Judicial election method a bad one

An editorial from The Inter-Mountain 

ELKINS, W.Va. — Fortunately for the future of our state, Beth Walker won a seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court during Tuesday’s election. She clobbered four other candidates on the ballot, receiving 161,485 votes to her nearest competitor’s 93,805.

It was a convincing victory – but it was not enough. Walker’s total was just 40 percent of the ballots cast.

That was due to no flaw of Walker’s. Her campaign was based on the reasonable premise that members of the state’s highest court should not base their rulings on political ideology or social leanings – but solely on the law and the state constitution.

That was not the position taken by another candidate, Darrell McGraw. During his one stint on the court, then during several terms as attorney general, McGraw politicized his offices, engaging in many unsavory activities.

Yet McGraw received 93,805 votes to finish second in the five-person field. That gave him 23 percent of the vote total.

Though Walker beat McGraw handily, by 67,680 votes, she was denied a majority of the vote in the five-person race. Challenger William Wooton netted 21 percent, incumbent Justice Brent Benjamin got 12 percent, and fifth-place finisher Wayne King managed 4 percent.

As we pointed out earlier this year, the new method of selecting justices and those serving in all other judicial posts, by nonpartisan election, is an improvement over the old Democrats vs. Republicans method.

But the process has an enormous flaw. By having multiple candidates instead of just two in the final decision by voters, winners can take office without getting a majority of votes cast. Theoretically, the election might have named a new justice with just 21 percent.

That cannot be allowed to stand. A better method of nonpartisan elections, used in some other states, is to permit multiple candidates in an initial election such as a primary. If one nets more than 50 percent of the votes, he or she is elected. If not, the top two finishers face each other in a general election.

West Virginia legislators should change the judicial voting system to allow such runoff elections. They should do so during their regular session early next year.

Walker is to be congratulated for running a campaign and taking positions that prompted voters to elect her by a margin wide enough to leave no reasonable doubt she would have won a runoff election.

Still, the system is a bad one that should be changed before it allows someone like McGraw to play a numbers game and win an election with a tiny plurality of the vote.

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