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Perhaps you don’t have the same reaction I do, but I still get a little thrill when my ballot arrives in the mail.

First, I’ve always thought voting is fun – although that “fun” idea sometimes has been tested by some of the ballots I’ve received over the last few years. Second, as those of you who come from other states can attest, Oregon’s voting by mail system is simply cool.

My registration status in Oregon is “unaffiliated,” which means I don’t get to vote in any political parties’ primary election. As a result, my primary election ballots tend to be slim, but this edition hit a new low: The only races listed on the ballot were a half-dozen or so (nonpartisan) judicial races, and not one is contested.

Judicial elections are as important as any other race on the ballot. But it’s rare to see a contested race: In fact, of nearly 70 judgeships on election ballots throughout the state this May, only five feature more than one candidate. (None of those races involves either a statewide race or a mid-valley race.)

That’s not particularly unusual, said Kateri Walsh of the Oregon State Bar. (The State Bar maintains a worthwhile online site with information about 2014’s judicial elections.) Walsh noted that most incumbent judges rarely face challengers. In fact, the contested judicial races in Oregon involve open judgeships – seats where the sitting judge is retiring.

Walsh noted that judicial elections offer a different set of challenges for voters looking to cast informed votes: Candidates generally are not at liberty to discuss controversial community matters, so that they can maintain their impartiality when those matters come before the court.

“They do make decisions that bear on the critically important issues that we care passionately about,” Walsh said – and yet, we want our judges to be dispassionate about those issues.

Walsh noted that other states have seen increasingly partisan – and bitter – judicial elections, races where candidates have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. “We just don’t see that in Oregon, and I think it’s a good thing,” she said.

So what advice does Walsh have for voters as they try to assess the qualifications for judicial candidates? Here are some of her suggestions:

Take a look at the candidate’s experience; judges are likely to hear all types of different cases, so broad experience could be a plus. Civic involvement can be a plus. Although judicial candidates are restricted from expressing opinions on issues that could come before them, they can speak in general terms about the judicial philosophy they would bring to the bench.

These judicial elections tend to be quiet affairs, and that’s good. But that doesn’t mean that voters can afford to ignore the candidates seeking a seat in the vital third branch of our government. (mm)

Mike McInally is the editor of the Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6097 or mike.mcinally@lee.net

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