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Odd-year judicial elections could mean smarter voters

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Although election season arguably never ends — it seems as though talking heads start speculating about who will run for president five years before an election — local judicial races do not receive the same level of attention as most legislative and executive candidates.

To encourage participation in judicial races, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor proposed in January to move these races to odd-year elections when senate, house and executive candidates won’t steal the spotlight.

“The judiciary competes for attention with partisan candidates for president, senator, congress, governor and others who are able to shout their messages while judicial candidates can only whisper,” O’Connor said in an email. “In addition, many Ohioans don’t even vote for judges because they get tired by the time they reach judges’ names at the end of the ballot.”

In the State House race between Debbie Phillips, the winner, and Yolan Dennis, her opponent, 13,504 votes were cast. In contrast, 11,194 votes were cast in Athens County for the Ohio Supreme Court race between Sharon Kennedy and Tom Letson, according to data from the Ohio Secretary of State and the Athens County Board of Elections.

O’Connor acknowledged that bringing more attention to judicial races will take time, but she believes that separating those campaigns from legislative and executive races will eventually draw more people into odd-year voting.

“They will come to know these years not as the ‘off-year elections’ like they are now, but the ‘judicial years.’  Voters will come to realize that the judicial years are the years when they go about the important business of electing the men and women who serve on the bench,” O’Connor said.

However, some are worried that moving judicial races to odd years will open the campaigns to large amounts of donations that some see as controversial or even corrupting. One critic of the plan, a Worthington resident Sean Harris, wrote a letter to the Columbus Dispatch voicing his concern.

“By reducing the field of electoral competitors under the chief justice’s proposal, judicial campaigns would gleefully command the campaign donations of wealthy donors, both individual and corporate alike,” Harris wrote. “PACs and interest groups that might otherwise sit idly by in off-year elections could now focus greater spending on fewer races, with less distraction from nonjudicial candidates. This does nothing to improve the current system.”

O’Connor, however, does not believe this will be a problem.

“This phenomenon exists already in even years.  It doesn’t matter what year.  It won’t be exacerbated in odd years.  What we have now is that special interest groups step up when a specific issues catches their eye,” O’Connor said. “If the consequence of switching to odd years would put more of a focus on the judiciary – that’s a good thing.”

In addition to moving judicial elections, O’Connor hopes to establish a judicial voter education website “that will be a one-stop-shop” for information about all candidates. It will also explain the roles of each judicial position in the role of different courts.

Together, O’Connor hopes the website and the election change will better educate citizens who feel uninformed about judicial candidates and elections.

“Judges make decisions daily that impact the lives and liberties of Ohioans. We are doing a disservice to Ohio voters when they tell us (confirmed with recent Bliss poll results) we are not getting them the information they need to make an informed choice,” O’Connor said. “The result will be more citizens voting for judge and doing so in an informed way. And, more citizens will vote based on quality, substantive information about the candidates and their qualifications for office.”

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