In theory, elections as a method of selecting judges align well with Texas political culture because it allows individuals to shape the state judicial system. As we saw in previous discussions, however, there are some areas of concern when it comes to judicial elections, particularly involving campaign financing. Here, we’ll expand on our understanding of the effectiveness of partisan elections at realizing the goal of popular influence.
Impediments to Popular Influence
Texas has what is known as the long ballot, which results from using elections as the method of appointment for most major political offices in the state. In Texas, voters are tasked with making decisions regarding who should hold various legislative, executive, and judicial positions in local, county, and state government in addition to voting in support of opposition of propositions and constitutional amendments. For Texas citizens, the cost of making informed decisions regarding all of the items that appear on a ballot in any given election cycle is very high. As a result, straight-ticket voting became common practice in Texas. The Texas legislature voted to remove the option of straight-ticket voting starting with the 2020 general election; however, this was reversed and straight-ticket voting was allowed for that election.
“At present, an overwhelming majority of Texas judges are elected based not on their legal qualifications and judicial philosophy, or even on their own campaign efforts, but rather on the performance of their party (in the straight-ticket vote) and of their party’s top-tier candidates (e.g., presidential, gubernatorial) within the jurisdiction where their race is being contested.” (Jones, 2017, p. 2)
The incumbency advantage enjoyed by current officeholders during elections due to greater visibility, a proven record of public service, and better access to resources is robust in Texas.
Although partisan elections are the primary mechanism for judicial appointment to most courts in Texas, a large number of judges in state trial courts and state appellate courts initially reach the bench through recess appointments by the governor. Judges who enter their offices through recess appointments usually enjoy the same incumbency advantage at the polls as their colleagues who were previously elected by voters to serve in their offices.
Lack of knowledge about judicial campaigns and candidates
Judicial campaigns are often among the least visible campaigns during an election cycle. As such, most voters have relatively little knowledge of judicial candidates. Further complicating this is the fact that relying on party labels does not communicate valuable information to voters about the judicial candidates because voters do not have a good understanding of how partisanship plays into everyday judicial decision-making.
From Reconstruction through the late 1900s, judicial races featured only Democratic candidates, who ran unopposed. This changed in the 1980s, when “the emerging strength of the Republican party . . . led to contested elections, and straight-ticket voting has swept away many incumbent [Democratic] judges from their benches” (Womack, n.d.). Today, judicial candidates – particularly those in local or county races – often run opposed.
Outcomes of Texas Judicial Elections
In theory, judges should be selected by voters based on their analyses of that candidate’s effectiveness. In reality, due to the impediments discussed above, the outcome of Texas judicial elections are based in large part on party affiliation (voters in Texas tend to vote along party lines) and name recognition (voters choose a candidate based on familiarity with the candidate or previous recognition of a candidate’s name)