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I read that nearly 60% of the incumbent Sheriffs run unopposed. Why is that?

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Often you have to be a certified law enforcement officer to run for the position.

Many counties in the U.S. are rural and have very low populations, with a small pool of potential candidates.

Once someone wins an election once, they have a great incumbency edge in subsequent elections, over the other viable candidates, who are usually their subordinates or former subordinates.

The incumbency advantage is heightened because elected sheriffs are usually a partisan political office. There is a strong norm in both major political parties to not remove an incumbent in a primary election unless the incumbent have grievously screwed up. And, most rural counties are also very solidly leaning towards one political party or the other (usually the Republican party), so the primary election is usually the only election that matters in those countries.

Also, I wouldn't be surprised if "unopposed" means lacking an opponent in the general election, rather than lacking a primary challenger. In that case, since most rural counties have a dominant political party, running against an incumbent of the dominant political party is usually going to be futile. And, in a rural county, it doesn't pay to enter into a conflict like a contested election, when you know you can't win. That can have long term negative social and professional consequences for you in a way that it doesn't in a more urban area.

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  • "That can have long term negative social and professional consequences" That sounds like a seriously flawed system. – Jontia Feb 13 at 8:08
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    @jontia: That's not part of "the system." It is a consequence of small towns. I've lived places with maybe 3000 people in the entire county. Everyone knows everyone else (or at least knows of everyone else.) Such small groups can carry a grudge for a very long time. "Jontia? Oh, yeah. Tried to take sheriff Fred's job 20 years ago. I'd rather drive 40 miles to buy lumber than go to Jontia's building goods store." It happens. People are that way. Small towns divide up over the dumbest things. Even just letting the grass in your yard gros too long can get you ostracized. – JRE Feb 13 at 9:09
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    @JRE while it is probably arguing semantics, I'd say the use of elections for powerful positions in small constituencies like this, where such fallout is predictable is a feature of the system, not an unexpected consequence. Making it flawed. – Jontia Feb 13 at 16:31
  • @Jontia On of my clients used to be a county government liability insurance pool that defended county governments when they got sued (often the sheriff's department) and our rule of thumb was that the smaller the county the more poorly it was run. The U.S. has the most decentralized law enforcement system in the world which is a blessing and curse. The big upside is that it is very hard for any corruption to capture the entire law enforcement system in large regions (as many smaller countries with national police forces can be prone to). The bad side is that uniform quality control is hard. – ohwilleke Feb 15 at 18:55
  • @JRE This is precisely what happens. I have relatives in rural areas (including a rural sheriff who is a brother in law of my sister in law) who live in that world. – ohwilleke Feb 15 at 18:57

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