www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-rodricks-0708-20140708,0,677132.column

baltimoresun.com

Is popular vote best way to pick a sheriff?

Asking age-old question about Maryland's down-ballot elected positions

Dan Rodricks

6:00 AM EDT, July 8, 2014

Advertisement

I realize it's impolite to stand up in the 21st century and declare something that was established in Colonial Maryland — say, the election of sheriffs in every county and Baltimore City — to be archaic, inefficient and unnecessary. But with all due respect to the old snuff-sniffers in powdered wigs who mandated it, I can no longer remain seated.

Voting for sheriffs is as silly as silk pants.

So is voting for registers of wills.

Ditto for orphans' court judges, clerks of the court, and even state's attorneys.

These jobs are generally administrative or custodial; they require certain levels of managerial acumen and, in the case of state's attorney, expertise in criminal law. And yet, every four years, voters in the city and 23 counties are asked to elect people to these positions.

It happened again just two weeks ago. In the June 24 primary, Marylanders again considered candidates they knew little to nothing about for a set of down-ballot posts better filled by elected officials based on a recommendation from an executive head-hunter.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a full supporter of the popular vote. But I also support efficiency, competency and meaning, three things the present system does not provide.

Most of the time, voters have no idea whom they are voting for, or what a position, such as register of wills, requires. It's a little like having the management committee of a company fill a position without ever interviewing the candidates for the job — or even knowing their names until the last minute.

Certainly there's no guarantee that we get the most competent people in these positions. And if you vote without knowing anything about the candidate, your vote is meaningless. I've heard people say they just refrained from voting in these down-ballot elections. But others picked the first name on the ballot, or the most familiar name, or the name that sounded nice.

Voting for clerk of the state's circuit courts, for register of wills and for judges of the orphans' courts might be required by the Maryland Constitution, but that does not make it wise.

As for sheriff — like clerk, that position goes back to early times. According to the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, the "first sheriff's office in America" was established in St. Mary's County in 1634. While the first sheriffs were appointed, the Maryland Constitution later required that they be elected.

"Sheriffs are the only law enforcement officials in the state who answer directly to the people," the association declares.

I might quibble with that assertion by noting that state's attorneys also are elected. But let's not, and move on to my questions:

Is selecting a sheriff in a popular election the best way to get the best person for the job?

It's certainly not the way we pick police chiefs. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have their own police departments and police chiefs. Baltimore City and several other municipalities across Maryland have police departments and police chiefs.

Last I checked, police chiefs did not run for election. They were appointed by elected officials. Elected officials are the ones responsible to the voters, and we get a shot at them every four years.

No knock against the sheriffs; they and their deputies provide important services across the state (security of the courts, guarding prisoners, serving subpoenas, etc.) and, in many jurisdictions, the sheriff is still the primary law enforcement officer.

But I fail to see how an election gets any Maryland county or Baltimore City the top professional for the job. In fact, local politics and the need to campaign and raise funds probably turn off a lot of qualified candidates and keep them from seeking the job.

Same is true for state's attorney. While we have had plenty of competent and honest men and women hold these offices over the years, the political nature of the position undoubtedly keeps some highly qualified lawyers out of the picture and off the ballot.

That includes some men and women who, like Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, served for a time as federal prosecutors, then went into private practice. Bernstein unseated an incumbent in 2010, promising a fresh approach to the prosecution of criminal cases here. He represented a welcome change.

But Bernstein lost the recent Democratic primary to a 34-year-old lawyer for an insurance company with limited prosecutorial experience. The sound and successful prosecution of violent criminals in one of the nation's most violent cities might now rest with a lesser-qualified person who campaigned harder and smarter.

Of course, that's the way it has been for decades, ever since the Maryland Constitution required election of state's attorneys. It won't change unless we convene a convention and change the constitution. But that's a big challenge, and reforms such as the ones I describe have failed before.

This system of electing clerks, registers of wills, judges of the orphans' court, sheriffs and state's attorneys ought to be scrapped in the 21st century. I've said my piece. I'll sit down now.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.