In counties across the U.S. voters might notice something way down at the bottom of their ballots: the candidates for county coroner. Coroners are in charge of investigating violent and suspicious deaths, and they’re up for reelection every four years. But should we be electing them at all?
As it turns out, the role of coroner is a centuries-old tradition inherited from medieval England. Back in the 13th century, coroners, also known as “crowners,” were representatives of the king. They tended to be knights, elected by officials to investigate suspicious deaths and occasionally confiscate people’s property for the monarch.
Fast forward 800 years or so and coroners are still around today. In counties across the U.S., not unlike in medieval England, there aren’t a lot of requirements for the position. Basically, you have to have a high school degree and not be a felon. Those loose requirements are why someone like Sydney Ludwick is on the ballot in Colorado.
“I'm the crazy ferret lady,” says Ludwick, who owns five of the animals.
She’s also an environmental activist, a watercolor artist and the Democratic candidate for coroner in Douglas County, Colo..
Ludwick says she started to become more active in politics after she graduated from college in December 2016 with a degree in biology. She was at a countywide gathering of Democrats when she made the decision.
“When I saw that they had the coroner position available I decided, ‘I'm going to run for that,’” she says.
Ludwick’s opponent could not be more different. Republican candidate Jill Romann is a board-certified medicolegal death investigator and guesses she’s been involved in investigating about 50,000 deaths.
“And my particular opponent has never even touched a dead body. She's 22. She still lives at home with her parents,” says Romann, who is currently the Douglas County coroner.
You might think Romann’s a shoo-in for this race, but she’s nervous. She says in today’s polarized politics, people tend to vote along party lines and don’t think too hard about who they’re voting for when it comes to something like coroner.
“It's heartbreaking. It's heart wrenching,” Romann says about the possibility of losing this election.
These days, she says she spends most weekends knocking on doors.
Over the years, a lot of states have switched to a new system. Instead of coroners, they have medical examiners, who have the professional background to be able to do things like autopsies, rather than having to hire someone else to do that work. They’re appointed, not elected.
But according to the National Research Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of U.S. death jurisdictions still elect coroners. That includes many counties in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.
“It's always been kind of a joke that, you know, there are no Republican autopsies or Democrat autopsies. We're simply trying to do the best job we can do,” says Michael Dobersen, who spent 21 years as the county coroner of Arapahoe County, Colo. before retiring.
Despite being extremely qualified for the role -- he’s a forensic pathologist, a medical doctor and even has a Ph.D. in microbiology -- he came very close to losing elections to far less qualified candidates.
At first Dobersen ran as a Republican, which, taking into account his politics, was odd.
“I'm a lifelong Democrat,” says Dobersen.
But his county was pretty Republican.
“All the Arapahoe County leaders said that if I wanted the job I'd have to become a Republican,” he says.
So he did.
At one point, the Democrats drummed up someone to run against him who had no real forensic experience.
“It was really frustrating because I barely won that election in the end because there was a big Democratic push that year,” he says.
Eventually Dobersen decided to switch parties and run as a Democrat. But that didn’t help him in 2010, which was another close shave. The Republicans had brought in a lawyer to run against him.
“Yeah, that was not a pleasant experience,” says Dobersen. “Everybody in my office was pretty much on pins and needles because they knew if this guy got elected, he was pretty much going to replace everybody that I had in my office.”
Dobersen won the election by less than 1 percent of the vote. He says if it weren’t for his wife and her friends going door to door, he probably would have lost his job.
“When you come right down to it, it's just meaningless that we have those political designations,” says Dobersen.
According to him and many others in the field, it’s high time to separate politics from death investigation.
A 2009 report by the National Research Council pointed out that, as elected officials, coroners might be swayed by public opinion, leading to “difficulty in making unpopular determinations of the cause and manner of death.” (The report also pointed out that a high school senior managed to become deputy coroner in Indiana). To improve death investigation in the U.S., the report concluded, the coroner system should be eliminated and replaced by medical examiners.
“These problems in these systems have been pointed out for almost 100 years now,” says Dr. Randy Hanzlick, who recently retired after 18 years of leading death investigations in Fulton County, Ga.
“Every few years some government entity comes together and they usually conclude that the coroner system is kind of outdated and it ought to be replaced by medical examiners systems,” he says. “But it doesn't seem to happen. It seems like we've just reached a standstill.”
Dr. Marcella Fierro, a forensic pathologist in Virginia who was involved in the 2009 report, says that standstill likely results in people across the country making mistakes about the cause and manner of deaths.
“They're not trained,” she says. “And the subtle forms of death -- the poisoning, the suffocation, the electrocution, the asphyxias -- they require a serious degree of training to recognize because they are subtle.”
Was that hanging a clear-cut suicide or might an autopsy show it was actually a murder? Did the old man die of heart disease or might a toxicology report show that he actually died from taking opioids? Did that elderly citizen die of pneumonia or neglect? Could a series of deaths in multiple states be traced back to the same unsafe product?
“Mr. Brown may have heart disease up the kazoo. But if he's on opiates or taking his wife's opiates, he may be an opiate death. It's important to know that,” says Fierro.
After all, Fierro points out, the work of coroners and medical examiners isn’t relegated to the dead. Good data on why Americans are dying can hold the answer on how to prevent some of those deaths.
“Things like seatbelts and bicycle helmets come from the data that is developed by medical examiners,” she says. “The (opioid) drug epidemic absolutely would not have been discovered were it not for medical examiners in West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia and Kentucky that had the first cases and sounded the alert.”
When unqualified people get elected as coroner, she says, that kind of critical information is more likely to go unnoticed.
Surprisingly, Sydney Ludwick -- the Colorado candidate who by most accounts would be considered unqualified -- totally agrees. One of the things she wants to work on as coroner is making sure that in the future only people with medical degrees will be eligible for office. In other words, she wants to get elected so that she can make it impossible for people like herself to get elected again.
“Yes,” she says. “No one's tried to change it before, so I have to take it upon myself to do that.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.