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On straight tickets and undervotes

As we know, straight ticket voting in Texas is now officially a thing of the past. It will not be an option in 2020, the next time there will be partisan elections. Thanks to the success of Democratic candidates in 2018, particularly in Harris County, there have been a bunch of questionable takes about how the existence of straight ticket voting was the propellant for these victories. I’ve scoffed at the implicit assumption in these stories that Democrats would undervote in disproportionate numbers in the downballot races once the straight ticket option was gone, and that got me to thinking. What do we know about the undervote rate now?

In every race, some number of people don’t vote. That number is reported by the County Clerk in the election returns. Higher profile races, district races, races at the top of the ticket, these tend to have higher participation. Judicial races, which are lower profile and at the end of the ballot, those unsurprisingly tend to be the ones with the most undervotes. If these are the races most likely to be affected by the loss of the straight ticket option, then what might that effect be?

That’s the question I wanted to try to answer. So, I looked at the undervote rates in past elections, to see if there were any trends. First, though, I needed to establish what the real undervote rate is. By definition, the people who vote straight ticket are voting in each contested election, so only the people who don’t vote a straight ticket can undervote. Thus, I started out by subtracting the combined straight ticket totals for the year, and calculated the undervote rates based on the remaining tallies. Here’s what this looks like:

Year  Regular  Lo under  Hi under  Lo pct  Hi pct
2002  296,924    46,505    58,319  15.66%  19.64% 
2006  314,606    48,626    57,970  15.46%  18.43%
2010  264,545    38,014    45,326  14.37%  17.13%
2014  219,892    27,360    33,280  12.44%  15.13%
2018  287,429    33,572    39,564  11.38%  13.76%

2004  389,898    81,724    85,333  20.96%  21.89%
2008  449,307    81,416    89,306  18.12%  19.88%
2012  386,475    66,435    73,387  17.19%  18.99%
2016  451,827    63,226    69,344  13.99%  15.35%

“Regular” is what I called the number of votes cast by those who did not vote a straight ticket. As you can see, even as turnout has varied greatly from year to year, the number of “regular” voters has remained relatively static. The next two numbers represent the range of undervote totals for the judicial races, and the numbers after them are the rates for the undervotes, adjusted to account for the straight ticket voters.

What we see from this is that even as straight ticket voting has increased, the number of people not voting in judicial elections has decreased, relatively speaking. I would attribute that to the overall increase in partisanship in recent years. That suggests to me that when straight ticket voting goes away, voters are still going to be likely to vote in all, or at least nearly all, of the races on the ballot. There will be more undervotes than there are now – as I previously observed, the undervote rate as calculated by the County Clerk over all voters was in the three to four percent range this year. It will end up between that and the lower end numbers I show above. Do bear in mind that for City of Houston elections for At Large Council spots and for City Controller, the undervote race is often above twenty percent. We’re not going to see anything like that in even-numbered years. The vast majority of voters are going to completely fill out their ballots. We’ll see what the numbers look like in 2020, but I see no reason why the trends we see here won’t continue.

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  1. Mike Engelhart says:

    I guess you couldn’t draw D vs R conclusions from this data, could you? Can you extrapolate from Beto/Cruz numbers in HC asa proxy for D vs R on the non straight ticket voters?

  2. brad says:

    I predict that the absence of a straight party voting option will negatively impact Dems.

    Talk to y’all in 2020.

  3. Mike – Not from the data that I have here. I may take a closer look at straight ticket voting and undervotes from 2018 by State Rep district if I have the time.

    Brad – You may be right, but there’s no evidence I see that suggests one party or the other will benefit or be hurt by the lack of straight ticket voting in 2020 and beyond.