Skip Navigation
Analysis

Key Criminal Justice Races and Initiatives on the Ballot

From sheriff and prosecutor elections to police oversight, state and local results will have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Whatever oxygen is left in the room Tues­day night as you follow the results of the pres­id­en­tial race ought to be direc­ted toward a slew of import­ant crim­inal justice related races. All over the coun­try, these races will impact the lives of tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans affected by our police, courts, proba­tion and parole systems, and pris­ons and jails. On the ballot are district attor­ney elec­tions, races for sher­iffs in rural counties, and dozens of ballot initi­at­ives or proposed consti­tu­tional or stat­utory amend­ments you should pay atten­tion to.

Why? Because Amer­ica has 2.2 million people behind bars, more than 9 million people cycling in and out of the nation’s colossal network of local jails, more than 4.5 million people on proba­tion or parole, and at least 50 million people with convic­tion histor­ies subjec­ted to thou­sands of collat­eral consequences that prevent many of them from voting, living in public hous­ing, and access­ing certain job markets.

To keep tabs of some of the most import­ant local crim­inal justice races and refer­en­dums, we’ve compiled a list of 40 ballot initi­at­ives and law enforce­ment elect­oral races worth watch­ing on Tues­day. Here are some of them:

Ballot initi­at­ives

From coast to coast, millions of Amer­ic­ans are attempt­ing to roll back the power and budgets of police by bring­ing more trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity to state and local police depart­ments.

Voters in Colum­bus, Ohio, will consider Issue 2, which would create a civil­ian police review board with the author­ity to invest­ig­ate claims of police miscon­duct. Colum­bus is one of the largest cities in the coun­try without such a board. If the resol­u­tion is passed, it would also create an inspector general with the author­ity to over­see inde­pend­ent invest­ig­a­tions into alleg­a­tions of police miscon­duct. Currently there are only about 200 police depart­ment over­sight boards across the coun­try that attempt to hold police forces account­able for wrong­do­ing or misbe­ha­vior. 

In Michigan, Proposal 2 would amend the state’s consti­tu­tion to require a search warrant for police to access a person’s elec­tronic commu­nic­a­tions or mater­ial, making Michigan the 12th state to adopt this type of consti­tu­tional provi­sion. 

Few cities this year have seen with such clar­ity the nation’s divide over poli­cing than Port­land, Oregon. Citizens there are voting on their own over­sight meas­ure that would amend the city charter to estab­lish a new police over­sight board with the author­ity to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of police miscon­duct and impose discip­lin­ary actions against officers. Among other things, it would cover uses of deadly force, deaths in custody, and incid­ents of discrim­in­a­tion. 

The battle­ground state of Pennsylvania sees two more police over­sight initi­at­ives in its two biggest cities. In Phil­adelphia, where the U.S. attor­ney has sparred relent­lessly with the city’s reform­ist district attor­ney, Ques­tion 3 would create a Citizens Police Over­sight Commis­sion and author­ize the City Coun­cil to determ­ine its scope and power. More than 300 miles away in Pitt­s­burgh, voters are weigh­ing whether to empower the Inde­pend­ent Citizen Police Review Board to audit the police and to require cops to comply with invest­ig­a­tions — or face termin­a­tion.

A number of ballot initi­at­ives in Cali­for­nia focus on crim­inal justice issues, plus local meas­ures in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Fran­cisco. Propos­i­tion 17, for example, would allow those on parole to vote or hold office. Propos­i­tion 20, on the other hand, can be seen as a reac­tion to recent justice reform meas­ures in the state. Buoyed by support from the police and prosec­utor lobbies, it would add more crimes to those defined as “viol­ent felon­ies” and heighten sentences for some prop­erty crimes. And the passage of Propos­i­tion 25 would imple­ment sweep­ing bail reform.

Some states are rethink­ing not just who gets pulled into the crim­inal justice system, but how people are treated once they are incar­cer­ated. Build­ing off the success of a ballot initi­at­ive in Color­ado four years ago that elim­in­ated the 13th Amend­ment loop­hole allow­ing slavery and invol­un­tary servitude as a punish­ment for crime, voters in Nebraska and Utah may simil­arly amend those states’ consti­tu­tions. While the changes likely won’t affect prison labor programs in those states because their correc­tions’ depart­ments pay — albeit very low wages — to incar­cer­ated work­ers, success for either or both of these meas­ures would give a boost to future legis­lat­ive reform efforts to provide at least some labor protec­tions to pris­on­ers. 

Sher­iffs and prosec­utors

There are dozens of contested races around the coun­try for sher­iff or prosec­utor that will determ­ine the iden­tity of those imple­ment­ing the ballot initi­at­ives and other refer­enda in play this year. If 2020 has reminded us of anything amid renewed protests over poli­cing, it’s that the exper­i­ence and ideo­lo­gies of local law enforce­ment offi­cials matters crit­ic­ally to communit­ies. Some of the most notable contests this elec­tion season are tethered in some ways to national polit­ics — to immig­ra­tion enforce­ment, for example — but most are local races in which local ques­tions of poli­cing and pris­ons are core campaign ques­tions.

Arizona is a swing state, and this year it also includes a race that could determ­ine control of the U.S. Senate in Janu­ary. Watch what happens in Mari­copa County, where Joe Arpaio, who named himself “Amer­ica’s toughest sher­iff,” ruled for so many decades. His former employee, Jerry Sheridan, beat Arpaio in the Repub­lican primary this year and now faces incum­bent Demo­crat Paul Penzone. Sheridan wants to focus on drug and sex traf­fick­ing crimes and said he will continue Penzone’s policy of allow­ing immig­ra­tion officers in county jails. Penzone shut down Arpaio’s “Tent City” outdoor jail, which remained in use for 20 years and reached temper­at­ures of 130 degrees Fahren­heit in the summer, turn­ing the facil­ity into a drug treat­ment center. The race for district attor­ney in that county between Julie Gunnigle and Allister Adel is also a bell­wether — and not just because the winner, whomever it is, will become the first woman to hold that office. 

In Ohio, another swing state, we’re closely watch­ing the race for sher­iff in Hamilton County between two long­time police offi­cials, Repub­lican Bruce Hoff­baurer and Demo­crat Char­maine McGuffey. They disagree about many things, includ­ing how to handle ICE actions that under­mine local law author­ity. There is plenty of disagree­ment, too, in New Orleans, where four people are vying to replace Leon Canniz­zaro, the contro­ver­sial district attor­ney whose 12-year tenure was marked with conflict and racial tension. 

There won’t likely be much drama over the pres­id­en­tial race in Cali­for­nia. But the race for District Attor­ney in Los Angeles County is a local contest that will affect more people than any other race in the coun­try. The incum­bent, Jackie Lacey, is the first Black woman to hold the office. She was first elec­ted in 2012, but now faces a strong chal­lenge this year from a candid­ate who contends her record of reform is weak. Lacey faces George Gascōn, a former police chief and district attor­ney in San Fran­cisco. 

Texas also faces import­ant local sher­iff and DA races. In Tarrant County, the incum­bent is Bill Waybourn, one of the most contro­ver­sial law enforce­ment offi­cials in the state who faces a slew of new alleg­a­tions of miscon­duct — includ­ing an epis­ode in which a woman was forced to give birth in her county jail cell. He’s up against a strong chal­lenger, Vance Keyes, who has been a Fort Worth law enforce­ment offi­cial for 20 years. One over­arch­ing ques­tion for this race: how will the state’s record-high turnout affect the results?

Millions of Amer­ic­ans are call­ing for an end to mass incar­cer­a­tion and a trans­form­a­tion of how our justice system oper­ates so that it does­n’t system­at­ic­ally disad­vant­age people of color. All elec­tions matter. Some elec­tions matter more than others.