Election Contestation and Progressive Prosecutors

26 Pages Posted: 23 May 2021

See all articles by Ronald F. Wright

Ronald F. Wright

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Jeff Yates

Binghamton University - Department of Political Science

Carissa Byrne Hessick

University of North Carolina School of Law; Prosecutors and Politics Project

Date Written: May 19, 2021


A group of change-oriented chief prosecutors use the label “progressive prosecutor” to describe their distinctive approach to the prosecutor’s work. But it is not yet clear how deep those proposed changes go. Did media accounts focus on vivid but exceptional election campaigns, or did the last decade deliver a widespread change in U.S. prosecution leadership? We explore this question by collecting the results in prosecutor elections in 200 high-population districts in the United States, between 2012 and 2020. Prosecutor elections have traditionally been sleepy affairs, where incumbents most often ran unopposed and won re-election more often than incumbents in other public offices. Setting aside the difficult issues of measuring how “progressive” each candidate might be, we simply ask whether prosecutor election campaigns are becoming more contested, now that progressive prosecutors offer an alternative vision of the job.

Based on our data, elections in these high-population districts did in fact become more contested over the last decade. The likelihood that an incumbent would run unopposed fell by roughly eight percent for each passing year. This steady disappearance of uncontested elections applied most strongly to non-white incumbents. The incumbent win rate also fell by significant amounts during this period. Today, prosecutor elections involve more candidates presenting more varied and viable choices. Prosecutor elections reveal a growing popular interest in and control over local criminal justice policy.

Keywords: Prosecutors, Elections, Progressive Prosecutors, Crime Politics

JEL Classification: K14, K41

Suggested Citation

Wright, Ronald F. and Yates, Jeff L. and Hessick, Carissa Byrne, Election Contestation and Progressive Prosecutors (May 19, 2021). Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3849590

Ronald F. Wright (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5727 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

Jeff L. Yates

Binghamton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Binghamton, NY 13902
United States

Carissa Byrne Hessick

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

Prosecutors and Politics Project ( email )

University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC
United States

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