History of local elections hark to colonial times

Assessing the value of property, storing city records, investing -- those are just not issues that whip voters into a frenzy on their way to the ballot box.

While county races for treasurer, assessor, clerk and recorder may draw neither the attention or candidates of say, a sheriff's race, the opportunity to elect those officers with these more administrative jobs is a throwback to the nation's colonial roots.

The state constitution ratified in 1864 demands voters in every Nevada county choose three county commissioners, district attorney, clerk, recorder, auditor, public administrator, surveyor and superintendent of schools.

In 1866, assessor and treasurer were added to the election roster by state law, said Bob Erickson, Legislative Counsel Bureau director of research. In many counties, many of the elective offices are combined and held by one person, such as the clerk/recorder/public administrator position in Carson City held by Alan Glover.

In 1972, superintendent of schools and surveyor were removed from the list of elected officials, the superintendent position as it rose in importance and power and because the position increasingly demanded a skilled individual. The surveyor position was dropped for the opposite reason, Erickson said, because it was no longer a significant position for county governments.

Aside from the fact the state constitution calls for election of officers with administrative jobs, Bob Hadfield, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, said the county form of government advocated by the state constitution is "the oldest form of government in the United States" and is "very deeply rooted in the American psyche."

Officials of the original American colonies left their European homes in search of a haven of religious freedom and representative government. Things like tax collection -- the job of a county treasurer -- or assessing property values -- the job of a county assessor -- were sensitive issues to colonizers from countries with autocratic governments that dictated enforcement of laws many considered a sham. Allowing a vote of the people in charge of everything from record keeping to law enforcement "established a role for the people," Hadfield said.

"When they came to America, they had rights they had not enjoyed where they were coming from," Hadfield said. "The people had a say in how they were governed.

"That tradition of being accountable to the public has been one of the mainstays of county government."

Hadfield said while few positions have been removed from the public vote arena, more frequently, legislators question whether there should be minimum requirements for elective offices. Local elected officials are also the basis -- "the grunts" -- of the political parties in a community. To eliminate them would "strike at the heart of the party system in this country."

Hadfield pointed out low voter turnout and "the apathy of the American electorate threatens the whole foundation of government."

"We are so fortunate," he said. "We take things so for granted. The simple notion of owing property we take for granted. We can vote people in or out, we can have initiative petitions. It's unheard of in the rest of the world. I don't think we appreciate the marvelous institution we have."


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