NWA EDITORS | Arkansans voted to ban partiality from legal races more than 20 years ago; Further reforms could help increase voter participation
what’s the point
Before Arkansas considers switching back to partisan elections for judges and other justice officials, other measures could help encourage more and informed voting.
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for a tree is known by its fruit.”
– Matthew 12:33
Voting is not for the faint of heart. Going into the polling center and tapping little boxes on a screen is easy enough most of the time, but that’s not really where the job of a responsible voter begins. It is or should be the end of a process, not the process itself.
When it comes to voting in the United States these days, we have to think of the humorous cryptocurrency commercial in which comedian Larry David is on the wrong side of history in multiple roles. In a scene re-enacting the Continental Congress in 1776, a white-wigged David interrupts the invitation to John Hancock to sign the Declaration, implying that the document’s supporters have bid farewell to their senses by declaring themselves to a monarchy resisted.
“The people should have the right to vote,” explains another of the fictitious founders.
“Even the stupid ones?” asks an unbelieving David.
“Yes,” the assembled body replies emphatically, which makes David think: “Stupid people vote?”
After coming to his conclusion about the wisdom of such a move, David’s character rushes towards the declaration to tear it to pieces.
This commercial, of course, takes great liberties with the historical scene, although at the time the term “voter” referred only to white men of property, ostensibly on the assumption that others lacked a certain critical quality that made their participation unworthy. We’re glad that time has healed that thinking, at least for most of us.
For our American lifestyle, voting is practically a sacrament, like the bread and wine at a church’s communion service. Unfortunately, many people treat it like a burger and soda. By that we mean voting is like the difference between a home-cooked meal, which requires advance planning and careful consideration of ingredients, and a quick, last-second decision to hop on a fast-food drive-thru.
Last Sunday, reporter Ron Wood filled us in with an informative story about the ongoing debate about how Arkansans elect these learned, black-clad men and women to the all-important judicial offices in a branch of government known to be equal to the executive and legislature. Local district judges and senior appellate court judges in Arkansas must compete for their six-year posts, which in and of itself can seem strange enough. Prosecutors and district judges are also elected, but at four-year intervals.
In 2000, Arkansas voters passed Amendment 80, which eliminated partisanship from judicial elections. Put simply, this means that candidates do not declare themselves Democrats or Republicans or any other party. Although they used to do it, they no longer have to go through the process to receive party nominations.
Why? The theory goes like this: Making judicial positions impartial takes politics out of a process that shouldn’t have much to do with whether a candidate sees the world through a red, blue, or purple lens. Of course, the question remains whether this can ever really succeed.
State Assemblyman Robin Lundstrum, a fairly hardline Republican from Elm Springs, called the 2000 change a “massive failure,” a “noble thought” that would put justice “above the fight.” It just didn’t turn out that way, she says. She would like to see candidates running with party tags.
Washington County Circuit Judge Mark Lindsey, on the other hand, suggests that impartiality allows court candidates to break away from parties and meet more potential voters during their campaign.
We understand the desire to make things easier. It’s clear – certainly nowadays – that a “D” or an “R” next to a candidate’s name is all the information some voters need.
What Lundstrum is clearly implying is that the ‘noble’ thinking behind Amendment 80 of 2000 has failed. People may or may not do their own homework on nominees for judges, who are limited in what they can say because of the state’s code of conduct for judges. This Code states that candidates for judicial office “shall not make any representation or promise of conduct in office other than faithful and impartial performance of the duties of office; [or] Make statements that bind or appear to bind candidates in relation to any case, controversy or matter likely to arise in court.
In other words, court campaigns can be downright boring. Many voters simply don’t bother to vote in these races because it takes more work to become familiar with each candidate’s history, behavior, and intelligence. With fewer voters casting their ballots, political scientists say it’s easier for interest groups to get involved and influence elections.
“Dark money” — campaign contributions that cannot be traced back to their original source — is a real problem in all political races, but they have truly become a shameful influence in justice campaigns.
Is the solution to bring partisanship back into the campaigns?
We may be guilty of oversimplification, but sometimes people overcomplicate things. Before the state reverts to partisanship, why not try a few other ideas? The fundamental principle of the impartiality of the judiciary is still valid. The basic concepts of guilt, innocence, and fairness don’t change based on political parties (although some people try to make it that simple).
Let’s move the legal races to November, when traditionally more people are voting. And how about legislative action to eliminate the existence of these black money contributions: let us know who is involved in influencing these elections.
The public needs, and we believe it still needs, people in the judiciary who can make good decisions based on the law. Despite the narratives that partisans put forward a lot these days, putting a party tag on candidates is not a guarantee one way or the other. It is not a guarantee of quality.
This is where our communities and state need voters willing to do the work of getting to know justice candidates to go beyond party labels.
Maybe finding shortcuts for election year decisions is easier, but better? We’re not convinced. Candidates for these vitally important offices should be able to demonstrate to voters the fruits of their professional legal work and articulate principles by which they will carry out the duties of the office. And instead of fulfilling colonial concerns about stupidity, voters must put the work into fulfilling their duties as citizens of this great nation.