Document Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

David C Earnest


This dissertation examines select key factors that influence voter choices in state trial court judicial elections in three large, cosmopolitan counties in California and Texas. These include ballot designations (i.e., professional titles of candidates), “evaluations” of candidates by local bar associations, newspaper endorsements, political party affiliation, and gender. Focus here is on ballot designations and local bar association evaluations; the subjective opinions issued by local bar associations as official-sounding, objective and qualitative evaluations. In turn, local bar associations are private, voluntary associations consisting of fee-paying members and not overseeing state bar associations as many laypeople believe. Judicial elections remain low-information, low-participation, and low-saliency affairs. Local bar associations do little to correct the misunderstanding that exists around the true nature of their “evaluations.” Additionally, California operates with a disparity in its ballot designation- related election law as this features different rules for government and non-government attorneys running for office. While Texas judicial elections are partisan, this is not the case in California. Accordingly, California voters may have to rely on a narrower set of heuristics in voting unless they are political sophisticates. This is often not the case. The present research results show that ballot designations and bar association evaluations have a significant impact on the outcome of judicial elections at the trial court level in the three counties examined: Los Angeles and San Francisco counties in California and Harris County, Texas (the greater Houston area). Each of these factors can make the difference between an election win and loss. Together, their effect presents statically significant evidence of voter influencing by powerful private, associations and positive state law in the areas examined. These concerns and others presented in this dissertation run afoul of American notions of democracy, transparency, and equality under the law. If the goal in the judicial election context in the areas examined and possible elsewhere is to optimize the quality of justice by seating the most qualified and least biased judges on the bench and to protect democratic and other minorities through inclusive governance, the sum of the answer is that judicial elections are fatally flawed.

Subject Categories

Law | Other Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Political Science


Bar associations, California, Election law, Judicial appointments, Judicial elections, Voter influencing

Number of Pages



University of South Dakota



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