News from the Interns: DA Research Project, Part 1

Introducing the D.A. Research Project

By Katherine Stanton
July 25, 2017

As part of our summer work with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, three of us at the Houston Institute have launched a project to investigate how we, as citizens with access to the internet, can engage in advocacy surrounding local elections. I and my co-interns, Tolulope Sogade and Samantha O’Brien, want to know what tools exist to raise awareness surrounding the importance of local district attorney (D.A.) elections, increase participation in D.A. elections, as well as potentially change the outcomes of those elections.

As has been documented by researchers such as John Pfaff and covered in articles such as this one from the Atlantic, district attorneys play a crucial role in the process of mass incarceration. As the chief law enforcement and legal officer of a jurisdiction, district attorneys are responsible for prosecuting crimes. They hold the power to decide whether to press charges, whether to divert a case, and what sentencing lengths to press for, and as such wield enormous power in determining the numbers and demographic composition of people entering the prison system and their sentencing lengths. Often, district attorneys run unopposed in elections that receive very little media attention, contributing to the general lack of public dialogue regarding the impact of prosecutorial decisions on racial justice in the courtoom and prison system. Although an incredibly important part of the judicial system, many voters remain unaware of the importance of district attorneys, contributing to the low participation rates in district attorney elections.

The number of incarcerated people, and particularly incarcerated people of color, continues to rapidly grow, and change is slow on the national legislative scale. Given these obstacles, what tools exist for effective political change? How can a citizen make a direct impact on the carceral state at the local level? At the core of this project is the question of accessibility to and ultimately engagement with the political process. While Tolulope, Samantha, and I have access to education as well as the free-time to devote to a project like this, we have no specific training in sociological research and analysis. We want to explore how we may engage in political research without specific training, and hopefully establish a methodology that we can share with others also seeking to make an impact on the much-larger prison system.

Specifically, we will examine voter participation rates in district attorney elections in order to identify communities in which targeted voter information drives would be most effective. Analyzing participation in district elections from the past two elections, we will consider the number of blank votes within D.A. elections, as well as the number of D.A. votes cast as a percentage of the eligible voting population. We will combine this data with demographic information analysis, such as race, age, and income level, to determine whether there are specific communities where targeted voter information drives would have the largest impact on D.A election outcomes. In addition to learning about the political landscape within the communities we analyze as our test cases, we hope to create a method of research that could be replicated by anyone wishing to do this type of analysis and voter outreach in their own community.

The goals of this summer project include:

  • Establishing a method of data collection, analysis, and presentation of information on voter participation within D.A. elections.
  • Creating a document detailing these methods in order to enable others to replicate this analysis.
  • Creating infographics, written resources, and other materials that organizers can use to organize within their own communities. Examples of potential resources include a fact sheet on the importance of D.A. elections and a template for candidate bios.

Tolulope, Samantha, and I have begun this project using San Diego as our first test case. We will update with our challenges and discoveries as we move along in the process.

Read Part 2