By Maureen O’Connor
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
As the voting patterns were analyzed after the Nov. 6, 2012, general election, one thing became clear: a lot of Cuyahoga County voters who cast a ballot for president didn’t vote for judge. In fact, the Cuyahoga County judicial voter drop-off that year was as high as 40 percent.
That fact and others led me to propose a three-point plan to reform judicial elections in Ohio. Two aspects of the plan include moving all judicial races to odd-numbered years and to the top of the ballot and increasing the qualifications to serve as judge.
The third part of my plan became a reality on Sept. 1 with the launch of the first statewide judicial voter education website: JudicialVotesCount.org. For the first time, Ohioans will have access to quality information about all candidates for judge in the 2015 races.
I have partnered with several organizations to better educate Ohioans about judges to increase meaningful voter participation, including: the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, which houses the website; the Ohio State Bar Association; the League of Women Voters of Ohio; the Ohio Newspaper Association; and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters.
In addition to candidate profiles, JudicialVotesCount.org features information about what judges do, descriptions about the duties of different courts, and brief videos of former judges explaining how the court system works.
With 2015 being an odd-numbered year, there are more than 80 candidates seeking nearly 60 municipal court judgeships in about 30 counties across the state. Next year, JudicialVotesCount.org will include information on candidates for the Supreme Court, appeals courts, common pleas courts, and county courts as judges for those courts are elected in even-numbered years. All judges in Ohio are elected to six-year terms.
Another impetus for creating the website came from a recent survey of 1,067 registered Ohio voters who said the biggest reason they don’t vote for judge is because they don’t know enough about the candidates. The survey, which was conducted in October 2014 by the Bliss Institute, focused on the drop-off in votes cast in judicial races.
In speaking out on the issue over the last three years, I continue to be concerned about judicial voter drop-off. In some elections, a quarter of the electorate – or more – skips voting for judges, who, by law, are listed near the bottom of the ballot. A separate finding in the 2014 survey also confirmed the existence of the drop-off phenomenon, as about half of the respondents admitted they seldom vote in judicial elections.
I believe it’s unreasonable to expect voters to be knowledgeable about judicial candidates when that information either doesn’t exist or it’s difficult to find. JudicialVotesCount.org strives to give voters easy access to quality information. It is my hope that by raising awareness about the availability of this type of information, voter participation in judicial races will increase. Better still, I hope that more Ohioans become better educated about their judges and vote in a more informed way rather than relying on a good ballot name.
In the coming days, weeks, and months, you will hear more about the Judicial Votes Count project. In addition to the website, we have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel to spread the word. Please follow, like, and watch.
Judges make important decisions affecting the lives of Ohioans every day. Go to JudicialVotesCount.org and take the time to learn who’s on the ballot for your local court, their legal background, and why they are running for judge. Take that knowledge, step into the ballot box on Nov. 3, and make your judicial vote count.
Maureen O’Connor is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.