The police we vote for: how Americans can shape criminal justice with a ballot

·4 min read

Recent protests against institutional racism and police violence have sparked a familiar debate about the utility of voting. On one side are reformists who say incremental changes – and a new crop of elected officials – are the best way to enact change; on the other are abolitionists who say decades of elections have yet to end racist policing practices.

Related: In 2013 the supreme court gutted voting rights – how has it changed the US?

Most law enforcement officials in the US are not elected, and voting alone isn’t enough to change policing practices or to end policing altogether. But there are a number of officials whose fates are decided by elections: sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, and in some cities, even police chiefs. The United States is unique in this regard – it’s the only country where judges and prosecutors, two groups of people associated with the judicial branch, are elected rather than appointed across the board.

Elected law enforcement officials often run unopposed; even when they are challenged, incumbents almost always win. In recent years, however, voters have begun pushing for “progressive” law enforcement. Here’s how you can influence criminal justice with your ballot.


Sheriffs’ duties vary from county to county, but they’re generally considered the top law enforcement officer in their jurisdiction. When you vote for a sheriff, you may be deciding who runs your local jail – and what the conditions in the jail are like – and whether your community collaborates with immigration authorities, which sheriffs have the power to decide. Some counties may have constables instead of (or in addition to) sheriffs.

How and when they’re elected

Sheriffs are voted in at the county level. Most sheriffs serve four-year terms and aren’t subject to term limits, though there are some exceptions. They’re more autonomous than chiefs of police, who are typically appointed by municipal officials like mayors.

Inhumane jails v anti-ICE and job fairs

arpaio mcfadden
  • Arpaio in Maricopa county, Az and McFadden in Mecklenburg county, Nc

Police chiefs

Most police chiefs are appointed – by mayors, city councils, or city boards – rather than elected. But, some smaller cities, including Santa Clara, California and San Angelo, Texas, and they are common in Louisiana. Police chiefs are in charge of overseeing the operations of the police department, as well as the first line of discipline of police officers. They also act as liasons between the department and government.

Police chief spotlight

  • Vasquez in San Angelo, Tx

District Attorney, State’s Attorneys, County Attorneys

Different states have different names for municipal prosecutors. Florida calls them state’s attorneys, while New York calls them district attorneys, and Minnesota calls them county attorneys. These prosecutors primarily enforce local and state laws and, like attorneys general, work on behalf of the local government rather than individual victims. When it comes to prosecutors, your vote can help rein in punitive enforcement of low-level offenses and limit the use of cash bail.

How and when they’re elected

State attorneys generally are elected in 43 states, and most serve four-year terms. District attorneys typically serve four-year terms as well; unlike state-level prosecutors, they’re either elected at the city or county level.

Resisting v supporting bail reform

vance v krasner
  • Vance in New York and Krasner in Pennsylvania

Attorneys General

The attorney general is the state’s top prosecutor and is responsible for enforcing both state and federal laws. AGs bring charges on behalf of the state, against not only individuals but also local government agencies and corporations. (Missouri’s AG, for example, sued a city in 2019 over an alleged traffic ticket quota system.)

How and when they’re elected

Attorneys generals are usually elected every four years, except for in Vermont, where they serve a two-year term. They are elected in most states, except for handful of states in which they’re appointed by the governor or supreme court.

Prosecuting killer cops v letting them off the hook

ellison vs fitch
  • Ellison in Minnesota and Fitch in Mississippi


Trial judges are those who hear individual cases and hand out sentences to those deemed guilty – and appellate judges who review cases on appeal. Notably, several states don’t require judges to have legal backgrounds. While prosecutors bring charges and ask for bail amounts in criminal courts, judges actually make these decisions. Your vote can decide whether judges focus on punishment or rehabilitation, and whether they hand out lengthy sentences for any number of crimes.

How and when they’re elected

Forty-three states elect judges, but there’s no unified process for doing so. Some states hold partisan judicial elections in which candidates are required to run on a party line; other states exclusively have non-partisan elections, and others have a mix of both. Judges’ term lengths vary by jurisdiction, but typically range from six to 10 years. Depending on vacancy, prospective judges can compete for a single seat or for a number of open positions. Incumbents don’t often face opposition, but when they do, judicial races can get heated – and expensive.

Short sentences v harsh terms

persky vs tilsen
  • Perksy in Santa Clara, Ca and Tilsen in Ramsey county, Mn

Jail time v fines

cosgrove and page
  • Cosgrove in Summit county, Oh and Page in Montgomery county, Pa

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