Credit: John G for The Marshall Project

Judges decide the fate of thousands of Clevelanders each year. But in November 2020, during the last presidential election, about a third of Cuyahoga County voters who showed up at the polls skipped voting in races for judges that hear felony cases.

As a result, only about a quarter of the total votes in races for judge that year came from Cleveland residents, even though they face criminal charges at more than four times the rate of people from the suburbs.

That striking imbalance means that predominantly White voters in the suburbs effectively had three times more power than predominantly Black Clevelanders in selecting judges.

This story is published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.

Voting participation varied widely: Nearly half left judicial races blank on their ballots in several Cleveland precincts, while slightly more than 13% did so in an area of suburban Shaker Heights, according to county voting records analyzed by The Marshall Project.

The reasons that some voters don’t participate range from a deep distrust of the justice system, to simply not having enough information when voting to elect or remove judges.

To learn more from the perspective of residents — some who vote and some who don’t —The Marshall Project collaborated with Cleveland Documenters, who interviewed more than 40 people about where they learn about judicial candidates, whether the information is helpful and what more they’d like to know about them.Here’s some of what we learned:

Interviews were conducted by these Cleveland Documenters: Marian Bryant, Kathryn Johnson, McKenzie Merriman, Alicia Moreland, Angela Pohlman, Keith Seward, Mildred Seward and Chau Tang.

Audio editing by Ariel Goodman.

Design and development by Elan Kiderman Ullendorff and Ryan Murphy

Rachel Dissell, Community + Special Projects Editor

Community and Special Projects Editor (she/her)
Rachel leads our special projects work on topics that demand deeper coverage, and works with Cleveland Documenters and Signal staff to report those stories for wider understanding and accountability. She is our liaison with the Marshall Project in Cleveland where she focuses on including residents' voices in criminal justice reporting. Rachel has reported in Cleveland for more than two decades on stories that have changed laws, policies, hearts and minds. She was part of the team that helped launch Cleveland Documenters in 2020, and she was a John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow in 2021. Dissell is a two-time winner of the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for narrative stories about teen dating violence and systemic failures with rape investigations.

Cleveland Documenters

Cleveland Documenters pays and trains people to cover public meetings where government officials discuss important issues and decide how to spend taxpayer money.

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The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. Through a partnership with Signal Cleveland, The Marshall Project is weaving more resident voices into its reporting and building an understanding about how the justice system works — and doesn’t work — in Cleveland.