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Drew Reisinger, with wife Katie and son Simon, is seeking another term as Buncombe County Register of Deeds. Making it an elected position keeps officials honest, he says. (courtesy Drew Reisinger)
Drew Reisinger, with wife Katie and son Simon, is seeking another term as Buncombe County Register of Deeds. Making it an elected position keeps officials honest, he says. (courtesy Drew Reisinger)

In U.S. counties, even bureaucratic positions are elected Add to ...

It’s showtime for candidate Drew Reisinger. The crowd at a Democratic Party picnic has devoured the hot dogs, potato salad and brownies. The candidates for more senior offices have given their speeches. Now it’s his turn.

Like an experienced politician, he takes the microphone off its stand and moves around as he speaks. “I’d be honoured if y’all would consider having me back there to represent you,” says Mr. Reisinger, who is running for a second term. “I am fighting for good government and good record management.”

Wait. Good record management? That’s right. Mr. Reisinger is running for Register of Deeds, an office that puts him in charge of such things as property deeds, marriage licences and death certificates. In North Carolina, this is an elected position.

That may seem weird to Canadians, but in the United States it is perfectly normal. Americans seem to vote for practically everything, from president down to (in one Vermont town) dog catcher. While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton duke it out for the right to hold the world’s most powerful office, Americans are also preparing to cast ballots on Nov. 8 for sheriffs, judges, county commissioners, school trustees and host of lesser-known and often obscure government positions. By one estimate, the United States has more than 500,000 elected officials, high and low. Many states have elected coroners; voters in Florida elect members to local mosquito-control boards.

In Buncombe, a mixed urban and rural county in the mountains of western North Carolina, a typical ballot will run two pages and list more than three-dozen posts. Along with president, governor, lieutenant-governor, and member of the senate and house of representatives for both the state and federal governments, they include state auditor, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, appeals-court judge and district-court judge. The lucky voters of Buncombe County even get to vote for a supervisor of soil and water conservation. More about him later.

Mr. Reisinger’s name sits at the bottom of the first page of a sample ballot. He admits some voters don’t get that far, perhaps succumbing to writer’s cramp or just confusion. When he asks voters to support him, their first response is often to ask what the heck a register of deeds does. Even so, he got 69,697 votes the first time he ran, in 2012, besting his Republican rival’s 52,961.

He is confident of winning again, but, just in case, he has raised about $15,000 (U.S.) for a re-election effort that includes mailings, phone calls, door-knocking, yard signs and a well-produced website, drewfordeeds.com.

Topped by a picture of Mr. Reisinger with his wife, Katie, and toddler, Simon, it proclaims that “Drew is running for re-election in 2016 because he loves serving the people of Buncombe County as the steward of our essential public records.”

Great, but do they really have to elect someone to do that? Why vote for a bureaucratic position that in most countries would be filled by an unelected civil servant? Don’t Americans take this whole democracy thing a little too far?

Such questions occur to any outsider, but after talking to Mr. Reisinger, a fresh-faced, earnest 33-year-old who cut his teeth working for the election of Barack Obama, second thoughts creep in.

Mr. Reisinger admits the position is an anomaly, created by a colonial governor three centuries ago to limit land disputes by keeping a secure record of deeds and other ownership documents. Still, having to face the voters keeps him on his toes.

“If the people of the county aren’t happy with the work we’re providing or the customer service, or think we aren’t keeping up with the latest technology, then they have the power to throw us out, and I think that’s kind of a cool thing.”

He says that since taking office from an elderly man, also a Democrat, who had held the post for more than three decades, he has been working to bring the office into the 21st century. He and his staff of 16 have digitized property records going back to the 1700s. They have brought in an online marriage licence application. They have made it possible for new parents to order a birth certificate from the hospital room instead of trekking into the register’s office in downtown Asheville, seat of the county government.

One of his first acts as register was to work with county commissioners to cut his salary, from the generous $128,000 paid to his predecessor to about $80,000.

Mr. Reisinger proudly notes that his office has been digitizing historic slave deeds, making it easier for historians and ancestors to see them. His office issued the first marriage licences to same-sex couples after same-sex marriage became legal in North Carolina in 2014. Would he have tried this hard to make things easier for people if he didn’t depend on their votes to keep his job?

Mr. Reisinger has political opposition to goad him on. Republican Pat Cothran, who ran against him in 2012 and is giving it another go, thinks it’s silly to have an election for such an apolitical job, but says she has to run in order to defeat the poorly qualified and “irresponsible” Mr. Reisinger. Once, she says, he closed his office in a snowstorm, costing the county money when other employees claimed compensation for working while his people were getting a break. Sounding a bit Trumpian, she says that, with business degrees and years working in the field of insurance and deeds, “my qualifications and experience are unparalleled and far exceed anything Drew can offer.” Besides, he is from Florida and “my ancestors settled here in the county in the 1800s.”

Theirs isn’t the only below-the-radar election in Buncombe County. Republican Jeff Foster is preparing for his own re-election fight, if you can call it that. Mr. Foster, a civil engineer, is chairman of the board of supervisors for the Buncombe County Soil & Water Conservation District. What’s that? He admits that, for most people, it’s a head-scratcher. Even the mayor of Asheville, Esther Manheimer, concedes with a laugh that she doesn’t really understand what Mr. Foster does.

For the record, soil and water boards were set up across the country after the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s with the aim of encouraging better farming practices that would prevent erosion. Like many government institutions that exist simply because they exist, they live on, their workings unknown to most of the public. Mr. Foster’s job is to chair monthly meetings of the five-person supervisory board. He draws no salary for filling the post. Why is it elected? “I don’t know that I have the official answer for you,” he confesses.

Unlike Mr. Reisinger, Mr. Foster has no serious rival. His only opponent on the ballot is Alan Ditmore, a local character and population-control activist who talks about how contraception can save the world. But, like Mr. Reisinger, Mr. Foster takes his date with the voters seriously.

He plans to buy a couple of ads in the local paper and put up about 50 election signs around the county. He will do that personally, driving from place to place and planting them in likely spots, usually near streams, rivers or other bodies of water. “It’s a water and soil position, after all,” he says.

Mr. Foster, too, sees some merit in facing the electorate. “I have to look the people in the eye who I represent,” he says. “If I’m embezzling funds or cheating or giving buddies special consideration, everyone’s going to know about it. So it keeps you a little more in line.”

A skeptic would say he is only trying to justify his existence. That’s one way of looking at it. But in Mr. Reisinger and Mr. Foster, we find two committed public servants running for offices that they care about and facing the voters they serve. As odd as these elections are, there is something admirable in that.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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