News from the Interns: DA Research Project, Part 2

By Katherine Stanton
August 1, 2017

In the second week of district attorney elections research, we have been using a process of trial-and-error to develop a method in which a person interested in increasing voter participation in D.A. elections, and perhaps changing the outcomes of those elections, could identify the specific communities in which their voter engagement would have the most impact. This has been a learning process, as we narrow down the data we are considering to that which is most salient as well as relatively accessible.

Initially, we had thought our method of analysis would be to calculate the number of blank votes in D.A. elections – i.e., the number of those voting for at least one ticket item on the ballot, but not for a D.A. candidate. Underlying this idea are two presumptions: first, that there are some voters who are already engaged in local elections—maybe they are active voters in their city council, mayoral, or school board elections–but for reasons such as lack of information do not participate in D.A. elections; and secondly, targeted efforts could perhaps persuade those active voters to also participate in district attorney elections, leading to higher-profile elections with more democratic engagement. Samantha found an interesting article from Jonathan Tannen of Econsult Solutions that really helped direct our own research method. Tannen describes a method a local candidate may use to increase voter turnout in elections. While Tannen’s methods could be applied to any type of candidate, he illustrates his method through the example of a D.A. candidate looking to increase votes in his support. Tannen analyzes competitive D.A. primary elections in 2005, 2009, and 2013, races which had higher rates of turnout than other election cycles but which nevertheless had the lowest rates of turnout among any type of local election. Tannen points out that voters within those districts were participating at relatively high rates in other local elections–just not D.A. elections. Given that other candidate races, such as mayoral elections, generally draw high rates of voter participation, Tannen imagines that a local candidate could tap into the base of the voters already engaged in these local elections to increase participation in D.A. elections. He argues that mayoral races, which tend to be higher profile, can serve as the baseline for possible turnout in D.A. elections — the gold standard, if you will, that candidates should strive for. On the assumption that voters already engaged in local politics could be swayed to vote in D.A. races, Tannen identifies three characteristics within a community that may make it a good option for voting engagement:

“As a candidate, you want to target your turnout efforts to divisions with three traits: (1) voters who will vote for you if they do vote, and (2) a relatively high baseline number of voters, but for whom (3) mayoral election turnout is disproportionately higher than D.A. turnout.”

After reading this article, we came to the conclusion that to determine communities that fulfill criteria 2 and 3 (a relatively high baseline number of voters, but for whom mayoral election turnout is disproportionately higher than D.A. turnout), we would need to determine the cities in which there is not only a large gap between those who participate in local elections (such as mayor and city council) and D.A. elections, but also cities in which those gaps include a large number of potential votes. For example, let’s say that in City A, voters cast 20,00 votes in the mayoral election but only 5,000 votes in the D.A. election. Percentage-wise, that is a large difference, but vote-wise, there is only a 15,000 vote difference. However, in City B, voters cast 100,000 votes in the mayoral election but only 25,000 votes in the D.A. election – a difference of 75,000 votes. Although percentage-wise the gap in participation rates is the same between City A and City B, the larger number of potential voters in City B means that voter engagement efforts would be most effective in City B.

We used San Diego County as our test case. To determine those cities which have a high baseline number of voters and also disproportionate mayoral election to D.A. election turnout, we started by calculating the population of each city within the county and identifying the largest cities. Because an organizer would want to target areas with a relatively high baseline number of voters, and potentially might not have time to work within all of the cities, we narrowed our list down to eight cities with populations of 70,000 and above. While large population does not necessarily correlate to high levels of voter engagement, the sheer number of eligible voters within a geographic area means the area likely has a larger number of registered voters than other less-populous geographic locations.

Next, we began calculating the disproportionality in turnout between mayoral election turnout and D.A. election turnout within these eight cities. We began by looking at the most recent mayoral elections that were not during a presidential election cycle (which tend to have higher rates of participation and thus could skew the results). Combing through the election results archive of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, we found that the most recent data available on mayoral rate participation is from the San Diego County Gubernatorial General Election of Tuesday, November 4th. We counted the total number of votes cast in these mayoral elections and began filling out a spreadsheet with these numbers. In a few cases in which the city did not have a mayoral election recently, or if the city used a system of mayors appointed from the city council, we used data from the city council elections, as we felt it was not an ideal but yet a suitable metric for comparison.

Finally, we calculated numbers of votes cast in the district-wide D.A. election by city. While we had election outcome results for San Diego County as a whole, we lacked data on voter participation rates within each specific city. After filing an official request with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, Samantha received a specific city-by-city breakdown of the number of votes cast in the D.A. election from each city. Using Excel spreadsheets, we used a simple summing formula to determine the gap in each city between who participated in mayoral elections and who participated in the district attorney elections.

We determined that the city of San Diego has the largest discrepancy in the county between voters who participated in the local election but not the D.A. election: a total of 51,696 votes. So, someone who wanted to educate others and encourage them to vote in the D.A. election would have the most potential impact in the city of San Diego, because it contains the largest base of untapped potential voters. Even excluding other demographic factors that one could consider, the gap in participation in mayor and D.A. elections in the city of San Diego is much larger than the gap in the other cities, so it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint to direct efforts there.

In our next blog post, we will address the process of what Jonathan describes as identifying those communities that will, in essence, vote for you. The first step in this is to identify those areas within San Diego City itself that have the largest gap in participation between D.A. and mayoral elections. These voters are already engaged in local elections, and thus it is likelier that one could persuade them to vote in D.A. elections. We will essentially be replicating the first step of this process, when we identified what city within San Diego County had the largest gap in participation, except on a smaller scale: the city itself.

Then, we will analyze demographic criteria. While in our scenario there is no “you” that we are addressing, and we are not taking the position of advocating for a certain candidate, we believe in the premise of community justice: expanding civic participation and citizenship to all members of a community. Because punitive prosecutorial practices often disproportionately impact communities of color, we aim to engage these specific communities in educational engagement efforts. The idea is that one can empower voters through making this information publicly known. In the next blog, we will discuss specific tools an organizer may use to identify those communities.

Read Part 3