The election season may be over, but that doesn't change the relevance of the increasing frequency with which law enforcement has begun to take democracy into their own hands. And this is not just a United States phenomenon. In Brazil, during the presidential election in which Bolsonaro was ousted, police throughout the northeast of the country–which was largely supportive of Bolsonaro's leftist opponent, Lula–set up checkpoints in order to delay voters from reaching polling places. This may sound familiar, as we just discussed Florida law enforcement doing something similar during the 2000 election, barring travel for a largely Black neighborhood.
The idea of the constitutional sheriff adds a fresh wrinkle to what you might think of as "normal" election interference. To explain what a constitutional sheriff is, we have to dig really deep into American history and–oh. Nevermind. It's white supremacy. Nevermind y'all, it's as simple as everything else that's wrong with this country.
But in all seriousness, the notion of the constitutional sheriff is wrapped up in the sovereign citizen movement, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and an extremely wrongheaded reading of the founding documents of the United States. The idea is this: based on laws that aren't even written in this country, the county sheriff is in fact the highest form of authority in their county, superseding all state and federal officials. Why they're called constitutional sheriffs when the Constitution doesn't mention sheriffs at all, we may never know. But you might see how this is an issue.
Part of what has awakened the problem of the constitutional sheriff is a spate of recent non-enforcements in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. When lockdowns went into effect–particularly in more rural areas–some sheriffs, constitutional or no, decided not to enforce regulations toward closure of certain businesses, mask mandates, and other measures. Predictably, this tendency to ignore local and state governments won the hearts and minds of anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy-minded, and folks who just plain wanted to go to the gym before the ICU. This non-enforcement issue goes beyond COVID precautions, and extends to the enforcement of other legislation throughout the country–which is an issue that is soon to cut both ways, as we'll touch on in a moment.
It doesn't take very long to realize that a sheriff who decides what laws they will enforce based on a mostly fictitious idea of authority is a dangerous figure. Someone in that position will quickly decide that their friends behave constitutionally while everyone else–or members of an opposing party, say–are acting criminally. This approach to law enforcement, like every other kind, is going to do the most harm against minorities. And while a cop selectively enforcing the law is pretty commonplace, it's the idea at the heart of the constitutional sheriff phenomenon that's particularly worrisome as a force across the country: some prick with a copy of the Turner Diaries thinks he knows better than, say, the CDC.
Non-Enforcement for Some, Interposition for Others
While rural (mostly white) counties across the United States enjoyed the lackadaisical work of these constitutional sheriffs, their non-application of the law in other arenas has repercussions beyond mask mandates. In Washington State, legislation was passed that would enforce stricter background checks for firearm purchases, raise the age for purchase of semiautomatic rifles, and criminalize the improper storage of weapons. Constitutional sheriffs in the state quickly decided that they would only enforce parts of the law, to their taste. Similar legislation and refusal has popped up in other states recently, and basically since the idea became popular. With the passage of particularly tight firearm regulations in Oregon–the cringiest being that law enforcement gets to decide who does and who doesn't own a gun–this lack of enforcement could be a decent thing. But then again, they'll just change their minds the moment they think someone is being Marxist.
While I'm generally opposed to the apparatus of our government at any size, historically the federal government has been quicker to embrace civil rights, and states...less so. During Integration, local and state law enforcement in the South interposed themselves–attempted to, anyway–between citizens and federal officials to delay the practice. Similarly, nullification–the non-enforcement of laws–was made a fine art in Slave states. And while I can certainly see the non-enforcement of unjust laws on the horizon, generally the movement itself that's empowering sheriffs across the country is one that's not going to be levied in our favor.
Tied in with the constitutional sheriff movement is the direct policing and intervention in elections. One of the loudest sheriffs in this movement is Mark Lamb of Arizona, who seems to think that it's his and everyone else's duty to get right up in the face of every voter, to put a camera on every dropbox, and allege fraud at the drop of a deputy's hat. Despite this movement being a predictably western idea, at the last election there were armed law enforcement officers at the polls in places as far east as Pennsylvania.
There is a tangled and not particularly pretty web of mis-and-disinformation in this movement, and it of course winds around the 2020 election and calls of fraud in favor of the Democrats. That someone who thinks he's the highest authority in his county is so bothered by lowly feds doesn't really make much sense to me, but it shows you that this idea is not as simple as a remote county wanting to be left to their own devices. No, these folks want to be sure that it's their ideas and theirs alone that get a real say in this country. The movements roots in white supremacy tell you why. And while I don't think voting is the panacea liberals make it out to be, authoritarian movements are authoritarian movements, grassroots or no. It is better that what power we have is kept in our hands than wrested away by law enforcement and politicians willing to use them.
I will be leaving off weekly posts until after the New Year, mostly so that I can write a million other projects for a change. Here's hoping we don't have some new and terrible thing to talk about in the meantime.