Even the most civically engaged Philadelphians may balk at the challenge of attempting to cast an informed vote in the city’s notoriously crowded judicial races. In 2015 alone, there were no less than 43 judicial candidates.
But new, first-of-its-kind research from Econsult has confirmed what many had long believed: Sheer luck has more to do with becoming judge in the city than experience or endorsements.
“Ballot position has a larger effect on whether or not you win these races than the Democratic party recommendation, than an Inquirer recommendation or a recommendation from the Bar Association,” said Jonathan Tannen, a research director at the consultancy.
In Philadelphia, candidates are arranged in a gridded ballot, with positions famously assigned by drawing bingo balls out of an old Horn & Hardart coffee can. Some candidates will drop their candidacy immediately after drawing a bum spot, while the Democratic City Committee will sometimes mete out endorsements simply on the basis of hopefuls who land “favorable” spots.
To some, this may sound like insanity, but there’s a method to the madness. In the five years Tannen analyzed, no candidate who lucked into the top row of the top ballot column – the first spot most voters see – lost a judicial race.
“I think that's clearly bad – it basically says that our judges are being selected entirely randomly,” Tannen said. “It’s especially troubling for this office because they are elected to such long terms and because there's so little attention paid to these races.”
Anecdotally, the researcher cites the case of Common Pleas Judge Scott DiClaudio, a judicial candidate with a history of being censured for his performance as defense attorney. But DiClaudio nevertheless landed the top slot in 2015 – and was easily elected.
In fact, even landing a ballot slot in the second column appeared to have more of an impact on candidates winning elections than landing an Inquirer endorsement, at least as a relative measure of quality. Strikingly, the endorsement of the Philadelphia Bar Association had virtually no impact on a candidate’s odds of winning.
Tannen acknowledged that it was tough to say whether landing a “bad” spot on the ballot can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with disheartened candidates spending fewer campaign dollars on an uphill battle.
But those outcomes only serve to reinforce the power of the can.
“If people drop out because they get a bad ballot position, it's still the lottery causing them to drop out,” he said. “In terms of statistical significance, it’s highly significant. We’re extremely confident the ballot position effect is there – and not due to chance.”
Tannen said the easiest fix would be to eliminate little-noticed judicial elections altogether – most jurisdictions simply appoint judges – although he admitted such a sweeping change would likely require a great deal of political legwork.
“If you want to keep judicial elections, there are some easy first fixes, like not having the same ballot position across the entire city,” he said. “You could randomize ballots by ward.”
Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt, whose office helps oversee municipal elections, said the research confirmed what he had long suspected. But he said moving to a randomized ballot wouldn’t be an easy lift, either.
“To the extent that it's a problem, there is no easy solution,” Schmidt said. “Our current voting technology in Philadelphia doesn't allow for randomized ballot positioning by ward or division. In addition, it would require a change to the Pennsylvania Election Code, which is very specific about how ballot position is selected and doesn't allow for randomization.”
Schmidt said that while simply upgrading to digital voting machines was an inevitability, it would cost upwards of $25 million.
And some individuals are in no hurry to change the current system at all.
The commissioner said some candidates relied on fixed ballot numbers for their own campaign purposes in races where names rarely matter – imagine yard signs that read, “Push Button #12”
“Some people will stand outside polling places handing out handwritten notes with numbers like 6, 24 and 38 written on it. They’re just ballot numbers. That way, voters aren’t looking for names or anything else, they’re just making really simple” decisions, he said. “It’s crazy. We get bombarded with calls every election from candidates asking what their ballot number will be.”