Judicial elections are traditionally “low-information” ballot races, but a recent University of Akron poll shows that there are consequences to this state of affairs.
Half of all Ohioans polled said they vote less frequently for judges when compared with other offices on the ballot. Of those, 63 percent said the reason they don’t always vote for judges is because they don’t know enough about the candidates.
When low information yields an even lower turnout, the justice system suffers. This drop off of voters is especially concerning given the high stakes of judicial decisions. Few individuals in society wield as much power as those on the bench. The judge’s gavel is symbolic shorthand for justice and fairness under the law for a reason. Those who were polled agreed: 76 percent agreed that courts are the “key protector of individual liberty, safety, and property.” Yet 56 percent said that some of those elected to the bench are unqualified.
In a 2010 poll of Pennsylvania voters, 73 percent responded that they do not believe that the most qualified candidates win elections, and 76 percent believe campaign contributions influence judicial decision-making.
The perception (and all too often, reality) of unqualified justices erodes faith in our criminal justice system. Victims of crime and civil wrongs should be able to have faith that justice is in the right hands. Defendants should have confidence that they will not be unjustly punished.
When judges are selected based on name recognition, fundraising, ballot position, or political party rather than on qualifications and merit, it chips away at the dignity of the judiciary for the many judges that deserve their seat on the bench.
63 percent of Ohioans would consider an alternative to the current judicial selection process. 50 percent of Ohio voters think that the electoral system should be done away with in favor of a merit-based appointment process with retention elections in subsequent years. In Pennsylvania, 93 percent of voters want the opportunity to reconsider how we select our judges.
An improvement in the judicial selection process will lead to much-needed gains in public confidence in the judiciary.
In Pennsylvania, recent scandals have tarnished the reputation of the state courts. The problems familiar to Pennsylvanians are a byproduct of an electoral system that values campaigning and fundraising over the fundamental qualities of fairness, honesty, sound judgment, and impartiality that a judge should have.
An amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution instituting the selection of justices based on merit, rather than partisan politics, will go a long way towards restoring the reputation of the courts.
Pennsylvanians deserve it.
For the full poll results from the University of Akron’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, click here.
For more information, see here and here.