What Do All These Elected Officials Do?

We’ve all heard that down-ballot races are important, but how are we supposed to know what those officials do? Here’s a look at a few.

We’ve all been there. You’re standing in the polling booth, ticking off your ballot, ready to walk out with an “I Voted” sticker and a triumphant sense of civic achievement. President? Check. State representative? Easy. But the farther down the list you go, the trickier it gets. How on earth could we have this many judges? Since when do we elect the coroner? Down-ballot races aren’t quite as flashy as national elections. But these officials are far more likely to shape your community and day-to-day life. On November 3, don’t throw away your vote on these elected positions.

Photograph by bizoo_n/stock.adobe.com


Prosecuting Attorneys

How often?
In Ohio, every four years. In Kentucky, where the office is called Commonwealth’s Attorney, every six.

What do they do?
As attorneys for the state, prosecutors charge and try felony offenses in each county’s criminal court.

What’s at stake?
How your county’s criminal justice system is run. Prosecuting attorneys ultimately decide whether someone is charged with a crime and how harsh that charge should be. These candidates might run on “reform-minded” or “tough on crime” platforms.

Race to watch
In Hamilton County, Democrat Fanon Rucker will once again attempt to unseat longtime Republican incumbent Joe Deters.


County Commissioners

How often?
In Ohio and the 15 Kentucky counties that have them, every four years.

What do they do?
Control county expenditures, authorize public works projects, purchase new land and buildings, administer welfare, and appoint other officials to county government positions.

What’s at stake?
Because they work at the hyper-local level, county commissioners make decisions that will almost certainly impact your life, whether they’re approving new tax hikes or voting on pandemic-related relief for small businesses.

Race to watch
In Hamilton County, Democrat and former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece faces off against Republican Andy Black and Independent candidate Herman Najoli to fill the seat left vacant by Todd Portune, who died in January.


Sheriff

How often?
Every four years.

What do they do?
In Ohio’s 88 counties, sheriffs serve as the chief law enforcement officers, providing common pleas court and corrections services. Ohio Sheriffs also oversee county jails. In Kentucky, most jails are run by jailers, who occupy a separate space on the ballot.

What’s at stake?
Sheriffs are the only law enforcement officials who are elected, which gives the public a say in the county’s policing priorities. Their decisions can affect anything from bail reform to sexual assault investigations. Sheriffs who oversee county jails may have considerable sway when it comes to shaping conditions for inmates.

Race to watch
In Hamilton County, Bruce Hoffbauer will face Charmaine McGuffey, the Democratic candidate who could make history as the state’s first LGBTQ sheriff.


Common Pleas Judge: General Division

How often?
In Ohio, every six years. In Kentucky, Circuit Court judges are chosen every eight.

What do they do?
Each common pleas court in Ohio has four divisions: general, domestic relations, juvenile, and probate. Judges in the general division handle criminal felony cases and civil cases that deal with amounts exceeding $15,000. In Kentucky, the circuit court hears capital offenses and felonies, as well as civil cases involving more than $5,000.

What’s at stake?
A 2014 Ohio elections survey found that most voters skip over judicial races on the ballot, with 63 percent reporting that they simply didn’t know enough about the candidates to make a confident vote. That may be in part because, in Ohio and Kentucky, judicial elections are nonpartisan, meaning candidates’ political parties aren’t listed on the ballot.


Common Pleas Judge: Domestic Relations

How often?
Every six years, including Family Court Judge in Kentucky.

What do they do?
These county judges have jurisdiction over a wide scope of family matters, including (but definitely not limited to) divorce, annulments, child support, parental rights, and domestic violence.

What’s at stake?
Domestic relations and family court judges walk a tricky tightrope. The ideal candidate will strike a careful balance between upholding the rule of law and guiding families through conflict with sensitivity.

Race to watch
Hamilton County’s three domestic relations judges (Susan Tolbert, Jon Sieve, and Amy Searcy) were in hot water this spring when they virtually shut down the courthouse for weeks during the pandemic, putting more than 2,000 cases on hold.


Common Pleas Judge: Juvenile Court

How often?
Every four years.

What do they do?
When minors commit a crime, they typically aren’t charged for it—instead, they’re sent to juvenile court. It’s up to the juvenile judge to determine the punishment to fit the crime. In Kentucky, juvenile justice is under the jurisdiction of the district court.

What’s at stake?
Juvenile court judges don’t just deal with delinquency cases. They’re also responsible for dependency cases, which involve minors suffering abuse. In that capacity, juvenile judges are often the ones deciding whether or not a child will be removed from their home.


County Coroner

How often?
Every four years.

What do they do?
Coroners investigate suspicious or unusual deaths—typically meaning those caused by criminal violence, accident, or suicide—and perform autopsies to determine the cause of death.

What’s at stake?
In Ohio, coroners are required to hold a medical license. But in Kentucky, almost any citizen over the age of 21 can run for the office, regardless of medical experience.

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