Kincart: Understanding the Judges on Your Ballot


Sydney Stam

(Graphic by Sydney Stam | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Sydney Kincart, Print Chief, Opinion Writer


When I voted for the first time, I called my parents to ask what the judicial portion of the ballot meant. Where do I find information about judges? How do I determine if they did their job well? I know I’m not the only one with this confusion. Many of my friends struggled to understand this section. Luckily, the legislature is tackling this issue in the 2022 general session. House Bill 40, Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) Amendments, would enhance our understanding of judges on our ballots. The JPEC Amendments add clarity to our electoral process and will help voters make more informed decisions.

Rep. Nelson Abbott of district 60 proposed the JPEC amendments. As this bill has moved to the Senate, Sen. Jani Iwamoto acts as the bill’s floor sponsor. In an interview, Abbott explained that JPEC did research in other states and “found that voters do not like to be told how to vote by government people.”

Currently, Utah is one of six states that has judicial retention elections during the general election. Judges in Utah are appointed by the chief executive and voters decide whether the judges should continue in office after each term. In 2008, the Utah State Legislature created JPEC to help voters better understand elections. JPEC evaluates the judges and gives a recommendation to voters. Under the proposed bill, JPEC will decide if a judge meets or exceeds their minimum performance standards and make that information available to the public rather than a recommendation.

Abbott also proposed the first substitute of this bill, which passed the house overwhelmingly with 74 yea votes and one representative absent. This substitute includes adding the language “or exceeds” to the initial proposed bill. If passed with this substitute, we’d learn if a judge “meets or exceeds” or “does not meet or exceed expectations.” This adds more clarification to a judge’s status but doesn’t significantly change the bill. Abbot explained that Rep. Cheryl Acton thought that simply meeting performance criteria is “settling for mediocrity.” He furthered, “It would be better to say ‘meets or exceeds’ because that would be more aspirational to say that we hope these judges will actually try their very best to exceed it as much as possible.”

Status quo voters receive the JPEC recommendation without understanding what goes into determining the recommendation. We just see a recommendation or lack thereof. This bill gives clarity to that process and allows us to make a more informed decision. Because we would know whether a judge met or exceeded expectations, as voters we can make the call to support that judge.

I’m excited by this bill because it adds transparency to the process. I never knew what went into the JPEC recommendation. But if this bill passes, I can take their expectation analysis and decide for myself. Because this bill re-empowers the voter to decide whether to vote for a judge, we are playing a more involved role in democracy.

Our involvement in democracy is needed as about 25% of voters showing up to the polls don’t cast a vote in judicial elections and about 80% of the electorate can’t name judicial candidates for office.  This bill helps remedy that problem as it adds clarity to our electoral process. In an interview with Iwamoto, she noted an increase in constituent calls about ballots. So clearly people care, but our voting process is difficult for them to understand what they should do.

Not only does it provide more information to voters on whether they should vote for or against a candidate, the very existence of this bill brings attention to a broken process. Iwamoto emphasized the significant amount of bills this session dealing with elections — some good and some bad. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to elections and this year’s legislative session shows it. However, Abbott notes that changes to the ballot can cause initial concern saying, “Whenever you change something on the ballot, I think it makes people a little nervous.” But despite initial hesitance, Abbot believes people will come around because it’s a helpful change.

H.B. 40 is a crucial, common-sense and bipartisan step towards electoral improvement. Let’s advocate for the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission Amendments to be passed and signed into law. It’ll help us move forward with a better understanding of the judiciary and therefore a better understanding of our government.


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