Posts Tagged ‘judicial elections’

Incumbency effects in low-information elections

Whatever the final outcome of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court election, the basic tenor of it is clear — an even split. There have been a number of articles suggesting that this is a surprise, and that conservative incumbent David Prosser should have been expected to cruise to victory. But should we really expect the kind of incumbency effects we see in other races to manifest in judicial elections?

It’s important to understand, first, that while every election has its quirks, this one was really atypical. Generally speaking, state supreme court elections don’t take place six weeks into massive protests against the state’s sitting governor and amid legal wrangling over a controversial new law likely to be reviewed by said court. Turnout in this election was much higher than a typical spring election in Wisconsin, and considering that inability to adequately model it, I don’t know that any outcome should’ve come as a surprise. Prosser took 55% of the vote in the open primary (before the protests started), and opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill has been in the mid-50s, suggesting anything from 55-45 for Prosser to 55-45 for challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg would’ve been plausible. But polls aren’t elections, and in the primary a total of about 419,000 votes were cast (compared with almost 1,500,000 in the general), so even these boundaries are weak.

If there are incumbency effects at work here, what might they be? Political science typically focuses on legislators in the study of incumbency effects, and there isn’t much there that maps well to the judiciary. Justices don’t have the name-recognition of legislators for a number of reasons, including their much less frequent elections. Justices are also not protected by partisan systems that sometimes allow legislators to easily win general elections in “safe” districts, assuming they survive primary challenges, nor do they have the opportunity to win voters over through constituent service.

And yet, the history of Wisconsin’s supreme court elections includes just five losses by incumbents. The most recent occurred in 2008, when conservative Michael Gableman won a contentious election with strong backing from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, a year after WMC successfully supported Annette Ziegler’s re-election bid. The previous loss by an incumbent was in 1967, which suggests there is some effect of judicial incumbency. Prosser’s first election, in 2001, suggests it may be the absence of a party system to recruit and support challengers. After being appointed in 1998, Prosser ran unopposed for a full term. In a halfway-politicized judicial system — elections, but no parties — we probably shouldn’t expect to see the kind of challengers and challenging campaigns that we see in other races.

Filed: Super Special Questions || 12:09, April 10 || No Comments »

Elite cues in state judiciary elections

When it comes to electorates, there’s low-information, and then there’s low-information. State legislative elections features a lot of candidates that voters aren’t very familiar with, for example. An open city council primary like the one we just had in Carbondale — in which 16 candidates were whittled down to 12 for the general — is likely to rely on personal networking as much as anything else. But judicial elections are another beast entirely: Most people don’t really get what judges do, particularly at the appellate level and above (see, for example, Gregory Casey’s “The Supreme Court and Myth”).

So part of electing justices turns out to be lots of irrelevant scare-tactics about how Judge So-and-so wants to let child molesters loose in the schools, but another important part is elite cuing in the form of endorsements. You may not really know anything about the candidates or the job they’re running for, and you may not have the helpful cue of party identification, but it’s easy to sort out the latent partisanship of each candidate’s endorsements. Having said, Wisconsin will have a Supreme Court election in April, between incumbent David Prosser and challenger Joanne Kloppenburg. Let’s look at some of the prominent names in their lists of endorsers:

Prosser – Three former governors, a former lt. governor, apparently every Republican in the state legislature, many county sheriffs and DAs, and the county executive of Waukesha County

Kloppenburg – The county executive of Dane County, the mayor of Madison, several county supervisors, various aldermen, one state representative, and many private citizens.

Non-partisan election status aside, Prosser is the Republican and Kloppenburg the Democrat in this race. Notice the difference between how the parties understand this? The entire Wisconsin GOP is lined up behind Prosser, providing the kind of elite cuing that tells Republican voters how they should cast their ballot, even if they don’t know the first thing about Prosser or Kloppenburg as judges. Wisconsin Democrats, on the other hand, have apparently decided to sit this one out. Keep in mind, like all non-presidential elections, this is a turnout election — getting voters informed and interested in the election is the key to winning, particularly for a challenger. So where are the state legislative caucuses? Where is private citizen Russ Feingold and his considerable organizing and mobilizing weight? This is the first opportunity to demonstrate the energy of the anti-Scott Walker protests can be channeled into something sustained, and it has the added benefit of being a race that will impact the inevitable court decisions about what Walker’s trying to do.

Filed: We R in Control || 17:33, February 27 || No Comments »