Across the country, well-funded progressives are snapping up local public prosecutor jobs and using them to exercise dramatic power over the criminal justice system. A recent report offers a way to hold some of these little-attended candidates accountable: turn up the turnout in their races by aligning them with national elections.
"Progressive prosecutors" like Philadelphia's Larry Krasner and San Francisco's Chesa Boudin have swept to power thanks in part to generous funding, particularly from liberal billionaire George Soros. But they've also benefited from running in little-scrutinized local elections, which are relatively cheap and suffer from dramatically low turnout because they do not happen at the same time as national elections.
Take Krasner's recent victory over primary challenger Carlos Vega, who positioned himself as the moderate alternative to a crusading D.A. who has curtailed cash bail, diverted gun offenders, declined to seek the death penalty, and aggressively targeted alleged police misconduct. Krasner's win was portrayed as a successful referendum for the "criminal justice reform" movement and Krasner's reforms specifically.
But while Krasner beat Vega by nearly 30 percentage points, he hardly won a mandate. Krasner collected some 84,000 votes, a little more than 10 percent of the 808,000 Democrats registered in Philadelphia County as of the May primary. The general, in November, is unlikely to be much more of a referendum: The last time Krasner faced off against a Republican, 2017, he won by 50 points, but with only about 14.6 percent of registered voters backing him.
The key insight of the progressive prosecutor movement is that prosecutorial discretion gives local D.A.s enormous power over who does or does not go to jail, letting progressives sidestep the legislative process to implement decarceral policies. Yet these tremendously powerful offices are, in many jurisdictions, elected by a tiny minority of voters, meaning that the radical reforms they support may not have the backing of an (apathetic) electorate.
To subject progressive prosecutors to real public accountability, then, they need to face a larger share of the electorate. There's a simple way to do that, Boston College's Michael Hartney shows in a new Manhattan Institute paper. Elections like Krasner's are held "off-cycle," i.e., out of sync with national elections every other November; moving them on-cycle would dramatically increase turnout.
Low turnout plagues local elections, Hartney notes: In school board races, for example, only about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate shows up. This is thanks in large part to local elections being held off-cycle, and Hartney estimates that on-cycling can increase turnout by as much as 25 percentage points.
The dismally low turnout for Krasner's various elections is typical in the 40 states that either permit or require local elections to be held off-cycle. It's helped other progressive prosecutors, like Boudin, who was elected by just 86,000 of the roughly 500,000 San Franciscans eligible to vote for him. Public defender Tiffany Caban narrowly lost the race for Queens district attorney to the more-moderate Melinda Katz, with each racking up roughly 34,000 votes—barely a fraction of the 766,000 active Democrats eligible to vote in the off-cycle primary.
Off-cycle elections do not depress turnout equally, but tend to afford disproportionate power to those more able to engage in and invested in the political process. For example, research indicates that the school boards governing majority-non-white school districts in four states are mostly elected by majority-white voters. And Hartney's research finds that candidates backed by teachers' unions are more likely to win school board elections in off-cycle years than in on-cycle years, both because the unions can exercise more influence over a smaller electorate, and because highly motivated teachers account for a larger share of the electorate.
As political scientist Richard Hanania has argued, one of the key facts of contemporary politics is that the most politically engaged are disproportionately likely to lean left. Progressives are significantly more likely to donate to campaigns, sign petitions, and go to protests. If an activity selects on political engagement, then the people who engage in that activity will be disproportionately progressive. This suggests that not only are local elections low turnout, but also those who do show up likely lean to the left of the community average.
Candidates like Boudin and Krasner succeed in part thanks to the support of liberal donors and activists, particularly the hundreds of thousands of dollars they receive from Soros. In a low-turnout election, those dollars go much further, because turning out the progressive base is all you really need to do to win.
There are lots of nonpartisan reasons to support on-cycle elections: They reduce redundancy and therefore cost, improve turnout and therefore representation, and curb the power of special interests. But for conservatives, who are sometimes wary of "electoral reform," on-cycling may nonetheless prove a way to check prosecutors like Krasner or Boudin and subject them to fuller public scrutiny. In ideologically charged races in particular, progressives may be playing an outsized role, and on-cycling could help dilute their influence.
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.