Just more than 20,000 votes were cast in the Cook County Republican primary for one of the subcircuit judges. A subcircuit is smaller than a congressional district, with about 400,000 residents, Judge Wayne Andersen said.
Four years ago, just over 1.2 million people in Cook County showed up to vote in the primary election.
But just over a million of those people posted a vote for state’s attorney – 85.38 percent of the total number of voters who hit the polls, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.
It’s even worse when you get down far enough on the ballot where judges are elected. In one case on the Democratic ballot, only 70.64 percent voted for one of the vacancies in a circuit court judgeship race.
This drop-off is common and has caused legal professionals and academic experts to question who really decides which judges take the bench in Cook County courtrooms.
Voters, meanwhile, are left wondering how to keep track of the judges running – about 40 judicial slots will be voted on in the March 20 primary.
“The reason all of this is confusing to people in Chicago is that there are so many judicial vacancies that nobody, I repeat nobody, can keep track of all of the candidates and reasonably evaluate them,” said Judge Wayne Andersen, who served as a federal judge for two decades after spending seven years as a circuit judge in Chicago. He retired in 2010.
Michael Miller, assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said voters approach a ballot as if it were a test: They get nervous when they believe they do not have sufficient information to make a decision.
“You as a voter get concerned that you are going to vote for the wrong person and for the person who doesn’t advance your interests,” he said. “You sort of panic.”
Miller said that, nationally, voter roll-off for judicial elections often exceeds 25 percent, which means that more than a quarter of people who vote do not bother to choose any of the judicial candidates. Analysis from the 2008 primary shows that Cook County is consistent with the national trend.
He said voters have the hardest time voting for judges in primary elections because they are not able to make decisions based solely on party affiliation.
“You really have to do your homework to find out where the candidates stand on any given issue,” Miller said. “We all have policy preferences, but in the context of litigation and judicial philosophy – how many voters are staying up on that?”
Brian Gaines, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said ballot position plays a strong role – how high a contest is placed on a ballot also influences how many people vote on that race. He said items placed higher on the ballot tend to get a higher participation rate, even if voters are uninformed on the subject.
Cook County Clerk David Orr said Cook County ballots are 20 times longer than the ballots in most other Illinois counties and are among the longest in the nation. In the Illinois primary, the judicial candidates come toward the bottom of the ballot and are sometimes on a separate page in the optical scan versions.
“If you put judges higher, I am sure you would get more voting on them,” Gaines said.
Cook Countyhas more than 400 judges serving more than 5 million residents, according to the Circuit Court of Cook County website.
“We are electing some of the most powerful people in our community with a system that doesn’t provide a great deal of information on which to base that decision,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund For Justice, which operates a website that educates Cook County voters on judicial candidates – voteforjudges.org.
Next month judges will run to fill vacancies for the state supreme and appellate courts, as well as for trial courts that are organized by county and smaller sub-circuit districts within many of the more populated counties. However, Illinois is one of the few states that has voters elect judges who have not completed a merit assessment by an appointed commission.
Linda Heacox, director of public affairs for the Chicago Bar Association, said it is important for voters to learn about judicial candidates as the primary approaches.
“There is no elected official who can have more impact on you personally than a judge,” Heacox said.
“If you come before a judge, you need to be confident that the judge has the requisite knowledge and skill, that he has the appropriate temperament to sit in judgment of your case.”
Heacox said voters can learn about judges running for election through a booklet the association will publish in about a week, which rates candidates as highly qualified, qualified or not recommended, with a short description detailing the finding. The booklet can be found on the Chicago Bar Association’s website. A hard copy can be requested by phone.
The Chicago Bar Association also publishes a quick guide that voters can take into the polls with them to help make their decisions.
“It is a lot of information to put on a single piece of paper, so I hope we have made it as simple as we can for people,” Heacox said.
Rich said that voteforjudges.org will report the judicial evaluations of 11 different bar associations, including the results of the Chicago Bar Association.
“You can take 10 minutes and look at our site and see all of the bar association ratings on a particular candidate and then look at the newspaper endorsements and then make a decision,” he said.
However, Rich said reading up on the judges can get difficult because the bar groups will not agree on many of the ratings.
The Chicago Council of Lawyers puts a lot of weight on a judge’s experience in litigation, for example, while other bar associations may not be as strict on that particular measure, he said.
The result is a mixed-evaluation.
“They might find someone unqualified because they haven’t had enough time in the courtroom before they go on the bench, and other bar groups might say that is not as important to them,” Rich said.
There’s no verdict, though, on how voters’ choice to opt out of certain races affects the democratic process.
While some political science experts say the more people that participate the more democratic the outcome, others believe voters should abstain from races they know nothing about.
“We want people to vote, but we also recognize that not everyone has the time and resources to research every candidate and every race,” Miller said.
If voters do want to have any say on which judges fill the Cook County courtrooms, they have to vote in next month’s primary, because Andersen said he expects only three to five legitimate contests between Democratic and Republican judges when it comes time for the general elections in November.
“The primary election is the ball game. The vast majority of judges will be selected in this primary, not the fall election,” he said.
To really affect the judicial outcome, voters have to participate in the Democratic primary, Anderson said, because no Republican has ever been elected countywide to judgeship, at least in decades.
In the 2008 primary, only 12 Republican judges ran for election, all in sub-circuit races. Andersen said a sub-circuit is smaller than a congressional district, with about 400,000 residents. In the same primary, a total of 93 judges ran on the Democratic ballot.
To Evan McKenzie, assistant professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago, the current system of electing judges gives the Democratic Party of Cook County total control over the process.
“If you get the Democratic nomination, which you get by going through a committee of party leaders, you are as good as in,” he said.
McKenzie said that unqualified judges can find their way into the courtroom if they have strong political connections and that merit does not play a big enough role in Cook County.
“We have a system that is capable of being manipulated by our politicians to pick our judges,” he said. “If you are unqualified, I don’t think you should be on the ballot.”