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Judges Have Real Power in Cleveland. Who’s Voting for Them?

Our guide explains who votes, who doesn’t — and why.

This illustration shows a judge at a desk with a gavel, looming high above a group of people waiting for verdicts in their criminal cases.

This story is also available for download as a PDF.

A grid of illustrated headshots of the 34 judges who hear felony criminal cases in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.

The 34 judges who hear felony criminal cases in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas have the power to lock people up in prison, give them probation, divert them to special programs, and sometimes even to set them free. Judges in the county are elected to their positions.

An illustrated map of Cuyahoga County is green where the suburbs are, with a pink section in the North part that shows the boundaries of the city of Cleveland.

Thousands of people face criminal charges each year. Most of them are from Cleveland city proper and most of them are Black. Clevelanders face criminal charges at more than four times the rate of people from the suburbs.

On the other hand, the voters most likely to pick judges live in suburbs that are Whiter and wealthier. Far fewer come from the city.

An illustration shows two judges, holding gavels, sitting at a desk. Beneath the judge on the left, a large group of people in orange jumpsuits are being sent to prison through a portal. Beneath the judge on the right is a smaller number of people being sent to prison through a portal.

Judges make a difference in what happens in a case. Take a common charge, like drug possession or theft: Some judges almost never send defendants to prison, while others incarcerate 30% or more.

In an illustration, a woman wearing a purple sweater is holding a ballot. The section with choices to vote for judges is crossed out, and the bubbles for candidates unfilled.

The judges making these decisions are elected. But not everyone is voting for them.

Even people who head to the polls often don’t vote for judges. In recent years, almost a third of voters in the county didn’t vote for any judge.

This illustration shows people standing on a map of Cuyahoga County. In the outer suburbs, in tones of green, there are fewer people, and they are mostly Caucasian, but they are much larger than the people standing within the boundaries of the city of Cleveland. There are tiny people standing within the boundaries of the city, in shades of pink.

In 2020, only about a quarter of votes in judges' races came from city residents. That means the predominantly White suburbs effectively have three times more power selecting judges in the county.

An illustration shows the scales of justice, with six people standing on each weighing platform. The six people on both sides are holding up pieces of paper with a filled-in bubble that you would find on a ballot. In front of them is a group of people who have voted but are holding up pieces of paper showing an empty ballot bubble for judges.

There are plenty of reasons people don’t vote for judges. It’s hard because there are so many judges’ races on the ballot. Information that could help voters is hard to find. Some people don’t want to participate in a system that has caused their community pain and harm.

In this illustration, people of different races and ages hold up pieces of paper that show a filled-in bubble from a ballot, indicating that they have voted for judges. The people have victorious expressions on their faces.

More people voting for judges could change the current outcomes. Results in many judicial elections could change without even getting more people to the polls — just by convincing the people who already vote to also vote for a judge.

Testify is The Marshall Project’s investigation into Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Courts. Learn more about this project and how to contact us directly. Have questions? Attend our office hours on February 3rd or February 8th.