When those in the know launched a website last year to boost voting for low-key judicial races, they didn’t expect an inordinate surge in low-information voters this year.
“To put it more charitably, someone who might know a lot about a presidential candidate but little about a judicial candidate,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
Additional voters activated by populist presidential candidates make for a unique “challenge and opportunity” in the perennial fight to inform voters — a fight led by Green and the co-creators of Judicial Votes Count. The educational website gives voters information on would-be judges and the duties of the various courts in Ohio.
Led by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, Judicial Votes Count is a joint effort of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio State Bar Association, the Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters. UA students, under Green’s guidance, curate the website, which is fed by unedited information self-reported by the judicial candidates.
Participation in past elections shows voters care more about who runs the White House or state legislature than local or even state courthouses. But the issues that often embolden voters — gun control, abortion, immigration, voting restrictions and more — are the same upheld or tossed out regularly by jurists.
In 2012, more than 70 percent of registered Ohio voters cast a ballot for president.
Barely half, however, weighed in on any of the three contested seats on the Ohio Supreme Court. Two years later in a gubernatorial midterm election, participation in judicial races, which appear toward the bottom of the ballot, fell below a third.
And this March, when two Supreme Court judges — including O’Connor — ran unopposed in a record-setting Republican primary, only 35 percent of voters took the time to slide down the ballot and endorse a jurist for the state’s highest court.
O’Connor can think of few citizens who don’t know someone who’s been divorced or died (both issues addressed in probate court) or received a traffic ticket (a municipal court issue.) When newspapers chronicle criminal cases, the consequences that safeguard civil society are handed down by a single voice.
“It all boils down to what a judge says,” O’Connor said. “And those are pretty important life decisions.”
But voters who rely on party affiliation are flummoxed by judicial races, which will be listed on the November ballot as “nonpartisan” even though the candidates either survived partisan primaries or have been hand-picked by political parties.
In Summit County, for example, Democratic precinct officials — elected in March by voters — tapped Akron Municipal Judge Joy Oldfield to run for Common Pleas this fall. In interviews last week, Republican Gov. John Kasich reviewed conservative alternatives to run against Oldfield. He’s working from a short list provided by the Summit County Republican Party.
The D or R fell from the candidates on the Judicial Votes Count website and the ballots after the primary. That’s by design.
“There is no mention of the party affiliation because it is irrelevant,” said O’Connor. “That’s my thought on it and apparently the legislature agreed when they” set the rules for judicial races.
O’Connor receives complaints weekly from people who blame a judge of bias or prejudice. She has the sole duty to weigh the allegations of impropriety.
“There are times, I’m not saying the judge is prejudiced, but there is the appearance and perception of a bias or a prejudice,” O’Connor said. “And if that appearance is reasonable, then the judge should step down from the case.”
O’Connor makes the call to recuse a jurist but the political leaning of the judge or the judged never is a factor.
Elections, however, are the only time when the people get to judge the jurist.
“When you put the robe on, you become a neutral arbiter,” Ken Brown, a spokesman for the Ohio State Bar Association, said of the presumption that jurists ignore their personal and political feelings when ruling.
“It’s not exactly what happens” every time, Brown added. “We’re all human.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug.