When it comes time for residents in Cleveland's Cuyahoga County to vote for local Common Pleas judges, the people with the most at stake often don’t cast ballots. In the fifth ward 5, a majority Black area about three miles east of Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center, a high proportion of defendants listed the ward as their home address yet just about a quarter of the ward’s registered voters marked a ballot for a judge in 2020, reports the Marshall Project. Attorneys, academics and people who have experienced the system firsthand offered reasons for low turnout: a glaring lack of useful information about how the courts operate and track records of judges themselves, compounded by a deep distrust of the entire criminal justice system.
Christopher Thorpes, a community activist and lifelong resident of Ward 5, said that though he has worked on political campaigns, he doesn’t vote for judges. Residents tell him that they know firsthand how unfair the system is, so why should they legitimize it? “Nobody wants to vote for a person who might end up locking them up,” he said. Black residents of Cuyahoga County are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. Though Black people make up only about 30 percent of the county's residents, almost two-thirds of the people who are arrested by police and charged with felonies by prosecutors are Black. State records show three-quarters of people in state prisons convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black. While Cleveland residents make up two-thirds of defendants in the court, votes from the city account for less than a quarter of those cast in judges’ races. The vote in the predominantly White suburbs in judges’ races effectively carries three times the power of the vote in the majority Black city.