NWA EDITORIAL | Arkansans voted more than 20 years ago to eliminate partisanship from court races; more reforms could help promote voter participation
What’s the point?
Before Arkansas considers returning to partisan election of judges and other magistrates, other steps could help promote more informed voting.
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”
— Matthew 12:33
Voting is not for the faint of heart. Entering the voting center and tapping little checkboxes on a screen is pretty straightforward 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, we can’t help but think these days of the humorous cryptocurrency ad featuring comedic actor Larry David in multiple roles showing him on the wrong side. Of the history. In a scene reenacting the Continental Congress in 1776, a white-wigged David interrupts John Hancock’s invitation to sign the Declaration and suggests that the document’s supporters had lost their minds in opposing a monarchy.
“The people will have the right to vote,” says another of the fictional founders.
“Even the stupid ones?” asks an incredulous David.
“Yes,” the collected body responds emphatically, prompting David to ponder, “Do stupid people vote? »
Having reached his conclusion on the wisdom of such a decision, David’s character rushes to the Declaration in an attempt to tear it to shreds.
This ad, of course, takes great liberties with the historical scene, even though at the time the term “voters” referred only to white men with property, ostensibly under the assumption that others lacked a critical quality that made their participation unworthy. We’re glad time has healed that thought, at least for most of us.
As far as our American way of life goes, voting is practically a sacrament, like the bread and wine of a church communion service. Unfortunately, many people treat it like a burger and a soda. By this we mean that voting is like the difference between a home-cooked meal that requires pre-planning and careful consideration of ingredients and the quick, last-second decision to head to a fast-food drive-thru.
Last Sunday, reporter Ron Wood brought us up to speed with an informative story about the ongoing debate over how the Arkansans are electing these learned black-robed men and women to critically important judgeships in a known branch of government. as equal to the executive and legislative branches. . Local circuit judges and superior appellate court judges in Arkansas have to campaign for their six-year positions, which might sound pretty weird on its own. District court prosecutors and judges are also elected, but every four years.
In 2000, Arkansas voters approved Amendment 80, eliminating partisanship from judicial elections. In simple terms, this means that the candidates do not declare themselves Democrats or Republicans or any other party. Although they have already done so, they no longer have to go through the process of obtaining patronage appointments.
Why? The theory goes: making judicial positions non-partisan removes politics from a process that really should have little to do with whether a candidate sees the world through a red, blue, or purple lens. Naturally, the question remains whether this can really be accomplished.
State Rep. Robin Lundstrum, a fairly hard-line Republican from Elm Springs, calls the 2000 change a “massive failure,” a “noble thought” that envisions a justice system “above the fray.” . It just didn’t turn out that way, she says. She would like to see candidates running with party labels.
Washington County Circuit Judge Mark Lindsey, meanwhile, suggests that the nonpartisan nature allows judicial candidates to break free from parties and meet more potential voters during their campaign.
We understand a desire to simplify things. It’s clear — certainly these days — that a “D” or an “R” next to a candidate’s name will be all the information some voters need.
What Lundstrum is clearly suggesting is that the “noble” thinking behind Amendment 80 of 2000 has not come to fruition. People aren’t or can’t do their own homework on judicial candidates, who face limits on what they can say due to the state’s Judicial Ethics Code. This code states that candidates for judicial office shall not “make promises or pledges of conduct in office other than the faithful and impartial performance of the duties of office; [or] make statements that bind or appear to bind nominees with respect to matters, controversies or issues that may come before the court. »
In other words, legal campaigns can be downright boring. Many voters simply don’t care to vote in these races, as they require more work to become familiar with each candidate’s history, demeanor, and intelligence. When fewer voters cast ballots, political scientists say it is easier for special interests to get involved and influence elections.
“Black money” – campaign donations that cannot be traced back to their original source – is a real problem in all political races, but it has really become a shameful influence in court campaigns.
Is the solution to put partisanship back in the countryside?
Maybe we are guilty of oversimplification, but sometimes people overcomplicate things too. Before the state reverts to partisanship, why not try a few other ideas? The basic principle that justice is non-partisan still carries weight. The basic concepts of guilt, innocence and fairness do not change across political parties (although some people try to make it that simple).
Let’s move the court races to November, when more people traditionally vote. And how about taking legislative action to eliminate the existence of these dark money contributions: let’s know who is engaged in influencing these elections.
The public needs and, in our view, still wants people involved in the judiciary who can make good decisions based on the law. Despite the partisan narratives that are making a lot of headway these days, affixing a party label to candidates is no guarantee one way or the other. It is not a guarantee of quality.
This is where our communities and our state need voters who are willing to do the work to know the candidates for the bench, to go beyond party labels.
Maybe finding shortcuts to election year decisions is easier, but better? We are not convinced. Candidates for these critically important offices should be able to demonstrate to voters the fruits of their professional legal labor, to articulate the principles on which they will carry out the duties of the office. And rather than responding to colonial concerns about stupidity, voters must strive to fulfill their duties as citizens of this great nation.