NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, May 28th, 2020

Most Washingtonians not sure who they’ll vote for in state’s 2020 Supreme Court races

Around four out of five like­ly 2020 Wash­ing­ton vot­ers are unsure who they’ll be sup­port­ing in this year’s con­test­ed State Supreme Court races, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s lat­est statewide poll has found.

Asked whether they would vote for incum­bents G. Helen Whiten­er (for Posi­tion #6) and Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis (for Posi­tion #3), or their chal­lengers Richard Serns and David Lar­son, the vast major­i­ty of respon­dents said they were not sure. The fig­ure of unde­cid­ed vot­ers was 81% for the race for Posi­tion #6 (Whiten­er vs. Serns) and 78% for Posi­tion #3 (Mon­toya-Lewis vs. Larson).

13% of respon­dents indi­cat­ed a pref­er­ence for Jus­tice Whiten­er for Posi­tion #6 and 6% indi­cat­ed a pref­er­ence for Whiten­er’s oppo­nent, Serns.

14% of respon­dents indi­cat­ed a pref­er­ence for Jus­tice Mon­toya-Lewis for Posi­tion #3 and 8% indi­cat­ed a pref­er­ence for Mon­toya-Lewis’ oppo­nent Larson.

Our sur­vey of 1,070 like­ly 2020 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Tues­day, May 19th through Wednes­day, May 20th, 2020.

It uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines and text mes­sage answers from cell phone only respondents.

The poll was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.0% at the 95% con­fi­dence level.

The full text of our ques­tion in the race for Posi­tion #3 and the answers were:

QUESTION: The can­di­dates for Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court Posi­tion #3 this year are David Lar­son and Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis. If the elec­tion were held today, who would you vote for?

ANSWERS:

  • David Lar­son: 8%
  • Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis: 14%
  • Not sure: 78%

And for Posi­tion #6:

QUESTION: The can­di­dates for Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court Posi­tion #6 this year are G. Helen Whiten­er and Richard S. Serns. If the elec­tion were held today, who would you vote for?

ANSWERS:

  • G. Helen Whiten­er: 13%
  • Richard S. Serns: 6%
  • Not sure: 81%

The results for these races are sim­i­lar to NPI’s 2018 State Supreme Court find­ing from two years ago, when we asked like­ly vot­ers whether they pre­ferred the excep­tion­al­ly well qual­i­fied Jus­tice Steven Gon­za­lez or his oppo­nent, con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist Nathan Choi. In that sur­vey, 74% of vot­ers said they were not sure, while 16% pre­ferred Choi and only 10% pre­ferred Gonzalez.

At the time we released our 2018 find­ing, we expressed our deep con­cern that vot­ers might open up their bal­lots with­out hav­ing heard much about the can­di­dates. We asked oth­er media out­lets to step up and join us in cov­er­ing the race. Sev­er­al reporters respond­ed and rose to the occa­sion, notably pub­lic radio’s Austin Jenk­ins and KIRO7’s Essex Porter. Their report­ing that autumn was instru­men­tal in help­ing Wash­ing­to­ni­ans make an informed decision.

Jus­tice Gon­za­lez ulti­mate­ly received 67.58% of the vote in the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion, win­ning reelec­tion in a land­slide and car­ry­ing every coun­ty in the state.

The result was a val­i­da­tion of the impor­tance of ele­men­tal polit­i­cal reporting.

As judi­cial can­di­dates, Choi and Gon­za­lez appeared on the bal­lot with no par­ty des­ig­na­tion or oth­er infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed, mak­ing it hard for any­one with­out a firm grasp of Wash­ing­ton State pol­i­tics to eas­i­ly tell them apart.

Con­tests for exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive posi­tions in Wash­ing­ton are typ­i­cal­ly par­ti­san, whether at the state or coun­ty lev­el, but all judi­cial posi­tions are non­par­ti­san. What’s more, judi­cial can­di­dates are restrict­ed in terms of how they may cam­paign by the Code of Judi­cial Con­duct.

A judge or jus­tice may be well known to mem­bers of the bar, but the same does not hold true for the gen­er­al pub­lic. This lack of aware­ness in judi­cial elec­tions is a recur­ring issue that we have to deal with every year, for Wash­ing­ton vot­ers are tasked with decid­ing who should sit on the bench at mul­ti­ple lev­els… munic­i­pal court, dis­trict court, Supe­ri­or Court, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court.

Jus­tices Whiten­er and Mon­toya-Lewis end­ed up on the Supreme Court through the process of appoint­ment; the depar­ture of their pre­de­ces­sors mid-term cre­at­ed vacan­cies that Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee had the respon­si­bil­i­ty of fill­ing, and his office took that respon­si­bil­i­ty extreme­ly seri­ous­ly. How­ev­er, it’s the vot­ers who will decide who ought to serve on the Court over the long haul.

Full terms on the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court are for six years, so the result of a Supreme Court race is pret­ty consequential.

A grand total of four seats on the Court are up for elec­tion this year.

Incum­bent Jus­tices Debra Stephens (cur­rent­ly the Chief Jus­tice) and Charles W. John­son did not draw any chal­lengers, so they will remain in office.

That leaves two con­test­ed posi­tions: the afore­men­tioned races between Whiten­er and Serns and between Mon­toya-Lewis and Larson.

It’s cru­cial that vot­ers know who these can­di­dates are and what their qual­i­fi­ca­tions are so they can make an informed deci­sion this fall.

Wash­ing­ton State’s media out­lets are among the few orga­ni­za­tions that are in a posi­tion to address the lack of aware­ness in judi­cial elections.

By car­ing about the Supreme Court races, talk­ing to the can­di­dates, and putting togeth­er sto­ries for vot­ers’ ben­e­fit, pub­lish­ers in the Ever­green State can pro­vide a crit­i­cal pub­lic ser­vice dur­ing this his­toric pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year.

We appre­ci­ate that this is a tough time for peo­ple work­ing in jour­nal­ism; the pan­dem­ic is neg­a­tive­ly affect­ing the work of many newsrooms.

But we’ll all be bet­ter off if these races get the cov­er­age they deserve.

We’re com­mit­ted to doing our part to cre­at­ing that cov­er­age, and we hope oth­er media orga­ni­za­tions will join us. We plan on check­ing in on these Supreme Court races again this autumn, and hope­ful­ly, when our next sur­vey comes back, we will find a small­er num­ber of vot­ers who are not sure as to their choice.

And this sum­mer, you can expect to see a Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate series pro­fil­ing 2020 judi­cial can­di­dates, includ­ing — but not lim­it­ed to! — our Supreme Court hopefuls.

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