Election Contestation and Progressive Prosecutors
26 Pages Posted: 23 May 2021
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: Suggested Citation