Elections, Municipal

Halloween Article: The Election of Coroners in America

In celebration of Halloween this year, I decided to take a look at one of the most unknown and definitely most morbid, elected offices in America – County Coroner.    Many if not most be would be shocked to find out coroners are still an elected position in America.  Indeed, just under 1,300 counties in the United States still use elections to decide who holds a very obscure but important office.  The Coroner’s responsibilities vary from state to state, but the key one is the same… determining the cause of death.  This of course is very important when potential homicide is in play and incorrect determinations by coroners can cause serious problems in cases.  

Our system of investigating death in America is very disjointed.  The coroner system exists in half of counties while other jurisdictions have moved to Medical Examiners (appointed folks who are trained experts) at a county or regional/state level.  NPR broke down the current death investigation system here.   As for this article, I will be focusing just on the states that utilize the coroners system, as no other methods of death investigation involve elections.

Coroners in America

Not only do over 1,200 counties elect coroner in America, all but 10 elect coroners are elected on a partisan ballot.  Candidates for coroner run as Democrats or Republicans (sometimes purposely running with no party) for an office that has nothing to do with partisan politics.  Non-Partisan elections for coroner only exist in Montana, Minnesota, and California; states where only a few counties even elect coroner as a stand-alone position at this point.  As years go on, more and more counties that used to elect coroner have moved away from the election system.  Counties have transitioned to appointing the coroner or merging its office with other departments.  States like Montana and California often have counties where Coroner gets merged with another office (mainly Sheriff) and the ballot line literally states “Sheriff-Coroner.”  Other places like Washington have small counties where coroner departments are extensions of sheriff offices.   In Nevada, the smaller rural counties normally contract with larger counties for their death investigations.  These multi-county arrangements exist in other rural areas as well. Many counties have simply moved to appoint their coroner (often by the county commission) or switch to a Medical Examiner.  The difference between an appointed coroner and a medical examiner is that a medical examiner is guaranteed to be a trained professional, usually a doctor, who specializes in death investigation.  Appointed coroners may have similar training but its not as much a guarantee.

The map below breaks down the states with Coroners and what system each county uses.

As the map shows, several states have moved nearly entirely away from stand-alone coroner elections while others remain nearly universal in using them.  North Dakota and Nevada no longer have elections for coroner and Minnesota is down to 3 counties.  Counties are continuing to move toward appointments.  Rural counties still do appointments while larger counties often are using medical examiners.  In fact, some have been force to do appointments because no one even filed to run for the coroner positions.   In my research I saw many instances of counties moving to appointments in just the last couple years.  My expectation is that if I revisit this topic in another couple Halloweens, the number of counties electing coroners will continue to shrink bit by bit.

The issue with electing Coroners

The biggest issue with electing coroners is that many states do not require medical degrees.  Several states require elected coroners to undergo training once elected.  However, the time between taking office and completing the training can stretch for over a year.  Keep this in mind, many elected offices do require a level of expertise to even qualify and run.  Positions like State or District Attorney often require candidates to be lawyers to even run for the position.   Overall the notion of qualifications has broad agreement from voters.  However, as a Colorado referendum from 2002 shows, there can be some debate.   The referendum in question would have allowed the legislature to set basic qualifications for the office of coroner.   The measure passed easily, but several rural counties voted against.

These “no” counties were largely deep-red conservative counties (except San Juan).   The notion of regulation may have scared them away from it or perhaps it was the thought of losing their current coroner.  The measure passed but the county data showed not all communities are in universal agreement on the issue.

Another issue that has come into focus more recently is the number of former law enforcement officials who run for coroner.  This is a growing and common them.  In many ways it makes sense, as law enforcement often deal with crime scenes.  However, the potential for conflicts of interest, especially when evaluating a death in police custody, is a serious matter.

Another conflict issue brought up by a former coroner is how funeral directors will run for the job as a way to boost their business and steer work their way.

Partisan Breakdown of Coroners

The region of the country that elects coroners is much more conservative than the rest of the nation as a whole.  Counties that elect coroner on the ballot gave Donald Trump 59% of the two-way vote in the last election.  It should be no surprise then to find out Republicans outpace Democrats in the elected coroner department.  However, there are still large numbers of Democratic coroners in the American South, where Democrats used to thrive down-ballot.

Looking at the partisan breakdown compared to the Presidential results and you can really see where the southern Democrats reside.

Democrats hold coroner positions in a large number of Trump counties in the south.  In fact over 70% of Democratic coroners are in Trump counties.  Counties with a Dem coroner voted for Trump with 52% of the two-party vote.  Many of these coroners have been in office for years or decades and were unopposed in the last elections (or fended off challengers).  Digging through election results, I found a vast majority of counties saw unopposed coroner races in 2014 or 2016.

Coroners for each State

Lets take a look at the coroner breakdowns for each state.  Not for these state breakdowns “appointed” was used for any non-elected coroner status (whether a medical examiner or not).  The county Presidential results are also a 2-party vote.

First up is Alabama.  Despite Trump dominating in the state and the GOP have solid control on the legislature, a narrow majority of counties have Democratic coroners.  This majority won’t last long, however, as I saw countless stories of GOP pickups for the office in recent years.  Several of the larger counties in Alabama have moved to appointed or medical examiner systems.

Next up is Mississippi.   An overwhelming majority of the state still has Democratic coroners, with only the southeastern regions being a GOP stronghold.  Democrats have been losing ground locally (finally losing the state house in 2011) but so far coroners, most of whom where unopposed, still remain in the Democratic column.

Unlike some of its southern neighbors, Lousiana’s coroner results reflect its statewide lean.  Other than a Democratic Governor, Republicans dominate the state and that is reflected in their control of coroner slots.  Louisiana is notable for having the most coroners who run as independents and even three who ran and won as ‘other’ for their party label.

Arkansas is dark red for the most part these days but its former Democratic strength is seen in its coroner results.  Democrats still control many local contests, especially those unopposed in elections.  Like some of its other southern neighbors, this is one of the last remnants of a once dominant political party.

South Carolina is steadily red but its large African-American population means Democrats have a fairly decent basement of support.  Despite Democrats having lost control of much of the state far earlier than they did in states like Alabama or Arkansas, a narrow majority of coroner slots still go to Democrats.  Democrats have all the African-American counties and a handful of white rural ones as well.

Georgia has been modestly close the last several Presidential elections and was only 5% apart in 2016.  Clinton’s narrow loss was thanks to strong swings toward her in the Atlanta suburbs.  However, a vast majority of the counties still backed Donald Trump.  The coroner results conform with this data.  Democrats hold some Trump counties but overall their numbers come from the black-belt counties than go across the state.  Atlanta and its suburbs use medical examiners.

Like Arkansas and Mississippi, Kentucky is flushed with Democratic coroners in deep red counties at the state and federal level.  Democrats controlled the KY House until last year and are still competitive in state-level contests.  Most of these blue coroners are still in office because their were unopposed.  However, I did spot several instances of incumbents fending off challengers in red counties.   Much of these counties are still democratic in registration and democratic strength down-ballot still exists.

Missouri has swung hard to the right in recent years and Trump’s 19% win in the state is a culmination of that.  Nevertheless, Democrats sitll hold a good number of rural county coroner slots while the big cities use medical examiner systems.

Illinois is like the opposite of states like Arkansas.  While Clinton won the state easily, Democrats are way behind Republicans in coroner positions.  The Republican benefit from small rural counties going for them while Democratic strength in the state is based around the cities.  Democrats hold several Trump county coroner slots but likewise the GOP hold Clinton-won counties in the Chicago suburbs.  Cook County, the main source of Democratic strength in the state, uses a medical examiner.

Indiana’s Presidential and coroner results match up fairly well.  Democrats hold the main Democratic counties and some rural counties where they’ve had historic strength in the west.

Democrats hold several coroner slots in historically-blue areas in the west and assorted rural counties.  However, GOP gains have already been made in many of the eastern Appalachia counties that used to be a strong base for Democrats.  Cleveland uses a Medical Examiner system while Toledo and Cincinnati actually still elect coroners.

Democrats still hold coroner slots in working class regions of the state that used to be sources of strength for the party but GOP gains in this office are gradually happening.  The big cities use medical examiner systems which otherwise would likely elect Democratic coroners.

Much of Wisconsin has moved away from elected coroners, moving either to appointments or medical examiners.  Democrats still hold coroner positions in several of their white-working-class bases of support (which Trump ate into last election).

Many of South Dakota’s counties have moved to appointments in recent years, leaving just over half the state doing elections.  Republicans hold a solid majority of the coroner slots, with Democrats holding just a few Trump counties.

Wyoming, the lowest populated state in the nation, was also one of Trump’s best states.   The state is routinely a GOP stronghold and and in 2016 Clinton only won Teton County, which has consistency voted Democratic for President in recent years.  Democrats actually managed to hold 3 coroner positions.  One was in blue-Teton, the other in swingish Alabany, and the last in red Sweetwater.

Like Wyoming, Idaho is a solid red state in the mountain west.   It is no surprise then that the GOP controls a vast majority of the coroner positions in the state.  Dems hold the most in the Northerner panhandle of the district, an old Democratic base from years and decades back.

A majority of Montana’s coroners are elected on a ballot line with the sheriff (Sheriff-Coroner).   These elections ultimately are about who voters want as sheriff, with coroner being an afterthought.  Hence, those elections are not covered here.  In the remaining counties we see a scattering of elected coroners, largely in red counties.

Colorado has a mixture of Democrats in Trump counties and GOP coroners in Clinton counties.  Denver, meanwhile, uses a medical examiner.  Democrats hold a solid patch of coroner slots in the southeaster counties that backed Trump solidly.

Much of Washington state either has medical examiner or coroner duties handled by other departments.  The counties with coroners are much more Republican than the rest of the state.

Upstate New York still elects coroners while the big cities (and NYC itself) all used medical examiner or appointed systems.  The counties that elect also have some odd practices.  Some counties elect one coroner like the rest of the nation.  However, several others elect multiple coroners.  In some cases coroners are all elected county-wide and in other instances they are elected by district.  For record-keeping I simply focused on the overall “control” of a county in multi-coroner cases.   Overall the counties with coroner elections are much more conservative than the state as a whole.

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Notable Coroner Elections

Coroner is such an under-the-radar office that one might think no major debates or races ever occur.  Indeed many elections for Coroner are quiet affairs, often between former law-enforcement officials or funeral directors with both sides arguing their qualifications.  Some general digging did spot some more notable elections for coroner.

The first is a primary for 2014 for Boulder County, Colorado coroner.  The 2014 race saw Emma Hall, who had been elected four years earlier, face a democratic primary challenger from a former employee.  Deron Dempsey, who had worked for the previous coroner (who’d retired) left when Hall was elected and challenged her four years later.  Much of Dempsey’s attacks where focused on slow response time from the coroners office in terms of making a ruling on cause of death.  Dempsey brought out family of deceased who complained about slow turnaround from the office.  Hall hit back, documenting the problems she faced when she entered the office.  Hall documented that when she came into the position, the old coroner office was disorganized and little attempt at a smooth transition at been made.  Hall documented issues like old blood samples never being processed or property of deceased never being returned to family.   Hall pointed to the improvements made in her four years and that efforts to modernize the office.  The voters ultimately sided with Hall, re-electing her.

One of the crazies races for Coroner was in Lake County, Illinois… one of the suburbs of Chicago in 2016.  The race stands out as a prime example of politics getting in the way of the law.  Incumbent Coroner Dr. Thomas Rudd had been elected in 2012 under a hectic time.  The former coroner had recently resigned amid controversy over the handling of the office and its finances.  A sheriff audit found major issues, including misplaced bones of deceased.  Rudd ran against the temporary appointee in the Democratic primary (who was running for their own term then) and won, then going on to win the general.  Rudd clashed with law enforcement at times by challenging previous causes of death.  Two key incidents where Rudd’s challenge to claims a young child had been beaten by a caregiver (who had already been prosecuted at that point) and his instance a police officers death was a suicide (something the dept only eventually came to agree with after resistance).  Rudd’s attitude was frank but his findings were backed up.   Rudd, however, ran into trouble with the re-election campaign.  Rudd appeared to not get the petitions needed for the Democratic primary ballot and when the GOP of the country threatened a lawsuit, he backed out and planned to run as an NPA.  However, a judge ruled he could not do this since he had already planned to run as a Democrat.   Rudd then mounted a write-in campaign, but acknowledged his changes were slim.  In the end he only got 3% while the GOP took the seat.  Howard Cooper, a dentist, had run on a platform of outreach on issues like suicide and drug overdose and also on creating a more harmonious atmosphere with law enforcement while at the same time maintaining independence.  Cooper’s win bucked the county’s blue trend (though its more a swing county overall).  Rudd’s support was largely in Democratic pockets.

On the east side of Chicago, in Lake County Indiana, the incumbent Coroner Merrilee Frey faced a challenge from two north-country candidates.  Former State Senator Samuel Smith of East Chicago and Phyllis Perkins of Gary challenged Frey in the democratic primary.  Perkins’ campaign was quiet but Smith went after Frey for response times to crime scenes in the northern end of the city.  Frey’s response was that the time it took the coroners office to arrive was not excessive and that drive time to the north took longer from where the office was.  Frey also touted her work with local pharmacies to make sure a  drug to combat overdoses was readily available in light of the states growing opioid problem.  The results ended up mirroring the states demographics.  Smith, who was African-American, won Gary and East Chicago, while Frey, who is white, won the rest of the county.  Perkins’ quiet campaign still generated 25% but it wasn’t concentrated in the north.  Its hard to say without more digging if Perkins split an anti-Frey vote or if Frey could have won one-on-one.

Perhaps the ultimate example of the flaw of electing coroners to partisan ballots can be seen in Hot Springs County Arkansas.   In 2016, Republican Aaron Davis won the job as coroner by beating longtime coroner Ernest Cox.  Davis had experience in the field, but quickly found himself clashing with the county over the coroners budget and supplies.  Davis’ requests seem fair but he seemed to demand vs go through proper methods for budget requests.  Eventually after only 7 months on the job, Davis resigned.  Things had been going smooth under Cox, who had been coroner since the 1980s.  Nothing I found indicated Cox lost due to negligence or controversy.  Rather, Cox lost because he was a Dem in a deep red county.  Despite that, he nearly won re-election.

Dorchester county sits north of Charleston, South Carolina and is growing in population.  The county is a mix of suburban in its south and rural in its north.   The incumbent coroner Chris Nesbit was forced to resign after posting racist tirades on facebook and pulling a gun on a black neighbor.  Yah its quiet the story.  Nesbit has also previously stated that people who get shot by cops were committing “suicide by cop.”  Nesbit’s ouster meant an open seat for the 2016 coroner position in a fairly red county.  Three Republican filed.  All three had ties to law enforcement through their current or past jobs.  Paul Brouthers appeared to be the most moderate candidate.  In the wake of the Nesbit controversy, Brouthers pointed out he’d like to create some racial diversity in the coroners office, saying he’d like to have an African-American deputy.  This position actually drew attack from Wayne Reeves, who claimed Brouthers was engaging in affirmative action.  Reeves’ complaint didn’t matter, as the first round saw Brouthers and Mike Giglio advanced.  Giglio was a current Sargent at the Sheriff’s office and received the endorsement of Reeves.   Nevertheless, Brouthers won the runoff and the general election.  This was the happy example of a stark improvement in the coroners office.

One of the most bizarre races for coroner took place just a few weeks ago in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.  Incumbent coroner Jeff Rouse dropped out of the campaign after filing for re-election, stating he was eager to move on and encouraged his supports to back his opponent, Dwight McKenna.  McKenna, however, has controversy around him that made his election hard to stomach for many.   He had served 9 months for felony tax evasion.  This was also McKenna’s third run for coroner.  In his first run, he accused the coroner before Rouse, Frank Minyard, of harvesting organs from the dead in a very shocking ad.  However, the ad stretched the truth, as it turns out the coroners office had taken organs to be used for transplants, the practice at the time was allowed under state law.  McKenna’s add drew condemnation from organ donor groups.  Mineyard beat McKenna in that race.   McKenna seemed a lock for coroner this time with Rouse dropping out, however, yard signs did pop up telling voters to back Rouse to “stop the felon.”    In the end, McKenna won but with only 60% of the vote against a candidate who was no longer running.

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Conclusion

The office of coroner is a forgotten position in America.  Most Americans don’t even know its still elected in nearly half of the nation’s counties.   I am a strong advocate of electoral accountability.  However, it is my belief the medical examiner system is very much preferred to electing coroners.   However, as long as this system exists its important the voters and press of these counties follow these races and the actions of these offices.  Seeing contentious and heated races for coroner, like in Lake County, Indiana or Boulder County, Colorado, is a good thing because it means debate is occurring over practices of the office.   However, politics has also gotten in the way of good coroners like in Lake County, Illinois or Hot Springs County, Arkansas.   We will likely continue to see counties and states move away from elected coroners with time.   Whether those reforms involve moving to appointed positions or merging the office with the Sheriff remain to be seen.

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