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N.H. Political Races Down Ballot: What Does The County Sheriff Do?

Voter registration sign at a voting center in Portsmouth.
Dan Tuohy; NHPR

New Hampshire voters will choose a number of local political leaders, from county officers to state reps, on Nov. 3. Every Friday leading up to the election on Weekly N.H. News Roundup, we talk about one of these down-ballot offices, from what powers they hold, to how they impact your daily life.

We talked about the role of county sheriff with Ethan DeWitt, the statehouse and politics reporter for the Concord Monitor.

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County sheriff in brief:

Elected official that oversees writs and summons, security in county courts, and transportation between correctional facilities, and assists with investigations in towns and cities in their jurisdiction. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

What power does the county sheriff hold?

Ethan DeWitt: The county sheriff is effectively a law enforcement agency for the county, but their powers are different than what you see at a town or municipal police department, or for State Police, for that matter.

They do have the power to enforce the laws, but in practice, the role tends to be for other functions around the county.

One important role is that the sheriff’s office serves writs and court summons to residents, in conjunction with local police. They are responsible for security at courthouses, at every court in the state except the Supreme Court.

They’re responsible for prison transfers in county jails and state prisons. They also transfer youth to the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester. They’ll provide secure transportation to New Hampshire State Hospital.

The county sheriff can help out in local law enforcement investigations, particularly with smaller towns that are less equipped to do a broader investigation.

They also assist other agencies in different ways. For instance, they assist in fugitive apprehension within New Hampshire, and if a fugitive were caught out of state, they assist in bringing that person back to the state.

The county sheriff can help out in local law enforcement investigations, particularly with smaller towns that are less equipped to do a broader investigation. They can also work with the county attorney, and serve as sort of another law enforcement arm working with them on particular cases.

Why is this an elected position?

Ethan DeWitt: County sheriffs are elected in 46 states across the country, but this is unusual from an international perspective. There are few countries in which you directly elect a law enforcement official like a county sheriff.

This came about in the 1800s after the revolution as states were forming government. It came with the increasing politicization of the country, where you had parties emerge and wanting to wield power and get influence. This transformed some of these elected offices into direct elections, so when you joined a party, you vote for a slate of candidates.

How long is the term for a county sheriff?

Ethan DeWitt: Two years, just like most positions in the state.

And I will also note that it is capped at 70 years old. So just like the New Hampshire Supreme Court, once you hit 70, you must retire.

Is this position a launch pad for other positions? We often see people run for smaller local offices before running for something bigger. Is this one of those positions?

Ethan DeWitt: Not really. I can’t think of any example recently, where a county sheriff went on to seek higher office. 

Generally, the kinds of people who run for this office have long roots in law enforcement. They are often town police chiefs that are looking for more responsibility. Sometimes they’re in municipal police departments, so when they get to the position of county sheriff, they tend to stick around.

This tends to be their final role in law enforcement.

Generally, the kinds of people who run for this office have long roots in law enforcement. They are often town police chiefs that are looking for more responsibility.

One other thing to note is that county sheriff has a huge incumbent advantage, more so than perhaps any other elected official in the United States. County sheriffs are re-elected at extremely high rates.

An example of that is this year, in Hillsborough County, Republican James Hardy announced his retirement, and he’s been in the position for 18 years. He announced he was not going to seek a tenth term as county sheriff. That’s an example of the dynamic when you get into this role.

Generally, there are political parties, but it’s not so partisan a position, and there aren’t wide differences between Democratic and Republican sheriffs. So voters, once they get to know a sheriff, tend to keep them around.

To whom does the sheriff report?

Ethan DeWitt: The position doesn’t really have direct oversight, it kind of operates as its own law enforcement entity.

However, the state representatives for a county also serve on a county delegation to see to that county’s needs. I believe there are measures that the delegation can use if they needed to oust a sheriff, but it’s rarely done.

An example this year was Merrimack County Sheriff Hilliard, who got into some trouble. He was found guilty of driving while intoxicated in January, and there was a lot of pressure for him to step down. He ultimately did step down, but it took a while.

I was talking to the delegation members, and these elected representatives could feasibly hold a vote to oust him, and they were very reluctant to do so. They wanted him to leave on his own. Ultimately Governor Sununu got involved and encouraged him to resign because the charges were kind of overshadowing his work, and he did resign a month later.

The county sheriff also works with the county commissioner, because the county commissioner helps control the budget. So if you’re a county sheriff, if you have a new initiative, you need to get them on board. So in that sense, there is some oversight there, but in general, the county sheriff largely gets to decide how they operate.

Christina joined the Civics 101 team in 2021. Previously, she worked on The Exchange, NHPR's flagship live news talk program, where she produced shows on topics including healthcare, social services, politics, and breaking news. She grew up all over the country, but considers New Hampshire her home base.

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