by Jay Young
In 2016, the nonprofit organization Injustice Watch launched Check Your Judges, a project intended to make quality research and information about judicial candidates freely and readily available to Cook County voters, so they can make informed selections during elections. The project includes outreach and research to determine which issues are most important to the community, and original reporting on these topics, and others pertaining to the local judiciary. This information is available for free on the Injustice Watch website.
Project Goals: Check Your Judges was created to ease the burden of candidate research for the voters of Cook County. Because most judges are elected to the bench, these elections are very important. “Judges have immense power. They make decisions about people’s freedom, such as whether a person will lose their home or can keep custody of their children,” said Emily Hoerner, a senior reporter with Injustice Watch. The primary goal of the project has always been to provide the voters with nonpartisan and verifiable information about judicial candidates and to give original reporting on judicial issues that the community cares about. A big part of what the project did this past year was sharing forms with guide readers to ask them what issues mattered to them and what they wanted to know about candidates. Other goals include providing printed versions of the guide to new audiences, such as the people in the Cook County Jail.
Impact: The project has been successful by looking at the following metrics: over 131,830 visits have been made to view the primary election guide on the Injustice Watch website, while over 263,770 visits were made to view the general election guide on the website. Additionally, over 22,000 print copies of the guide have been distributed. The guide has been republished in other publications, such as the South Side Weekly, and is shared extensively on social media like Twitter. Indirect impacts can also be measured, such as when the organization analyzed voter participation data in 2020, and compared it to previous years, and found that more voters participated in judicial elections in 2020 than in any previous year. “In general, voter participation has trended upward. In presidential elections, it usually trends down, but this past year even in a presidential election there was more engagement,” Hoerner said. Another indirect impact that can be felt is in retention elections: For almost 30 years no judge in the area lost their retention election, which was attributed to poor information availability and low voter participation. In 2020 two judges lost their retention bids for the first time, Hoerner said, with a third judge very close to losing within a half percentage point. Both judges who were defeated were featured in the guide as not recommended by bar groups and as holding concerning bench records.
Organization Background: Injustice Watch is a non-partisan, non-profit journalism organization that formed in 2015 to “conduct in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality.”
The organization strives to be “a diverse and inclusive organization. We embrace professional growth, learning and collaboration, defying traditional top-down power dynamics in our newsroom. Our goal is to listen to, and center people impacted by institutional injustices and provide them with the perspectives, information and resources to hold powerful people and oppressive systems accountable.”
Injustice Watch is funded primarily through donations from foundations, funds and individuals.
Project Resources: Injustice Watched hired a developer to design the printed guide. They also had a group of summer interns who helped other full-time staff to compile all the information into the guide. Work on the guide included everyone on staff, including tasks such as community engagement, the #CheckYourJudges postcard campaign, content creation, reporting, editing and fact-checking. A total of 22 people worked on the guide, with months of work necessary to produce it.
Here’s What Worked
1. Creating a professional web tool to expand access
The organization hired a web developer to create an external web tool, with a user-friendly interface, to host their election guides. The tool is easy for people to use and available on desktops, laptops and mobile devices.
2. Using original reporting to enhance the guide
Reporters on staff at the organization did original investigative reporting to produce content for the guide, which was then paired with the information presented on judicial candidates, to try and give a more complete picture of the candidate field for voters.
3. Translating the guide into Spanish
“Almost a third of Chicago is Latinx, so there are a lot of Spanish speakers. Many of them would be more comfortable getting the information in Spanish rather than English,” Hoerner said. The organization had two off-staff reporters help to translate the guides. Injustice Watch will likely continue translating future guides into Spanish.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Focusing more on virtual outreach
The organization had planned in-person engagement events, which were all canceled due to COVID-19. Staff was left scrambling to put together new ways to engage Cook County voters using virtual tools. “If we could go back in time, I think we would have focused more on virtual outreach given the circumstances,” Hoerner said.
2. Try to publish earlier
“We still hear from people who have already voted and wish they had seen our guide first,” Hoerner said. Staff must wait on publication until bar groups have published their own candidate evaluations. This delay means there is only a small gap of time between when early voting starts and when the guide is published.
3. Make a tighter process for jail distribution
Guides meant to be distributed in the Cook County jail were rejected as contraband due to unforeseen complications with the jail procedure around material distribution. Because of this, most of the people inside the jail did not get the guides. “I think we would try to put that process together sooner next time, so if there is a hiccup, we can resolve it before losing our opportunity to fix it,” Hoerner said.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- The project is continuing to incorporate reader questions into their work, such as a large collaborative project compiling two decades of court data from Cook County, including the past sentencing decisions of judges.
- Injustice Watch organized events in a series called “Know the System”, where voters could meet and hear from expert speakers about the judicial system and other issues. One such guest speaker was Malcolm Rich, the Executive Director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers and Executive Director of the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts. Another event had been scheduled in 2020 but was cancelled due to COVID-19.
- The organization is currently looking at voter habits in Cook County, analyzing voter participation data to see which locations in Chicago have the lowest rates of participation. They want to focus on getting guides into the hands of voters who live in those areas during the next election cycle.