Basically every state in the union has different rules when it comes to state elections. Things get even more complicated when municipal contests are thrown into the mix. In the battle for public office, perhaps no group of candidates are faced with as many hurdles as those in the judicial realm. Some states don’t have judicial elections at all; their judges are either appointed by the governor, state legislature, or a combination of both. Yet the states that select judges democratically usually don’t allow much campaigning. They may have strict rules regulating the judges’ speech, such as prohibiting them from criticizing their opponents’ rulings. Others don’t ban the practice by statute, but it’s still considered a major taboo in the legal profession to utilize typical campaign rhetoric. Judges in these areas feel tremendous social pressure to stay silent.
Speech isn’t the only thing that’s being constrained in certain judicial elections. A few states require the judges to rely on public funds as a way of leveling the playing field and discouraging fund raising. The theory behind this logic is that campaign contributions might come along with expectations in terms of future legal action. This could potentially foster corruption in the justice system, and no one wants that. But these restrictions really put judicial candidates in a bind. They want to get elected, yet they lack the means to adequately promote themselves.
Some resourceful Wisconsin state Supreme Court candidates discovered a cost-effective platform that lets them connect directly with voters: social networking. The prospective arbiters find that Facebook and Twitter help them reach the younger demographic, which is always an important constituency. Those ages 35 and under are likely to ignore television based advertising and some in this category don’t watch TV in a traditional way at all. The same can be said for the radio, which is an irrelevant medium to many. The candidates also enjoy getting instant feedback on their public appearances from a source other than pundits and journalists. Of course, the only people viewing the content on Twitter and Facebook are already interested in the election. This means the candidates are reaching a niche group as opposed to a random, potentially disinterested audience. Commentators are dismissing this emerging trend by pointing out that Facebook comments or retweets don’t automatically translate into votes. Here’s hoping the people of Wisconsin prove them wrong!