John Oliver strikes again.

Photographer: Eric Liebowitz/HBO

Catch of the Day: John Oliver's Judges Rant

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to HBO’s John Oliver, who ranted about judicial elections last night.

He highlights research showing how judges are tougher on criminals when the judges are up for re-election, and details the potential conflicts when interest groups finance candidates for the bench. And he shows how insipid many ads in their campaigns can be. All true!

What bothers me most about these elections, however, is the burden they place on voters. Without media attention (and most judicial elections aren't going to be well-covered, especially in jurisdictions with a dozen or more of these races), people just aren’t going to know how to vote.

A healthy democracy should enable all citizens to get involved in politics if they want. But it also should allow citizens to participate without requiring hours of study to get it “right” -- or feel guilty when leaving the polling place because they skipped some boxes or just guessed.

Voting should be easy. It's the training-wheels stage of democracy. Doing real politics requires something more: advocacy, lobbying, discussion, organization. Not all of us choose to do those things, and no one wants to do it all in every area of public policy or in every contested race. Yet we still want everyone to have input. Voting can fulfill that important need only if it’s structured so citizens with a low interest can participate meaningfully.

There’s no way to vote well when it comes to judicial elections. Appointment works well for the federal bench; states should follow that example.

So: Nice catch!

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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Katy Roberts at