Judicial retention elections in Cook County: Exercise of democracy, or exercise in futility?
The use of judicial retention elections in Cook County, Illinois is highly controversial because of the long lists of judges that are put before the electorate. Very little is known about the factors that influence the outcomes of retention elections in general. In Cook County and other populous retention jurisdictions, this lack of knowledge is compounded by often-repeated but unexamined assertions that a long retention ballot substantially discourages voter participation and creates voter confusion and uncertainty.
A comparison of Cook County retention election results to those of smaller Illinois judicial circuits reveals these criticisms to be without merit. In terms of participation, the dropoff of voters that can be attributed to the length of Cook County's ballot is surprisingly modest. In addition, Cook County elections actually show greater responsiveness to judicial performance evaluations than do elections in the smaller circuits, ballot length notwithstanding. Judges in the smaller circuits are found to be more vulnerable to anti-retention campaigns and to negative publicity regarding individual cases or even matters of personal conduct. A review of election results from other states, in jurisdictions with intermediate-length ballots, supports these findings to the extent that comparisons can be made across states.
Preceding the comparative analyses, an examination of Cook County election results measures the relative impacts on retention voting of factors including bar recommendations, newspaper recommendations, gender, ethnicity, and media attention. Other, unexpected influences such as ballot design are also identified. In addition, the cause of a previously unexplained sudden nationwide drop in retention approval rates in 1990 is revealed, a drop that contributed to the defeat of an unprecedented seven Cook County judges. Finally, an analysis of township-level retention voting in Cook County indicates that educational level and voting experience are strongly related to both approval rates and use of recommendations.