A judicial retention election (or retention referendum) is a periodic process in some jurisdictions where judges are elected whereby a judge is subject to a referendum held at the same time as a general election. A judge is removed from office if a majority of votes are cast against retention.
A judicial retention vote differs from a regular election in that voters are not asked to choose from a list of candidates — the judges on the ballot do not have opponents. Rather, the voter chooses between electing the incumbent judge to a further term in office (i.e. voting in favor of "retention") or voting against. In addition, the judge's party affiliation is not listed on the ballot. A judge is deemed to have been retained if ballots cast in favor of retention outnumber those against.
United States 
In 1934, Judicial retention elections were first used by California's state court system to fill vacancies. (Text of the law may be seen below.) These retention elections served as an alternative to elections which were previously contested. After appointment by the governor and confirmation by the Commissioner on Judicial Appointments, an incumbent judge would appear on the ballot without an opponent and voters would vote for or against. If the judge received a majority of votes, he or she would be elected to serve.
- California State Constitution: Article VI, Section 16 d.
(1) Within 30 days before August 16 preceding the expiration of the judge's term, a judge of the Supreme Court or a court of appeal may file a declaration of candidacy to succeed to the office presently held by the judge. If the declaration is not filed, the Governor before September 16 shall nominate a candidate. At the next general election, only the candidate so declared or nominated may appear on the ballot, which shall present the question whether the candidate shall be elected. The candidate shall be elected upon receiving a majority of the votes on the question.
In 1937, the American Bar Association endorsed retention elections for judges.
Missouri Plan 
In 1940, the state of Missouri adopted the Missouri Plan, which contained a judicial retention process similar to that of California. Under the Missouri Plan, judges were to be nominated by a council of lawyers and laypersons. A list of candidates would then go to the governor, who would choose a candidate. After an election cycle had passed, the judicial candidate would be subject to periodic, public retention elections.
- New Mexico1,2 (57% 'yes' votes needed for retention)
- South Dakota1
1 Appellate Court Retention Election
2 Trial Court Retention Election
Sample ballot language 
Shall each of the persons listed be retained in office as Judge of the Appellate Court, First Judicial District?
Michael J. Gallagher, Yes or NoMargaret Stanton McBride, Yes or No
Additional instructions on the ballot made clear that "no judge listed is running against any other judge" and that voters were able to vote "yes" on both, "no" on both or "yes" on one and "no" on the other.
- "Thirty Years of Judicial Retention Elections: An Update". Social Science Journal 37 (1): 1–17. 2000.
- "Judicial Retention Elections". Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 34 (1429): 1443–1444. June 2001.
- Darcy, R. "Conflict and Reform: Oklahoma Judicial Elections 1907 - 1998". Retrieved 22 March 2011.
- "State Constitution". California State Constitution, Article VI: Judicial. Retrieved 27 March 2011.
- "Judicial Selection and Service (Tables 4-11)". Judicial Selection and Retention Resource Guide. National Center for State Courts. Retrieved February 22, 2011.
- "Specimen General Election Ballot; Chicago, Illinois; Tuesday, November 4, 2008".
- Iowa Judicial Branch, Judicial Retention Elections