Unraveling the mystery of judicial candidates

Jun 22, 2014

Candidates for judgeships in Ohio are in a unique and somewhat odd position.

They run in primary elections as Democrats or Republicans. But, when the general election rolls around, their names appear on the ballot without party designation.

So, unless you are a person who pays close attention to politics or somebody – usually the judicial candidate’s political party – tells you whether or not he or she is a Democrat or a Republican, you may go to the polls totally in the dark about which is which.

And the judicial races are usually stuck at the bottom of the ballot.

It may have something to do with the fact that in most elections – particularly in presidential elections or gubernatorial contests, such as we have in Ohio this year - there is a considerable drop-off in the number of voters who cast ballots in judicial elections.

Nearly everyone votes for the top of the ticket races – president or governor – but voters by the thousands simply skip the judicial races.

Here’s an example:

In 2010, the last gubernatorial election in Ohio, 284,331 voters in Hamilton County cast ballots in the governor’s race, where Republican challenger John Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland.

Down near the bottom of that ballot was a race for a common pleas court judgeship between Democrat Nadine Allen and Republican Megan Shanahan. In that race, which Allen won, 241,726 people voted.

So, 42,065 voters that year who voted for governor skipped the common pleas court race.

The drop-off is likely to happen again this year in the seven contested judicial contests in Hamilton County.

Some believe the lack of party designations on the fall ballot has something to do with this, but it is not going to change.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott, who is based in Cincinnati, ruled to uphold Ohio’s unique system of judicial candidates running with party designations in primaries but without party designations

in general elections.

The ruling came in a case filed in 2010 by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Ohio Democratic Party and several judicial candidates.

The Democrats argued that not letting judicial candidates run with party affiliations in general elections was a violation of their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, supported by a brief from the Ohio Republican Party, argued that voters can find out about judicial candidates’ party affiliations from the sample ballots and mailings the political parties put out and on the websites of county elections boards.

So, Democrats generally support having party designations on the ballot, while Republicans generally oppose it.

Does this have anything to do with the fact that there are more voters in Ohio who are carried on the voter rolls as Democrats than there are Republicans? Well, maybe.

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said he is in line with the Ohio Republican Party on this issue.

“It’s up to the party to get the word out to its voters who their judicial candidates are,’’ Triantafilou said. “And to tell them, ‘don’t stop at the top.’ Vote the whole ticket, from top to bottom.”

“Name ID is the most important factor,’’ Triantafilou said. “Then, comes the party identification. And that’s what we have to get through to our voters.”

His counterpart in the Hamilton County Democratic Party, Tim Burke, said he believes the current system – the one upheld by Judge Dlott – “is particularly stupid.”

“It often leads to well-qualified candidates losing races they should have won,’’ Burke said.

Burke’s “exhibit A” for putting party designations on the general election ballot is the 2012 race for the Ohio Supreme Court between Democrat Yvette McGee Brown and Republican Sharon Kennedy.

Brown was a former Franklin County Common Pleas Court judge and, in 2010, she was Strickland’s running mate for lieutenant governor.

Before Strickland left office in Jan. 2011, he appointed Brown to a vacancy on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Brown’s seat was up for election in 2012; and the Republicans ran Kennedy, who was a domestic relations judge in Butler County.

Brown ended up losing that race by 577,793 votes out of over four million cast. She was a Democrat on the statewide ballot who lost at the same time Democrat Sherrod Brown was easily winning re-election to the U.S. Senate; and Barack Obama was winning Ohio’s electoral votes.

“I have to wonder whether or not there were a whole lot of Democrats who went to vote, saw the names on the ballot and figured that somebody named Kennedy had to be a Democrat,’’ Burke said.

One thing that both county party leaders agree on is the need to get the message out to their voters about their judicial candidates, given the usual drop-off in voting in judicial races and the fact that there are no party designations on the ballot.

Republican and Democratic voters alike can expect mail pieces emphasizing the judicial candidates and reminding them not to forget them, even though they are near the bottom of the ballot.

What it will mean in Hamilton County is that judicial races in 2014 may have a higher profile than ever before. And both parties agree that is a good thing.