You may be wondering, after reading my post about straight ticket voting and judicial races if the same thing is true in counties other than Harris. I got to wondering that myself, so I checked out the results from a dozen other counties for 2012.
County ST Advantage Contested Races Closest Win # Affected ================================================================== Dallas Dem 92,456 3 93,810 0 Tarrant GOP 66,682 0 N/A 0 Bexar Dem 24,711 12 11,209 2 Travis Dem 53,480 0 N/A 0 Collin GOP 72,239 0 N/A 0 Denton GOP 59,348 0 N/A 0 El Paso Dem 47,483 1 48,038 0 Fort Bend GOP 11,754 2 19,530 0 Galveston GOP 17,799 0 N/A 0 Hidalgo Dem 51,644 0 N/A 0 Williamson GOP 17,939 0 N/A 0 Jefferson Dem 11,646 1 17,546 0
I only looked at District and County Court races for this study. “ST Advantage” is the difference between the straight-ticket vote of the dominant party, which I’ve listed to its left, and the other party. For example, there were 92,456 more straight-ticket Democratic votes cast in Dallas County than there were straight-ticket Republican votes. “Contested races” is the number of judicial races in which there was a Democrat and a Republican. “Closest win” is the smallest margin of victory for the party with the straight-ticket advantage. Note that in Bexar County there was one victorious Republican judicial candidate. “# Affected” is the number of contested races in which the margin of the closest win is less than the straight-ticket advantage. In other words, that’s the number of races for which the straight-ticket margin was decisive. I didn’t count that one Bexar County race because that particular Republican was able to overcome the straight-ticket advantage, and thus wasn’t affected by it.
So, what we learn from broadening our search is that there’s a total of three races in which straight-ticket voting arguably affected the outcome of a judicial election. I say “arguably” because in order to believe this, you have to believe that sufficiently more of the winning party straight-ticket voters would have failed to vote in these races than the losing party’s straight-ticket voters, which is at best a questionable and unprovable proposition. But if you believe it, then in thirteen of the biggest counties in Texas, there are three fewer Republican judges than there would have been if Dan Patrick had his way. I should note that Paul Sadler carried El Paso and Hidlago by less than the straight-ticket margin, so there could at least theoretically have been some other examples if there had been contested races. This is not the same as thinking such races might have been competitive – these are deep blue counties, as Democratic as Collin is Republican, and as likely to elect a Republican as Collin is a Dem. The one true recruitment failure was in Jefferson County, where despite the straight-ticket advantage President Obama barely won a plurality, but one Democratic judge there drew no opponent.
Maybe you think this is a big deal, worthy of a high-profile bill and much fawning media coverage. I think it’s much ado about nothing, and would do nothing to improve the process of how we make judges. The thing that really stood out to me as I looked through this data is just how few contested judicial races there were. Outside of Bexar and Harris – not coincidentally, two of the more evenly-matched counties in the state – hardly any November judicial action. I didn’t check to see how many judicial races were settled in the primaries – sorry, I’m not that obsessed with this topic – but I do agree that primary party politics are not conducive to good judge-selection. Does that mean making judicial elections non-partisan is a good idea? Personally, I don’t think so. Houston city elections are officially non-partisan, but everyone knows who the Rs and the Ds are, and I daresay that’s how it would be in “non-partisan” judicial races. Besides, look at it this way: If I’m a District Court judge in, say, Collin or Travis County, and I have a November opponent, I don’t have to emphasize my partisan credentials. The “R” or “D” next to my name on the ballot will do that for me, and I’m free to talk about my experience and qualifications or whatever else I want to put on my mailers. But in a non-partisan race, my party affiliation is exactly what I need to emphasize, since my surest path to a win is to ensure that my fellow partisans know who’s who on the ballot. I’d expect that to happen even in balanced counties, because your team are your most reliable voters, and indifference to downballot races is at least as big a concern as the other guy’s team is. I don’t see a way around it.
Well, we could do away with judicial elections and go to an all-appointment system. This is first of all a philosophical question: Either you believe that judges should be elected by The People, or you believe they should be selected by a person or a committee. If you prefer the latter, then it’s primarily a matter of logistics. As I noted before, there are nearly 2000 non-municipal judges statewide, so just coming up with a system that can handle that big a workload is a big deal. I trust we can all agree that letting Rick Perry appoint judges, or even letting him appoint the appointers, is a bad idea. I’m sure there are workable ways of doing this, but I’ll leave the details to someone who buys into the idea. If you want to have a system of appointments with retention elections, I’ll just note again that all of the usual suspects that play in judicial races would still be free, and likely, to play in these elections as well. What, if anything, is the plan to deal with that?
Which brings me back to the point that I’ve been trying to make since the subject of partisan judicial races first came up in 2008 after Democrats first demonstrated the ability to win them in Harris County: The biggest problem as I see it is the influence of money on judicial races. That’s why I get so frustrated by phony solutions like Sen. Patrick’s and the accolades he gets for it from people who need to think it through more completely. I’ve seen this bill described as a “good first step”, but I have to ask, a step towards what? What’s the second step, and what’s the ultimate goal? In the meantime, what are we going to do to limit the influence of bad actors like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, strip clubs, and George Fleming and their money on the judicial selection process? I’m certainly willing to accept that our process of partisan judicial elections is deeply flawed, but if your solution doesn’t address the points I’ve raised I’m just not going to take it seriously.