Why don't voters research judges?

Plus: Take our poll and tell us what offices you pay attention to

October 24, 2012

The first time I snuck into the voting booth with my Mom as a kid, the thing I noticed right away was how long we were in there. It seemed to take forever for her to pull all those levers (this was in New York, which had old school voting for a long time). I remember thinking that it really shouldn’t be such a drawn out process; after all, weren’t we just there to vote for the new Mayor?

It wasn’t until (what I now view as) embarrassingly late in my education that I realized there was a lot more on that ballot than just the Mayor or the President. In the 2012 Illinois general election, you’ve got big ticket offices like President, Congress, State Representative and State Senator. For those races, you’ve probably at least heard the name of one person running for office.

But what about the down ballot offices, like Regional Superintendent of Schools, Water Reclamation Board, and my personal favorite, Trustee to the Levee and Sanitation District?

A spotlight on judges

The elected spots that most often slip through the cracks are the judges--what can feel like, looking at the ballot, to be hundreds and hundreds of judges. Filling vacancies, retaining judges, all of that has to happen for state supreme court, for appellate court and subcircuit court. Which means that you’re not necessarily pitting one person against another; you’re voting to see if someone should still be a judge. A Medill article from earlier this year noted that on a Democratic ballot from 2008 in Cook County, just over 70 percent of voters voted to fill a vacancy in a circuit court judgeship race.

None of this is news to anyone who has voted. What might be surprising is the prevalence of people, educated and not, who vote without paying attention to these judges--despite how relatively simple it is to figure out who should be reelected. 

How to get more information

The nonpartisan website VoteforJudges.org is a favorite site of mine, one that I discovered in college when I realized I’d have to vote for a lot of positions I hadn't been forced to pay attention to by newsmedia. Vote for Judges provides links to reports on judges from the Judicial Performance Commission of Cook County, Chicago Bar Association, Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening. The former has fully written evaluations of judges, while the latter organizations rank people along the lines of Qualified and Not-Qualified, Recommended or Not Recommended. The Alliance shows recommendations from organizations like the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Chicago Area (AABA), Black Women’s Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA) and Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago (LAGBAC), among others.

Judges are in a position to have a huge impact on the laws that our other elected officials spend a great deal of time pontificating about, but they remain generally nameless to the public at large, except those that end up presiding over high-profile cases. Names that become popular are usually associated with trials like that of former Governor Rod Blagojevich's (Judge Zagel), or Judge Locallo, the subject of the book Courtroom 302.

But because most people aren't being inundated with the details of these "races" to retain or fill a judgeship, many don't know what to do when they get in the voting booth. They also can't use voting along party lines as a fallback because the judges you see on your ballot all align with your particular party. 

So what do people do when they don’t know anything about their judges? Well, in the words of one friend who shared Vote for Judges on Facebook, they stare “blankly at the page on Nov 6th.”

“The bottom line is there is a no one-stop shopping when it comes to finding this information. You have to dig for it,” Travis Akin director of the watchdog group Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch told Illinois Watchdog for their piece “Judicial elections require voters to research and follow the money.”  “And while we challenge people to do their homework, we’re very much aware that not a whole lot of people are going to do that before they go to the polls.”

From mere crowdsourcing I've done, a major way the people who vote at all for judges end up voting based simply off of names, via an implied race or sex. If you think more women and minorities should be elected, voting for people with names that appear female or Hispanic is a way to get that to happen (or, if you don't, to make it stop happening). To elaborate on how this doesn't help protect the interests of voters would be a big waste of words, so let's just leave that as a voting tactic that should probably be avoided.

Tell us: do you do research?

Voting for judges proves that in today's voting economy, though much coverage during elections surrounds whether people vote at all (especially in Chicago), what the media often pays less attention to is what voters are doing when they get in there--besides, of course, votes that occur down party lines for big tickets.

So we'd like you to tell us: for what races do you do research? Fill out the poll in this post, which includes most everyone you'll see at one point or another on the ballot in Chicago, per this list by the Cook County Clerk. And for the coming election, you can also look up exactly who (and what “Public Questions”) will be on your ballot at the Chicago Elections website.