Pre-judging Judges?

Nov 6th 2008

America elected a new president on Tuesday.  Perhaps you heard?  Obama's triumph was the world's huge news story, but across the country many thousands more candidates were voted in and out of local offices.  My ballot included a plethora of races for positions like Register of Probate and Regional Vocational School District.  I'm sure I'm not the only reasonably well-informed voter who sometimes stares down at a list of local candidates and thinks "Uh-oh. Some of these are just random names to me."

An election of random names. Interesting, eh?  For all of the attention that's been paid to Barack Hussein Obama's name, the fact is that a presidential candidate becomes so well known by the public that his name alone can't define him.  But in local elections, especially elections for large slates of jobs, a typical voter is often asked to chose among a group of people knowing little but their names.  If name-based discrimination really exists, could this be a place we'd spot it?

In fact, the Houston Chronicle thinks they might have spotted some.  An article in this morning's paper describes a curious electoral pattern in Harris County, Texas.  Harris County voters had over a hundred local races to decide, including 32 separate District Judge contests.  We can't expect a typical voter in that situation to be genuinely familiar with all of the hundreds of candidates.  So all many had to go on was name and party affiliation.  Not surprisingly, party affiliation dominated: a wave of straight-party Democratic voting swept most of the 32 District Judge races.  Most, but not all.  The Chronicle reports speculation that the four Democratic candidates who lost were brought down by their "unusual names."  They were:

Ashish Mahendru
Mekisha Murray
Andres Pereira
Goodwille Pierre

Judging by surnames like Murray and Pierre, we can safely assume they're talking about unusual first names.  And judging by the first name Andres, we can safely assume that "unusual" is a big, whopping euphemism.  (A look at the NameMapper will show you that the familiar Spanish name Andres has ranked among the top-100 names in Texas for years.)  So instead of "unusual," let's just be upfront and say "non-white."  Meanwhile the winning candidates in those contests were named Sharon, Mark, Patricia and Joseph.

Keep in mind that most of the judicial races were decided by just a few percentage points.  With only two factors to judge by, name and party, it's certainly conceivable that names could have influenced just enough voters to sway those races.  But before drawing any conclusions we should look at the full body of candidates running for all 32 jobs.  I've reviewed the full Harris County judicial election results; here are the names of the winning Democrats:


Of the 28, I see only three names that would typically be identified as non-white: Dion, Josefina, and Ruben.  That totals seven non-white given names out of 32 Democrats, with all four losers selected from those seven.  What are the chances that selection would happen randomly?  By my calculations, less than one chance in a thousand.

Of course, it's just one set of races in one county.  I don't pretend to know whether other issues affected those four candidates.  But if I were a scholarly researcher trying to isolate real-world effects of baby names, I'd be mighty tempted to take a broader look at "name-only" contests like these across America.

If You're Seeing Any Surprising Ads...

Nov 3rd 2008

As we count down the hours to the election, I've been informed that users in certain geographic areas are seeing some unexpected advertisements on my website.  It appears that the ad server registered words like "Palin" and "Maverick" in my most recent post and assumed that it had found a conservative political blog.

So just to clarify, we're non-partisan baby namers here at

Just 24 more hours...hang in there, everybody! :-)

Name Spotlight: Election Edition

Oct 29th 2008

I know, I know.  It's all election news, all the time these days.  You might think baby name land would be a respite.  But names are inextricably entwined with the changing world around them, and the political world is part of that.  I've talked in the past about the shifting patterns of honoring new presidents with namesakes, and about various names involved with this year's contest.  The most obvious name story remains Barack, the name I tabbed as the 2007 Name of the Year.  (By the way, a few reporters have come calling looking for babies named after the Democratic nominee.  If you're the parent of a bouncing little Barack and would be willing to talk to the press, let me know.)

But I don't expect a huge flood of Baracks, or Johns, or Tracks & Trigs.  The name I'm tracking most closely in this election season isn't a name that's born by any of the political players.  It's a name--or rather a title--they've attempted to bestow upon themselves.  That name is Maverick.

The original Maverick, one Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), was in fact a political player himself.  Maverick was a Texan legislator and a signer of the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.  The use of his name to mean a self-guided, independent thinker doesn't reflect his political career, though.  It refers to his unorthodox ranching habits.  As a rancher Maverick never branded his cattle, so any lone, unbranded stray calf was identified as a Maverick.

The name gradually gathered a more romantic image of adventurous daring, with help from Hollywood.  The '50s-'60s tv Western "Maverick" presented brothers Bret and Bart Maverick as a pair of bold, brash itinerant gamblers getting into all sorts of exciting scrapes.  The 1986 film Top Gun gave us Tom Cruise as "Maverick," the cocky, risk-taking Navy pilot.  Is it any surprise that baby names followed suit?

A first handful of young Mavericks was born in the late 1950s, during the heyday of the tv series.  A great many more have been born since the mid-1990s, as a wide-open, creative naming culture has made the name a realistic possibility for more parents.  Last year Maverick ranked #559 among all U.S. boys' names, representing 453 daring, independent-minded new infants.

But that was last year.  When you hear the word Maverick in 2008, you probably hear it in the voice of John McCain or Sarah Palin -- or perhaps in the voice of comedian Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, gettin' "mavericky."  Ironically, this word for an independent thinker unbound by ideology is now one of the most partisan terms in politics.  Used either in admiration or in satire, it is clearly identified with the Republican ticket.

So what effect will this have on Maverick, the baby name?  It's a tough call.  The constant media exposure should bring it to more parents' minds.  As we've seen with hurricane names, any publicity is usually good publicity if the name is catchy to begin with.  The specific political association will probably net out as a wash: some parents will like the connection with McCain-Palin while others will be turned off by it.  But a final factor lies with the nature of the name itself, and of the parents who have flocked to it in recent years.  Some, I suspect, will simply conclude that the name's unique cachet has been spoiled.  What fun is an edgy, creative, adventurous culture statement once it's been adopted by the establishment?

A respectful request: in comments, please try resist the impulse to campaign.  Around here, it's all about the names.