking about what does local politics look like today?
So my home county of Jefferson County was a county where the sheriff really mattered. It was a politician that you knew, and it was also a county where it was under federal oversight for racial discrimination for my entire upbringing. So from zero to 18, and then actually from beyond, actually from 1982 to 2017, it was under federal oversight. And so sheriffs felt like this really important institution locally that didn’t necessarily get enough coverage. I work with a professor now at the University of Houston, Mirya Holman. She had a similar experience too of where she grew up. She grew up on the West Coast in a much more rural area where, again, the sheriff was a really important figure. And so when we got together and met each other in an academic conference about a little over a decade ago, we were trying to think what should we study together? And for both of us, our own life experiences of thinking about sheriffs led us to this.
Beard: So in terms of sheriff, I want to take a step back, particularly when you think of maybe if non-Americans are listening to this, they may be thinking, why on earth do you elect sheriffs? But that’s pretty widespread across the country. So give us a little bit of historical background about why the US elects sheriffs, and then of course, this might be a little obvious, but I think it’s worth stating, how does having elected sheriffs instead of appointed or civil service sheriffs affect how they do their jobs?
Farris: So the office of sheriff predates the United States, so it extends back into before the 10th century in medieval England, and it moves with the colonists to the United States. So prior to its move to the United States, the sheriff was known as the… It comes out of the word Shire-Reeve. It’s the county guardian who’s the king’s steward. This is someone who’s meant to really be enforcing the king’s laws and protecting the crown’s interest. This is someone who served very much on behalf of the royals.
But when they come to America, we see really the past diverge in terms of thinking about sheriffs in England and then other colonized countries with similar histories, and then the United States. So the sheriff nowadays… The high sheriff in England is this really kind of weak, mostly symbolic position. While here in the US, we have an office that both deeply shaped and still shapes what local policing looks like in the United States, and that is because they derive their authority from these popular mandates that come from direct independent elections with that, and sheriffs make a big deal about that.
If you ever go on a sheriff’s website, one of the things you’re going to notice is often a history of the sheriff’s office itself. That’s kind of unique. You don’t see state legislators do that. What’s the history of a state legislature or the history of a mayor? But one thing that sheriffs, particularly here in the US, really point to is that we elect sheriffs. And that really matters for their office, and that’s the way that they derive their accountability, increase their authority, and so on, for that. In terms of why, how does it affect their jobs? I think there are lots of ways that we can imagine how it affects their jobs. They are politicians, and so sometimes people get sheriffs confused with police chiefs, right? That’s their kind of common alternative. But police chiefs are appointed typically by mayors or maybe a city manager. Sheriffs have that independent election away from county commissioners.
So that can set up… One of the ways it might impact is, it can set up really interesting dynamics between the sheriff and the county commissioners. Fighting over the budget is a very common one, or just the inability to control the sheriff. If there was misconduct by a police chief, the city council or the city manager could at least, theoretically, fire that police chief. I’m not saying they always do, but there’s the theoretical idea that they could do that. That’s not so for most county commissioners. So if there is misconduct found for sheriffs, county commissioners are kind of left with their hands tied in dealing with that.
We see that in a couple of really high-profile cases. Most recently Columbus County, North Carolina, comes to mind where the sheriff had a whole host of accusations against him while he was running from office. He actually resigns while still running for reelection and ends up being reelected. But it’s the district attorney and the judge who have to try to get that investigation going, not the county commissioners themselves. And so as a politician who’s independently elected, it does set up some interesting and different dynamics with other elected officials. It also sets up some interesting dynamics, I think, with voters as well too, because one of the main responsibilities of a sheriff is to run a jail.
And so jails sometimes can be political obstacles for sheriffs to try to navigate in elections. If you have someone who’s escaped from jail, if you have a number of deaths that take place in your jails, that could be a potential negative in a campaign. And yet it’s still one of their major primary components. And in thinking about the management of jails, the people in the jails aren’t necessarily the constituency that the sheriff is worried about trying to please even though many of those in jail are not yet convicted, they’re awaiting trial, they still have voting rights, but sheriffs don’t necessarily see them as potential voters. But they’re someone who kind of increases their workload or complicates their workload specifically. And so even just the kind of day-to-day tasks of a sheriff can be complicated by being a politician and thinking about, okay, what policy should we put in place for jails and how we run those?
Nir: I’d love to drill down a little bit more on that distinction between police commissioners and sheriffs. I’m from New York City and the police commissioner looms large. To be honest, I had to Google whether or not we have a sheriff, and it turns out we do. They’re definitely not an elected post, but with police commissioners at least the expectation is that the mayor or whoever’s responsible for appointing them is going to tap someone with relevant experience. They may or may not be good at their jobs, but at least you would expect them to be experienced. Whereas with sheriffs, since it’s an elective office, anyone can run for it, whether they have the experience or qualifications or not. And as a result, it seems like we wind up with these situations where a lot of sheriffs run unopposed and like you were saying, really don’t answer to anyone except maybe the voters at the next election. And so I’d just like to hear more about how that affects their work and how they interact with their communities.
Farris: So sheriffs have qualifications vary based on state. So a number of states have put in place qualifications that include a law enforcement background, to be a certified police peace officer, or to at least get that certification within a certain amount of time. And of course, what you’re pointing at too of being a New Yorker, sheriff’s positions also vary across the country in terms of thinking about their responsibilities, their role in the community, et cetera, as well too. But one of the points that we make in our book is that this idea of elections as accountability really fails because of the shallow eligibility pool that we have from candidates that sheriffs benefit from, that there’s a whole host of institutional advantages that are built into the way that we think about political competition for the job. Some of that is just a function of where sheriffs serve.
So particularly in rural counties, in low-population counties, where you have this occupancy requirement, they’re going to prefer local leadership. That means that you want somebody who’s deeply familiar with the community that limits then who can run. I think about places like here that I have in Texas, although way west Texas, we have a county of 64 people in Loving, Texas that limits how many out of the 64 who can be sheriff in that. And it tends to be some different families, although right now it’s actually an outsider, which is kind of interesting. But yeah, so there’s some institutional structures and then there’s this formal criteria that you might have of having prior law enforcement experience. In some ways we can imagine that that’s good, that leads to professionalization of the office, but in other ways it also really limits then who can run.
We don’t have those same requirements on say being a mayor or being a state legislator, and what ends up happening, what we find is that means that sheriffs serve these really long tenures in office and when they’re challenged or when we get a new sheriff, oftentimes because the old sheriff’s not running again, that we get new candidates that emerge simply out of their own office, that they are coming up as they’ve made it to a chief deputy. They’ve gotten that work experience in their office, and then they’re going to run for that position. That really limits them in the scope of possibilities of imagining that office if you came up under the current sheriff or the former sheriff.
It also limits competition in some odd ways too. Deputies would have to choose to run against their boss, and that faces then some really real possibilities that they could be fired or demoted for their choice to run for office. And so yeah, the length of time and the eligibility really shapes the elections and what electoral competition looks like for the office.
Beard: Now, one of the stories you talk about in your book is from North Carolina, which of course is my home state, so I love to talk about North Carolina. In 2018, something interesting happened with the seven largest counties in North Carolina when they had their sheriff election so tell us the story of what happened there.
Farris: Yeah, so North Carolina in general is just a really fascinating state for thinking about the office of sheriff. I don’t have to tell you this, but for people elsewhere, it is a state that’s divided politically. So there are areas that are more Republican, areas that are more Democrat.
And what we had in 2018 is that there was a real concerted effort from activists to target specific sheriff’s offices on the issue of immigration. They wanted sheriffs to refuse ICE detainer requests. So ICE can ask sheriffs to hold particular people in jail until ICE can pick them up as well, and they wanted to try to terminate the 287(g) Program, which are these voluntary relationships that sheriffs can have with ICE. They’ve looked differently over the years, but they get criticized for a whole host of different things. 287(g) Programs are criticized because they take up resources, because they harm community relations, because of racial profiling.
And ICE and Trump had really worked in 2016 to try to rebuild these programs and to rebuild and establish a very strong relationship between sheriffs and ICE. And so you had voters in North Carolina who worked to try to turn races on this question of immigration, and they were successful doing so in a number of offices. They were able to elect a new sheriff who then terminated those 287(g) Programs or they started refusing ICE detainers.
There was then pushback against that, so then the North Carolina state legislature has now — I think it’s on its third try of trying to force sheriffs to have to honor these detainers and to have a relationship with ICE. Twice it’s been vetoed by the Democratic governor. It’s a question right now of whether or not North Carolina — I think it’s before the Senate right now — whether they would be able to pass it to force that.
So you see some interesting state and local relations going on in North Carolina, but I think the 2018 race is really interesting because it raises a question for many, and particularly for progressives and some on the left, that there’s no such thing as a progressive sheriff. That even though we might be able to get a sheriff who changes the immigration policy, it’s still within this larger carceral state. There are still problems with jails and that the new people that get put into office, these “reformers” still fail to live up to promises according to activists. And so I think you see some of that also in North Carolina as well too, just the length of time it gets to change policies or to promise certain reforms to be taken as well too. But North Carolina was the first, as well as Georgia, the first place where we saw these flips on ICE taking place, particularly in the south.
Nir: One obvious parallel is the growing movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors in cities and counties around the country. And that has gotten a great deal of attention in the last several years, and I certainly feel this movement to elect reform-minded sheriffs less so, but maybe you could talk a little bit about how you see that movement having developed over the last few years and where it’s headed. And I don’t know, just shine a little bit more light on it because I think that most folks probably haven’t encountered too much about it.
Farris: I don’t think it necessarily really exists outside of a few places and a few really important places, thinking about places like Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is the largest policing agency in the United States. But yeah, I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier about who can run, and so how it is this really shallow pool of eligibility. Because you are requiring sheriffs to have a law enforcement background in order to run for office, that then limits the range of possibilities for somebody who might want to reform policing and reform the carceral state as opposed to lawyers. To be a lawyer, there’s lots of different kinds of lawyers and approaches to being a lawyer. I don’t think there’s quite the range — there is still a range, but there is not quite the same range — when it comes to someone who wants to work within law enforcement.
You’re not getting someone who’s abolished law enforcement. And so progressive candidates have tried to find certain issues like immigration to run on, but yeah, they haven’t had that much kind of success replicated across the country. I think also just the function of having candidates in certain areas. So a lot of those candidates who are going to be the more liberal progressive are candidates coming out of urban areas where sheriffs tend to not have quite as much power, although there are exceptions to that. And yeah, so you have a limit built into the system. And then, as I said, activists really get frustrated with seeing the promises that have been made not be followed up with. So LA, the prior sheriff ran on an explicitly progressive platform, and then he very much turned regressive, refused to meet with the civilian oversight group working in LA, did a whole host of different scandals and allegations against him, and a lot of frustration as a result of that in terms of thinking, okay, well, you didn’t live up to your promises.
Nir: On the other end of the spectrum, let’s talk about the far-right sheriffs who seem to dominate many corners of the country. Many of them have very dangerous beliefs. They call themselves “constitutional sheriffs”. What exactly does that mean? What exactly do they believe and why are they such a danger?
Farris: Yeah, so constitutional sheriffs, that term doesn’t actually really mean anything, although they certainly would disagree with me. It has a long history that is very much rooted in white supremacy and the far right. It comes out of an effort in the late 1960s and 1970s with a right-wing group — that’s antisemitic, that is white supremacist, it’s pro-Nazis, pro-KKK — that was called Posse Comitatus. And in those beliefs of the group that was largely in the west, although as well as the midwest, but not limited to those areas. Within that group, they argued that the sheriff had extraordinary legal authority under the Constitution. That the sheriff was, what you’ll hear sheriffs say today, this last line of defense against other “unconstitutional” potential actors, particularly a lot of that aimed at the federal government.
And so sheriffs were according to this group, the one that was supposed to protect citizens from others in government and federal government oversight. That group falls apart by the 1980s, but it has its hands in groups that you would know of today. So Sovereign Citizens would be one. The militia groups like the Oath Keepers would be another that kind of take and then continue circulating these ideas within the right-wing chamber.
And within that group, one person really emerges. So Richard Mack, a former sheriff, really takes some of those ideas and runs with them. He becomes famous in the Supreme Court case of Prince v. U.S., which was a 1990s case about the Brady Bill, where sheriffs sued the federal government saying that Congress had inappropriately authorized them to do background checks when Congress did not have the authority to tell sheriffs what they were to do under the Constitution, and they won that case. Mack took that case and interpreted it as, no one can tell anyone, no one can tell us, about what to do: nobody. Not federal government, not state, not your fellow local officials. That sheriffs have this ultimate authority. And he drew on some of these longer ideas coming back from Posse Comitatus.
He then forms, in kind of the height of the Tea Party movement, which he was very active in, a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, who then goes around training sheriffs on these ideas and these beliefs about the Constitution. So they’ve been in existence for a little over a decade now with points of more strength and points of less activity throughout the years. They particularly organize on issues like gun rights, on immigration; most recently on election denialism as well too. But they believe this idea that sheriffs possess more power than the president. If you went on the CSPOA’s website, you would see that in their statement of positions that the sheriff is in fact more powerful than the president.
This is troubling to think about for a whole host of reasons, but it certainly calls into question some federalism problems, if you have sheriffs who think that the FBI should be receiving permission from sheriffs to go do investigations within the sheriff’s county. It came to a head during COVID in a county out on the west coast where the sheriff very much did not want to enforce COVID regulations, did not want to take into account public health measures.
And the county commissioners weren’t necessarily out there leading the charge on that, but there was a conflict over it. And then the sheriff who sees himself as a constitutional sheriff, threatened then to arrest the county commissioners that he was acting as the, quote, unquote, “last line of defense.” And so that can be very troubling to think about in terms of thinking about an elected official who has state authority to use all the resources of the carceral state against you, who then thinks that he alone, and oftentimes he, he alone interprets the constitution and enforces the law.
Nir: So what happened in that county? Did he actually try to arrest these commissioners?
Farris: He did not actually arrest them. He wrote a letter appealing to the most supreme God and to the Constitution, and he’s written letters also to the Attorney General. So in some cases, this can be talk of sheriffs saying that they’re not going to do this or they’re not going to do that. Sheriffs saying that they’re not going to enforce any gun control efforts, any gun safety. Whether or not sheriffs actually do that is still an open question. They might do it selectively against certain groups. It might just be all talk. But yeah, we haven’t had the official showdown happen yet. But given the frequency at which sheriffs are asserting this over the last decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t coming from somewhere.
Oh, another example of this would be, in Indiana, when the governor passed, signed into laws, some gun safety mechanisms, almost every sheriff said, “We refuse to enforce those.” That prompted a letter from the congressional delegation, their House delegation saying, “Where do you have this authority?” And the sheriff’s kind of walking back some of their language in thinking about, well, I’m not going to be actively doing this, but not necessarily being quite as strong on it.
Beard: So regular voters are in a little bit of a tough situation here, particularly if they live somewhere that’s more conservative, so they’re electing these very Republican or very conservative sheriffs. Oftentimes, as we’ve talked about, they’re unopposed. What can voters do to try to make a difference here in this area where it’s a little bit entrenched?
Farris: I think it’s a real challenge. One of the feedback points we got from a reviewer on our book is that we needed to offer people a kernel of hope, that that was missing from the original manuscript. I think is a challenge because a lot of the efforts that have been suggested for police, which have not necessarily succeeded either, don’t necessarily work for sheriffs as well too. So the suggestion of, “Well, maybe we should appoint sheriffs.” We don’t have a lot of evidence on that. There are not a lot of places that have appointed sheriffs. And then now you’ve just kind of created things akin to the police. And we know there are all kinds of problems with policing itself too.
Another suggestion that we hear out of policing is, “Well, we need more civilian oversight.” Well, baked into sheriffs, they would argue, is this idea of civilian oversight through elections, that voters get to have that oversight over sheriffs. Although, all the ways that I’ve already talked about that, that actually fails to do so, and that sheriffs don’t even necessarily show up when there is a civilian oversight; they argued that it wasn’t necessary when some states were considering including them.
Other, what can voters do: pressuring for investigations. Well, those tend to be really reactionary to major problems rather than proactive in thinking about shaping policy. There can be policy changes, but those tend to be pretty minor. They’re also very resisted. Sheriffs have very powerful state associations that lobby on their behalf.
So a good example was last year Louisiana considered term limits for sheriffs, and they packed the House committee meeting with half of the state sheriffs, and it got voted down pretty quickly in arguing against that. The question of abolition and defunding also comes up as well too, and thinking about what can voters do or what should voters be advocating for?
There is one state that has abolished sheriffs. They did so in 2000, so not that long ago in terms of history of sheriffs — that was Connecticut. But it was in many ways an extraordinary situation. There were a number of scandals that made other fellow elected officials quite angry at sheriffs. So you had the governor and the attorney general both coming out against sheriffs in that. And so that’s a little bit unique. I don’t think you’re necessarily going to find that in a lot of places nowadays of arguing against that.
So we’re kind of left in this pickle of: can we find somebody good enough to reform an office that is perhaps, just at its heart, bad? And I don’t know if there’s a solution. This idea that there’s no such thing as a progressive sheriff would certainly question it and say, “We just need to get rid of sheriffs altogether.” That there needs to be a different system in place and moving towards abolition ideas as well.
Beard: So before we wrap up here, and maybe to have a little bit of a lighter note, is there anything that you may have discovered along your research that was unusual or folks might’ve been surprised to learn about the office of sheriff over the years?
Farris: I just think that sheriffs exist is naturally one of them that people often get them confused with or don’t necessarily understand how they differ from police and what the job responsibilities look like or what they should be out there voting on. One of the points that I don’t necessarily know is surprising, but it’s always good to have numbers behind, is just how white and how male sheriffs are. That nationally, if we look at the numbers, we have about 90% of sheriffs who are white, 98% who are men. This is different than any other elected office, other than the presidency, I guess we would say. But how white they are, how male they are, how long they serve in office, and how rarely they face electoral competition.
Our hope is that some of our work can kind of demystify the sheriff and educate us on the sheriff, because there is this mythology that surrounds a sheriff. We have images maybe when you say a sheriff maybe comes to mind of Andy Griffith, or I don’t know, maybe Sheriff Joe, but we have certain kind of images and personas of the sheriff, and those are accurate in some ways, but they’re also highly incomplete in other ways as well too. And so we hope that the research just educates folks on these problems, and the real ways that sheriffs have resisted change in this country.
Nir: We have been talking with Emily Farris, Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Christian University. Emily, before we let you go, how can our listeners learn more about your work and when will they be able to find your book and where?
Farris: Sure. So the book is forthcoming with Chicago Press. It will be out next year, probably around August of next year. And so Power of the Badge will be out and it will be affordable: I’m told, around $25, which for academic press titles, that’s a heck of a deal. And I have other academic work that’s in the pipeline. We’re looking at sheriffs and gun safety measures. We’re also starting to turn to thinking about these questions of reform that we talked about today and elections. So we are working on a piece right now about sheriffs and term limits. Three states have term limits for sheriffs, and so does that matter in terms of thinking about, does that decrease the carceral state?
I’m certainly online. I’m still on Twitter-slash-X, sometimes forget, regrettably, @emayfarris, and the same at Bluesky. And I very much will continue tweeting about sheriffs. I’ve just tweeted today about Mississippi and their election yesterday of some really challenging sheriffs. And we’ll be tweeting about the next two books that we have in the works. One on reform — so how do we fix this office, or is it not fixable at all? And then the second is about elections, so trying to dive more into what sheriffs do and their elections.
Nir: Well, Emily, thank you so much for joining us on “The Downballot” this week.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Emily Farris for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everywhere you’re listening to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing email@example.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trevor Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.