In a new study available from the Social Science Research Network, Appalachian State professor Craig M. Burnett and University of Houston professor Lydia Tiede put “nonpartisan” judicial elections to the test.  In “Enhancing Voter Choice in Judicial Elections,” Burnett and Tiede used experimental survey data from nonpartisan elections for the North Carolina Court of Appeals (Wanda Bryant vs. Marty McGee) and the Minnesota Supreme Court (David Stras vs. Tim Tingelstad).

Burnett and Tiede examined three potential sources of information. The authors assessed the roles of gender and incumbency labels in the decision-making process of voters.  They found that female voters were more likely to vote for a female candidate and that incumbency labels favored the incumbent candidate.

Most importantly, they analyzed whether party identification helps voters make informed choices about judicial candidates in nonpartisan elections.  They found that party identification matters.  Burnett and Tiede write,

Importantly, our results examine a crucial aspect of voter decision-making in low information judicial elections. In particular, we show that party labels printed on the ballot help voters select candidates who are most aligned with their own preferences, holding constant party identification. While we find that partisans are indeed more likely to support their fellow partisans on the ballot, party labels are also helpful for self identified independents.  Taken at face value, our data suggest that — if a state chooses to elect their judges — including party labels on the ballot provides a valuable cognitive shortcut for voters for an otherwise low information decision for which they are not motivated to learn much about (Downs 1957).

Their study does not address the value of judicial elections or whether non-partisan elections increase the impartiality of judges.  In addition, Burnett and Tiede do not consider differences in the voter education process in partisan and nonpartisan judicial races.

So, let’s [identify] “party like it’s 1999.”