Judicial candidates: party affiliation hindered voter education

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Judicial candidates: party affiliation hindered voter education

Two candidates in a recent state Court of Appeals race say their party affiliation on the ballot may have overshadowed their name recognition with voters in the Nov. 4 election.

Judge Miles Hanisee retained his seat after a challenge from Kerry Kiernan in the Nov. 4 election. Both said they wished they had a better way to communicate their platforms other than their party affiliation right next to their names.

Hanisee said having the the label of Republican or Democrat next to the name of a person running for judge hinders his or her abilities to promote what they have done and what they believe.

“When people take the time to read about what our court does, then the value of the job I’ve done becomes apparent,” Hanisee said. “The partisan aspects in particular, take away the merit aspect.”

During the campaign, Kiernan said he stressed that he wanted people to vote for him based on his expertise in the field of law.

“The whole part of our campaign was to stress qualifications and experience,” Kiernan said. “It’s important that for candidates to go to people rather than people going to candidates.”

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor, said it’s tough for judges to be able to get name recognition. She said while the work of the judges is important, the races are low priorities for many voters, even in off-year elections.

“You’re generally just going to be voting with your party,” Atkeson said. “It’s not that the people aren’t informed, there is just nothing to inform them about.”

Part of the problem, Atkeson said, is that potential judges can’t disclose how they feel about a lot of issues that people are concerned about because of the possibility of the topic appearing before them in the appellate court.

Sometimes, all the candidates can do is hope voters from their party turn out. Atkeson said in this particular race, Hanisee benefited from strong Republican voter turnout.

“Being a Republican, along with incumbency, definitely aided him in the election,” Atkeson said. “Republicans were definitely benefited in this race.”

UNM professor emeritus Michael Browde said the system in place has come a long way since the old election process that favored partisanship.

“They don’t currently run their campaigns on party,” Browde said. “Almost all of the judges I know do their damndest to express their qualifying criteria.”

Browde said while there may be room for the system to improve, he said people have easy access to the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission’s opinions that can help shape the voters’ decisions. The JPEC gives recommendations on new candidates along with incumbent judges running for office.

Hanisee beat Kiernan 52 percent to 48 percent in the race for the tenth judge seat on the appellate court.

During the primary elections, five candidates racing for the spot spent a total of $435,896.26, which ranked the second most spent in the judicial races.

Hanisee and Kiernan used public funding in the statewide campaign, prohibiting outside donors from funding the race. This amount of money the candidates could use was far inferior compared to other statewide races.

“With the system that we have, our race has gone as great as it possibly can,” Hanisee said. “You won’t see negative ads about either one of us, people won’t go home and open their mail and see negative ads.”

Hanisee used the allocated money efficiently and said because he had run in an election before, he didn’t need to have a manager and knew what to expect in the race this time.

Hanisee garnered the endorsements of the state’s major newspapers and defeated Kiernan by less than 10,000 votes in a race of nearly 474,000 votes cast.

Kiernan said it is a shame that people don’t take more of an interest in the court of appellate courts because the appellate courts are usually the final process in court proceedings.

“They’re the ultimate form of defense in our society,” Kiernan said. “People should take an interest in that.”

Kiernan said he relied heavily on campaigning personally and traveling around the state to get his message across and to meet the voters. While Hanisee found that traveling and meeting voters was important as well, he found advertising also was beneficial.

Hanisee aired two television commercials, one expressing that he practices law fairly for everyone, while the other message was that Hanisee fought for children. Kiernan did not elect to campaign via airwaves, other than the YouTube clip of an interview with both candidates, published by the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Both said they campaigned with the intent to make their qualifications known. While Hanisee is the only to use local air time to promote his qualifications, Kiernan said he wanted people to remember meeting him when they got to the judicial section of the ballot.

Hanisee said the race sparked more interest in the 2014 election than in the 2012 election. He said this time around, people wouldn’t vote based on parties and because articles were being published that presented the qualifications of both candidates.

Hanisee said the endorsements of papers such as the Las Cruces Sun News, Albuquerque Journal, The Santa Fe New Mexican, and The Taos News, helped his campaign.

“It’s really rare,” Hanisee said. “It’s a process (getting newspaper endorsements) that is exacting. I think it’s terrific and I’m really happy about it.”

University of New Mexico senior Tasha Uilkie said she tried to gather as much information as possible while waiting in line to vote, but she said in the end she voted with her affiliated party.

“I picked up a magazine with voter information before we went in there. I went off that mostly,” Uilkie said. “I voted with the judge of my party.”

However, Deirdre Sullivan, who is currently enrolled in UNM’s master’s program for elementary education, said she didn’t want to be an uneducated voter.

I skipped that part of the ballot,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t know anything about them so I chose to leave that up to the people who know about judges.”

Neither Sullivan nor Uilkie knew the names of the appellate candidates before entering the line to vote.

Sullivan said she would like to see more exposure in the appellate races in the future so she wouldn’t have to skip that section of the ballot. At the same time, Uilkie said that portion of the ballot was not on her list of priorities when she went to vote.

“The judge races weren’t high on my list of things to vote for,” Uilkie said. “I came to vote for issues and races I care about.”[/text_output][share title=”Share this Post” facebook=”true” twitter=”true” google_plus=”true” linkedin=”true” pinterest=”true”][/vc_column][/vc_row]