By Courtney Kueppers
By shortly after 10 a.m. on Election Day, Dan Schneider was beginning to feel like a broken record.
“I’ve been saying the same thing for over an hour,” the 29-year-old lawyer said.
Outside of Chicago’s United Center, typically home to the Bulls and Blackhawks, upbeat music played on a speaker, volunteers handed out free food and activists made their final pitch to people lining up to cast their ballot at the Election Day super site.
Against this festive backdrop, Schneider kept saying “Vote no on Judge Toomin, he’s protecting crooked cops,” and offering a business-card-sized handout to generally uninterested passersby.
Schneider was at the polling place – in the designated electioneering area – on behalf of the Judicial Accountability Project, a local political action committee that’s been trying in recent years to bring more attention to the judicial races on the ballot in Cook County. In 2018, they successfully campaigned against Judge Matthew Coghlan, who became the first Cook County judge to lose a retention race in 28 years, after accusations of corruption.
In Cook County, judges must run to retain their seats at the end of each term. However, these races have historically been uncontested, which means most judges have easily attained the 60% of voter approval needed to keep their seat. With dozens of judges on the ballot in any given cycle, deciding how to vote on each is an enormous task for voters – this year there were 62 retention elections and two contested judicial seats, according to the nonprofit journalism outlet Injustice Watch.
That’s why a lot of voters either vote to retain across the board or skip the judicial races altogether, which was the case for about a quarter of Cook County voters in 2018, Injustice Watch reports. The Judicial Accountability Project is hoping to change that.
This year, the group set its sights on removing Judge Michael Toomin from his seat. They staged a “Toss Toomin” campaign meant to reach voters mostly through digital advertising. Toomin, a circuit court judge who has held his seat since the 1980s, had the support of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and ultimately prevailed in Tuesday’s contest, with 64% approval.
The activists who campaigned against Toomin knew they had their work cut out for them this year, but felt it was important to highlight what they see as his unjustly harsh treatment of juvenile detainees, including earlier this year when he blocked an effort that would have made it easier for lawyers to get young clients awaiting trial out of detention amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Schneider made his final plea to voters on Tuesday, he acknowledged the challenges of getting people to care about the judicial races.
“Most people don’t really know that much about Judge Toomin and I mean this really gets into the weeds of local government,” he said. “I’m an attorney in the county and I can’t name every judge in Cook County. It’s just impossible to know everything about every judge, even if you’re actively practicing in the county.”
In recent years, there has been a more concerted effort to inform voters about these races, that includes advocacy from groups like the Judicial Accountability Project and the judicial guide that Injustice Watch publishes with information about each judge. There are also grassroots groups like the 48th Ward Neighbors for Justice in Uptown and bar associations like the Chicago Council of Lawyers who are focusing efforts on these races.
Despite these efforts though, some voters say they still feel like they are flying blind on the judicial portion of their ballot.
Antione Johnson, a 43-year-old resident of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, said some of the judges’ names were familiar to him because he has been a voter in the city for a long time, but if he didn’t know anything about a judge, he left the bubbles blank.
“For the most part, any election people just go in there and vote for president, but I think this election was very important for me to really find out who was going to be on the ballot,” Johnson said Tuesday after casting his vote at the United Center. “Unfortunately, the names that I didn’t know, I didn’t pick them because that’s a blind vote and I don’t believe in that. Some of them I picked ‘yes’ and other ones I left blank.”
Other voters had a different approach, like relying on intuition or selecting based solely on names – voting to retain those who sounded like women or people of color.
And for others yet, the decision was more personal, like for Noemi Saldivar who became a United States citizen earlier this year and voted for the first time on Tuesday. Saldivar’s 17-year-old son is transgender, so when she was deciding how to vote in the judicial races, she did a lot of background reading on where they stood on issues related to the LGBTQ community, she said.
Regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, Judicial Accountability Project president Brendan Shiller said he feels confident the culture around judicial races in Cook County is shifting. For decades, the judicial selection process has been heavily influenced by Chicago’s powerful Democratic Machine, but as the machine’s power has waned, this may be changing.
In upcoming cycles, Shiller said he thinks the current wave of political participation will continue and that even more people will be paying attention to these down-ballot contests.
“I think for the most part, especially with the activists who care about criminal justice issues, it’s here and staying here,” Shiller said of the current era of activism. “I think what you’re seeing is, as long as you can compile the information about the judges, in a readable, relatable format, the voters are going to read it and study up.”
Courtney Kueppers covers social justice at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @cmkueppers.