Should Ohio judicial candidates have party listings on the ballot?

Photo by Getty Images.

Around 1 million Ohio voters took a glance at the pair of Supreme Court races on their 2020 ballot and decided to take a pass.

Maybe they didn’t like the candidates. Perhaps they were more focused on other high-profile ballot items, such as the presidential race.

There is one other main reason voters might have left the Supreme Court races blank: The four justice candidates were listed without any party affiliation. 

Ohio has a unique system wherein judicial candidates campaign as political party nominees, but there are no party labels on the General Election ballot. This is seen as a way to reinforce the non-partisan nature of the judiciary branch of government — with those on the bench issuing rulings not as Democrats or Republicans, but as impartial arbiters.

What it amounts to, Ohio Rep. Michael Skindell said, is that some citizens arrive at the voting booth not knowing anything about the candidates. So they guess, or vote for the name they most recognize, or skip the race entirely.

Ohio Rep. Stephen Hambley, R-Brunswick

A bill under consideration in the Ohio House of Representatives could change that. House Bill 460, sponsored by Reps. Stephen Hambley, R-Brunswick, and Skindell, a Lakewood Democrat, was introduced nearly a full year ago. But they got a chance on Tuesday to offer their case for the bill to fellow lawmakers for the first time.

Skindell is a former candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court who lost his 2012 bid to become a justice.

HB 460 would give judicial candidates the choice when filling out paperwork to run of whether or not to have their party listed on the eventual General Election ballot.

It would be an opt-out system; candidates would have to explicitly mark not wanting to have parties listed.

“We need to quit living in a state of denial and recognize that partisan affiliation of a candidate is an important consideration for most voters,” Hambley told legislators on the State and Local Government Committee.

Hambley pointed to a 2014 study by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at Akron University which looked into how Ohio voters approach judicial elections.

Many voters admitted to researchers they vote less frequently for these judicial elections compared to other races. This is known as ballot “drop-off,” with there being a recognizable difference between the number of votes cast for key races (such as the presidential contest) versus the down-ballot races.

That was born out again with the unofficial 2020 results announced last week. Of the more than 5.8 million ballots cast in Ohio, nearly all of them featured a vote made for the presidency. But only 4.84 million and 4.75 million votes were cast for the two Supreme Court races. 

Ohio Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood

The Bliss Institute survey found that the most common reason voters do not cast ballots for judicial candidates is due to a “lack of knowledge about the candidate.” 

What kind of judicial candidate information is important to voters? Professional background is the most crucial, those surveyed answered, along with a candidate’s views on crime and social issues. A majority said the candidate’s political party is also an important factor.

Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, defended the current system in a polite back-and-forth with the two lawmakers. 

“I like the fact that if you really want to vote for the right person that you have to go out and seek out information about their background and judicial qualifications and what they stand for,” Strahorn said, “as opposed to just resting on, ‘I’m just going to vote for the person who has the right designation.’”

Skindell answered that allowing for these ballot labels would provide another piece of information for voters.

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