Friday, May 14, 2021

Columnist: Why I Refuse to Vote in Judicial Retention Elections

I Abstain: Why I Refuse to Vote in Judicial Retention Elections
By Tyler Williamson, 1889 Institute

Every two years, certain judges are placed on the ballot for a simple yes/no retention vote. These elections stem from Oklahoma’s judicial selection method, and ask voters whether they want to keep, or retain, certain judges. Elections are staggered so judges only face retention every six years. However, not a single judge has been voted out in the fifty-plus years since retention elections were instituted.

I would wager that the majority of Oklahoma voters, including me, a relatively informed voter, know next to nothing about the judges that come up for retention votes. That is unsurprising, considering most people don’t have the time to research and evaluate the legal philosophy and judicial track record of every judge. Thus, a look at election results from the past few elections tell a simple story: a majority vote yes on all of the judges, a decent minority vote no on all of them, while only a small fraction do research and make informed votes. To be clear, I am not lambasting Oklahomans for being uninformed. Many people I know personally vote “No” on all retention elections no matter who it is. I used to vote “No” by default as well. The problem is, it doesn’t matter how informed you are. The judicial selection system we use is extremely flawed, thus rendering your vote meaningless.

Consider the following:

1) You vote “Yes” (as do a majority of Oklahomans) to retain all the judges/justices on the ballot. You maintain the status quo and have voted to validate the work of the Judicial Nominating Commission.

2) You vote “No” on all the judges/justices. If the majority of Oklahomans follow suit, what have you actually accomplished? The same institution (JNC) that gave you the lineup of presumably bad judges that you just voted out will simply reconvene, behind closed doors, and pick new ones.

Regardless, the JNC retains its grip on judicial selection in our state. To add insult to injury, the JNC is effectively controlled by lawyers from the Oklahoma Bar Association (OBA). The only interests truly represented on the court are those of the OBA. In simpler terms, lawyers effectively dictate who sits on the court regardless of retention election outcomes. The 1889 Institute has published various pieces regarding the JNC, the OBA, and the Supreme Court, but one point bears emphasizing again: aside from the useless and patronizing retention elections, the people of the state of Oklahoma have no say in who sits on the higher courts, while lawyers from the OBA have the ultimate say.

The only way to fix this issue is to wrest power away from the OBA by fundamentally reforming our judicial selection method. Voting in retention elections certainly won’t change anything.

I abstain.


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