The vast majority of Oklahoma’s district attorneys are resting easy this election cycle.
Twenty-three of 27 district attorney races have already been decided without a single vote. Incumbents, three of whom were appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt within the past year, secured re-election in 22 of the 23 uncontested races.
Competitive races will appear on the ballot in Delaware, Lincoln, Muskogee, Oklahoma, Ottawa and Pottawatomie counties.
Approximately 26% of the state’s population lives in these six counties. (As a reminder, district attorneys in Oklahoma oversee criminal prosecution in up to five counties, with rural counties more likely to be grouped together.)
Incumbent district attorneys cruising to victory is nothing new. But data suggest contested district attorney races are becoming increasingly rare in Oklahoma.
In 2014, one-third of Oklahoma district attorney races were contested, according to election results compiled by the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
In one race that year, challenger Orvil Loge defeated incumbent Larry Moore to become Muskogee County District Attorney.
The Prosecutor and Politics Project’s report doesn’t attempt to answer why many races are uncontested or if the problem has worsened.
It does note that urban district attorneys are more likely to face competition than rural ones.
One likely factor: Most lawyers live in urban areas, and rural attorneys are often drawn to higher-paying positions in urban centers and surrounding states.
Matt Ballard, district attorney for District 12 in nrtheast Oklahoma, wrote in a recent op-ed that a common annual starting salary for an assistant prosecutor is just $45,000.
Another possible factor Oklahoma Watch will be investigating in the coming weeks: Data on district attorney charging practices and plea bargaining decisions is scarce.
While it’s simple enough to obtain information on a few criminal cases, no government entity compiles comprehensive data on charging decisions. This leaves challengers and voters less informed on how a prosecutor’s office operates.
Florida and Connecticut are among the states that have started collecting and publicizing data on prosecutor actions.
House Bill 3848, a proposal that would have mandated district attorney data collection throughout Oklahoma by 2024, was not heard in committee and will not be eligible for consideration until next year.
There are some potential obstacles to such an effort. Widespread data collection requires time, money and manpower. Florida, which passed its justice data collection law in 2018, has struggled to make its data timely and available.