Trying to make sense of close election results can be like trying to explain a small daily move in the stock market. What looks like a simple total number is really composed of many smaller pieces, each with its own story. Yet, every day business reporters have to say that the stock market moved up or down “because” of some factor. (( The more philosophical (or cautious) reporters hedge their bets by saying that the market moved “on news of” something. I need to learn that trick. ))

In Harris County, there was nearly a complete Democratic sweep of the district bench — but the races tended to be very close. Close enough that a little nudge, here or there, could lead to an incumbent judge holding onto a seat or losing it to a challenger.

The seeming randomness of those outcomes has confused even the winners.

It’s easy to surmise that a strong showing by the top of the Democratic ticket made the races close. But why did each challenger do slightly better or slightly worse? Why the particular outcomes?

An article in the Houston Chronicle today theorizes that the difference was whether a Democratic candidate had an unusual name:

The straight-party Democratic voting that ushered in a new batch of civil and criminal district judges in Harris County was not the surprise. It was why the three civil-court Republicans who survived were able to do so.

“It doesn’t seem that qualifications were the criteria voters used,” said Kerrigan. “There are some very good judges who were voted out.”

Jurists have a few theories on why some Republicans made it through, including the possibility that some voters simply didn’t complete their ballots. But the most common one is that voters were wary of Democrats with complicated or unusual names.

The GOP judge with the highest percentage of votes was civil Judge Sharon McCally, whose opponent was Ashish Mahendru.

Other Democrats who lost were Mekisha Murray, Andres Pereira and Goodwille Pierre. They lost to incumbents Mark Kent Ellis, Patricia Kerrigan and Joseph Halbach, respectively.

“How common a person’s name is has always been a factor in judicial races,” said civil District Judge Mark Davidson, who lost his race.

Davidson has been on the bench since 1989 and has been part of the judicial leadership in the civil courts.

“Up until 1987, people named Smith ran 14 times and won 14 times,” he noted, although Smiths have lost a couple of times since.

That’s a depressing theory about how voters pick judges. (( Then again, since judicial candidates are prohibited from discussing specific legal issues or pending cases, I have never quite figured out what “issues” we hope will guide the voters in the voting booth. ))

If there is an easy solution to this problem, I’d love to hear it.