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Eventually we’ll settle the debate about straight ticket voting and judicial races

But for now we have one last chance to provide a baseline for comparison.

As Harris County goes, so go its judicial races.

In three of the last five elections, a single party has swept every Harris judicial contest, with two going to Republicans and one to Democrats, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones’ analysis. In 2008, one of the two non-sweeps, Democrats won 85 percent of Harris County’s judicial contests.

During most wave years in Harris County, courthouse races go to the party whose candidate wins the top-of-the-ticket contest — the presidency or U.S. Senate — within the county.

The trend could end after 2018, the last year Texas will allow voters to cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by checking a single box. Lawmakers nixed straight-ticket voting through a bill signed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The end of the straight-ticket option makes 2018 critical for judicial candidates, who, if they win, will have four or six years to raise money and gain name identification before facing re-election. By then, their fates will rest less on their party’s top-of-the-ticket performance and more on their own ability to draw support.

With some predicting a wave year for Democrats — or at least a favorable electoral environment — the party has a rare chance to avoid an electoral massacre during a midterm cycle.

“Democrats want to use this as an opportunity to pick up seats and build a bench,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist. “The opportunity here is massive.”

It is almost certainly the case that there will be fewer votes cast in judicial elections once the straight party ticket option is eliminated. How much it is reduced, and whether the reduction is uniform or if it varies by ballot type (absentee versus in person), early versus election day, geography, race, ethnicity, age, party, etc etc etc, are all questions we will get to explore in the coming years. I will say that some judicial candidates now are much more active and visible than others, but it’s far from clear to me that there’s any connection between an individual judicial candidate’s level of campaign activity and performance at the polls. From my very anecdotal perspective, I don’t see such a connection, but I make no claim to validity for that observation. I do hope someone more qualified than I will take a stab at quantifying that and other questions in 2020 and beyond.

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