An obstacle to using elections to hold district attorneys accountable for their policies or their misconduct—let alone to transform the criminal justice system from the inside by getting candidates to pledge reform—is that elections for prosecutor rarely feature multiple candidates. A Political Report analysis earlier this year, for instance, found sparse competition in California, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah’s 2018 elections.
Wisconsin’s elections are coming up in 2020. The Political Report reviewed all elections held in the state since 2008 to show the extent of this phenomenon.
Over this period, Wisconsin held three regular elections for district attorneys (in 2008, 2012, and 2016). But very few drew more than one candidate. Of the 71 district attorneys elected in 2016, only 23 faced an opponent in either the primary or the general election. And that was already a substantial increase over 2008 and 2012.
In fact, the majority of Wisconsin counties haven’t held a single contested DA election this decade. A near-majority hasn’t held one since before 2008.
Even those counties that did hold a contested election at some point were unlikely to pull off that feat twice. Just 10 counties held more than one contested election from 2008 to 2016.
This isn’t a pattern that primarily concerns small counties, where one might expect a smaller pool of candidates. In Wisconsin’s 10 largest counties, there were just four instances from 2008 through 2016 where the winner faced even a single opponent. (This means that these counties chose their district attorney in elections where the winner was the sole candidate on 26 out of 30 occasions.) None of these counties held two contested elections over this period.
Will the electoral pressure on Wisconsin’s district attorneys increase in 2020 in the wake of some of the recent successes for candidates who have run on overhauling the criminal justice system? The Political Report will keep an eye on this question as 2019 unfolds.