The elections renew a debate about whether female candidates get a boost at the polls.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published October 29, 2004
Judicial elections can be boring affairs. Voters typically know little about candidates. Candidates avoid talking about issues. Races are nonpartisan.
Political observers say that leads voters to place a lot of emphasis on gender.
As female and male candidates face each other Tuesday for a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judgeship and a Hillsborough County Court seat, the familiar debate is renewed about whether female candidates get a boost at the polls.
"Voters know nothing about the judicial candidates except name and gender," said Pinellas political consultant Todd Pressman. "These are the two characteristics voters have to go by. Voters are unfortunately blind, and they only have one flashlight to understand who these candidates are."
For Jack Day, running against Cynthia Newton for the Pinellas-Pasco seat, and Henry Gill, running against Liz Rice in Hillsborough, that might be disquieting. Rice won more votes than two men in the primary, and Newton finished ahead of four men.
Pinellas offers a compelling history of women defeating men in judicial races. But some women have lost to men, too.
Some point to the merit retention vote for Florida's District Court of Appeal judges as evidence that women have an advantage.
Since 1994, a female judge was the top vote-getter in those merit retention votes 10 out of 13 times when there was a woman on the ballot, a review by the St. Petersburg Times shows. In the three cases in which a woman did not win the most votes, one finished second.
"The law is dominated by males," Day said. "And some people want to equalize that. I can relate to that."
But to some women, the argument that women get an edge simply for gender strikes them as sexist and ignores the possibility the female candidate might be better.
"I don't feel as if I have an advantage," said Newton. "The implication of that is that I could sit at home, take a nap and I'd still come out on top. That's not true."
Said Rice: "I don't think I won the primary because I'm a woman."
Female registered voters outnumber men across the Tampa Bay area, which might provide one explanation.
In Pinellas, female voters outnumber male voters 53.8 percent to 44.6 percent. (Some voters don't identify their gender in registering, so totals don't add up to 100 percent.) In Hillsborough, 51.9 percent of voters are women and 44.4 percent are men.
And in Pasco, 52.8 percent of the voters are women and 45.2 percent are men.
Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida professor who teaches government, said those demographics give female judicial candidates an advantage.
If voters don't have information on political party, Paulson said, they often focus on other cues to decide how to vote, from ethnicity to a famous name or gender.
"All things being equal in a (judicial) race between a male and a female, the female has the edge," he said.
That makes gender a commodity in some races.
In a Pinellas Circuit Court race earlier this year, candidate Jan Govan was accused of trying to hide his gender in his advertising to get an edge with women voters. If so, it didn't work: Incumbent George Greer won easily.
In 2000, Hillsborough Circuit Court candidate Leland Baldwin legally changed her name, adding the middle name Anne to avert confusion over her gender. She said: "Why should I be penalized because I have an androgynous name?"
Didn't matter. Baldwin lost.
Also in Hillsborough, Joelle Ober lost one campaign for a judgeship in 1994. Thinking voters were confused by her first name, she appeared on the ballot as Ann Ober in a 1996 race for a County Court seat. She won.