Voting in State Supreme Court Elections: Competition and Context as Democratic Incentives


Melinda Gann Hall is professor of political science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48823.


To offer insight into the complex relationship between democratic processes and the judiciary and to expand knowledge about elections, this article examines ballot roll-off in 654 supreme court elections in 38 states from 1980 through 2000. Specifically, I evaluate the extent to which voter participation is responsive to competition, incumbency, and contextual forces that increase salience and information. Results indicate that voting is highly responsive to these factors. Thus, supreme court elections bear a striking resemblance to elections for other offices and may be effective under certain circumstances for promoting democratic control of the bench. Further, contextual forces have an important impact on citizen participation and must be included in satisfactory accounts of electoral politics. From a practical perspective, replacing partisan elections with nonpartisan or retention elections has the unintended consequence of inhibiting voting, even when nonpartisan elections are contested. Thus, some criticisms of judicial elections are a self-fulfilling prophecy.