Disturbing trends 

We went to press this week while polls were still open for Tuesday's primary and judicial elections.

One thing seemed likely at that point — an unusual number of run-off elections. Three congressional nominations and the nominations for U.S. Senate all seemed possibilities to be undecided after voting ended.

I have two larger observations about this year's primary and judicial elections, neither positive:

• Voter interest. Secretary of State Charlie Daniels was predicting a turnout of about 35 percent of registered voters. This would be the best since 1994, he said.

Forgetting population growth, this is still lackluster. Even if the state produces 150,000 more voters compared with 2008, it doesn't say a great deal. In 2008, there were no statewide races on the primary ballot. No member of Congress faced primary opposition. This year, the mood was said to be ugly about the political status quo. There were contested primaries for one or both established parties in all four congressional districts and for both U.S. Senate primaries. There were two races for state Supreme Court.

If such an abundance of important choices can't inspire more than one in three voters to cast a ballot, you could conclude that the races were uninspiring. In the case of the Senate race, with an eight-figure expenditure on mostly negative advertising, it may have even been off-putting.

Hours before the election, amid politically active liberal Democrats, I heard person after person saying they couldn't decide whether to vote for Bill Halter or Blanche Lincoln. They were uninspired by both.

When you sell people on the notion that all politicians are corrupt and the system virtually unfixable, it doesn't inspire enthusiasm for anybody who'd want the job.

• Then there was the rise of partisanship in judicial elections, made non-partisan by vote of the people in 2000.

Thanks to rigid party discipline, the Republican label is a clear brand and some seem to be yearning to employ it.

The Republican Party of Arkansas circulated a committee's list on recommended judicial choices. Circuit Judge Rhonda Wood of Conway (“A Republican!” the party crowed) used a recorded message from former Gov. Mike Huckabee to tout her GOP recommendation. Appeals Court Judge Karen Baker made the rounds of Republican groups and used surrogates to promote her candidacy to religious conservatives (read Republican). In Facebook page discussions, her supporters noted that opponent Tim Fox's signs had appeared in yards that also displayed Blanche Lincoln signs, a political mark of the beast. (Ironically, Fox won favor from the Republican committee, apparently for ruling several years ago against a residency challenge filed against Republican dauphin Tim Hutchinson Jr. in a legislative race.)

Courtney Henry, another Supreme Court candidate, was anointed with an endorsement by Republican talk show host Bill Vickery on the final Sunday of the campaign. During his show, they engaged in the popular Republican sport of decrying judges who legislate from the bench. Henry herself earned favor with the Family Council (Republican) crowd by expressing her admiration of Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican who, in case you haven't noticed, has been busy legislating from the bench.

All this was enough to prompt one learned contributor to our Arkansas Blog to say that if the spirit and letter of non-partisan judicial elections were not going to be followed, why not go back to the old system rather than handcuff the ethical candidates?

I'd rather we appoint judges. That's not going to happen. But if this year's political branding works out, non-partisanship is going to become an empty designation.



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