It's good that incumbent Washington State Supreme Court justice Steve Gonzalez won his race against a no-qualifications challenger in the August 7 primary election.
But it's hard to feel very good about the results, since his challenger, Bruce Danielson, got 40 percent of the vote.
The only way to fully explain this: a serious amount of prejudice in the electorate. Danielson has a very, very white-sounding name. Gonzalez's name sounds Mexican (because he is of Mexican descent).
So the day after the election, I reached out to Danielson, who received more than 424,000 votes—despite having raised $0, despite having received zero endorsements, and despite being described by the head of the Kitsap County Bar Association as "having zero qualifications to be on the bench."
This was not the first time Danielson and I had spoken over the phone, but when I introduced myself this time, he replied:
"Oh yes, the man who likes to call me a racist."
People don't usually pay much attention to Washington State Supreme Court races, but everyone should look closely at this one. The vote tally represents an alarming failure of the democratic process, and it cries out for more attention to the way we conduct judicial elections.
Following the rules for statewide judicial races, this contest was decided in the primary because it featured only two candidates. That Gonzalez won makes good sense. He was the incumbent, appointed by Governor Chris Gregoire in 2011 to fill a vacancy created when Justice Gerry Alexander retired. He is exceptionally well qualified, had tons of high-profile endorsements, and boasts a résumé that includes stints as both a federal terrorism prosecutor and a King County Superior Court judge. He also raised more than $300,000—more than any other candidate for any of the supreme court seats being voted on this cycle.
What doesn't make good sense: Danielson still won 29 of the state's 39 counties and 40 percent of the electorate.
Gonzalez campaign consultant Jake Faleschini says this is "absolutely" a result of prejudice. "That," he says, "combined with lack of information."
The lack of information results in part from the state legislature's decision to stop producing a statewide voters' pamphlet due to tight budgets (it saved $1.3 million by foregoing one this year). Four large counties on the west side of the state—King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap—stepped in and paid for their own voters' pamphlets to educate their electorates, and Danielson lost in all of them.
Also contributing to a lack of information: Ballots don't identify the incumbent in judicial races or provide party identification.
So what kind of choice did low-information rural voters have in this race? One very Anglo-sounding name and one distinctly Latino-sounding name.
Had voters throughout the state been well informed about the candidates' qualifications, says Matt Barreto, a pollster at the University of Washington, "we would have expected that Gonzalez would have won in a huge landslide." He suspects some unknown percentage of voters in the pro-Danielson counties just picked a name at random, but Barreto also believes some other unknown percentage did what research shows low-information voters often do: picked based on prejudice. In the absence of, say, a voters' guide, "People tend to pick names that are more like themselves, that they're more familiar with," Barreto says.
The Stranger called dozens of voters in Adams County, which had the highest vote for Danielson (at 68 percent), to find out what motivated their decisions. About 10 people agreed to discuss their choice, including: five people who didn't vote in that race or couldn't remember who they selected, one person who voted for Gonzalez, and four who voted for Danielson. Among them was Susan Gardner, 65, who couldn't initially recall who she chose, but after reflection said that it was probably Danielson. Why him? "Because of the name," she explained. Asked why she preferred his name, Gardner said simply, "I don't know. I know people by that name."
Gonzalez had warned about this throughout his campaign, and I wrote about it, and that's why Danielson, when I called him after the election, was saying I'm "the man who likes to call [him] a racist."
I told Danielson that I'd never called him a racist, though it does seem to me that he benefited from prejudice in his run against Justice Gonzalez, the first Mexican- American ever to serve on the state's high court. I mean: How else to explain such a surprisingly high vote count for Danielson?
"It seems high to you because—" Then he stopped and went in a different direction, playing up his judicial philosophy as a major selling point. "I would probably say that my view of statutory and constitutional construction happens to be more... you could use the word conservative if you like," Danielson said.
But how would voters know of his ideas on constitutional construction if Danielson didn't campaign?
"My website," he replied.
Asked whether he'd checked the traffic on his site to see whether more than 400,000 people visited it in the lead-up to the primary, he replied: "I probably could, but I haven't."
Gonzalez isn't one to complain directly about prejudice. But he says that if we're going to continue to elect judges in this state, then we need a statewide voters' pamphlet in future elections—"at a minimum."
Joseph Staten contributed to this report.