Buchanan County voters cast 14,548 ballots in Tuesday night’s election that helped determine contests ranging from county sheriff to the expansion of Medicaid in Missouri.
Note the extra emphasis on helping to determine, because most of these races were either statewide contests or a precursor to the general election. The exception, in Buchanan County, was the race for sheriff. This contest featured two closely matched Republicans, while the lack of a Democratic candidate meant that the winner gets the job for the next four years.
In the end, more than half of the participants in Tuesday’s election, or 9,575, voted for one candidate or another for sheriff, about double the amount that voted on the Democratic ballots. This county has swung Republican since the George W. Bush presidency, but the GOP turnout implies that at least some Democrats likely asked for a Republican ballot in order to have a voice in the most intriguing local race.
It shouldn’t have to be that way. In the news business, we’ve met our fair share of sheriffs, along with prosecutors and assessors, and found very little difference between a Republican one and a Democratic one. Unlike an elected position with a broad lawmaking or rule-making mandate, like state representatives or county commissioners, a sheriff or prosecutor is more or less a technocratic role that requires a high level of expertise and experience.
So why not make Missouri sheriff, prosecutor and perhaps assessor into nonpartisan jobs, sort of like the City Council in St. Joseph, where candidates don’t run on a party ballot? There are a few states — California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee — that make a sheriff a nonpartisan position.
It isn’t a stretch to suggest that sheriffs in those states are no less professional and dedicated than those in Missouri. In reality, a party designation means very little for the officeholder. In fact, 20 years ago, Bill Puett and Keith Dudley would have been tempted to run as Democrats, because that was the party that ruled the courthouse and got you on the most ballots.
In the end, party-affiliated primaries aren’t a problem for the candidates as much as for the voters, because it can limit the ability of who gets to decide. Sure, voters can ask for the other party’s ballot, but that shouldn’t be necessary.
Most likely, these offices are party-affiliated for reasons of history, inertia and the tendency of party hierarchies to become a special interest in and of themselves. It also has something to do with money. In judicial races, there is evidence that nonpartisan races do not attract as much outside money for campaign purposes.
Tuesday’s election demonstrates that a new way of thinking might be needed.