Straight-Ticket Voting and Judicial Accountability: Can the Two Coexist?

In Check One and the Accountability Is Done: The Harmful Impact of Straight-Ticket Voting on Judicial Elections, Meryl Chertoff and Dustin F. Robinson argue that straight-ticket voting plays a pernicious role with respect to voter choice and “renders meaningful judicial accountability highly unlikely.” Straight-ticket voting allows a voter to check one box on the ballot to select all candidates, including judges, based on political affiliation. Sixteen states' ballots currently have a straight-ticket option, and three states (Alabama, Texas, and West Virginia) select their judges through partisan elections in regular general elections; the authors posit that these states are those “in which voters are most likely to rely on straight-party voting in casting their votes in judicial elections,” a process by which political parties consolidate control “in the most durable branch of government.”

Advocates for straight-ticket voting see it as a way to prevent voters from skipping the judicial check-boxes at the end of the ballot due to fatigue or a lack of information about the candidates; “voters get not only the informational cue of party affiliation, but also the ease of checking a single box and being done.” But, the authors question the legitimacy of a vote “based upon minimal information and reasoning” and argue that "marketing judges as mere accessories to the whole of a political party is simply bad for justice."  Instead, they suggest that state legislatures should seek to scale back the availability of the straight ticket voting and increase voter education, a daunting task which would require political parties to relinquish a particularized set of votes, a powerful method of campaigning, and the notion that it would limit voter choice. Another method of reform would be to follow New York's system of Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commissions, which provides nonpartisan screening of experience and qualifications of judicial candidates. Ultimately, the authors conclude that an alternative to straight-ticket voting must be found because the current system "corrupts the integrity of a judicial selection system, impairs judicial independence, and makes the accountability of judges flow not to the voters, but to party bosses."