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Know Before You Vote: Criminal Justice Elections

Welcome to our education series leading up to the November 5th election! In each article, we’ll feature a set of elected officials on this year’s ballots, and what to look for when researching candidates. Our first piece highlights a unique set of elected officials: your criminal justice representatives. In cities, counties, and states across the country, you’ll have the opportunity to vote for your criminal justice representatives. Here’s a breakdown of the positions:

  • Sheriff: Serves at county or independent city level. Sheriffs work at a high level within county or city law enforcement. Responsibilities vary significantly throughout the country, ranging from serving arrest warrants, directing animal control, serving as the head of law enforcement departments and more. To know your local sheriff’s role, search for the sheriff at your county or city level.
  • Deputy Sheriff: Typically appointed officials reporting directly to the Sheriff. Often serve as a second in command, and may head certain law enforcement departments. To know your local deputy sheriff’s role, search for the deputy sheriff at your county or city level. 
  • District Attorney: Serves at the county level. Head prosecutor who manages a small team of prosecutors working for the district. Investigates alleged crimes in cooperation with law enforcement, and appears before a Grand Jury. Decides which cases are prosecuted. Other names for this role include circuit attorney, prosecuting attorney, commonwealth’s attorney, state’s attorney, county attorney, circuit solicitor, or county prosecutor.
  • District Judge: District judges hear both criminal and civil cases in each of the 94 U.S. Judicial Districts. Each state and Washington D.C. has at least one district court, with some having more. Judges use legal principles to determine which side of a civil case is right, or to decide trial proceedings in a criminal case. Judges set conditions for bail. 
  • Magistrate Judge: Assists District judges in preparing cases for trial. May preside over court proceedings. 

Looking for more information on each role? Check out Ballotpedia

All of these roles play a part in our current criminal justice system. Your vote helps determine how certain functions of the system operate and change. 

What to look for when researching your candidate:

  • Prior Experience: What is their background relating to the role? What makes them qualified to serve in the criminal justice system?
  • Regional Specifics of Your Criminal Justice System: The needs of a criminal justice system vary regionally – the system in Philadelphia looks much different from the system in Laramie, Wyoming. What aspects of the system are community members discussing? Do you feel they have importance as well? 
  • Positions and Stances: Has the candidate released statements regarding their positions on key criminal justice matters pertaining to your county, city, or district? If not, you can contact them asking for a statement!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much time will this research take?

A: It will take some time. You’ll want to sit down for a bit and take a few notes. We don’t know your research style, but a full dive into criminal justice research could last about 20 minutes. Think about it this way: Now through the election, you can spend each week researching a different set of candidates. Taking 20 minutes a week to make a confident, informed decision sounds like time well spent. 


Q: How do I know who’s on the ballot?

A: Sources such as Ballotpedia and the League of Women Voters provide a snapshot of local, regional, and state races across the U.S.


Q: How do I find nonpartisan research?

A: The above sources sometimes link nonpartisan research. You can also try a good old Google Search. The range and volume of ballot races challenges voter engagement organizations to find ways to provide this information in elections to come.


Q: I live in a state with straight-ticket voting [some states allow voters to choose to vote for everyone in one party without filling out individually]. Can I just vote straight ticket? That way I don’t have to research if I know which party I align with.

A: How you cast your ballot is fully up to you, but you should know this: judges are nonpartisan positions, and run nonpartisan races. If you do vote straight ticket, you’ll still have to vote separately for a judge. It helps to research their positions, as they align with no party. 


Q: So I started my research and it’s actually a lot of fun! I love this. I want to share this with my friends and school so they can be informed too. Should I make my own guide?

A: Of course you should! That’s what we’re all about. Check out our resources on creating your own voter guide here. Strapped for time? See if your friends will help divvy up the work.


Stay tuned for our next article on Municipal Races! 

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