While the results of the 2016 election for the two State Supreme Court seats in the 8th Judicial District were known on Election night, the final results warrant one more look. Those who seek future election and those who plan and run judicial elections will find some interesting takeaways from the numbers.
Every election cycle, of course, is different in terms of the heads of party tickets and the offices involved. Presidential elections draw the largest percent of eligible voters, followed by gubernatorial election years. Odd-numbered years that feature local contests often see a considerable drop-off from even-numbered years. Turnout in Erie County was only 25 percent in 2015.
When you look at results for judicial races in Western New York you can usually observe a pattern that follows the lead of a party’s head-of-ticket vote. There is always a drop-off from the head-of-ticket party vote to that of judicial candidates. This is most likely because of voters’ unfamiliarity with the judicial candidates, even after tens of thousands of dollars in advertising.
I have taken an in-depth look at the 2016 Supreme Court races in the 8th District and compared those numbers with what occurred in two previous presidential election cycles. This analysis offers a variety of shoulda/coulda/woulda possibilities for why the races turned out the way they did, and how a change in certain factors may have impacted the outcome.
The 8th Judicial District consists of eight Western New York counties: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming. In November 2016 there were 955,974 registered voters in the District, including 405,501 Democrats; 286,996 Republicans; and 183,701 voters who are not affiliated with a party.
At the beginning of 2016 the only seat in the District that was expected to be on the ballot was the one currently held by Justice Joseph Glownia, who will retire at the end of 2016. Glownia is a Democrat.
A second seat was added to the ballot after the resignation of John Michalek, who pled guilty earlier this year to several criminal charges.
For a while there was some consideration of the possibility of a Democrat/Republican cross-endorsement of two candidates, one from each party. When that conversation ended the parties each nominated two candidates. Lynn Wessel Keane and Grace Hanlon were the Democratic nominees. Mary Slisz and Daniel Furlong were the Republicans.
The minor parties weighed in with their endorsements. The Conservatives endorsed Slisz and Furlong. The Independence Party chose Hanlon and Keane. The Working Families Party selected Hanlon plus a New York City lawyer who originally was a candidate for Congress on Long Island before the wheeling/dealing WF folks stuck him in Western New York. Unfortunately candidates for State Supreme Court need not be residents of the Judicial District they are running in. How convenient for the political maneuvering.
There were a number of factors that helped contribute to the election of Mary Slisz and Daniel Furlong. I know Mary Slisz. She is an honest and intelligent person, and I have no reason to think otherwise about Daniel Furlong either. They were qualified candidates, as were Lynn Keane and Grace Hanlon. The point of this analysis is to review what happens in a race where there are no issues; where the head of the party tickets affects turnout; where minor parties can cast a disproportionate influence; and where the only contact with or knowledge of the candidates comes to most voters through television ads.
The vote totals in the 2016 8th Judicial District race were as follows:
- Slisz 301,456
- Furlong 289,967
- Keane 284,756
- Hanlon 283,588
- Schaeffer 26,654
There were contests for the State Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008, but none in 2012.
The Clinton ticket
Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy certainly drew its share of strong feelings among voters, both for and against her. Her strong national vote, which she won by a margin approaching three million votes, is a testament to her hard work and support of a progressive national agenda.
That being said, when you examine her vote in Western New York you find that she was fighting upstream. The results were not particularly great.
Secretary Clinton carried the counties comprising the 8th Judicial District, but her vote on the Democratic line was considerably less than that of either John Kerry in 2004 or Barack Obama in 2008. The lower Democratic vote for the head of the ticket likely impacted the campaigns of the party’s candidates for State Supreme Court.
Clinton’s Democratic vote in the 8th District totaled 286,372. In 2004 John Kerry received 353,653, over 67,000 more votes than Clinton on the party line. In 2008 Barack Obama collected 361,735, or about 75,000 more than Clinton. The drop-off in votes was consistent in all eight counties.
If you study local judicial races you will observe a considerable drop-off between the head-of-ticket vote and that of the judicial candidates. In 2004 Justice Paula Feroleto received 49,146 (14 percent) fewer votes on the Democratic line than did John Kerry. In 2008 Justice Tracey Bannister received 95,277 (26 percent) fewer than Barack Obama.
In 2016, however, votes for Lynn Keane and Grace Hanlon on the Democratic line ran much closer to Clinton’s vote than in the other two recent judicial races. Keane received 260,974 Democratic votes, just 25,398 (9 percent) fewer. Hanlon’s Democratic vote total was 240,181, or 46,191 (16 percent) below Clinton.
Even allowing for a traditionally large drop-off in votes between the head-of-ticket and the judicial candidate, if the Clinton vote had approached the Kerry or Obama numbers in the District, the chances of Keane or Hanlon winning would have been substantially improved.
The Trump effect
While Donald Trump won the presidential election in the Electoral College, his actual popular vote totals were not impressive. The conventional wisdom about Trump’s strength in Western New York is questionable.
In the eight county 8th Judicial District Trump received 294,814 votes on the Republican Party line. In 2004 George W. Bush’s vote total was 316,062. In 2008 John McCain gathered 276,950 Republican votes, or just 17,864 fewer than Trump.
When you look at the drop-off in the Republican judicial votes, Justice Frank Caruso ran 89,124 (28 percent) behind George W. Bush in 2004. Jeffrey Voelkl trailed John McCain by 71,142 (26 percent) in 2008.
This year both Mary Slisz and Daniel Furlong ran closer to Trump on the Republican line than the judicial candidates in 2004 and 2008 compared with the party’s presidential candidates. Slisz was 50,508 (17 percent) behind Trump. Furlong was 61,124 (21 percent) behind.
Slisz and Furlong, therefore, did considerably better compared to Trump than Caruso and Voelkl did vis-à-vis Bush and McCain.
What to make of the Trump effect on the local elections? One could argue that votes in judicial races, with no issues and usually low voter recognition, are a truer measure of party voting. Trump did not draw out a particularly large number of Republican votes in Western New York, so the Supreme Court candidates ran better proportionally.
The Conservative Party vote
There are no issues in judicial races, so minor parties don’t have much to go on in terms of why they choose to support one candidate or another. Personal relationships can matter. So can the opportunities to secure appointments to a judge’s staff.
The strongest of the local parties, in terms of votes delivered to candidates endorsed, is and has for many years been the Conservatives. In 2016 the Party delivered a substantial vote for their Republican-affiliated endorsees, Mary Slisz and Daniel Furlong. Slisz received 57,150 votes on the Conservative line in the District; Furlong received 56,277. Trump received 48,640. Without the Conservative vote, Slisz and Furlong would have lost.
We have no good and objective way of determining where all those votes on the Conservative line came for the Supreme Court candidates. My guess is that it was a drifting over from Democrats and non-affiliated votes who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton. Trump received considerably more votes on the Conservative line in the District (48,640) than either Bush (18,296) or McCain (21,212). That’s interesting, considering that many of Trump’s views on public issues such as Social Security and Medicare, trade and gay marriage aren’t exactly small “c” conservative positions.
One more note: while in 2016 the Conservative Party provided the margin of victory for Conservative-endorsed candidates for Supreme Court, that has not always been the case. In 2004 Paula Feroleto’s victory margin was 153,228. She received 33,295 votes on the Conservative line. In 2008 Tracey Bannister won election over Jeffrey Voelkl by 69,309 votes. The 38,321 votes Voelkl received on the Conservative line did not make a difference for him.
The Working Families fiasco
The Working Families Party in New York State is the descendent of the Liberal Party, which died in 2002 when its candidate for governor, Andrew Cuomo, failed to get 50,000 votes to maintain its ballot status.
The party loves to wheel and deal. In 2014 they attempted to push Governor Cuomo into supporting their platform in exchange for their endorsement. They also like to play games with judicial endorsements, as they did this year.
Democrats had a primary for their nomination for Congress in the 1st District on Long Island. Evidently it wasn’t clear who would win the primary. The Working Families Party endorsed New York City attorney Kenneth Schaeffer in that District; he doesn’t live there. After the primary the political parties on Long Island decided that the Democrat who won the congressional primary, Anna Throne-Holst, might have a better chance of winning with the addition of the Working Families line.
In New York State, after the early deadline is passed for substitution of candidates when petitions are filed, the only way a substitute candidate can be chosen is if the original candidate dies, moves out of state, or is nominated for a judicial office. So that is how it came to be that Schaffer became a candidate for Supreme Court in the 8th Judicial District. Schaeffer might be a serial placeholder candidate, having also done so in a race for State Supreme Court in the Bronx in 2014. Throne-Holst, by the way, lost anyway in a 59/41 percent landslide. She only received 5,648 votes on the Working Families line.
Despite the fact that Schaeffer had no business running for State Supreme Court in Western New York this year, he managed to draw 26,654 votes, including 15,760 in Erie County. Had Lynn Keane had the Working Families line this year she likely would have finished first or second in the balloting, despite all the other factors noted above.
There is a time-honored tradition in New York State elections when there is more than one person to be elected in a judicial or legislative district. It is called “plunking.” The idea is that even if you like candidate B, who is running on your party’s ballot, if you like your candidate A better, you may not want to boost the chances of candidate B by voting for that person.
Plunking this year was pretty obvious in Chautauqua County, Grace Hanlon’s home county. She received 9,267 more votes than Keane in Chautauqua. This is not to say that there was no plunking for Keane going on in places like South Buffalo, where people have been voting for candidates named Keane for more than 50 years. But Keane only ran 1,183 votes ahead of Hanlon in Buffalo’s South District, and the Keane margin over Hanlon in the entire City of Buffalo was just 5,011.
There are two seats on the Supreme Court in the 8th Judicial District up for election in 2017. Justice Sharon Townsend will retire. Justice Erin Peradotto will run for re-election. Both are Republicans. No word yet on who Democrats might favor.
There is also word on the street that another judge from the 8th District will retire early in 2017, opening up a third seat. That will complicate things further.
Neither Trump nor Clinton will be headlining the 2017 ballot, so turnout will be substantially less than in 2016. There will be a whole new sets of numbers to look at. Let the games begin.