State Judicial Elections' Impact on Participation in Direct Democracy*

By Reilly, Shauna; Walker, Carol | Justice System Journal, May 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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State Judicial Elections' Impact on Participation in Direct Democracy*


Reilly, Shauna, Walker, Carol, Justice System Journal


This article examines how the presence of judicial elections on the ballot impacts voter participation on direct democracy measures affecting justice. Ballot roll-off occurs on judicial elections and direct democracy measures for similar reasons. We explore the linkage between judicial elections and direct democracy measures based on theory indicating that ballot measures affect other races on the ballot, particularly when these measures involve specific issues, and the impact of different selection methods on ballot roll-off. To explore this relationship, we analyze 1,259 different ballot propositions from 1998 to 2007 in forty-one different states, with varying judicial selection methods. We find there is increased roll-off for direct democracy measures when there are judicial elections on the ballot, but less ballot roll-off for direct democracy measures when these measures have connecting topics. Further, because of the impact and electoral consequences of different judicial selection methods we expect differences in roll-off for these different selection methods.

How does the presence of judicial elections impact participation in direct democracy measures? How is participation impacted when direct democracy measures concerning the judiciary are on the same ballot as a judicial election? Previous research explored citizen participation and levels of ballot roll-off for judicial elections and direct democracy measures independent of one another (Dubois, 1979; Taebel, 1975; Darcy and Schneider, 1989; Bullock and Dunn, 1996; Hall, 1999). The same factors contribute to ballot roll-off on judicial elections and direct democracy measures; however, there have been no studies to determine if there exists an interconnected relationship between these types of ballot measures to voters. Judicial elections and direct democracy generally suffer from high occurrences of ballot roll-off, and the reasons voters fail to make a selection on these measures are similar. Both elections offer few partisan cues and generally low- salience issues while receiving low placement on the ballot.

Both judicial and direct democracy elections require more knowledge and engagement of the citizen for participation (Klein and Baum, 1988; Sheldon and Lovrich, 1999) than traditional representative elections. These additional requirements on the voter place a burden that dissuades many from voting on these measures, resulting in ballot roll-off. Ballot roll-off is the difference in the votes cast for major offices and for those further down the ballot, in this case judicial elections and propositions. Ballot propositions allow the public to participate directly in the lawmaking process. However, propositions generally suffer from high levels of ballot roll-off as there is a significant decrease in votes cast as one moves down the ballot, and ballot propositions are traditionally located at the bottom of electoral ballots.

Direct democracy elections are a subset of elections that are subject to the same limitations as other elections (campaigns, financial components, sponsorship, etc.). They also provide an additional dilemma to the electoral agenda as the repercussions of these elections can be substantial but their salience low. Citizens must live with the consequences, yet few are aware of the issue or the consequences of the matter at hand. Direct democracy, in its ideal, provides the citizenry the opportunity to voice their opinions and directly contribute to the operation of state government.

This study seeks to explore ballot roll-off from an institutional perspective. Central to democratic theory is that voting increases government accountability to the people. Judicial elections and direct democracy measures exist to enhance voter engagement in these areas of government. However, even when voters head to the polls, they often fail to cast a ballot on these measures, weakening their contribution to democratic participation.

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State Judicial Elections' Impact on Participation in Direct Democracy*
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