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And now for some statewide whining about straight ticket voting

I have four things to say about this.

Straight-ticket voting will end before the 2020 elections, bringing Texas into line with the vast majority of states. But the change didn’t come early enough to save Emmett — or a host of other down-ballot Republican candidates like judges, who are disproportionately affected by the practice by virtue of their low profiles and low ballot placement.

Republicans — who lost numerous down-ballot officials, a dozen state House members and scores of judges, particularly in big cities — in some ways brought those losses upon themselves: The law that ended straight-ticket voting was written and approved by GOP lawmakers. It was originally set to go into effect before this year’s elections, but was at the last minute delayed until 2020.

If the top culprit for down-ballot Republican losses last week is a certain El Paso Democrat credited with drawing flocks of new voters to the polls, the second spot might go to straight-ticket voting. Yes, the argument goes, a lot of new Democrats came to the polls to cast their ballots for U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke in his campaign for U.S. Senate. In the process, many voted for other Democrats down the ballot who they knew little or nothing about. But without the one-punch option, GOP operatives argue, many of those voters would have walked out before dooming Republicans at the bottom of the ballot.

Straight-party voting “is the story” of this year’s election, said Dallas County GOP Chair Missy Shorey, whose county saw a rout of local Republicans.

Among the casualties: 12 members of the Texas House, many of them in the Dallas area; two state senators representing North Texas districts; down-ballot county officials in a host of purpling regions; and nearly two dozen Republican judges on state appeals courts.

After the 2020 elections, when straight-ticket voting ends, candidates will still appear beside their party affiliations, but most strategists expect fewer voters will make it all the way down to the local races. It’s hard to say what the statewide impact of that will be — many Republicans straight-ticket vote, too, and voters can still choose to select all the candidates in their chosen party manually — but in the wake of a tough election for down-ballot Republicans, especially on the fringes of the state’s biggest cities, some are wishing the option had ended in 2018.

At first, that was the plan. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons’ House Bill 25, which ended straight-ticket voting, was originally set to go into effect before the 2018 midterms; it passed the House with that language, and made it all the way to the Senate floor. Just before the bill passed in the upper chamber, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock, of North Richland Hills, tacked on an amendment delaying the effective date to 2020.

The delay, some local GOP officials said, particularly doomed down-ballot Republicans in or near urban areas like Houston, Dallas and Austin.

“I’ve been warning about it for years,” said Harris County GOP Chairman Paul Simpson. “At the last minute, they put it back in for 2018, and I told some legislators then, ‘2018 will not be the same as 2014.’”

[…]

No one predicted the consequences better than the lieutenant governor, who warned of such an outcome during campaign season.

“Their plan was to give all the money, on the Democratic side, to Beto the Irishman O’Rourke,” Patrick warned at a New Braunfels campaign event in October. “Understand their strategy. If they can get to 4 or 5 [percent margin], if they can get a 75 or 80 percent straight-ticket vote on their side, guess what? Beto loses. But then they pick up judges down ballot. They pick up House members down ballot. They pick up state senators down ballot. They pick up local races down ballot.”

Emmett faulted the upper chamber, which Patrick leads, for failing to prevent that possibility.

“When the state Senate decided to keep straight-ticket voting for one more year, a lot of us thought that was a really dumb decision,” Emmett told a Houston TV station shortly after his loss last week. “It turned out to be even dumber than any of us could’ve predicted.”

1. Once again, I am old enough to remember the 2010 election, and how Republicans who voted straight ticket helped to sweep out a dozen or so Democratic State House members who had represented mostly rural areas, where the locals generally voted Republican but had continued to support Democrats in downballot races. I know that was, like, a hundred years ago, and I acknowledge that the Trib story acknowledged that Republicans have also been known to cast straight party votes, but seriously, enough with the whining.

2. To some extent, I feel like these stories are as much about Republicans trying, and failing, to come to grips with what happened. They’re not used to losing races like these, they’re certainly not used to losing races in counties like Denton and Williamson and Fort Bend, and they’re not used to sweating it out at the statewide level. It can’t be because of anything they did, and it can’t be because of Dear Leader Trump, so obviously it must be due to something they couldn’t control and wasn’t fair. Darn that Beto O’Rourke and his widespread appeal to voters across the spectrum! How dare he do this to us?

3. If you must take this complaint seriously, the logic behind it is that more Democrats would not have voted in these downballot races than Republicans if straight ticket voting were not an option. I have no idea where this notion comes from, other than an obvious disdain for people who vote Democratic from Republican officeholders, but I doubt there’s any actual political science behind it. (At least, I haven’t seen any actual political scientists claim that there is merit to the idea that Republicans will benefit from the elimination of straight ticket voting.) Well, there is the fact that a long ballot means that it will take longer for each person to vote if they can’t be one-and-done, and so maybe the lines at voting locations in Democratic (read: minority) neighborhoods will be even longer, thus discouraging more people from bothering. If we’re going to entertain this otherwise unsupported, and only implicitly stated, assumption, we should at least try to pin down what underpins it. Be that as it may, in the five statewide judicial races with both a D and an R, there were about 663K Democratic votes cast in Harris County and about 521K Republican votes. With there being 410K straight ticket Republican votes and 515K Democratic straight ticket votes, that means about 78% of each party’s voters picked the straight ticket option. Each party will have some work to do to get their people to understand the new world in 2020.

4. Going farther down the ballot, in the appeals court races the undervote rate ranged from about 31K to 33K, and in the district court races it ranged from 33K to 36K. About 292K voters overall in Harris County did not vote a straight ticket, so the actual undervote rate was in the 11-12% range. My guess is that in two years’ time, with education from the parties and with the recognition that some straight ticket voters all along would have clicked all the buttons if they needed to, the undervote rate will be less than ten percent, maybe more like eight percent. I’m just guessing, and I certainly could be wrong. We’ll know much more in another decade or so, after we’ve had a few of these under our belts. What I do know is that if Republicans think that the single greatest adversary they faced in 2018 was the straight ticket option, I believe they will be surprised and disappointed again in 2020.

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4 Comments

  1. Mainstream says:

    Lt. Gov. Patrick and Sen. Bettancourt tried to game the system, gambling that with Abbott at the top of the ticket, straight ticket would help Republicans this cycle, and so they delayed implementation of the change to 2020. At the time, conventional wisdom supported their thinking, but Betomania upended their calculations.

    I agree that implicit in the removal of straight ticket voting is an assumption, probably unwarranted, that R voters are more likely to be diligent and complete voting downballot than D voters. I am not aware of any political science literature to support this. In fact, I would expect many R voters to be less willing to vote in judicial contests where they lack information about both candidates. Moreover, most political scientists find that so long as the candidates are identified by party behind their name, partisans are just as likely to punch every name as to vote a straight ticket and walk out of the booth. The only caveat is that Harris County has a much longer ballot than most of the jurisdictions where the change has been studied.

  2. Dan Wallach says:

    I have no idea if D’s or R’s are more willing to slog their way through to the bottom of a long ballot. I suspect the rolloff effects will not have much if any partisan impact, but they will certainly have an impact on the lines. It’s going to take a lot longer for voters to fill out their ballots. And that, in turn, means that every election official needs to have a plan to increase the number of voting booths.

    For paper ballots, it’s easy. Booths are cheap. So long as you’ve got the floor space, you can set up as many booths as you want.

    But for electronic voting machines, this means you have to buy more of them. Or, this becomes further wind in the sails pushing for the retirement of electronic voting machines.

  3. Joel says:

    The idea that it would be a good thing to have more undervotes shows just how republicans feel about elections and representative government.

    The *fact* that none of us know anything about the judges we are voting for (or not voting for) shows just how bad an idea it is to elect judges.

    Political science literature does support those two claims.

  4. General Grant says:

    Straight ticket voting needs to go. However, we have not addressed the concurrent problem of asking voters to elect way too many offices, particularly in large counties with endless trial courts. Asking voters to make informed decisions downballot is not fair if we delude them with countless races that should not be political anyway.