Let’s prioritize judicial elections

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The search engine Yahoo! once did a study that found almost no one clicks to the second page of search engine results.

Because under Ohio law, judicial contests come at the end of the ballot, judicial elections are a lot like second-page Yahoo! Results: They don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s not until after voters have cast a ballot for president, U.S. senator, school levy, and county coroner that voters are then presented with a list of choices for judges.

Is it any wonder that judicial races routinely have fewer voters participating? About 25 percent of the time, voters who show up at the polls and vote on races at the top of the ticket never get to the bottom of the ticket to vote for judges.

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I have proposed eight ideas for strengthening judicial elections in Ohio. You can read the plan and offer your comments at www.OhioCourts2013.org. One of the ideas is for Ohio to consider either randomizing or even prioritizing judicial races so they receive higher billing and more participation from voters.

Studies for decades have shown that order is important. In everything from search engine results to election ballots, people tend to focus more attention on what comes first.

This is why Ohio law already mandates that candidates’ names be randomized on the ballot because there is a slight edge to the candidate whose name appears first. Should a similar approach be applied to the order of contests? Would changing the ballot order increase voter participation in selecting the people who serve in our judicial branch?

Another idea in my plan would address the same low participation problem from another angle: Should all judicial elections be held in odd-numbered years?

Today, Ohioans cast ballots for judges each year – state and county judicial races in even-numbered years and municipal judgeships in odd-numbered years.

The races for president and Congress, as well as statewide executive officeholders, such as governor, often overshadow the judicial races in even-numbered years.

Should Ohioans amend their Constitution to allow all judicial elections to be in odd-numbered years? This change would raise the profiles of judicial candidates, and avoid voter-information overload, as well as the magnetism of polarizing top-of-the ticket races. Such a change also would likely raise voter and media interest in “off-year” elections for municipal judgeships and other local government races.

It might be asked, what good is it for more people to start voting in judicial races if those voters aren’t necessarily more informed about the candidates? Good question. In fact, polls routinely show that the level of knowledge about the courts is inadequate, and voters express frustration about not having substantive information about judicial candidates.

This is why my plan presents a number of ideas to address voter information and education: Should Ohio centralize and expand civic education in the law? Should there be a statewide, Web-based repository for judicial candidate information and a formal body for conducting judicial debates? Should the use of cameras in the courtroom in Ohio be expanded? These are all questions that begin a conversation that can end in improving judicial selection in Ohio.

A systematic effort at voter information and education, combined with moving judicial elections out from under other races could increase the level of informed participation in selecting our judges and thereby strengthen our democracy.

I pose these ideas as questions because I do not profess to have all the answers. I am interested in leading a conversation and reaching a consensus on what we can do to strengthen judicial elections in Ohio.

I hope you will join me in this important work by visiting www.OhioCourts2013.org today and sharing your thoughts.


Maureen O’Connor is the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court.