California Sheriffs Cut Traffic Fines by 30% During Elections to Win Voter Favor

A new study has found that sheriffs decrease traffic fine revenue by 30% in election years, a strategy aimed at gaining voter favor.

A new study conducted by researchers from Louisiana State University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis reveals a striking pattern of political manipulation by county sheriffs in California.

The study analyzed data from 57 counties in California over four election cycles.

It found that sheriffs decrease traffic fines revenue by 30% in election years, a strategy aimed at gaining voter favor.

The study, “Playing politics with traffic fines: Sheriff elections and political cycles in traffic fines revenue,” was published in the American Journal of Political Science on May 8, 2024.

Sheriffs’ Autonomy and Election Impact

Sheriffs, unlike police chiefs who are appointed, are elected officials in most states, including California.

This electoral process grants them significant autonomy and discretion in law enforcement decisions.

The study highlights how this autonomy, coupled with the need for voter approval, creates an environment where sheriffs can strategically reduce traffic fines to appeal to voters.

This manipulation is particularly evident when incumbents run for re-election or face competitive elections.

Methodology and Findings

The data analyzed in this study comes from California’s Financial Transactions Reports and the California Election Data Archive, for 57 counties in California from 2003 to 2020.

The authors ensured the robustness of their findings through various falsification and robustness checks.

For instance, they compared traffic fines to other fines not under sheriff control, such as court fines and fines on delinquent taxes, and found no similar political cycles in these categories.

The authors employed fixed-effects models to identify the presence and magnitude of political cycles in traffic fines revenue.

Their analysis shows a clear decline in traffic fines during election years, with a subsequent rebound in the following years.

This pattern suggests a short-term electoral strategy rather than a long-term policy shift.

The magnitude of the decline is greater in competitive elections and when an incumbent is running for re-election.

Implications for Law Enforcement and Policy

By demonstrating that traffic fines are subject to political manipulation, the research calls into question the motivations behind traffic enforcement policies.

This manipulation not only affects revenue but also public perception of law enforcement efficacy and fairness.

The authors suggest that these findings could inform future policy interventions aimed at reducing political influence in law enforcement.


This study bridges the gap between political science, law enforcement, and public administration, offering new insights into the interplay between local elections and traffic enforcement policies.

The researchers conclude that county sheriffs engage in pre-electoral manipulation of traffic fines, a phenomenon that has been largely overlooked in previous literature.

These findings underscore the need for greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement practices, particularly in the context of local elections.

Study Details