There’s (Rarely) a New Sheriff in Town: The Incumbency Advantage for County Sheriffs

27 Pages Posted: 23 Nov 2019

See all articles by Michael Zoorob

Michael Zoorob

Department of Government, Harvard University

Date Written: November 12, 2019


County sheriffs are prominent elected officials in almost all states, with typical duties including jail operation, responding to 911 calls, and making arrests. Unlike other law enforcement agencies, sheriffs enjoy considerable discretion in employment and policy decisions and do not report to a mayor or other higher official. Instead, the voters serve as the chief mechanism for accountability, and Sheriff associations often argue that their democratic selection makes them uniquely answerable, impartial, and authorized to restrain other parts of government. Using an original dataset of more than 5,500 Sheriff elections from across the US, I produce the first estimates of the levels and variation of the incumbency advantage for Sheriffs. In so doing, I show that the average tenure of elected Sheriffs far exceeds the average tenure of appointed police chiefs. In light of widespread reports of misconduct by elected sheriffs and their employees, these results suggest that elections may not be sufficient to produce responsible local government.

Keywords: county sheriff, incumbency advantage, tenure, institutional design, accountability

Suggested Citation

Zoorob, Michael, There’s (Rarely) a New Sheriff in Town: The Incumbency Advantage for County Sheriffs (November 12, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Michael Zoorob (Contact Author)

Department of Government, Harvard University ( email )

1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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