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A scarcity in sheriff showdowns

(Troy Becker / Forum News Service)

For more than three-fourths of sheriffs in South Dakota, running for office is a cakewalk.

In 528 primary or general elections in the 21st century, 77.08 percent of sheriffs races went uncontested, leaving 407 incidences in which there was neither a primary or general election matchup in South Dakota. When there was no opposition, the lone person standing was the victor by default.

That trend is likely to extend into 2018. This year marks the fifth slate of sheriffs races since 2002, and only 12 races in South Dakota's 66 counties will be contested in either the primary or general election as of Thursday.

With a default winner expected in another round of campaigns for sheriff, does South Dakota have a candidate problem?

Davison County Sheriff Steve Brink doesn't think so, citing the growing challenges of the job.

"It comes down to doing the job and doing it well and having good people working for you," Brink said.

Brink was appointed as Davison County sheriff in 2013, and is on track for his second election with no opposition. And Brink was quick to turn credit over to his staff, the folks who deal with citizens on a day-to-day basis.

Longtime Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead agreed.

"It also has to do with the quality of staff that I've been able to recruit and hire over the years, from our entry-level positions all the way up to my chief deputy," Milstead said.

Milstead has served as sheriff in the state's largest county for more than two decades, and over that time he's never been challenged for the opportunity to be the face of law enforcement in Minnehaha. And his experience is far from unique.

According to data compiled by The Daily Republic, 19 of 66 counties had no sheriff election in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Those counties include some of the largest in the state, like Minnehaha, Pennington, Brown, Brookings and Codington.

But the consensus is — from the largest county in Minnehaha, to counties with middling populations like Davison and smaller counties like Bon Homme — a lack of competition isn't necessarily bad.

Why even elect sheriffs?

A possible culprit for the lack of competition in sheriffs races is a requirement for law enforcement certification. In South Dakota, your average citizen can't simply collect signatures and appear on the ballot.

According to the Secretary of State's Office, "A sheriff candidate running as a partisan candidate must have a certification from Law Enforcement Officers Standards Commission before the filing deadline." The same can be said for independent sheriff candidates.

That leaves smaller counties, in particular, with a possible dearth of candidates. But Bon Homme County Sheriff Lenny Gramkow sees the value in retaining an incumbent sheriff.

"I just think it would be more beneficial to a county, as long as he's honest and does his job, I don't know why they'd want to change (sheriffs) all the time," Gramkow said.

Occasionally, however, a deputy attempts to usurp the title from his sheriff.

That's the case this year in Bon Homme County, where Gramkow and Deputy Sheriff Mark Maggs are set to square off in June's Republican primary.

Gramkow said he hired Maggs, and he didn't have a lot of thoughts on the matter when asked on Thursday, but he did question why the job of sheriff is even an elected position.

"I wish it was hired just like any other job, I wish you wouldn't have to worry about your job every four years," Gramkow said. "... The sheriff, people don't realize how big the sheriff job is."

If South Dakota were to abolish sheriff elections and switch to an appointment method, South Dakota would join Rhode Island as the only state where sheriffs are appointed rather than elected. The only other states where sheriffs aren't elected are Alaska and Connecticut, where there are no sheriffs.

Back in Davison County, Brink says he's fine with the office of sheriff being an elected position. But Brink did question the need for partisan elections in sheriff races.

"To me the sheriff's office, there should be no politics like that involved it in at all," Brink said. "But it goes way, way back, and that's the way it started and that's the way it stayed, so that's what we live with."

According to the National Sheriffs' Association, only five states have nonpartisan sheriff elections, as well as parts of Florida. And other than the possible mindset that a conservative Republican might be more apt to implement a tighter budget, Brink wasn't sure if partisan elections are necessary.

For now, Brink will run for re-election as a Republican, as will Milstead. And they're both looking forward to serving another four years.

"I do what I think is right for the citizens that I work for, and I feel pretty strong in belief of the elected sheriff position," Milstead said. "And I do everything in my power to carry out that duty in a responsible and professional way and make sure that I have responsible and professional staff as a big part of that priority that I have."