Thursday, March 31, 2016

Guest post: Voter turnout and judicial elections -- lessons learned from 2016

by Sean Tenner

Cook County voters are to be congratulated for their vastly increased voter turnout in the March 15th Primary Election. Cook County Democratic Primary turnout rocketed from an anemic 277,988 in 2014 to 1,145,069 in 2016. Credit also goes to state legislators, and advocacy groups such as Chicago Votes, who successfully pushed to dramatically expand voter registration and early voting options in Illinois. Illinois may have its challenges, but to our state’s credit we continue to make voting more accessible while other states move ominously in the opposite direction.

This high voter turnout – driven by intense interest in races for President and State’s Attorney - had significant impact on judicial races.

As in 2008 when a comparable 1,087,642 Cook County Democrats cast ballots, gender voting trumped, even more than usual, all other judicial voting factors including institutional/party support and bar ratings. In low turnout elections like 2012 and 2014, the few voters who turned out were certainly more engaged politically and more cognizant of local elected official and Democratic party organization endorsements – endorsements which typically (though not universally) go to candidates with high bar ratings.

When turnout surges, as it did in 2008 and 2016, newly energized voters who have strong opinions on races like President and State’s Attorney often face a quandary in judicial races. With practically zero media coverage of judicial campaigns, these voters face a large array of choices and unfamiliar names in the judicial section of the ballot. Many revert to ethnic and gender-based voting patterns in judicial races; few will know who their local Democratic Committeeman or Alderman supports for Judge.

In 2008 and 2016, estimates show that nearly 60% of the Democratic Primary electorate was female. While it seems intuitive that women are more likely to vote for female judicial candidates, many progressive men in Democratic primaries will also vote for women or ethnic minorities in a belief that both groups deserve more representation in government and on the bench. Anecdotally, while I have heard dozens of Democratic men over the years tell me they automatically vote for female candidates for judge for these reasons, I have never heard anyone - of either gender - tell me that they automatically vote for male candidates for judge in Democratic Primaries.

In 2016, four male countywide judicial candidates with strong bar ratings slated by the Cook County Democratic Party lost their elections – a much larger number than expected. Two of these slated male candidates lost to women with Irish surnames, one lost to a Latina and one lost to an Irish surnamed male candidate in a one-on-one race.
Two late-breaking vacancies in the north suburban 12th subcircuit left judicial candidates with very little time to communicate with voters; these races thus present a useful barometer on judicial voting behavior. In the Kazmierski vacancy, won by Marguerite Quinn, the two female candidates accounted for 75.54% of the vote, while the slated male candidate won only 11.95% of the vote. In the Mathein vacancy, my client Janet Cronin Mahoney won 78.8% of the vote against a male candidate who had the advantage of having the same name as the vacancy.

In the south and west sides of the county, multiple male candidates with strong bar ratings who were slated by the Democratic Committeemen in their own subcircuits lost to female candidates who spent very little on voter contact and did not participate in the bar evaluation process.

Of course, there are highly qualified candidates of both genders who win or lose elections based on factors other than their qualifications. Ballot position and a unique name (such as the new Democratic nominee for 1st subcircuit Judge, Jesse Outlaw) certainly help – as does the quality of the campaign. But judicial election results from the past several election cycles show that as turnout goes up, candidates must work even harder to overcome a natural predisposition of the primary electorate towards gender or ethnic-based voting behavior.

Sean Tenner is a political consultant specializing in judicial campaigns and President of KNI Communications ( Tenner has an enviable record of success in the judicial campaigns he's quarterbacked. While not all of his clients won their races in the recent primary, Tenner did run campaigns for Judge Eve Marie Reilly (the candidate who wasn't slated in the 10th Subcircuit... and then was), 9th Subcircuit Judge Jerry Esrig, 6th Subcircuit Judge Anna Loftus (who was also not slated), and 12th Subcircuit candidate Janet Mahoney.

Another 12th Subcircuit client of Tenner's, Judge Carrie Hamilton, faced no primary opponent -- but will face a contested election in November, as will Tenner client Judge Ketki "Kay" Steffen. Tenner can be reached at or (312) 576-8822.


Anonymous said...

For the record: Frank "the rat" Calabrese ran the Judge Loftus campaign. Tenner only helped gather petitions early on.

Jack Leyhane said...

Anon -- I know Mr. Calabrese was deeply involved in Judge Loftus's campaign. (I am not acquainted with any nicknames by which Mr. Calabrese may be known.)

It is my understanding that, often, candidates have multiple consultants, some more active than others, some more influential than others. I am not in a position, from my vantage point, to say precisely who did what when -- but I can confirm that I did hear from Mr. Calabrese quite often during the campaign concerning Judge Loftus.

I am reminded of the old saying, success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

Sean Tenner said...

Success has many fathers, as Jack rightly notes. In this case, fortunately, there was plenty of well deserved credit to go around.

Frank ran a deeply impressive and comprehensive field operation, Judge Loftus worked incredibly hard every day in the community - often starting at CTA stops at 6 AM. My team at KNI Communications handled the petition process and we implemented a robust direct mail program in February and March which received extraordinarily positive feedback from elected officials throughout the area.

I was thrilled with our big win in this race, but just jealous that I don't get an animal nickname like Frank. - Sean "The Hedgehog" Tenner /