Volume 60

Understanding Uncontested Prosecutor Elections

by Carissa Byrne Hessick, Sarah Treul, & Alexander Love

 Prosecutors are very powerful players in the criminal justice system. One of the few checks on their power is their periodic obligation to stand for election. But very few prosecutor elections are contested, and even fewer are competitive. As a result, voters are not able to hold prosecutors accountable for their deci-sions. The problem with uncontested elections has been widely recognized, but little understood. The legal literature has lamented the lack of choice for voters, but any suggested solutions have been based on only anecdote or simple descriptive analyses of election data. 

Using a logistic regression analysis, this Article estimates the individual effects of a number of variables on prosecutor elections. It finds that several factors that have been previously identified as contributing to an uncontested election are not, in fact, what drives uncontested elections for prosecutors. Instead, the factors with the largest effect are whether an incumbent runs and the population of the district. It also identifies two features of state election law that contribute to the dearth of contested elections. The Article concludes by noting that these factors suggest specific policy changes that could help to increase the number of contested and competitive elections—thus ensuring that voters can help guide important criminal justice decisions in their communities. 

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