Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
When it comes to electing Minnesota county sheriffs and attorneys, Minnesota voters don't have many choices. In many of those races, only one candidate is on the ballot.
A contested, competitive race allows voters to at least consider different perspectives on how an elected job should be done. Healthy campaigns help create a healthy democracy, with thoughtful discussion and debate about how government should operate.
Yet, in the case of top law enforcement and legal positions in Minnesota, campaigns typically don't happen. A recent Star Tribune news story reported that when Minnesotans vote this summer and fall, they'll mostly see only one candidate for those county positions — despite increasing concerns about law enforcement in many parts of the state.
Two candidates are running for sheriff in just 36 of the state's 87 counties — every other county has just one unopposed candidate. A two-person race for county attorney is even rarer. Only 13 counties will offer voters a choice between candidates, while 72 counties will offer one name and two (Martin and Red Lake) have no one running.
In Hennepin County, where public safety and criminal justice reform are especially hot issues, there are three contenders for sheriff and seven for county attorney this year. Neither of the incumbents is running.
Having few choices for those county positions isn't unusual statewide. County elected positions generally are among the lowest-profile races during most election cycles.
Many voters, particularly in the metro area, don't know their country officials and aren't sure exactly what they do. They tend to know more about city councils, state legislators and mayors who have a more direct connection to some of the services they care about. And when faced with a single candidate down-ballot, many voters think "What's the point?" and choose not to vote in those races.
Political analyst, researcher and Hamline University political science Prof. David Schultz told an editorial writer that about 45% of sheriff races across the country are uncontested. The research he cited revealed that once a sheriff has been elected, they win re-election bids 90% of the time. Similar statistics apply to county attorneys and prosecutors.
Not having much choice, Schultz said, is "bad if elections are supposed to be about holding people accountable — and it's bad if we think that sheriffs and county attorneys should be positions that are above politics." And if discussion of the issues is a priority, "We're largely not getting that debate because of the paucity of challengers."
Schultz added that the positions can fall into the "neither fish nor fowl" category because they are supposed to be nonpartisan yet are sometimes political and sometimes not.
The scarcity of candidates has led some counties and states to consider shifting from elected attorneys and sheriffs to appointed positions. Though those discussions have taken place, most of the positions nationally are still elected.
In Minnesota, all 87 counties hold elections for these critical jobs. And as long as that's the case, voters deserve to have more options when they go to the polls.