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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
Depending on where you live, you may see candidates for coroner on the ballot this week. Coroners are elected in almost 1600 counties around the country. It's their job to pronounce people dead and coordinate with police, courts and hospitals. But what does a job dealing with death have to do with party politics?
North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris decided to find out.
SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: It's a windy Thursday afternoon in Ogdensburg, part of a sprawling rural county in northern New York. The choir at the Episcopal Church is practicing.
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HARRIS: Eric Warner is behind the piano. He's a former funeral director, an organist, and a stay-at-home dad who raises Clydesdale horses. He's hoping to become one of St. Lawrence County's four elected coroners - there are two open seats this year - and he's running as a Democrat.
ERIC WARNER: I miss dealing with the peoples as they go through a grieving time. So that's really why I wanted to be a county coroner, is so I can help people that are grieving or having lost a loved one.
HARRIS: Just a few blocks away, coroner candidates Kevin Crosby and incumbent June Wood are at the annual county Republicans meet-the-candidates dinner. They're running too. Wood takes the microphone first, and explains that she's been a county coroner for 12 years, and works on a local rescue squad.
JUNE WOOD: So in summary, I guess, I would just hope that you would vote for me - vote for experience - and I would love to serve another four years.
HARRIS: Crosby goes next.
KEVIN CROSBY: I've been a lifelong resident of Morristown; I'm a 22-year member of the Morristown Fire and Rescue Company, serving the past 17 years as fire chief...
HARRIS: St. Lawrence County coroners are paid employees. They make about $6,000 a year and get health insurance. They don't do autopsies - that's done by a medical examiner from a neighboring county. Coroners do pronounce people dead and sign death certificates.
Even though they run for office on party lines, June Wood says it's a position where electoral politics don't matter very much. But people politics do.
WOOD: Basically to be a coroner you just have to be publicly popular. I guess it's more of a popularity contest. And then you learn the job as you go.
HARRIS: Democrat Eric Warner agrees. A few weeks ago, all the coroner hopefuls were at another meet-the-candidates event. While other politicians were asked their opinions on New York State's tough new gun laws, the coroner's weren't.
WARNER: They would never ask a coroner that. They could care less what we think about what toilet paper to use in the community building.
HARRIS: You don't have to have any medical training to be a coroner here. You just have to live in the county and be old enough to get on the ballot. Electing a coroner is a holdover from British common law, where the coroner's job was to determine how and when people had died in order to collect taxes. That system worked in early America. And in a lot of places, if the sheriff committed a crime, it was the coroner's job to make the arrest.
But in the 1920s, The National Academy of Sciences recommended that jurisdictions switch to having an appointed medical examiner. Fast forward almost 100 years and only 16 states have made that switch.
And in St. Lawrence County this behind-the-scenes job comes with all the trappings of a small-town election - yard signs, party dinners, and for Eric Warner, spending the entire summer marching in parades.
WARNER: We did 14 parades. And either I took my horses, which are black Clydesdales, or I took our John Deer 420.
HARRIS: Voter Parker Piercey has followed the coroner's race. He agrees that it's mostly a popularity contest and says he'll vote for Kevin Crosby, who he knows the best. Piercey says the job requires a certain type of person.
PARKER PIERCEY: There's probably a lot of times you have to go to something that I would never want to go to.
HARRIS: Nobody knows how the votes for coroner will fall; whether voters will toe the party line, or, like Piercey, vote for someone they know. Maybe the Republican votes will split. The candidates all say they're running because they want to be there for the people of the county when somebody dies. It's up to the voters to decide who they want around when they're dead.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris in St. Lawrence County, New York.
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