Why are so few people running for Cook County judge?

Courtesy of Meridth Hammer

Cook County judicial candidates Meridth Hammer, left, and Lisa Taylor collected nominating petition signatures in January. There are far fewer candidates running for judge this year than in past elections.

Cook County voters will have fewer candidates to choose from than in past years when they cast their ballots for judges in the June 28 primary election.

Just 64 candidates filed to run for 25 circuit court vacancies when the filing period ended earlier this month, meaning there’s less competition for each seat. There is about one fewer candidate per judicial race, on average, than in each of the past five primary elections, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of Illinois State Board of Elections data. (Not counting two appellate court seats up for election this year.)

Campaign consultants and candidates pointed to the change in the primary from March to June as the main reason why relatively few people are running for judge this year. The rescheduling meant candidates had to battle cold weather, a Covid-19 surge, and a narrower window of time to gather nominating petition signatures. But some advocates said less competition could be better for voters.

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“With there being fewer candidates, it’ll be easier for voters to focus on the people who are running,” said Brian Simmons, who works on engaging youth and people impacted by the legal system in judicial elections at the nonprofit Chicago Votes. “It could potentially lead to more informed decisions.”

But one possible downside, according to Simmons, is that fewer candidates can also mean less diversity, especially in candidates’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Judicial candidates typically rely on family and friends to fund their campaigns, and fewer candidates could be a sign that “people don’t have access to the financial capital needed to run.”

There are fewer vacancies this year than there were in most elections since 2012. But when there were about as many open seats on the bench in 2014, 22 more candidates were trying to get on the ballot. In 2020, 119 candidates filed for 34 vacancies.

In past primary elections, it was typical to see several six- and seven-way contests on the judicial ballot. This year, no more than four candidates have filed for a single vacancy.

The final number of judicial candidates on the ballot in June could be even lower, as candidates try to stave off petition challenges that could get them kicked off the ballot.

Rescheduled primary and Covid-19 to blame

Candidates typically have three months in the fall to gather their signatures for primary elections that take place in March. But last summer, the state legislature rescheduled the primary to June in light of a delayed redistricting process. That set the window of time when candidates could gather signatures to just two months in the coldest part of the year, between mid-January and mid-March.

“I think there’s no lack of desire to become a judge, but getting there was a lot more difficult this year,” said Sean Tenner, a veteran campaign consultant specializing in judicial elections. “It was just a very unpleasant proposition for people to try to get several hundred signatures in the bitter cold, with far fewer mass events” because of Covid-19.

To compensate for the shortened petition-gathering time, legislators also reduced the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot by a third. Candidates for countywide seats had to collect at least 2,567 signatures to file, and candidates for subcircuit races had to collect 667 signatures. Consultants usually tell candidates to gather at least twice as many signatures as required to withstand potential petition challenges. But the lower signature threshold was cold comfort to the candidates.

Gathering petition signatures “was absolutely horrible,” said Jerome “Jerry” Barrido, a candidate for judge in the 4th subcircuit and attorney with the Cook County public defender’s office. “You’re out in the morning at 5 and 6 a.m. in 10 degree weather in the middle of the pandemic. It was a personal challenge to be up every day in those conditions — you had to really believe in your candidacy to do that.”

Barrido said the process was much easier the last time that he ran for judge in 2018. He said fewer people had video doorbells to screen out door-knocking strangers that year, and the issue that people were most riled up about was the ill-fated Cook County sugary beverage tax.

“Now, the main issue is law and order,” which Barrido said made it harder to convince people in his west suburban subcircuit to sign a petition for a Democrat running for judge. “There was certainly a sense of hostility,” Barrido said. Nevertheless, not a single Republican has so far filed for any of the Cook County judicial races.

Meridth Hammer, an attorney in private practice, banded together with three other countywide candidates to gather petition signatures as a slate, a common move by candidates who don’t have the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party. But she said the process was still more difficult — and expensive — than she expected.

“One Sunday I was going to go to church, and I was snowed in that day — that was a whole day lost, and with [the shortened petition-gathering period] every day mattered, every hour mattered,” she said.

Like many candidates, Hammer and the others on her slate hired petition circulators to help them gather signatures, but the prices were higher than in past years. “It got outrageous; we were paying $3 a signature, and in the past, it was $1 or maybe $2,” Hammer said. “One of the circulators quoted me $7, and I was like, ‘You can kick rocks; we’re not paying that much.’”

Three campaign consultants told Injustice Watch that petition collection fees were much higher than usual, as much as $10 per signature in some parts of the county. The consultants said prices are especially high for candidates filing for the late-breaking judicial vacancies.

Another factor that could have led to fewer candidates running for judge was uncertainty about whether the legislature was going to redraw the boundaries of judicial subcircuits in time for this year’s election. The Illinois General Assembly decided about a week before the petition-circulating period started to draw new subcircuit boundaries but delayed their implementation to 2024. The legislature also added five new subcircuits in Cook County, which will make it easier for candidates who don’t have Democratic Party backing to run in the next election, according to judicial campaign consultant Allen Manuel.

“Next cycle there will be more subcircuit vacancies, so instead of trying to do a countywide [race this year], you could wait one more cycle, and I think that’s a wise choice,” Manuel said.

The silver lining to a summer primary

The final number of candidates who land on the June ballot will likely change in the coming weeks.

Eighteen of the 64 candidates who filed have had their nominating petitions challenged. If the board of elections finds that they failed to get enough valid signatures, they will be disqualified. In past years, about one-fifth of candidates who filed were removed or withdrew before Election Day.

In addition, two new Cook County vacancies opened up during the filing period because of the recent retirement of one judge and the death of another. Candidates have until April 4 to file nominating petitions for those seats.

Those candidates who survive signature challenges and make it on the ballot have an unusual campaign season to look forward to. All the farmers markets, sports events, and festivals that candidates typically rely on to gather signatures in the fall will now be campaign stops in the late spring and summer — especially if the pandemic continues to ebb.

“I’m gay, and June is pride month; there’s a parade two days before the primary,” said attorney Bradley Trowbridge, who is making his fourth run for judge in the 8th subcircuit, which encompasses much of Chicago’s North Side lakefront and the Loop. “I’ll be in the parade; my name will be seen by many people two days before they vote, which is something I was never able to take advantage of in the past. No one remembers my name in March if I go to the Pride Parade in June.”

It’s unclear whether the summer primary will mean better-than-usual turnout or the typical midterm-year slump. Tenner predicted the latter — which could bode well for grassroots candidates in particular.

“There is not a contested governor’s race or U.S. Senate race on the Democratic side, so that means fewer people will turn out, and you can reach those fewer people with less money,” Tenner said. “If you were able to get the signatures, this is certainly a great year to run for judge.”

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