Campaign Spending in Cook County Judicial Elections By Albert J. Klumpp R ecent years have seen a growing concern in many U.S. states over the increasing flow of money into expenditures not directly related to the cam- paign and accounting adjustments that are technically classified as expenditures but in reality are not. For purposes of this analysis I adjusted all of these net totals for inflation, so that every candidate could be compared on an equal basis in 2019 dollars.
subcounty contests have roughly doubled since the 1980s and 1990s, and the median for countywide circuit contests has roughly tripled. A closer look reveals a further change beyondmedian increases. Specifically, more recent years have seen considerably more judicial candidates spending $100,000 or more on their campaigns. Figure 2 reports the numbers of these candidates in each decade. It shows growth in numbers of “big spenders” that has even outpaced growth in median spending. In other words, the gap between the wealthiest campaigns and the rest of the pack has been growing. More Money, Fewer Candidates What is most notable about the increase in big spenders is that it has occurred even as the numbers of candidates seeking Cook County judgeships have decreased. Fewer
state supreme court elections. Watchdog groups have tracked amounts and sources of campaign dollars and have documented how partisan, nonpartisan, and even reten- tion elections for supreme court seats have gradually become more politicized. Unfortunately, much less is known about money in the lower courts. Gathering suf- ficient data across large numbers of lower- court elections is a labor-intensive process and has not generated much enthusiasm. Watchdog groups lack the resources to study lower courts on a large enough scale, and academic researchers have historically shown little interest in the subject. However, on a local level, an extensive Cook County data set that I have compiled over the last 14 years offers valuable insight on campaign spending in circuit and ap- pellate court elections. The data set was originally compiled to measure the impact of money and other factors on election re- sults. But with the 2020 election cycle now underway – and with evidence of unusually large campaign funds already being accu- mulated by several candidates – I decided to examine the spending numbers in isolation to see what they reveal about money in our local judiciary. Cook County Spending Trends, 1980 - 2018 My information on campaign spending comes from a review of disclosure state- ments for every judicial candidate in a Cook County primary or general election since 1980. I calculated a net spending total for each candidate based on reported expendi- tures and in-kind contributions, removing
Figure 1 reports median spending levels by decade for appellate court contests and for countywide and “subcounty” circuit court contests. The subcounty category includes the subcircuit system that debuted in 1992 and the city and suburban judgeships that preceded it. Year-to-year medians tend to vary to an extent that can obscure general trends, so the figures are grouped by decade to discern trends more clearly. And there most definitely are trends. All three categories of contests show sub- stantial increases in spending over the last 2- years. The medians for appellate and
Figure 1: Cook County Judicial Campaign Spending Median per candidate, 1980 - 2018