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On straight ticket voting

After Democrats made big gains in 2008 in Harris County thanks in part to straight ticket voting, I defended the practice from the Republican concern trolls that came out to wring their hands about it now that they were no longer its primary beneficiary. I’m not going to change my mind after this election just because things went the other way. To my mind, there are far bigger issues that need to be dealt with first, in particular the legalization of unlimited anonymous corporate campaign money that the Supreme Court foisted on us this year. But at the end of the day, if people want to push one button and be done, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

Be that as it may, it’s time once again to deal with the usual tongue clucking that seems to follow every election these days. First, a different issue that got the concern trolls riled up two years ago, partisan judicial elections.

During our recent screening of Harris County judicial candidates, the one consistent message from both incumbents and challengers was their distaste at having to run for office with a party affiliation.

The current method of electing judges also forces candidates to raise money from lawyers who will practice in their courts, a system that at minimum creates the appearance of favoritism in court deliberations.

In the last two elections we’ve lost good GOP and Democratic judges because of the boom-and-bust partisan cycles. It’s time to revive discussion of a merit appointment system linked to a periodic retention election to give the electorate the opportunity to replace poorly performing jurists.

Here’s the reality.

Iowa’s rejection of three state supreme court justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage underscored the growing electoral vulnerability of state judges as more and more are targeted by special interest groups, legal scholars and jurists said Thursday.

“It just illustrated something that has been troubling many of us for many, many years,” California Chief Justice Ronald M. George said. “The election of judges is not necessarily the best way to select them.”

The three Iowa high court justices were ousted in the kind of retention election California uses for appeals court judges: They face no opposing candidates and list no party affiliation, and voters can select “yes” or “no.” Legal scholars have generally said that system is among the most effective ways of avoiding a politicized judiciary.

But a report by the Brennan Center for Justice this year found a “transformation” in state judicial elections during the last decade throughout the country. Big money and a campaign emphasis on how a judge votes on the bench has become “the new normal,” the report said.

“For more than a decade, partisans and special interests of all stripes have been growing more organized in their efforts to use elections to tilt the scales of justice their way,” said the report, which examined 10 years of judicial elections. “Many Americans have come to fear that justice is for sale.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You cannot remove the politics from judicial selections, no matter how you do it. Merely removing the partisan labels from judicial candidates will not magically make partisan interest groups and their money disappear. If you want to blunt the influence of those outside groups, the best bet is to reform the way judicial campaigns are financed. In this post-Citizens United world, that will only get you so far, but it’s a start. If the problem is the money, then deal with the money. I do not understand why this concept is so hard to grasp.

The second electoral reform the Legislature should consider is changing the current formula that encourages straight-ticket voting. Nearly 67 percent of Harris County voters voted straight ticket in the recently concluded election. Texas is among only 16 states permitting straight-party voting, and five others abolished it during the last two decades.

Critics contend the system encourages partisanship at the expense of quality government service. It can also undercut nonpartisan races and propositions on the same ballot. In two highly publicized Houston propositions on the ballot last Tuesday, nearly 56,000 voters did not register a choice on the Proposition 1 drainage fee issue and nearly 46,000 bypassed Proposition 3 on red-light cameras. Prop 1 narrowly passed and Prop 3 narrowly lost. It’s likely most of those so-called under votes were straight-ticket voters who never ventured down the lengthy ballot.

As Chronicle Outlook contributor Bill King noted before the election, straight-party voting in Texas was created by Democrats and maintained by Republicans to protect the majority party. “It will go away when the party in power in Austin calculates it is to its political advantage to do so,” noted King. “That might just be the case in 2011.”

Bill, if you’re reading this, I’ll bet you $10 right now that doesn’t happen. Hell, I’ll be shocked if such a bill even makes it to a committee vote. If there was a time for this, it was in the 2009 session, when Republicans were in close control but had just suffered major losses in the big counties. With their overwhelming win last Tuesday and hugely inflated legislative margin – in fairness, King wrote the column cited before the election – they have no reason to think in these terms. Even if they did, the budget and redistricting and all of their wingnut wish list items will take precedence.

As far as the assertion regarding the city propositions is concerned, it seems to me that is something that ought to have an objective answer. Surely we should be able to tell from the returns how many people who voted a straight ticket did and did not also cast a ballot on the propositions. I’ve put in an email to the County Clerk to inquire about that and will report back when I get an answer. Regardless, it also seems to me that there’s no reason why an electronic voting system could not be programmed to accommodate this. If a straight-ticket vote is cast, the interface could then prompt the voter if it detects that there are elections on the ballot that aren’t covered by that vote – special elections, non-partisan races, ballot propositions, etc. Maybe the Chron could ask our new County Clerk to make this a requirement for the next generation of eSlate machines. The point is, there’s no reason why this needs to be an issue. We have the technology to not make it one.

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5 Comments

  1. Mark Covington says:

    50 states and no one has figured a way out of partisan judicial elections? Judicial elections are necessary and need to be retained. Legislators appointing judges is too much of a conflict of interest. Money isn’t just a problem for judicial elections, any changes to reform judicial elections should be extended to all elections.

  2. Brad M. says:

    Cluck, cluck.

    Straight party voting is for lazy sheep. If there isn’t anything wrong with SPV why not get rid of individual races all together and just have an R, D, L and G listed on the ballot and be done with it. Or is it only okay to have SPV if it isn’t 100% of voting? What is your %cutoff for not having any problem with it…75%, 85%, 95%?

    I haven’t looked closely yet at the recent election results, but I wonder which party was lazier…Reps or Dems.

  3. Brad M. says:

    What a ridiculous comment by Bill King that 2011 might be the year that SPV goes away.

    What sort of election result would’ve initiated any level of discussion in the State Leg about abolishing SPV? Dems and Reps know the laziness of their voters and will always do what makes it easier to keep their party in power.

    Maybe we’ll see more campaign signs in the future like Republican Morman’s “Save America….Vote Republican”

  4. JJMB says:

    Quote — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You cannot remove the politics from judicial selections, no matter how you do it. Merely removing the partisan labels from judicial candidates will not magically make partisan interest groups and their money disappear. If you want to blunt the influence of those outside groups, the best bet is to reform the way judicial campaigns are financed. In this post-Citizens United world, that will only get you so far, but it’s a start. If the problem is the money, then deal with the money. I do not understand why this concept is so hard to grasp.

    It is hard to figure out what would happen if all of the judge elections on the last ballot were non-partisan. There are just so many races to check. There would have been no straight party voting. How many people would have taken in a checklist to do their own straight party voting — only 20% Rs and 20%Ds? So how would the rest decide? Tons of undervote, certainly. And I guess some interest groups might produce checklists and distribute them, but I can’t see those checklists being more widely circulated than a HCRP and HCDP checklist. I am really unconvinced that interest group money can effectively move to elect 80% R judges or 80% D judges — I don’t see that.

    How about the most senior 5 R Senators, 5 D Senators, 5 R Reps and 5 D Reps appoint a 20 person commission, and that committsion appoints open judge seats, then the judge runs every six years and it takes 66% to vote the judge out?

  5. […] you know, the Chron recently wrote an editorial decrying the rise in straight ticket voting. Among other things, they said: In two highly […]

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