Judicial Elections in the 2010s
32 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 20, 2017
This paper provides an update Justices on the Ballot by assessing what changes have occurred in patterns of state supreme court elections in the period 2010-16 compared to the previous six and a half decades. The paper examines patterns of campaign contributions and expenditures (starting in the 1980s or 1990s), contestation and competitiveness, partisanship, and television advertising (starting with the 1999-2000 election cycle). Even though the current decade began with the startling defeat of three Iowa justices in the 2010 retention election, there has been surprising little change in the current decade:
• Campaign contributions and expenditures have been stable (or possibly declined slightly). • Contestation and competition has, if anything, seen a very slight decline, with the exception that there has been an increase in the proportion of retention elections in which the incumbent has received less than a 55 percent yes-vote.
• The volume and tone of television advertising has been steady.
The one area of change is increasing patterns of partisanship in formally nonpartisan elections, both those using a contested format (two or more candidates) and those a retention format. . As one would expect, partisanship in elections conducted on a partisan basis has always been high and continues to be so. Before 2010 there was a pattern of increasing partisanship in the two states with a hybrid format, but that leveled off in the current decade. The change that has occurred has been an increase in partisan voting patterns in nonpartisan and retention elections, both of which are intended to be nonpartisan. The average correlation using county-level data between voting in nonpartisan judicial elections and gubernatorial elections more than doubled between the 1980s from .27 to .62 in the current decade. That correlation in retention elections increased about 50 percent from .27 to .42 during the same period.
The paper concludes with a discussion of the likely reasons for the increasing partisanship in elections intended to be nonpartisan, and thoughts on the implications of this increase for how state supreme court justices are selected and retained.
Keywords: Courts, Judges, Judicial Elections, State Supreme Courts, Law and Politics
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