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Voter empowerment in judicial elections

Imagine what a nightmare it would be to vote for elected officials on a ballot without any form of ideological identification. How would you choose a candidate? Would you really know what he or she stood for? Since the 2004 elections, North Carolinians have been subject to this guessing-game when voting for state judiciaries. Currently, state ballots do not reveal judicial candidates’ party affiliation, reflecting a nearly decade-old aberration from traditional ballot formats. But a new bill intends to place party identification back where it belongs—next to the names of candidates running for judicial office.

The argument against partisan judicial elections is that political affiliations ought not to interfere with judicial selection on the grounds that the judicial branch should be as politics-free as possible. But this argument misrepresents both the nature and intent of political affiliation on the ballot. Voters elect civil servants who will best represent their particular views of justice and uphold the law. Often, the easiest way for voters to determine this information is through clear party identification. It is only natural for citizens to choose candidates who feel the same way about the nature of law and hold it in the same regard that they do.

It is abundantly clear that judges should never be involved in the political horse-trading regularly conducted on the floor of the state house or senate. That particular behavior is unbecoming of their station as impartial determiners of the law and how it should be applied. Party identification simply allows voters to make assumptions about the candidate’s attitude towards administering the law.

Furthermore, parties foster ideological accountability among candidates. In order to win a party nomination, judicial candidates must prove themselves worthy of bearing their party label. Not only must candidates reflect a thorough knowledge of the law, but they must also hold similar beliefs about its application as their fellow members. Candidates are often selected because they have a history with the party—another safeguard against poor decision-making. Time spent in party involvement allows a candidate’s fellow citizens and party members to gauge their level of commitment to a particular judicial view over a long period of time. The self-interest of a political party to nominate qualified individuals who will positively reflect their identifying label increases the quality of those officials placed in office.

Party identification is also completely optional, and candidates who wish to participate in government outside of party labels are welcome to do so. Many great independents have become important elected officials and have represented their constituents admirably. A partisan system of nomination still accommodates those who do not wish to be nominated without depriving candidates and voters of their ability to identify with particular beliefs through party identification.

By banning partisan judicial elections, lawmakers have made it easier for candidates to falsely sell themselves to constituents. Without party accountability, they are free to misrepresent their qualifications, integrity and even ideology. For example, I believe that on the whole Americans tend to like conservative justices—the type of civil servants who would be tough on crime and keep criminals behind bars. I believe that Independents and citizens with weak affiliations to the Democratic Party are more willing to cross party lines and vote for Republican judicial candidates based on the assumption that Republicans enforce the laws more strictly. This creates a significant problem for Democratic candidates vying for judicial positions, since voters commonly reject the values that would take with them to the bench.

The removal of parties from the nomination process has made it easier for left-leaning would-be judges to style themselves as conservatives. Individuals who would have not have received a Republican nomination are able to take a greater percentage of Republican votes through misrepresentation of their beliefs. Such behavior is reprehensible and reflects the type of politicization of the judiciary that non-partisan elections have failed to combat.

Partisan identification is an important measure by which parties can make sure judges accurately convey their beliefs to the electorate. We, as voters, are entitled to make our decisions based on the best information available. I sincerely hope both North Carolina’s General Assembly and governor will support this important bill and allow party identifications back on the ballot.

William Reach is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.

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