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straight ticket voting

Precinct analysis: One final look at judicial races and undervoting

This one is short and sweet, and really could have been the entry level way of looking at the question “who is more likely to lose voters down the ballot when straight ticket voting is gone, Dems or Republicans?” We agree that there are a ton of judicial elections on the Harris County ballot. It’s more in the off years than the Presidential years, and this year there were 67 such races, including the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals, but not including the statewide positions and the JP races. These are the races where we’d expect those fabled “fatigued” voters to give up and skip to the “cast ballot” button, thus leaving some candidates out in the cold. What actually happened this year, with this ridiculously long ballot?

Well, the way I look at it here is to look at the vote totals for each party’s candidates as we get further and further down the ballot. To smooth out the variances a bit, I grouped the judicial races into fives, and averaged the vote totals for each party. Here’s how that looked for 2018:


 R avg    D avg
===============
525,105  659,269
532,722  649,946
534,714  647,210
531,416  649,545
529,551  651,147
526,579  653,219
522,370  657,782
522,130  657,317
521,753  656,926
527,228  650,895
524,574  653,409
520,817  656,424

The last group has seven races in it, as there were 67 in total. The first five appellate races are for whatever the reason different than everything that comes after them, but as you can see the total range of votes is fairly limited. Once again, we see that – again, with an odd blip three from the end – Dems do a better job of hanging onto their voters than the Republicans do. Here’s how this looks as a chart:

Again, I think the data is a bit mixed, and we don’t really know how the people who have been voting straight tickets will behave once that’s not an option. My point continues to be that it’s ridiculous and unsupported by the data to make assertions about what will happen once this change is implemented. Among other things, voters (and parties and candidates) have two years to absorb the idea of the change and to make adjustments for it. Here in Harris County, as in some other bigger counties, we can now take steps to ensure that the longer time it takes to complete a ballot will not lead to longer lines and voter frustration, so that may help mitigate the more unsavory parts of this change. It may well be when all is said and done and we have some more elections under our belt that Dems do see more dropoff in their races. I don’t think that will happen, or if it does that it will be a significant effect, but it could. Whatever does happen, let’s remember what was said before anyone could know for sure.

Precinct analysis: Undervoting in judicial races

Last time, we looked at undervoting by State Rep district in the two city propositions, which were at the very end of the 2018 ballot. That showed a somewhat greater likelihood of people in Democratic districts to skip those races, which was the first real evidence to support the assertion that Dems might suffer more in the post-straight ticket world. I said this was suggestive but far from conclusive, since we were looking at non-partisan referenda, with no candidates involved.

So with that in mind, let’s look at undervoting in a few of the judicial races that were on the ballot this year. These are also low profile and deep into the ballot, but they do provide the cue of party identification. What if any patterns do we see in the tendency to not vote in these races? To try to answer this, I looked at six judicial races, three of the first ones that appear and which have an overall low undervote rate, and three that appear near the end and which have an overall high undervote rate.


55th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,233  24,644  1,355   55.09%  44.91%  10.85%
HD127   42,637  24,900  1,574   63.13%  36.87%  10.12%
HD128   35,499  16,006  1,166   68.92%  31.08%  10.70%
HD129   37,342  26,324  2,023   58.65%  41.35%  12.24%
HD130   52,602  22,821  1,669   69.74%  30.26%  10.04%
HD131    6,328  35,416    803   15.16%  84.84%   9.40%
HD132   33,591  32,514  1,267   50.81%  49.19%   9.54%
HD133   43,482  26,449  2,625   62.18%  37.82%  12.38%
HD134   43,229  43,298  4,447   49.96%  50.04%  13.50%
HD135   27,503  27,919  1,288   49.62%  50.38%  10.82%
HD137    7,664  16,339    651   31.93%  68.07%  12.07%
HD138   24,343  23,390  1,477   51.00%  49.00%  12.93%
HD139   11,101  35,586  1,187   23.78%  76.22%  11.00%
HD140    5,470  17,978    604   23.33%  76.67%  14.49%
HD141    4,035  27,344    456   12.86%  87.14%   8.83%
HD142    8,754  30,706    762   22.18%  77.82%   9.07%
HD143    7,706  20,648    883   27.18%  72.82%  14.69%
HD144    9,282  13,946    589   39.96%  60.04%  13.11%
HD145   10,224  22,188  1,053   31.54%  68.46%  13.19%
HD146    8,664  34,224  1,237   20.20%  79.80%  11.43%
HD147   10,994  43,284  1,603   20.25%  79.75%  11.21%
HD148   17,180  29,480  2,205   36.82%  63.18%  14.28%
HD149   14,500  24,179    994   37.49%  62.51%  13.36%
HD150   42,340  27,688  1,648   60.46%  39.54%  10.41%

113th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,196  24,706  1,330   55.00%  45.00%  10.65%
HD127   42,466  25,062  1,582   62.89%  37.11%  10.17%
HD128   35,412  16,121  1,137   68.72%  31.28%  10.43%
HD129   37,111  26,583  1,994   58.26%  41.74%  12.07%
HD130   52,495  22,970  1,628   69.56%  30.44%   9.79%
HD131    6,340  35,364    843   15.20%  84.80%   9.87%
HD132   33,499  32,612  1,263   50.67%  49.33%   9.51%
HD133   43,377  26,602  2,576   61.99%  38.01%  12.15%
HD134   42,809  43,765  4,399   49.45%  50.55%  13.36%
HD135   27,447  27,985  1,278   49.51%  50.49%  10.74%
HD137    7,652  16,353    649   31.88%  68.12%  12.03%
HD138   24,316  23,460  1,434   50.90%  49.10%  12.55%
HD139   11,015  35,683  1,175   23.59%  76.41%  10.89%
HD140    5,397  18,035    619   23.03%  76.97%  14.85%
HD141    4,031  27,310    494   12.86%  87.14%   9.56%
HD142    8,737  30,727    758   22.14%  77.86%   9.02%
HD143    7,650  20,712    875   26.97%  73.03%  14.55%
HD144    9,214  14,003    600   39.69%  60.31%  13.35%
HD145   10,086  22,309  1,071   31.13%  68.87%  13.42%
HD146    8,650  34,212  1,264   20.18%  79.82%  11.68%
HD147   10,915  43,365  1,600   20.11%  79.89%  11.19%
HD148   17,005  29,665  2,194   36.44%  63.56%  14.21%
HD149   14,447  24,233    993   37.35%  62.65%  13.35%
HD150   42,295  27,745  1,635   60.39%  39.61%  10.33%

157th Civil Court

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,042  24,846  1,343   54.73%  45.27%  10.76%
HD127   42,272  25,265  1,573   62.59%  37.41%  10.12%
HD128   35,281  16,231  1,159   68.49%  31.51%  10.63%
HD129   36,933  26,762  1,993   57.98%  42.02%  12.06%
HD130   52,322  23,142  1,628   69.33%  30.67%   9.79%
HD131    6,238  35,494    815   14.95%  85.05%   9.54%
HD132   33,353  32,753  1,266   50.45%  49.55%   9.54%
HD133   43,043  26,911  2,601   61.53%  38.47%  12.27%
HD134   42,716  43,888  4,370   49.32%  50.68%  13.27%
HD135   27,295  28,129  1,286   49.25%  50.75%  10.81%
HD137    7,550  16,442    662   31.47%  68.53%  12.27%
HD138   24,070  23,719  1,420   50.37%  49.63%  12.43%
HD139   10,938  35,770  1,166   23.42%  76.58%  10.81%
HD140    5,375  18,069    607   22.93%  77.07%  14.57%
HD141    3,982  27,377    475   12.70%  87.30%   9.19%
HD142    8,699  30,765    756   22.04%  77.96%   9.00%
HD143    7,588  20,773    876   26.76%  73.24%  14.57%
HD144    9,133  14,084    600   39.34%  60.66%  13.35%
HD145    9,994  22,398  1,074   30.85%  69.15%  13.45%
HD146    8,552  34,330  1,244   19.94%  80.06%  11.49%
HD147   10,860  43,432  1,589   20.00%  80.00%  11.12%
HD148   16,924  29,752  2,189   36.26%  63.74%  14.17%
HD149   14,398  24,291    984   37.21%  62.79%  13.23%
HD150   42,017  28,012  1,646   60.00%  40.00%  10.40%  

Crim Ct 9

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   29,830  24,865  1,537   54.54%  45.46%  12.31%
HD127   42,199  25,096  1,815   62.71%  37.29%  11.67%
HD128   35,154  16,210  1,306   68.44%  31.56%  11.98%
HD129   36,365  27,045  2,278   57.35%  42.65%  13.78%
HD130   52,079  23,117  1,896   69.26%  30.74%  11.41%
HD131    6,169  35,441    936   14.83%  85.17%  10.96%
HD132   33,179  32,735  1,459   50.34%  49.66%  10.99%
HD133   41,803  27,603  3,148   60.23%  39.77%  14.85%
HD134   39,653  46,022  5,296   46.28%  53.72%  16.08%
HD135   27,110  28,157  1,443   49.05%  50.95%  12.13%
HD137    7,498  16,405    750   31.37%  68.63%  13.90%
HD138   23,827  23,757  1,626   50.07%  49.93%  14.23%
HD139   10,811  35,768  1,293   23.21%  76.79%  11.99%
HD140    5,379  18,029    644   22.98%  77.02%  15.45%
HD141    4,005  27,279    551   12.80%  87.20%  10.66%
HD142    8,698  30,678	  843   22.09%  77.91%  10.03%
HD143    7,576  20,721    940   26.77%  73.23%  15.64%
HD144    9,172  14,023    621   39.54%  60.46%  13.82%
HD145    9,829  22,420  1,215   30.48%  69.52%  15.22%
HD146    8,249  34,479  1,398   19.31%  80.69%  12.92%
HD147   10,283  43,791  1,806   19.02%  80.98%  12.63%
HD148   16,219  30,145  2,500   34.98%  65.02%  16.19%
HD149   14,267  24,365  1,041   36.93%  63.07%  14.00%
HD150   41,803  28,015  1,856   59.87%  40.13%  11.73% 

Crim Ct 10

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   29,452  25,205  1,574   53.89%  46.11%  12.61%
HD127   41,583  25,678  1,850   61.82%  38.18%  11.90%
HD128   34,899  16,440  1,331   67.98%  32.02%  12.21%
HD129   35,939  27,475  2,275   56.67%  43.33%  13.77%
HD130   51,686  23,502  1,905   68.74%  31.26%  11.46%
HD131    5,983  35,592    971   14.39%  85.61%  11.37%
HD132   32,929  32,966  1,478   49.97%  50.03%  11.13%
HD133   41,082  28,334  3,138   59.18%  40.82%  14.80%
HD134   38,613  47,031  5,328   45.09%  54.91%  16.18%
HD135   26,847  28,401  1,461   48.59%  51.41%  12.28%
HD137    7,324  16,567    762   30.66%  69.34%  14.13%
HD138   23,483  24,083  1,644   49.37%  50.63%  14.39%
HD139   10,567  35,974  1,330   22.70%  77.30%  12.33%
HD140    5,243  18,158    648   22.41%  77.59%  15.55%
HD141    3,929  27,329    576   12.57%  87.43%  11.15%
HD142    8,543  30,818    858   21.70%  78.30%  10.21%
HD143    7,390  20,879    967   26.14%  73.86%  16.08%
HD144    8,991  14,211    615   38.75%  61.25%  13.69%
HD145    9,670  22,571  1,224   29.99%  70.01%  15.33%
HD146    8,056  34,654  1,415   18.86%  81.14%  13.07%
HD147   10,087  43,932  1,861   18.67%  81.33%  13.02%
HD148   15,808  30,508  2,547   34.13%  65.87%  16.49%
HD149   14,075  24,529  1,068   36.46%  63.54%  14.36%
HD150   41,459  28,345  1,871   59.39%  40.61%  11.82%


Probate Court 4

Dist       Rep     Dem   None     Rep%    Dem%  Under%
======================================================
HD126   30,387  24,311  1,532   55.55%  44.45%  12.27%
HD127   42,669  24,596  1,844   63.43%  36.57%  11.86%
HD128   35,440  15,919  1,311   69.00%  31.00%  12.03%
HD129   37,372  26,067  2,250   58.91%  41.09%  13.61%
HD130   52,671  22,515  1,906   70.05%  29.95%  11.47%
HD131    6,425  35,169    953   15.45%  84.55%  11.16%
HD132   33,759  32,171  1,444   51.20%  48.80%  10.88%
HD133   43,453  26,046  3,056   62.52%  37.48%  14.41%
HD134   42,830  43,007  5,134   49.90%  50.10%  15.59%
HD135   27,621  27,648  1,440   49.98%  50.02%  12.10%
HD137    7,696  16,214    744   32.19%  67.81%  13.79%
HD138   24,436  23,142  1,631   51.36%  48.64%  14.27%
HD139   11,236  35,313  1,324   24.14%  75.86%  12.27%
HD140    5,474  17,937    640   23.38%  76.62%  15.36%
HD141    4,126  27,136    571   13.20%  86.80%  11.05%
HD142    8,912  30,439    867   22.65%  77.35%  10.32%
HD143    7,680  20,605    952   27.15%  72.85%  15.83%
HD144    9,248  13,948    621   39.87%  60.13%  13.82%
HD145   10,235  21,997  1,231   31.75%  68.25%  15.42%
HD146    8,760  33,962  1,404   20.50%  79.50%  12.97%
HD147   11,217  42,809  1,851   20.76%  79.24%  12.95%
HD148   17,153  29,185  2,525   37.02%  62.98%  16.35%
HD149   14,556  24,074  1,042   37.68%  62.32%  14.01%
HD150   42,460  27,401  1,815   60.78%  39.22%  11.47%

As before the undervote rate is calculated by subtracting out the straight ticket votes from the total turnout in each district, so the percentage is (undervotes) / (non-straight ticket votes). There are three things to note here.

1. Three strong Democratic districts, HDs 131, 141, and 142, are consistently among those with the lowest undervote rates. Two strong Republican districts, HDs 129 and 133, are consistently among those with the highest undervote rates. There are also Democratic districts (HDs 140, 143, 145, 148) with high undervote rates, and Republican districts (HDs 126, 127, 128, 130, 150) with low undervote rates. The message is mixed.

2. If we zoom in on the most even districts – HDs 132, 134, 135, and 138 – we see that as we move from the races with overall low undervote rates to the races with the overall high undervote rates, the Democratic percentages in these districts increased in two of the three races. This is also the case for Democratic majority districts – look at HDs 144, 145, 146, and 147, for example. In other words, the voters that are dropping off are for the most part not those that are voting for Democratic judicial candidates.

3. Pulling back out to the bigger picture, the total number of votes affected here is really small. Look at HD148, one of the highest-undervote districts. The total number of undervotes there ranges from 2,189 to 2,545, a difference of 356 votes. As I said weeks ago, the range of undervotes in these judicial races is something like 31K to 36K, so maybe about five thousand more people drop off at the bottom of the ballot than in the middle, where we start voting for judicial candidates. That’s not a lot of votes! The Democratic judicial candidates in 2018 all won by at least 100K votes. The closest judicial race in 2016 was decided by 23K votes. You’d need to have a really big dropoff rate and a really big partisan differential for there to be a chance this could have an effect. There is zero evidence for either of these.

Now look, I admit that I am not a Professional Political Scientist. If I were, I’d probably being doing linear regressions or other fancy mathematical analyses to try to rigorously tease out possible correlations. I’m just a lowlife blogger fooling around in Excel while I watch the Texans game. But again, that’s my whole point about these ridiculous claims about “voter fatigue” and “Republican voters are more committed”, which is SHOW ME THE FRICKING EVIDENCE FOR THESE CLAIMS. I’m doing my amateur-level best to try and find it, and I can’t. If anything, I’m finding evidence for the opposite. Prove me wrong! I double dog dare you!

Anyway. I still have one last post on this topic, then I will go back to looking at precinct data in the way you’re more used to me looking at it. I hope you have found this useful.

Precinct analysis: Undervotes in the city

We’ve previously discussed non-partisan initiatives at the end of the ballot and how often people have undervoted in them in the past. Now let’s take a closer look at the two ballot items from this year.


Dist    A Yes    A No  A Under  A Under%
========================================
HD127  16,846   9,479    4,882    15.64%
HD129  15,278   6,940    4,410    16.56%
HD131  22,871   7,418    6,460    17.58%
HD133  37,434  15,266    9,363    15.09%
HD134  49,237  14,002    9,575    13.15%
HD137  14,463   5,022    5,140    20.87%
HD138  13,013   5,957    3,778    16.61%
HD139  18,245   6,560    4,406    15.08%
HD140   5,583   2,110    2,333    23.27%
HD141  10,341   2,964    3,766    22.06%
HD142  11,785   3,801    3,631    18.89%
HD143   6,577   2,596    2,831    23.58%
HD145  16,414   6,054    5,499    19.66%
HD146  28,706   8,365    7,047    15.97%
HD147  37,676   9,694    8,510    15.23%
HD148  31,230  10,823    6,811    13.94%
HD149  10,172   3,415    4,790    26.07%

Dist    B Yes    B No  B Under  B Under%
========================================
HD127  16,228  11,551    3,427    10.98%
HD129  13,701   9,714    3,215    12.07%
HD131  19,942  11,552    5,255    14.30%
HD133  29,272  25,394    7,403    11.93%
HD134  32,928  32,079    7,810    10.73%
HD137  13,183   7,161    4,282    17.39%
HD138  11,813   7,901    3,035    13.34%
HD139  14,426  11,165    3,621    12.40%
HD140   5,797   2,411    1,818    18.13%
HD141   7,965   5,687    3,420    20.03%
HD142   9,533   6,613    3,070    15.98%
HD143   7,091   2,784    2,130    17.74%
HD145  16,267   7,699    4,000    14.30%
HD146  23,173  15,199    5,753    13.04%
HD147  28,968  19,939    6,971    12.48%
HD148  26,125  17,719    5,020    10.27%
HD149  10,261   4,250    3,866    21.04%

Remember that these are city of Houston elections, so only people in the city voted on them. The missing State Rep districts are the ones that are mostly not in Houston, and for the most part had only a handful of votes in them. Again, Prop A was the Renew Houston cleanup measure, which had little to no campaign activity around it, while Prop B was the firefighter pay parity proposal and was higher profile, though not that high profile given the intense interest in and barrage of ads for other races. Here for the first time you might entertain the idea that there’s some merit to the claim that Democratic voters might be more inclined to drop off before they get to the bottom of the ballot than Republican voters. Only HDs 139, 147, and 148 are on the lower end of the undervote spectrum. It’s suggestive, but far from conclusive. Remember, these are non-partisan ballot initiatives, not races between candidates who are clearly identified with political parties. We’ll examine that data in another post. This is also only one year’s worth of data. I may go back and take a closer look at the 2010 Renew Houston and red light camera referenda, but I don’t know how directly comparable they are – there was more attention paid to those two issues, and the political environment was very different. (I am amused to note that the Chron editorial board was blaming straight ticket voting for the demise of red light cameras, because of course straight ticket voting is history’s greatest monster, or something like that.) I’m going to take a closer look at undervoting in judicial races in another post. For now, if one wanted to make a principled and data-driven case that Republicans are more likely to vote all the way down the ballot than Democrats, you might cite the city referenda from this year. It’s one piece of data, but at least it’s something. As you’ll soon see, however, you’re going to need more than this.

Precinct analysis: Straight ticket voting by State Rep district

As advertised:


Dist    Str R   Str D  Str L  Turnout   Str R%	Str D% Str L%   Total
=====================================================================
HD126  24,093  19,491    269   56,336   42.77%  34.60%  0.48%  77.84%
HD127  34,178  19,157    312   69,198   49.39%  27.68%  0.45%  77.53%
HD128  29,034  12,583    221   52,737   55.05%  23.86%  0.42%  79.33%
HD129  29,064  19,883    342   65,816   44.16%  30.21%  0.52%  74.89%
HD130  42,728  17,471    355   77,175   55.37%  22.64%  0.46%  78.46%
HD131   4,777  29,161    139   42,617   11.21%  68.43%  0.33%  79.96%
HD132  27,287  26,561    343   67,466   40.45%  39.37%  0.51%  80.32%
HD133  31,498  19,758    335   72,795   43.27%  27.14%  0.46%  70.87%
HD134  27,315  30,634    395   91,273   29.93%  33.56%  0.43%  63.92%
HD135  22,035  22,541    301   56,778   38.81%  39.70%  0.53%  79.04%
HD137   5,701  13,487    148   24,730   23.05%  54.54%  0.60%  78.19%
HD138  18,837  18,746    288   49,297   38.21%  38.03%  0.58%  76.82%
HD139   8,132  28,811    205   47,936   16.96%  60.10%  0.43%  77.49%
HD140   4,254  15,577    116   24,114   17.64%  64.60%  0.48%  82.72%
HD141   3,234  23,341    130   31,872   10.15%  73.23%  0.41%  83.79%
HD142   6,857  25,315    158   40,734   16.83%  62.15%  0.39%  79.37%
HD143   5,895  17,220    156   29,283   20.13%  58.81%  0.53%  79.47%
HD144   7,365  11,849    154   23,861   30.87%  49.66%  0.65%  81.17%
HD145   7,433  17,922    220   33,558   22.15%  53.41%  0.66%  76.21%
HD146   5,983  27,257    183   44,246   13.52%  61.60%  0.41%  75.54%
HD147   7,384  34,054    282   56,014   13.18%  60.80%  0.50%  74.48%
HD148  11,270  21,910    351   48,976   23.01%  44.74%  0.72%  68.46%
HD149  11,660  20,469    211   39,778   29.31%  51.46%  0.53%  81.30%
HD150  34,046  21,560    352   71,783   47.43%  30.03%  0.49%  77.95%

HDs 133, 134, and 148 are the outliers, otherwise each district is in a band between 74 and 84%. For what it’s worth, HDs 134 and 148 were the two best State Rep districts for Gary Johnson in 2016; HD133 was fourth best, also trailing HD129, but nearly a point behind the top two. HDs 1334 was also the best district for Evan McMullin and tied for best for all write ins, while 134, 133, and 148 were numbers 1, 2, and 4 respectively for most undervotes for President in 2016. That all makes sense in context.

One other point to note here is one that reinforces the point I made before about the decline of the Republican Party in Harris County. The Democratic districts are very strongly Democratic. The Republican presence in them is tiny. The Republican districts, on the other hand, sure seem to have a decent number of Democrats in them; in the cases of HDs 132 and 135, more than the number of Republicans. This is very much a function of where the population growth is in Harris County, and as that population has increased, so has the Democratic share of that district, and the county as a whole. The Republicans’ problem in Harris County was and is too many Democrats. Straight ticket voting didn’t help them, but then nothing was going to help them. They have themselves, and their continued embrace of Trump and Trumpism, to blame.

Still more about straight ticket voting

And I’m still complaining about how the subject is being approached and discussed.

Fewer than half of Texans voted straight ticket in 1998, according to research by Austin Community College political scientist Stefan Haag, but that has jumped to close to two-thirds in four straight elections since 2012.

Both Democrats and Republicans benefitted from straight-party voting this year, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Straight-ticket voting tends to benefit the majority party in whichever jurisdiction you’re operating. And so therefore it benefitted the Republican Party statewide, but it worked to the detriment of Republicans in the major urban counties, with Harris County and Dallas County being the two leading examples, but also the 1st, 14th and 5th court of appeals districts, where it also worked to their detriment,” Jones said, referring to Democratic sweeps of appellate judge races in some areas.

Texas doesn’t track statewide numbers on straight-party voting, so compiling data requires a county-by-county search. Texas Monthly looked at the state’s 40 most-populous counties, which accounted for 83 percent of the votes Texans cast in the 2018 midterm. That approach is similar to that used by Haag, who has been tracking straight-ticket voting in Texas since 1988 by looking at counties that account for 80 percent of the statewide vote. Here’s what we found:

[…]

The end of straight-ticket voting likely will help the Republicans check the Democrats’ recent momentum in the 2020 election, at least in lower-profile races, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “Only the most committed voters are likely to continue to vote all the way down the ballot. Republicans have more committed voters than Democrats at this point. So I think that advantage will shift back towards the Republicans in those down-ballot races.”

[…]

Jones and Rottinghaus said the end of the straight-party option could have profound impact on elections. Many voters will “roll off” the ballot after voting at the top of the ticket, leaving down-ballot races blank. Other voters may be pushed away from polls because of hours-long lines.

“I would say that we are very likely to see down ballot drop off. Most voters saw greatly from voter fatigue by the time they are at page three of the ballot and because of very long ballots we’ve got in the state it’s very likely that people just grow frustrated and simply stop voting,” leaving numerous races blank, Rottinghaus said.

There are some interesting statistics in the story, which you should go read, about big counties and smaller counties and Republican versus Democratic places. Dems appear from the numbers given to have been more likely to vote a straight ticket this year, which I would attribute to their overall enthusiasm level and the desire to send a message to Donald Trump and his enablers. Republicans still voted a heavy straight ticket as well, and in the end given that there were more Republicans voting overall, there were probably more Republican straight ticket voters. You have to check that on a county by county basis to know for sure, and I for one don’t have the time for that.

But of course it’s the unsupported assertions by the usual political science talkers that are driving me crazy. What evidence do you have for “voter fatigue”? What evidence do you have that Republicans are “more committed”? At least I’m willing to cite some actual numbers. What do you have, Brandon Rottinghaus and Mark Jones? Show your work, like you’d make a student do. I will say, if you look at Harris County results, the undervote rate in the judicial elections creeps upward as you go farther down the ballot. In those ranges I cited in that link above, the low end was always from the one of the first races, and the high end was always close to the bottom. But races like County Clerk and others that come after the judicial races have lower undervote rates, so it’s not just about “fatigue”, it’s about how much a voter knows about the race. The County Judge race this year had an undervote rate of 1.81%, on par with the statewides way up near the top of the ticket. Someone needs to show me some actual data that illustrates either of these effects – and states precisely what they are, in a scientific manner – before I will believe them.

But hey, you know what else we have? We have some non-partisan bond and ballot referenda, all of which appear at the very bitter end of the Harris County ballot, and not just from this year. Why don’t we take a look at some of these and see what the undervote rates have been?


2018 City of Houston

Prop A - 16.80%
Prop B - 13.37%

Prop A was the Renew Houston cleanup measure, while Prop B was the firefighter pay parity proposal. The undervote numbers roughly correspond to the “effective” undervote rates I calculated for the 2018 judicial races. Note that for stuff like this, it’s the straight ticket voters who may be dropping off, since they would still have to scroll down to vote on these things. But overall, most people made their way down to the bottom and cast a vote, with the higher profile issue not surprisingly getting more action.


2012 Metro

Mobility referendum - 21.66%


2012 City of Houston

Prop 1 - 26.84%
Prop 2 - 29.03%

Prop A - 23.91%
Prop B - 22.96%
Prop C - 24.84%
Prop D - 24.47%
Prop E - 24.56%


2012 HCC

Prop 1 - 22.88%


2012 HISD

Prop 1 - 18.98%

The Metro referendum was the one that gave the agency a greater share of sales tax revenue. The first two city propositions were charter amendment cleanups that I couldn’t tell you anything about, while the next five were all bonds, as were the HCC and HISD issues. Typically, the HISD one got the most attention, and thus had the lowest undervote rate. Remember that in 2012, the “effective” undervote rate was higher than it was this year.


2010 City of Houston

Prop 1 - 14.38%
Prop 2 - 18.93%
Prop 3 - 11.80%

Prop 1 was Renew Houston, Prop 3 was the red light camera referendum, and Prop 2 was something that I remember zero about. These undervote rates are pretty low, especially for the super-high-profile red light referendum.

Remember, these elections don’t involve people or parties, and they are at the end of the ballot. To whatever extent voters get “tired” and drop off, these are the place where you would see it. Straight ticket votes would not affect them, and voters have no partisan cues to go by. Some of these issues are confusing, and more than a few were very low profile. If anything, I’d expect these to represent the high end of voter dropoff in a “no straight ticket” context. Obviously, we won’t really know till we start seeing the election results in 2020 and beyond. But at least we can see that the overall dropoff rate isn’t that crazy – at the high end, it’s about what we see in an At Large City Council race, and at the low end it’s like a district Council race. Again, my expectation is that in a partisan context, with the trends we’ve observed, the actual undervote rates we’ll see will be less than this. But we’ll see. And at least I’m willing to put up my data.

On straight tickets and other votes

I have and will continue to have more to say about straight ticket votes. Part of me is reluctant to talk about this stuff, because I feel like we’ve reached a point where straight ticket votes are seen as less than other votes, and I don’t want to contribute in any way to that. But given all the talk we’ve already had, and the unending stream of baloney about the ridiculously outsized effect they supposedly had in this election, I feel like I need to shed what light I can on what the data actually says. So onward we go.

Today I want to look at a few districts of interest, and separate out the straight ticket votes from the other votes. Again, I hesitated to do this at first because I object so strenuously to the trope that straight ticket votes tipped an election in a particular way, to the detriment of the losing candidate. If a plethora of straight ticket votes helped propel a candidate to victory, it’s because there was a surplus of voters who supported that candidate, and not because of anything nefarious. We call that “winning the election”, and it stems from the condition of having more people vote for you than for the other person. Anyone who claims otherwise is marinating in sour grapes.

So. With that said, here’s a look at how the vote broke down in certain districts.


CD02:

Straight R = 109,529
Straight D =  87,667

Crenshaw      29,659
Litton        32,325

CD07:

Straight R =  90,933
Straight D =  86,640

Culberson     24,709
Fletcher      41,319

If you want to believe in the fiction that straight ticket votes determined the elections, and not the totality of the voters in the given political entity, then please enjoy the result in CD02, where Dan Crenshaw rode the straight ticket vote to victory. Those of us who refuse to engage in such nonsense will merely note that CD02 remained a Republican district despite two cycles of clear movement in a Democratic direction. And then there’s CD07, which stands in opposition to the claim that straight ticket votes are destiny, for if they were then John Culberson would not be shuffling off to the Former Congressman’s Home.


HD126:

Straight R =  24,093
Straight D =  19,491

Harless        6,306
Hurtado        5,544

HD132:

Straight R =  27,287
Straight D =  26,561

Schofield      5,441
Calanni        6,280

HD134:

Straight R =  27,315
Straight D =  30,634

Davis         19,962
Sawyer        11,003

HD135:

Straight R =  22,035
Straight D =  22,541

Elkins         4,666
Rosenthal      5,932

HD138:

Straight R =  18,837
Straight D =  18,746

Bohac          5,385
Milasincic     5,429

HD126 and HD135 were consistent, with straight ticket and non-straight ticket votes pointing in the same direction. Gina Calanni was able to overcome Mike Schofield’s straight ticket lead, while Adam Milasincic was not quite able to do the same. As for HD134, this is one part a testament to Sarah Davis’ crossover appeal, and one part a warning to her that this district may not be what it once was. Republicans are going to have some tough decisions to make in the 2021 redistricting if they want to hold onto this district.


CC2:

Straight R =  86,756
Straight D =  92,927

Morman        25,981
Garcia        21,887

CC3:

Straight R = 132,207
Straight D = 122,325

Flynn         32,964
Duhon         40,989

CC4:

Straight R = 144,217
Straight D = 122,999

Cagle         42,545
Shaw          34,448

Finally, a Democrat gets a boost from straight ticket voting. I had figured Adrian Garcia would run ahead of the pack in Commissioners Court Precinct 2, but that wasn’t the case. I attribute Jack Morman’s resiliency to his two terms as incumbent and his millions in campaign cash, but in the end they weren’t enough. As was the case with CD02 for Dan Crenshaw, CC2 was too Democratic for Morman. That’s a shift from 2016, where Republicans generally led the way in the precinct, and shows another aspect of the Republican decline in the county. You see that also in CC3, where many Dems did win a majority and Andrea Duhon came close, and in CC4, which is at this point the last stronghold for Republicans. Democrats are pulling their weight out west, and that had repercussions this year that will continue to be felt in 2020 and beyond.

There’s still more to the straight ticket voting data that I want to explore. I keep thinking I’m done, then I keep realizing I’m not. Hope this has been useful to you.

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.

Non-partisan judicial elections are not the answer

With respect, I disagree.

Most of us are proud we voted, yet most of us abdicated our voting power when it came to electing judges. Our trial and appellate judges oversee our Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendment rights daily, but most Harris County voters simply hit a straight-party ballot and let someone else decide in judicial races.

Yes, the parties provide some good judicial candidates. But in trying to fill out the long ballot of judges, they have offered some real losers over the years, too. The ballot always contains some mediocre lawyers who like the looks of a county pension and some who will make actively bad judges. By not paying attention, Harris County voters have, at times, elected family law judges who refuse to show up in court, irreparably harming couples and children. They’ve elected criminal court judges who treat people of color differently. They’ve elected juvenile court judges who do harm to the most vulnerable of us, and they’ve elected appellate judges who simply are not up to the task.

It is heartbreaking for those who know which judges are good, or even great, only to see them swept out of office by blind party voting. We lost many great jurists this election. Maybe their replacements will be great, too, but at least some of them won’t.

Thanks to recent legislation, straight-party voting won’t be available when our judges are up for election in two years. But if we keep judges on a partisan ballot, people are still likely to use party as a voting crutch when they would likely do less harm by abstaining. Scholars who have studied judicial elections note that party affiliation is the primary factor in most people’s choices, followed by choosing a familiar sounding name. One Dallas judge believes he got a boost at the ballot box because his name sounds like a popular whiskey.

Friends say they voted straight party to send a message to the president or someone else in high office. But for years, straight-ticket voters have been sending powerful and uncaring messages to the unlucky litigants who wind up in front of one of the judges who is ill-equipped for the bench.

Author Mary Flood is a friend and a person of wisdom, but I do not agree with her proposal. I’ve addressed this a bunch of times, and my position hasn’t changed. Making judicial elections non-partisan removes information from voters, while incentivizing groups with a direct stake in the outcome of these elections, from plaintiffs’ lawyers to bail bondspeople to evildoers like Empower Texans to influence the vote, by which I mean “spend a lot more money than they do now to get judges they like elected”. You may say that it would be all right if the less-informed voters choose not to vote in these elections. I will say that encouraging people to not vote doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

If we must get rid of partisan elections, the only option that makes sense to me is an appointment system. If we’re going to go down that road, we’d damn well better engineer it in a way that doesn’t grant an excessive amount of power to any individuals or groups, does promote merit and diversity, and still allows for a way to oust someone who becomes a problem. I get that there are problems with the system we have. I’m sorry that some good judges will leave the bench, even as I voted against them. But until those who have been airing their complaints about this system come forward with a better one, I will continue to oppose any changes.

The decline and fall of the Republican Party in Harris County

It can be summed up in this table:


Dist   Romney  Trump   Cruz
===========================
HD126   62.1%  53.0%  51.5%
HD127   69.2%  61.2%  59.5%
HD128   72.4%  68.2%  66.8%
HD129   64.5%  55.3%  54.0%
HD130   75.9%  68.1%  66.0%
HD132   58.9%  50.0%  47.9%
HD133   68.1%  54.5%  54.3%
HD135   58.8%  48.9%  46.4%
HD138   59.2%  47.8%  46.5%
HD144   47.9%  38.4%  37.9%
HD150   68.5%  59.2%  57.0%

These were the last three high-turnout elections. You can see what happens to the Republican share of the vote in State Rep districts that had been held by Republicans after the 2010 election. (I am as per my custom ignoring the unicorn that is HD134.) Besides putting more districts into play – the Democrats now hold 14 of the 24 State Rep districts, and came within an eyelash of winning a 15th – it means the Republicans aren’t running up the score in their best districts, which gives them fewer voters overall in the county, and in overlapping places like CD07 and Commissioners Court Precinct 2. For comparison, here are the Democratic districts over the same time period:


Dist   Romney  Trump   Cruz
===========================
HD131   15.7%  13.3%  14.1%
HD137   34.5%  28.9%  28.7%
HD139   23.6%  20.6%  21.7%
HD140   29.0%  21.9%  21.9%
HD141   12.1%  12.6%  12.7%
HD142   22.0%  21.0%  21.1%
HD143   31.9%  26.0%  26.0%
HD145   38.3%  28.7%  28.3%
HD146   20.1%  17.3%  17.9%
HD147   20.3%  16.8%  16.8%
HD148   41.1%  30.5%  30.0%
HD149   40.1%  32.5%  34.8%

There are a few notable drops in Republican support between 2012 and 2016, mostly in HDs 140, 145, and 148, but overall the decline was less severe. Of course, in some of these districts they basically had nowhere further to fall. The strong Democratic districts also tend to have fewer eligible and registered voters overall, and lower turnout besides. By my count, there were 605,214 votes total cast in the ten State Rep districts the Republicans won in 2018, and 612,257 in the 14 Democratic districts. If you put HDs 132 and 135 back in the Republican column, as they were before the election, then the split was 729,298 votes in the twelve districts that started out with Republican incumbents, and 488,119 votes in the twelve Dem-held districts. They needed bigger margins in those Republican districts, they got the exact opposite, and the rout was on.

Does this mean the Republicans are forever doomed in Harris County? No, of course not. As I said, I was feeling pretty good after the 2008 elections too, and we know what happened next. But the dynamic is clearly different now. Harris County isn’t purple. It’s blue, and it’s blue because there are more Democrats than Republicans. Right now at least, modulo any future changes to the nature of the parties and who belongs to them, the Democrats’ biggest threat in Harris County is lousy turnout. We did get swept in the no-turnout year of 2014, but the margins in the judicial races and at the top of the ticket were much closer than the ones we had this year. Until something changes at a macro level, in any normal-or-better turnout scenario, there are going to be more Democratic voters than Republican voters in Harris County. That’s the threat that the Republicans face, and the trends are not in their favor. On top of the demographic shift in Harris County, Donald Trump helped push away some of the more reliable members of the GOP base this year. Maybe that won’t stick, but even if it doesn’t that doesn’t help them that much. The Harris County GOP can whine all they want to about straight ticket voting. That wasn’t even close to their biggest problem.

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.

Their whining is like music to my ears

From the inbox, possibly the most unintentionally hilarious press release I’ve ever had the privilege to receive, from the Harris County Republican Party:

“I am mad. Mad at the avoidable losses wreaked across Texas by the Beto Wave of straight-ticket votes. That straight-ticket wave turned Fort Bend County Democrat, defeated Republicans on appellate courts across Texas, elected Democrats across the state to Congress and the Legislature, and swept every countywide vote in Harris County. Despite the largest and most ambitious campaign the Harris County Republican Party has ever run, we fell woefully short.

“Sadly, this straight-ticket Beto Wave was once avoidable. Texas is one of only eight states that still have straight-ticket voting. In 2017, other grassroots conservatives and I championed legislation to end straight ticket voting in Texas once and for all. But, to the detriment of Republicans across Texas, straight-ticket voting was left in place for one last election–in 2018. This year, faced with the longest ballot in the country, 75% of the 1.2 million Harris County voters (presidential-year-level turnout) punched the straight-ticket option: 500K Democrat vs. 400K Republican, giving Democrats a 100,000-vote margin, with Beto O’Rourke winning Harris County by 200,000 votes.

“The result was a down-ballot sweep that would not have happened without straight-ticket voting.

“There was no substantive Democrat countywide candidate, yet they all won. Consider: did all of those 500,000 straight-ticket Democrat voters turn out planning to oust County Judge Ed Emmett? Did the straight-ticket Democrat voters who gave Commissioner Jack Cagle’s opponent 46% of the vote know they were voting for a Communist? The questions answer themselves.”

May I suggest, before we go any further, that you now click this link? I’ll wait.

Yeah. That’s from their Facebook page, and it was on the the Harris County GOP website as of Friday. Here’s a screenshot I took at the time:

So, yeah. You know, I’m old enough to remember the year 2010, when two thirds of all voters cast a straight-ticket ballot, giving the Republicans a 50,000-vote advantage before anything else was counted. Funny how that only became a problem to fear when there started to be more Democrats in the county.

Also, too:

In the run-up to Election Day, an influential Tea Party group seemed skeptical that a blue wave would wash over the state.

But after the votes were tallied Tuesday, the NE Tarrant Tea Party found that some of its favored candidates had nearly been swept away.

“Slaughtered … slaughtered … lost … lost … barely held on, but at least they won,” the group’s president, Julie McCarty, wrote to supporters Wednesday, ticking down a list of races. “We are rapidly becoming outnumbered. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I don’t like the pattern.”

Though the GOP maintained its dominance of the Legislature and control of every statewide office, it was by almost all counts a tough night for her wing of the party. With the Democrats’ star senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke, at the top of the ticket, challengers running to the left of far-right — and often well-financed — candidates made nail-biters of races that had once been safe Republican wins.

[…]

Political analysts say the results spell trouble for the no-holds-barred conservatism that has animated Republican primaries, especially with the success of Democratic challengers who this year campaigned on bread-and-butter issues like education and health care.

“The margins for the more combative and conservative Republicans were much smaller than that of the more pragmatic and more consensus-based Republicans,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor. “That says something to Republicans that is: When you have a candidate that doesn’t alienate people, your cushion is much larger.”

McCarty, the NE Tarrant Tea Party president, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of the deep-pocketed and hard-right Empower Texans group.

But in an email newsletter Wednesday, Sullivan said it “was a rough night for Texas Republicans.”

“Elections come and go; some candidates lose and some candidates win. Sometimes those losses and wins have nothing to do with the candidates themselves,” the newsletter said. “Legislatively, though, not much changes. The GOP holds commanding leads in Texas’ House and Senate.”

The lower chamber’s most conservative faction, the Freedom Caucus, may in fact gain membership next session, with the entrée of several new ideologically aligned candidates.

McCarty, in an email to supporters, attributed the election outcome to an influx of Democrats and “white guilt” invading the suburbs.

“It’s not that we didn’t work hard. It’s not that folks didn’t vote. Dems are moving in from out of state, lured in by short-sighted politicians. Dems are moving in across the border. Dems run our schools and universities and churn out more Dems,” she wrote.

Clearly, we need to build a wall around the entire state. Maybe we can make California pay for it. As for the thesis that the wingnuts will perform some strategic moderation, let’s just say that the evidence for that is thin so far.

I mean, look, we may well lose some amount of the ground we gained this year in the 2020 election. Lord knows, I was feeling pretty damn giddy around this time in 2008 as well, and we know what happened next. But damn, I’m gonna enjoy this for now. Campos has more.

Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

The eSlate issue

Everyone please take a deep breath.

Some straight-ticket voters have reported that voting machines recorded them selecting the candidate of another party for U.S. Senate, exposing a potential problem with the integrity of the state’s high-profile contest between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Beto O’Rourke and leading good government groups to sound the alarm.

Several Democratic voters, for example, have complained the voting system indicated they were about to cast a vote for Cruz, a Republican, instead of Democrat O’Rourke as they prepared to send it. Some said they were able to get help from staff at the polling place and change their votes back to what they intended before finalizing their ballots.

Most of the 15 to 20 people who have complained to the state so far said that their straight-ticket ballot left their vote for U.S. Senate blank, according to Sam Taylor, communications director for the Secretary of State. A spokesman for the Texas Civil Rights Project said the group has received about a half dozen complaints, mostly of Democratic straight ticket voters whose ballots erroneously included a vote for Cruz, and one Republican straight ticket voter whose ballot tabulated a vote for O’Rourke.

The problem occurs on the Hart eSlate voting machine when voters turn a selection dial and hit the “enter” button simultaneously, according to the state. Eighty-two of the 254 counties in Texas have these machines, although complaints have only come from Fort Bend, Harris, McLennan, Montgomery, Tarrant and Travis counties, according to Taylor.

The issue with the eSlate machine first surfaced in the 2016 presidential election. The Secretary of State’s office described it as user error at that time, and said the same of this year’s problems in an advisory sent to election workers issued this week.

“It does pop up from time to time,” said Taylor. Voters should “double and triple check and slow down” before casting their ballots, he said.

Although the state sent the advisory, the Civil Rights Project contends that more should be done to ensure voters understand the potential for wrongly recorded votes.

The group is pushing the state to post advisories to inform voters at the polls about the problem, and how to detect it.

“This is not an isolated issue but a symptom of a wider breakdown in Texas’s election systems,” said Beth Stevens, the organization’s voting rights director. “Texas voters should have full confidence that when they use a voting machine they are indeed casting their ballot of choice.”

I would dispute that this problem first surfaced in the 2016 election. We’ve heard a variation of problems like this going back to at least 2008. Here’s a post I wrote back then, in which there was confusion – some of which was being spread intentionally – about voting straight ticket and then clicking again on Obama/Biden, which of course would have the effect of canceling the vote in that race. This particular complaint may be relatively new, but reports of the voting machines not doing what the voters thought they were going to do have literally always been with us. It’s one part bad interface design, and one part user error.

The solution – for now – really is to review your ballot before you press the “cast vote” button. I do that in every election, because it’s always possible to not click what you thought you’d clicked, just like it’s possible to do that on your computer or tablet or cellphone. Election officials can and should do a more thorough job of educating voters about the voting machines – there are always new voters, and there are always voters who are not confident with electronic gadgets, and these people have as much right to vote the way they want to vote as anyone else – but the bottom line remains the same. Review your ballot before you commit to it, just like you review other transactions.

Here’s that advisory from the Secretary of State, and here’s the press release and letter to the SOS from the Texas Civil Rights Project. The TCRP is 100% correct that Texas needs to upgrade its voting machines, both to improve the interface and also to bolster security. As someone who works in cybersecurity, it’s unthinkable that we have voting systems that provide neither redundancy nor an audit trail. We know what a better system looks like, we just need a government that is willing to invest in it. We just need to vote in sufficient numbers to make that happen. The Trib has more.

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.

Endorsement watch: Criminal court judges

There’s a new slate of endorsements from the Chron up, all for Criminal District Court races. More Republicans, mostly incumbents, were endorsed than Dems, but in many cases it was close. Of interest to me was the first appearance of one-star candidates, reflecting the Chron’s new star rating system. One of the one star candidates is a Republican, and one is a Democratic, who was also the focus of a sidebar editorial about the perils of voting a straight ticket.

There are two ways to look at this. One is as that editorial says, that as long as we elect judges via a partisan political process, we ought to take the time to at least know who the standout candidates are and do our best to elect and retain the best of them, regardless of the party label. The other is that the only way to change the Republican Party as it now stands is to give it an epic, all-encompassing beatdown at the polls, and if a cost of that is the loss of a couple of good judges, well, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I’m not going to suggest a path for you – you’re all a bunch of intelligent and discerning individuals – but this is the real choice as I see it.

This will be your last year to vote a straight party ticket

Whether you like it or not. The linked story looks at how this upcoming change, to go into effect in 2020, may affect judicial elections.

Texas elects its judges, leaving the nearly anonymous people in charge of the third branch of state government in the hands of voters who have only the vaguest idea of who they are.

It’s one of the built-in problems of running a big state. Ballots are long. Attention spans are short. Judges are almost as invisible as they are important — a critical part of government located a long way from the noisy and partisan front lines of civics and politics.

The top of the ballot gets the attention. The bottom of the ballot gets leftovers.

When a party’s candidates at the top of the ticket are doing well, it bodes well for that party’s candidates at the bottom — for the time being anyway. For at least one more election, Texans will be able to cast straight-party votes — choosing everybody on their party’s ticket without going race-by-race through sometimes long ballots.

Texas lawmakers decided last year to get rid of the straight-ticket option starting in 2020. It’s a Republican Legislature and governor and straight-ticket Democrats in Dallas and Harris and other big counties have been making early retirees of Republican judges in recent elections.

[…]

When straight-ticket voting comes to an end in Texas, judges will to win by figuring out how to drag their supporters to the bottom of long ballots. For now, they have to worry about how their fellow partisans are doing at the top of the ticket — and whether the big blue counties will spoil their chances.

See here and here for thoughts I have expressed on this subject in the past. No question, turnout for downballot races – not just judicial, but for things like County Clerk and Railroad Commissioner and whatnot – will decrease when the one-button option disappears, though I expect both parties will put a lot of energy into convincing people to vote all the way down. I just want to point out that there’s already more variance than you might think in judicial race vote totals. We’ll see how much that increases in two years, assuming the Lege doesn’t undo itself next year.

Tom Wakely

As noted in the update and comments to Wednesday’s post about our first Democratic candidate for Governor, we now have a second such candidate, Tom Wakely. PDiddie brings word of Wakely’s announcement, which he made on Down with Tyranny, a more nationally-oriented blog. Wakely ran against Rep. Lamar Smith in 2016, and had been running against him again this year – he filed a Q2 FEC report, and the title of his website, which you can see via Google search for “Tom Wakely”, is “Tom Wakely to run against Lamar Smith in 2018”. The site is now just a placeholder, presumably awaiting a redesign for the change in focus of the campaign, so you’ll have to wait a bit to see what it looks like. For now, if you want to know more about him, go read his announcement or this Gilbert Garcia column from last year about his initial campaign against the odious Smith:

Tom Wakely

How else to describe a Bernie Sanders devotee who helped César Chávez organize grape boycotts in the 1970s, became a Unitarian Universalist pastor in the 1980s, ran a jazz club in Mexico in the 2000s and now uses his white-brick North Side home as a veterans hospice?

Wakely, 62, kicks off his general-election campaign Saturday afternoon at Tilo Mexican Restaurant (two blocks from his campaign headquarters), marking the white-bearded activist’s graduation from a self-described role on the political fringes to a spot closer to the center of the arena.

The only political office he ever sought prior to this year was a Wisconsin school board post he won 25 years ago. That probably would have been the end of his political career if not for the encouragement of Lucy Coffey, a World War II veteran who died last March in San Antonio at the age of 108. Coffey, the country’s oldest living female veteran at the time of her passing, befriended Wakely near the end of her life.

One day, Smith visited Coffey at the hospice run by Wakely and his wife, Lety, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico. After Smith concluded his visit, Coffey realized who he was, and remembered that he had voted against a 2010 bill designed to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to 9/11 first responders.

“She was so upset with this guy,” Wakely said. “She said, ‘Someone needs to run against him.’”

Wakely decided to be that someone.

His primary victory over businessman Tejas Vakil provides Wakely the honor of being political roadkill for Smith, who has been mowing down Democratic rivals since Donald Trump was on his first marriage. Over a span of 30 years, Smith has never won a general election by a margin of less than 25 percent.

Wakely, it should be noted, did better than losing by 25 points to Smith – he lost by a bit more than 20 in 2016. Wakely notes in his announcement post that he “received more votes than any Democrat in the State of Texas running against a incumbent Republican member of Congress”. True, but that’s at least partly because he ran in the district that had more total votes cast than any other. The flip side of his statement is that Smith received more votes than all his fellow incumbent Republicans except for Kevin Brady (who was unopposed) and Michael Burgess, who was in the district with the second-highest overall turnout. If one wants to play the vote comparison game I prefer to do it by looking at how many votes each candidate from the same party received in a given district. Here’s how that looks in CD21:


Candidate     Votes    Pct
==========================
Clinton     152,515  42.1%
Garza       135,365  38.3%
Burns       133,428  38.1%
Johnson     131,683  37.5%
Wakely      129,765  36.5%
Robinson    129,520  36.8%
Meyers      129,412  36.8%
Westergren  126,623  35.8%
Yarbrough   122,144  34.6%

Right in the middle, literally the median Democrat. No obvious reason based on this to think he’d draw votes away from an opponent, but no reason to think he’d lose them, either. I admire his reason for running last year, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say for himself.

One more point to add, and that’s to correct something in PDiddie’s post, where he refers to the new law to ban straight ticket voting, which was HB25. There may or may not be a lawsuit against this, but none of it matters for 2018 because the law won’t take effect before then. Here’s the key passage in the text of the bill: “As soon as practicable after September 1, 2020, the Secretary of state shall distribute electronically to each county election administrator and the county chair of each political party notice that straight ticket voting has been eliminated”. In other words, we will still be able to vote a straight ticket next year. Possibly for the last time, but we will get at least one more go-round.

Senate passes ban on straight-ticket voting

It’s happening.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to legislation that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in all elections.

By a vote of 20-10, senators passed House Bill 25 over objections from Democrats who warned of unintended consequences — including a disproportionate impact on minority voters.

“Frankly, I don’t see any purpose for this legislation other than trying to dilute the vote of Democrats and, more specifically, minorities,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The bill’s supporters say it would force voters to make more informed decisions in individual elections. “What we’re doing is showing every race matters,” the Senate sponsor, Republican state Sen. Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, said Wednesday.

The legislation’s backers also argue it would bring Texas in line with at least 40 other states that do not allow straight-ticket voting, the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party. Straight-ticket ballots made up nearly 64 percent of total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in 2016.

The preliminary approval of HB 25 on Wednesday came after Hancock amended it to postpone its effective date from September 2017 to September 2020. That will allow candidates more time to prepare for the change, Hancock said.

You know how I feel about this. I’ve got no more arguments to make. There’s been talk of a lawsuit, and I won’t be surprised if one gets filed. The Republicans could improve their position by addressing the issue of the longer lines that will result from the removal of this option – more money to counties to buy more voting machines for early and precinct voting locations would help a lot. I don’t they’re any more likely to do this than they were to mitigate the 2011 voter ID bill, but they have that option and they’ll have the 2019 legislative session in which to exercise it. We’ll see what they do. The Press has more.

Bill to ban straight-ticket voting advances in the Senate

This could happen.

Rep. Ron Simmons

A Texas Senate panel approved legislation Thursday that would end straight-ticket voting in all elections.

The Senate Committee on Business & Commerce voted 7-0 to send House Bill 25 for potential consideration by the full chamber. Two members, the only Democrats on the panel, were absent.

The vote came less than a week after the House passed the legislation, mostly along party lines. Starting with the 2018 elections, the bill would take away the option for voters to automatically cast their ballot for every candidate from a single party.

[…]

In the Thursday hearing, proponents of the bill — including its Senate sponsor, Hancock — said it would force voters to make more informed decisions when casting their ballots. Critics suggested it could lead to voting rights violations.

“We believe that this takes away one method of voting that minority voters overwhelmingly use to choose the candidates of their choice,” said Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Maxey also questioned why the bill wound up in the Business & Commerce Committee, not the State Affairs Committee. Such a maneuver is “what the federal courts have noted as abnormal legislative procedure,” Maxey said.

A federal judge blocked a similar law last year in Michigan, saying it would disproportionately affect black voters. After that ruling came up in Thursday’s hearing, Hancock noted that the Michigan law moved through a “completely different court system than we’ll move through” if HB 25 becomes law and it is challenged.

Hancock also sought to reassure critics of the bill who said it would lead to longer lines at polling places, saying more locations would solve the problem.

See here for the background. Sen. Hancock is correct that more locations – and more machines per location – can solve the problems, but those words are meaningless without funding from the state to cover the costs. Not covering costs, going through a different committee, taking a vote when the two Dems on the committee were absent – none of this is going to look good when the inevitable lawsuit is filed.

House Democrats on Friday argued eliminating the “one-punch” choice would constitute an attack on Texans’ voting rights, particularly the disabled, the elderly and voters in large cities, where ballots and lines are longer and more people rely on public transportation.

Multiple lawmakers said minority voters rely on the straight-ticket option more than Anglos, evidence that was used as the basis of a 2016 federal court ruling that blocked a similar law in Michigan.

“This bill hasn’t been vetted,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City. “We don’t know how much it will cost; we don’t know if it will violate the Voting Rights Act of 1964. What we do know is that federal courts have ruled recently that laws passed by Texas discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters.”

Three federal court rulings since March have found that Texas intentionally discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters in voter ID and redistricting cases. The author of HB 25, Representative Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said repeatedly during debate Friday night that he was not aware of the rulings.

“I’ve been busy down here,” he said on the House floor, defending his lack of knowledge of the widely reported court decisions.

Representative Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, predicted the bill would be challenged “as a voter suppression bill.”

In the Michigan ruling last July, a federal judge wrote that abolishing the straight-ticket option would disproportionately impact African-American voters, who use it more often and already face longer voting lines in urban areas. The measure was designed “to require voters to spend more time filling more bubbles,” which could “discourage voting,” wrote Judge Gershwin A. Drain. The Supreme Court declined to hear Michigan’s appeal in September.

We’ll see what happens. There’s still time for the bill to be amended to address the concerns that Democrats have raised. I don’t expect that – why should the Republicans change their ways now? – but at least they can’t say they weren’t warned.

Bill to eliminate straight-ticket voting passes the House

Here we go again.

Rep. Ron Simmons

The Texas House late Friday night gave preliminary approval to a bill that would eliminate “one-punch” voting, forcing voters to make an individual decision on every ballot item, starting with the 2020 election.

House Bill 25, approved 85-59, could drastically change Texas politics considering straight-ticket ballots accounted for almost 64 percent of total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in 2016. Forty-one states don’t allow straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, one of the authors of HB 25, said he filed the measure to foster more educated voters since they’d have to go down the ballot and make a decision on every race.

“I think it’ll give us better candidates and better elected officials. It won’t have people getting voted out just because of their party identity,” Simmons told The Texas Tribune on the House floor prior to Friday’s vote.

Opponents of the measure said they’re worried Simmons’ bill will lead to lower voter turnout. On the House floor, several Democrats, including state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, expressed concerns that getting rid of one-punch voting would inconvenience voters and discourage them from participating in future election.

“There are a lot of races on the ballot in these general elections, and voting individually takes extra time,” Turner said. “Instead of one-punch, you’re asking people to individually vote in dozens of races, perhaps even 100 of them. This can be a real impediment.”

[…]

Simmons, however, said that equating a high number of straight-ticket voters to civic engagement is “kind of like comparing apples or oranges.” He pushed back on Democrats who insisted that taking away one-punch voting infringed on the rights of Texans.

“People will still come out to vote, they’ll just take a few more seconds to get down the ballot. And it’ll make sure people know who they’re voting for,” he said.

It will definitely take more than a few extra seconds to vote a full ballot, especially in a big county like Harris. Making such a disingenuous argument against the concerns being raised about this bill does not do anything to relieve suspicions that it’s just a response to Democratic dominance of the big urban counties. I wrote a long piece about this when Rep. Simmons filed the same bill in 2015. My feelings haven’t changed – indeed, they haven’t changed much since 2009 when the elimination of straight ticket voting first gained prominence as a Republican priority – so go read that so I don’t have to repeat myself again.

I don’t think there’s any question that if this bill passes, it will take longer to vote, and given that only one Democrat voted for HB25 while only five or six Republicans voted against it, both parties have a pretty good guess about who will be more affected by that. Those concerns, along with talk of future lawsuits, were mentioned in the Chron story about this bill. It would be quite simple for Rep. Simmons to address those concerns if he wanted to. Extend and expand early voting, with more locations and longer hours and more days (*), mandate more voting machines at every polling place, and expand eligibility to vote by mail. Do that, and put up the money to help counties cover the extra costs, and I’ll drop all my objections. Until then, I question the motive behind this. Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project, writing in Medium, has more.

(*) Republicans have also tried to limit early voting in the past, again after an election where Democrats did well. Limits on early voting were a part of the vote-suppression tactics in places like North Carolina as well. If Republicans don’t want bills like HB25 to be seen as an attack on the ability to vote, it’s on them to understand and address the concerns that these bills raise.

Is the end near for straight-ticket voting?

It could be.

Rep. Ron Simmons

Partisan efficiency experts might love the time-saving charms of straight-ticket voting, but a number of the state’s top elected officials are ready to outlaw the practice.

Straight-ticket, or one-punch, voting allows people to cast a ballot for all of one party’s candidates with one pull of the lever, stroke of the pencil or click of the voting button.

One and done.

Its requires partisan faith on the part of a voter, an expression of trust in a party’s primary voters, a conviction that the chosen candidates — no matter who they are, what they’ve done and whether they are qualified — are better than candidates offered by the opposition party.

And it makes the coattails of the people at the top of the ballot very, very influential.

Just ask a judge.

“I will say only a word about judicial selection, but it is a word of warning,” Texas Supreme Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said this week in his State of the Judiciary speech. “In November, many good judges lost solely because voters in their districts preferred a presidential candidate in the other party. These kinds of partisan sweeps are common, with judicial candidates at the mercy of the top of the ticket. I do not disparage our new judges. I welcome them. My point is only that qualifications did not drive their election; partisan politics did. Such partisan sweeps are demoralizing to judges and disruptive to the legal system. But worse than that, when partisan politics is the driving force, and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty.”

State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, has filed legislation — House Bill 433 —to end straight-ticket voting in Texas. He might have some angels: House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both sponsored bans in the past. Both remain critical of one-punch voting.

The major political parties are reluctant to part with it, however — it’s part of the regulatory advantage that makes the Republicans and the Democrats appear to offer the only viable choices for Americans — or Texans — who want to take part in civic life.

The two-party racket just about kills the possibility that you can find a candidate with whom you completely agree. Instead, you’re generally stuck with two options, left to choose the least undesirable candidate in a field of two.

Libertarians and Greens and Teas and Occupies and who knows who else would love to elbow their way in, but this is a protectorate.

[…]

One of the best arguments for straight-ticket voting is that there are too many people on the general election ballot, that too little is known about them and that the party label is the average voter’s most reliable guide to which candidate is more likely to agree with that voter’s political preferences.

A strong argument against is that partisan coattails can be stronger than brains. Every election seems to end with an unintended consequence, often a good judge tossed aside because the political winds replaced one party’s flag with another — or a loon elected by voters who actually knew nothing about their candidate.

Rep. Simmons filed the same bill in 2015, and what I wrote about it then still stands. Putting aside the fact that nobody had a problem with this until Democrats started winning judicial races in Dallas and Harris Counties, the arguments that Ross Ramsey puts forth just don’t make sense. You can vote straight ticket Libertarian or Green, you know, and if you can’t vote “Tea Party” it’s because no one is identified on the ballot as such because no official political party by that name exists. This past year was in many ways the best year ever for third party candidates, as they racked up big numbers in multiple statewide races, in particular for President and for Railroad Commissioner, despite the prevalence of straight party voting. Plenty of “loons” get elected in primaries and non-partisan elections (see, for instance, Dave Wilson getting elected to the HCC Board of Trustees in 2013). In what way does straight ticket voting make the difference?

The one thing that will change if straight ticket voting is taken away is that it will take longer to vote. If I had any reason to believe that the people pushing this also intended to address that problem, by allocating some money for counties to buy extra voting machines or allowing longer early voting hours or broadening the class of people who can vote by mail, then I would have no strong objection to this. But they don’t, and I have no reason to see this as anything but another way to make voting a little harder and less pleasant for some people. As such, I continue to oppose these bills.

A theory about third parties

Before I get to that theory, have you ever wondered about the people who vote straight ticket Libertarian or Green in Harris County? I got to wondering about them, because that’s the sort of thing that I think about at times like this. Here are the total numbers of such people, grouped by Presidential and non-Presidential years, going back to 2000:


Year  Total votes  SP Lib  SP Green   Lib%  Green%
==================================================
2000      995,631   1,935     4,503  0.19%   0.45%
2004    1,088,793   3,343            0.31%
2008    1,188,731   4,017            0.34%
2012    1,204,167   4,777     1,759  0.40%   0.15%
2016    1,336,985   8,781     4,577  0.66%   0.34%

2002      656,682   1,159     1,399  0.18%   0.21%
2006      601,186   3,052            0.51%
2010      798,995   2,506     1,110  0.31%   0.14%
2014      688,018   2,922     1,180  0.42%   0.17%

“SP Lib” is the total number of straight party Libertarian votes, and “SP Green” is the same for the Greens. “Lib%” and “Green%” are the share of these straight party votes to all votes cast in the county. If you look at the election result pages on the HarrisVotes.com website, you will see that my percentages are lower than the ones shown there. That’s because they calculate the percentage of these votes as a share of all straight-party votes cast, not a share of all votes. I did it this way to see what if any trend there was for Libertarian and Green voting overall. For comparison purposes, 30.01% of all votes in Harris county this year were straight ticket Republican, with 35.35% of all votes being straight-ticket Democratic.

As you can see, in the Presidential years the Libertarians had been slowly ticking upwards, with a bit of a jump this year, though the trend is more erratic in the off years. The spike in 2006 is odd, because the Libertarian candidate for Governor received only 0.61% of the vote that year. If you wanted to vote outside the two-party box for Governor in 2006, you had plenty of choices. The Greens weren’t officially on the ballot in 2004, 2006, or 2008, so there’s less of a trend to spot. I’d say they do better in or right after a year where they have a Presidential candidate who gets some attention. Whether any of this will hold next year is not something I’m going to speculate about at this time. My mantra for the next twelve to eighteen months is “conditions in 2018 will be different than they were in 2014 and 2010”, and leave it at that.

That brings me to my theory, which applies to low profile races – not President, not Senate, not Governor, sometimes not other races. I’m limiting myself to statewide contests here, since that’s where you get most of the third party candidates that an individual voter sees. In my case, there was a Green candidate for CD18, a Libertarian for SBOE, and nothing else below the state level. I believe that in these races, which this year would be the Railroad Commission and the two state courts, voters for third party candidates can be broadly sorted into one of three groups. The first group is the party faithful, which as we have just seen is a relatively small cohort. There are probably a few more people who vote L or G as a first choice but don’t vote straight ticket, but that’s still a small group even in the context of just third party voters. Most of the people voting third party in these races aren’t voting third party as a matter of course.

So who are they? Group Two I believe is people who normally vote for Rs or Ds but who refuse to vote for their candidate in this particular instance. That may be because the candidate of their party is too/not sufficiently liberal/conservative for them, because that candidate supports or opposes a specific thing that is of great importance to them, because the candidate has ethical baggage, or because they just don’t like that candidate for some reason. In these cases, they don’t want to vote for the candidate of the other party, so a third party it is. Gary Johnson obviously got a lot of these votes in the Presidential race, but the downballot exemplar for this one was the Railroad Commissioner race, where Libertarian Mark Miller got a bunch of newspaper endorsements for being the most qualified candidate running.

The thing is, I don’t think there are that many races like that. I think in a lot of these races, people just don’t know anything about any of the candidates. So if you’re someone who (say) generally votes Democratic but aren’t that committed to it and you’re looking at a race for the Court of Criminal Appeals, you may say to yourself “well, I know I don’t want to vote for the Republican, but I don’t know who any of these other people are, so I’ll just pick one and move on”. These people are my Group Three.

What that says to me first of all is that both Republicans and Democrats are leaving some votes on the table in these downballot races by not doing a better job of getting their candidates’ names out there. That’s not much of a concern for the Republicans, who continue to win by double-digit margins, but it could eventually matter. I see this as an extension of a problem that Democrats are increasingly having in their primaries, where candidates like RRC nominee Grady Yarbrough have won races by a combination of pseudo-name recognition and random chance because no one knows who the hell these people are. I have many wishes for Texas Democrats going forward, and high on my list is for the party and the donor class to take these downballot primaries seriously.

One possible exception to this may be for Latino candidates. Look at the top votegetters for each party: Supreme Court candidates Eva Guzman and Dori Contreras Garza. My hypothesis is that Latino voters in a Group Three situation will choose a Latino candidate, even possibly one from their non-preferred party, instead of just randomly picking someone. Again, this is in races where none of the candidates are known to the voters, and thus there could be a different outcome if people had more knowledge. If we ever get to that point, maybe we’ll see that difference.

Finally, I believe my theory is consistent with the Libertarian candidate almost always doing better than the Green candidate does in these situations, for the simple reason that the Libertarian candidate appears on the ballot above the Green candidate. If it’s true that some people just pick a name after having moved past the first two candidates, then it makes sense that the first candidate listed after those two would get a larger share.

Anyway, that’s my theory. I could be wrong, and I doubt anyone other than me had given this much thought. I’ll get back to the precinct analyses tomorrow. Let me know what you think about this.

Early voting, Day Eight: We do have a pretty good idea of who has been voting so far

Why such a mushy article about the state of early voting so far?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Because Texas voters can use a single click to back an entire slate, the down-ballot candidates running countywide have ever-slimming chances of influencing their destinies. As polarization and straight-ticket voting grow, the outlook is even more challenging for judicial candidates, who do not like touting their candidacies in a partisan way in the first place.

“It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad,” said District Court Judge Ted Halbach, one of a handful of Republican judges who eked out wins in 2008 and again four years later. “I’ve been the beneficiary and now I face the challenges. But you only can worry about what you can control – and you can’t control very much.”

The 2016 presidential battle, which may go down as the ugliest and most unusual of modern times, could have a profound local impact. Both candidates provoke high negative opinions, which could depress voter turnout or inspire it.

Early vote totals suggest the latter. More than 566,000 ballots were cast in the first week, a record. Lane Lewis, the Democratic Party chairman for Harris County, said the early turnout bolsters his hope for another “wave” election.

“Do I believe Democrats are doing well? Absolutely,” Lewis said. “Five days of voting is not enough to predict an outcome. I wouldn’t say anyone is beating the victory drum.”

Donald Trump’s faithful seem likely to show up en masse, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the big winner in the spring primary, taking 45 percent of the Harris County vote. What will the Cruz supporters do? There is a reasonable possibility that suburban Republican women will cross the party divide and give Hillary Clinton a local win to match what opinion polls are showing in many states. The question is, will they step back to help the down-ticket Republicans?

“This year, nobody knows,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a 2008 Republican survivor. “Will the turnout be high or low? Will they turn out for Trump or against Trump? Will Hillary get the same kind of enthusiastic turnout Obama did? I don’t see it. But it’s true that we don’t really know.”

The countywide down-ballot races include sheriff, district attorney, county judge, education board, constables and scores of judicial seats. The people seeking them this time cannot decide whether to be confident or scared, Emmett said.

“I was at a candidate meet-and-greet the other day, a bipartisan thing, and in talking to those candidates, to a person they were frantic over who was going to show up and vote,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

“We treat Harris County as a very evenly divided battleground ‘state,'” said Harris County Republican Chairman Paul Simpson. “When I was running (for chairman), that was my constant message. It was a Democratic county, then became Republican, then switched to be very evenly divided. Every cycle is a pitched battle.”

[…]

Political consultant Keir Murray, who works with Democratic candidates, said he is optimistic about the party’s future, though like everyone else he is not so sure about this year.

“The problem is, if you are a Republican office holder, you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Murray said. “If you get marginally lower turnout from your base voters, you lose. Or, if you see some real uptick in Hispanic voting – and they have not been voting near their rates of registration – that would make a difference. There is evidence that this could happen because Trump has said very negative things about them.”

All due respect, but we do know who is voting, because the County Clerk puts out a roster of everyone who has voted after each day, and we have a pretty good idea of how they are voting. In fact, the Chron wrote about this on Friday, so I have no idea why they switched into this nobody-knows-anything mode. It’s true that the question of who among those that have not yet voted will turn out remains murkier, but the evidence we have so far is that there are still a lot more high-propensity Democrats left to vote, more than the number of high-propensity Republicans. I understand having a story that talks to the people who are on the ballot and who are being affected by what is going on now, but if you’re going to talk about what is happening, the consultant types are in a much better position to give you real information.

Anyway. The Trib has a nice tracker of the changes in early voting turnout for the biggest counties over the past three Presidential races. It’s up everywhere, but the uptick in Travis County in particular is amazing. El Paso is also doing very well, and so far the conventional wisdom is that this is good for Pete Gallego in our one swing Congressional district, CD23. That would have been at least a competitive race without the Trump factor, but maybe this time it will be blue all the way down, and not just in the Congressional race.

I went to bed before the Monday EV report came out, though I saw on Facebook that the number of voters was in the 73,000 range. That’s in line with the daily output from last week, though down a bit from the end of the week. We’ll see if things will slow down or level off, or if the usual pattern will hold and the last two days this week will be heavier. Here’s the Day 7 EV report, which brings you up to date through Sunday. The weekend was even better for Dems than the first five days were, so it’s all about what happens this week. The tracker spreadsheet is here, and I’ll update that when I get the Monday report.

UPDATE: And here are the Day 8 EV totals. It’s down a bit, but still higher than Day One was. The spreadsheet has been updated.

The Trump effect and the State Supreme Court

The Trib touches on a subject I addressed awhile ago.

Three Republican members of the Texas Supreme Court running for re-election are facing Democratic challengers who say they may have a chance in the solid-red state with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot.

Democrats point to recent polls that show Trump beating Hillary Clinton by just four points in Texas to explain a possible shift in Lone Star State politics. The Democratic National Committee announced plans in September to open headquarters in Houston to capitalize on the presidential race as a way to help down-ballot candidates.

But only one of the Democratic candidates for Texas Supreme Court — Dori Contreras Garza — has raised even close to enough money to be competitive. And even her bid is a long shot in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the court since 1994. The court has nine justices who are elected statewide to staggered six-year terms.

The rest of the story is a profile of the three races and the candidates in them. The premise about fundraising is more than a little ridiculous because in all four of the cases cited, the amount raised by the candidate in question was less than $100K, which is basically a drop on a sidewalk in August. I mean, that’s modest money for a district City Council race in Houston. It literally would have zero effect on a statewide campaign, which for these races is all about getting one’s name out before the voters. I guarantee you, nobody who isn’t a political junkie or personally acquainted with a given candidate will have any idea who they are.

So, as is so often the case, these races will be determined by overall turnout. I’ve already shown how in a scenario where the margin between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is small, the chances that one or more downballot Democrats could be elected grow, as Democratic candidates have seen less of a dropoff in their vote total from the top of the ticket in recent years. I wrote that post after a poll came out showing Trump leading Clinton by six points. More recently, we have seen polls where Trump’s lead was two, three, and four points. That could be overstating how close the race really is, and it may well be that there are other factors such as a higher than usual share of Republicans who will support Clinton but not any other Democrat that will ensure the GOP statewide hegemony remains intact. But as I said in that earlier post, it is not crazy to think that a Dem could win statewide this year. And if one or more do, it won’t be because they raised $10K more than their opponents.

Chron overview of judicial races

In case anyone is paying attention to them.

HarrisCounty

As Harris County goes, so go most of its judicial races.

That truism appears to be good news for Democrats seeking to scoop up more district court benches in November, when two dozen criminal, civil and family court positions are up for grabs.

Three of the benches are open, while 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans are defending their seats.

“The Republicans are looking at a real uphill battle,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said, pointing to disaffection for Trump among some Republicans, which could impact voting patterns down the ballot. “I think the most likely scenario is we’re looking at a repeat of 2008, where we see a near or complete Democratic sweep of the judicial races.”

[…]

Looking for a repeat [of 2008], Harris County Democratic Party Chair Lane Lewis said the party is focused on encouraging voters to cast a straight-ticket ballot in November.

“I think you are going to see much more straight Democratic ticket voting. One, because we have the better candidates, and two, because their candidates are just so bad,” Lewis said. “The Republicans are going to lose votes because of Trump.”

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson fired back, saying enthusiasm about Clinton does not compare to support for Obama eight years ago.

“This is not a wave, and I’ve been saying for months Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. She’s the status quo,” Simpson said, adding that traditional Democratic voters may cast their ballots for Trump.

Even so, Texas Southern University political scientist Jay Aiyer said Trump’s controversial candidacy provides a structural advantage for Democratic judges.

“Traditional Democratic voters are inclined to vote straight-ticket, and the same is not necessarily the case on the Republican side because you have a percentage of Republicans that are likely to not vote for (Trump) for president,” Aiyer said.

The story references the recent Hobby Center poll of Harris County, which has Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump here by four or nine points, depending on how you define “likely voters”. As the story notes, a two-point win by President Obama in 2008 was enough for a near-Democratic sweep of the judicial races. Paul Simpson’s complaints aside, the last three Presidential races show that Democrats have done a better job voting all the way down the ballot than Republicans have done. That may change this year, but I personally would not bet on that. For what it’s worth, the little bit of gossip I’ve heard suggests that the Republican judges on the ballot this year are not feeling very confident. With all the standard caveats and disclaimers, I’d rather be in the Dems’ position right now.

Targeting straight ticket voting

From Trail Blazers:

Texas is one of only 10 states still doing straight-ticket voting but a North Texas legislator is hoping to change that.

At a hearing today, Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) told the Elections Committee that doing away with such an option here would lead to a more informed voter and improve turnout in non-partisan ballot measure.

“The purpose of this bill is to increase the number of Republican elected officials thought out the state of Texas,” he halfway joked. “However I do believe the added benefit will be a more educated voter.”

But Glenn Maxey, of the Texas Democratic Party, said such a move could discourage voters.

“People are going to be standing in line for hours and hours because it’s going to take people not 10 minutes to vote but a half hour to do that kind of marking,” he said.

Bill Fairbrother, of the Texas Republican County Chairman Association, said cost is a concern.

“Think of all the additional machines, clerks, polling places … That instead of being able to click one box to take care of those races, you have to go back and choose on average 25 separate races,” he said.

However, both Maxey and Fairbrother noted that within their parties, there was division as those in more rural areas favored the bill.

Rep. Simmons wrote a TribTalk piece in February about this:

Rep. Ron Simmons

Every campaign season, candidates and interest groups spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to “inform” voters. I use that word — rather than “educate” — on purpose.

Informing is nothing more than providing information to another party. Educating requires action on the part of the recipient, who must want to understand the information and absorb it. There’s no better example of this than at the ballot box. Anyone who has read our Founding Fathers’ writing would agree that their intent was for voters to be educated on the candidates and issues of the day. Unfortunately, current Texas law provides a way for citizens to skip spending the time and energy needed to become educated voters. It’s called straight-ticket voting.

Straight-ticket voting allows someone to simply select one box to vote for an entire slate of candidates from a particular political party. This often leads voters to elect candidates without any knowledge whatsoever of who they are. This subverts the purpose of our electoral process and puts the citizens of Texas at a severe disadvantage.

Virtually all voters educate themselves on candidates at the top of the ticket (president, governor, etc.). But many voters, partially because of straight-ticket voting, make little or no effort to educate themselves on the candidates at the bottom of the ticket running for offices that have the most direct effect on individual citizens — think county clerk, county commissioner, justice of the peace and state representative. These voters simply check the one box, either Democrat or Republican, and move on without giving it a second thought. This is bad for Texas.

I drafted a post at the time but had not gotten around to publishing it. Now seems like as good a time as any to rectify that, so here’s what I wrote in response to that.

Rep. Simmons has filed HB1288 to eliminate straight ticket voting. A different bill, to exempt judges and county officials from straight-ticket ballots in Texas’ largest counties, has been filed by Rep. Jason Villalba. I’ve nattered on about straight ticket voting in the past, and I’ll neither defend it nor condemn it today. I do, of course, have a couple of thoughts about this.

I agree that many voters are not fully educated about downballot candidates. Hell, a lot of voters are misinformed about the top of the ticket candidates, and of the top issues of the day. That problem is outside my scope here, but as a matter of general principle, eliminating straight ticket voting isn’t going to do anything to solve that problem. What it can and likely will do is reduce the number of people voting in those races. Maybe that means the average voter will be slightly more educated in those races, and maybe one can claim that’s a “better” outcome. I think that’s at best an open question.

Which leads to another question: Just how big an effect would this be? Putting it another way, if straight ticket voting were eliminated, how many more people would wind up skipping downballot races? I don’t have the bandwidth to do a thorough study, but here’s a quick and dirty look at the last four non-Presidential elections in Harris County:

Year Straight% CClerk% DClerk% Treas% ========================================= 2002 54.78% 6.74% 2006 47.67% 6.89% 7.99% 6.68% 2010 66.89% 4.50% 4.71% 3.93% 2014 68.04% 3.90% 4.09% 3.46%

“Straight%” is the total percentage of straight ticket votes, which as you can see has been much greater in the last two elections than the first two above. “CClerk%”, “DClerk%”, and “Treas%” are the undervote percentages for the County Clerk, District Clerk, and County Treasurer races. I picked those because they’re pretty far down on the ballot and they’d be targeted by Rep. Villalba’s bill. The County Clerk and District Clerk races were uncontested in 2002, so I don’t have a complete data set, but this suggests that more straight ticket votes means fewer undervotes, which is not too surprising. I wouldn’t draw too much of a conclusion from this, as the partisan environments are stronger now, with both parties making a priority out of urging their voters to fill in an oval in each race. The total effect isn’t that great – three percentage points in a 700,000 voter turnout context is a 21,000 vote difference – but it’s not nothing.

I don’t know what the numbers might look like if straight ticket voting were eliminated. I’m sure the parties would work that much harder to convince their voters to vote in each race. Not being able to depend on straight ticket voters for a potentially significant chunk of their final tally would likely spur these candidates to do more fundraising to raise their name recognition. Outside groups, for which there’s no shortage of money, might also take a greater interest in these races. There are a lot of factors to consider, but it wouldn’t shock me if 50,000 or even 100,000 voters in Harris County might have dropped off without participating in these past races in the absence of straight ticket voting. That’s a wild guess of up to 15% or so of total turnout. I’d expect something similar in other large counties. How much that might change if the parties, candidates, and outside interests responded as I envision is a question I can’t answer.

(If you’re wondering about Presidential years, the rate of straight ticket voting in the last three Presidential elections has been about the same in each – 64% in 2004, 62% in 2008, 68% in 2012. I don’t feel I have enough data to say anything even marginally useful.)

One point that I’ve made before in the context of proposals to separate judicial elections from the partisan voting process is that partisan labels are sometimes the only reliable piece of information voters have about a candidate. Most candidates who call themselves “Democratic” or “Republican” fall within a reasonably well-defined range of policy positions and cultural identifiers. There are plenty of variations, both mainstream (think Sarah Davis and Eddie Lucio and their respective stances on equality, for example) and extreme (think Kesha Rogers), but if you consider yourself a D or an R and you vote for a candidate with the same label but without knowing anything else about that candidate, the odds are pretty good that you’ve just voted for someone that you’d basically like and approve of. More to the point, you’ve probably just voted for someone you’d basically like and approve of more than any of the other options available to you in that race, and yes that includes races with more than two candidates. Is that enough information to justify one’s vote? Is it enough to justify the convenience of being able to vote quickly, instead of having to make the same choice you’d have made anyway several dozen times in a big county like Harris? If all we’re doing is making it take longer to vote, will we also take steps to mitigate that, like having more voting stations available at busy locations so the lines don’t get too long, or making it easier to vote by mail at one’s convenience? I know there are bills filed to do those things, but I don’t expect them to go anywhere.

These are some of the things I think about when I hear someone make the kind of proposals Reps. Simmona and Villalba are making. If Rep. Simmons’ bill were to pass and we found that the number of people voting in, say, County Clerk races was 20% less than in Governor’s races, would we consider that to be a good thing or a bad thing? You tell me. On the one hand, it would be harder to argue that the results of those elections were determined by uneducated voters. On the other hand, a lot of people spend a lot of time every post-election period bemoaning the low number of people who show up to vote. Bemoaning low turnout, and enabling it for what could be a lot of races by eliminating the one-button vote seems to me to be contradictory. Do we want everyone to vote or not? Do we think having some people vote in some races but not in others is the better way to do it? Killing straight ticket voting is an easy answer, though none of these bills may have an easy path to passage. How to get a better-educated electorate is a much harder question. What is it we really want? I’d say we should answer that first. PDiddie has more.

Wallace Jefferson is still going on about judicial elections

In an interview in The Atlantic, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson rides his favorite hobbyhorse of partisan judicial elections.

Hon. Wallace Jefferson

I’ve been talking about this for a long time. And I am not the first one. Republican or Democrat Chief Justices for the last 30 or 40 years have been calling on the legislature to change the way judges come to the bench in Texas. It is a broken system. We shouldn’t have partisan elections. I do not like the concept of a Republican or Democratic judge. I think fundraising undermines the confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system. So I would change it completely if I were king.

The sad reality, given the system that we have, is that if a judge wants to remain on the bench they have to find a way to reach the voters. And the only way to do that in Texas is in the media market. If you are running a statewide campaign, there are about 26 million people in Texas. You have Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, and all are major media markets. Even to mail campaign literature, you’ve got to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I don’t defend the system. I would want to change it.

[…]

In your free time one day, take a look at the ballot in Harris County—that’s Houston—in a presidential year. If you look at that ballot, there will be several pages of judges who are standing for election, from the Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals … There are district court judges, county court judges, probate judges, municipal court judges. In that one year in Harris County, there are probably 60 or 70 judges on that ballot. The voters have no clue about the experience or background of these candidates for office, and so what happens in Texas is that voters increasingly vote based upon partisan affiliation.

And we have the ability to straight-ticket vote here and so, in 2008, when I was on the ballot, it was McCain versus Obama, and Republicans in Texas by a large margin voted for McCain but they voted straight-ticket. So they voted McCain and every single Republican down the ballot. And in Harris County that year, Obama was extraordinarily popular so they voted for Obama and every Democrat down the ballot. I won [my] election easily, [but] in Houston there was almost a complete sweep of Republican judges — they were replaced by Democrats.

That makes no sense. These votes are not based upon the merits of the judge but on partisan affiliation and if its not party affiliation it’s the sound of your name. I said that almost all the Republican judges in Harris County lost—well, there were three exceptions. And in each of those cases, the Democratic candidate had an ethnic-sounding name. That’s no way to differentiate among candidates. And if it’s not partisan affiliation or the sound of your name, it’s how much money you can raise—which, as I said, undermines confidence in impartial justice.

We’ve discussed this before. I’m just going to note the following tidbit I learned from querying the Contributor records at the Texas Ethics Commission:

Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 05/21/2001
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 8,015.00, 02/20/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 06/27/2002
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/31/2005
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 03/05/2007
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 7,500.00, 06/27/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 2,500.00, 10/14/2008
Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, Wallace Jefferson For Texas Supreme Court, $ 5,000.00, 10/14/2008

When Wallace Jefferson is ready to talk about how judicial elections are financed, then I’ll be ready to take him seriously. Until then, as far as I’m concerned none of his proposals have any chance of actually achieving the reforms he says he wants.

The party-switchers of Bexar County

Nice.

Carlo Key

A Bexar County judge elected during the “red tide” of 2010 is switching parties.

Standing at the foot of the Bexar County Courthouse steps, County Court-at-Law No. 11 Judge Carlo Key said Monday he is joining the Democratic Party and will seek reelection as a Democrat in November 2014.

“Make no mistake, I did not leave the Republican Party, it left me,” said Key, flanked by high-ranking Democrats. “My principles have led me to the Democratic Party, and my only hope is that more people of principle will follow me.”

While he’s been mulling the decision for several weeks, it was the recent federal government shutdown that caused Key to seriously consider switching parties.

[…]

A native of Marshall, Key, 38, was an attorney before he joined the wave of Republican judges who won seats in 2010, when all but one of the new county judges elected that year were Republicans. Key is a 2002 graduate of the Baylor Law School.

He has pitted himself against the law enforcement community by forbidding testimony that a horizontal gaze nystagmus test – in which an officer uses a pen or finger to track involuntary eye movements — indicates intoxication. This summer, Key learned he would face a challenger in the Republican primaries — Julie Wright, a prosecutor married to a police officer.

His announcement came just days after another Bexar County Republican left the party. Last week, Therese Huntzinger, 55, announced she will run for district attorney after recasting herself as a Democrat. Huntzinger, a criminal defense attorney who could face 15-year incumbent DA Susan Reed in the general election, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for a district judge seat in 1998.

Bexar County Democratic Party Chair Manuel Medina said two other judges who attended a recent Democratic Party event could also make the switch in the near future, and U.S. Congressman Joaquín Castro said he expects more to follow Key and Huntzinger.

“The Republican Party is catering to such a narrow ideological base,” he said, “and many Texans are realizing that the Democratic Party is a better choice. The Texas Republican Party is going backward in respect to Latino issues. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

I tend to agree with Texpatriate that this says more about the state of the Bexar County GOP than it does about the state party. We’ve seen this movie before – it happened here in Harris County in the 90s as the GOP was taking over the judiciary, and in Dallas County after the 2006 Democratic wave. There’s already the usual rumblings on the R side about moving away from partisan elections of judges, which will only grow louder if Bexar and especially Harris have blue sweeps. You already now how I feel about that so I’ll spare you a rehash, I’ll just say again that there was no comparable level of angst during the red tide of the 90s, in Harris and elsewhere. I’ll stipulate that partisan judicial elections are not the optimal system, I’ll freely admit that some good judges are at risk of losing, I just don’t plan to feel sorry for anyone.

By the way, Judge Key has said that he didn’t make the switch for political advantage, but because he felt he “had” to do it. I don’t doubt his feelings about this, and frankly I hope there’s a lot more like him who feel that way, but I do think he’ll be better off as a Dem in Bexar County in 2014 and beyond. Consider it a nice alignment of the personal and the political.

Also of interest is the bit about the challenger to longtime Bexar County DA Susan Reed. This earlier story has some background on Therese Huntzinger.

In 1989, as a young prosecutor, she defied an order from then-DA Fred Rodriguez that she give up her pursuit of a witness-tampering indictment against one of Rodriguez’s friends and political sugar daddies. When Rodriguez responded by firing her, she filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against him and won a settlement from Bexar County.

Her dramatic fight against Rodriguez attracted the attention of “60 Minutes” and the Lifetime Network, which flirted with the idea of creating a movie about her life. The issue also helped Rodriguez’s 1990 challenger, Steve Hilbig, knock off the incumbent district attorney.

When Hilbig took office, he instantly made Huntzinger part of his prosecutorial team.

[…]

[DA Susan Reed] faced a serious general-election challenge in 2010 from well-funded defense attorney Nico LaHood, but a race against Huntzinger would present the brassy DA with a whole new set of messaging challenges.

For one thing, Reed wouldn’t be able to argue, as she did with LaHood, that Huntzinger lacks prosecutorial experience. Huntzinger has 13 years of work in the district attorney’s office on her résumé, in addition to 15 years as a defense lawyer.

More importantly, Reed will be unable to deflect criticism of her own record by making the election a referendum on her challenger, as she did in 2010, when she verbally pummeled LaHood over his 1994 bust for aggravated delivery of Ecstasy.

Huntzinger said her roots in the Democratic Party extend back to her grandfather, who was a union leader in the stockyards. But her whistle-blowing crusade against Rodriguez, a Democrat, and subsequent work in the office of Hilbig, a Republican, prompted local Republicans to draft her to run for district judge in 1998.

“I stepped out of my Democratic shoes for that race, I lost, and I’m fitting back into them,” Huntzinger said.

Huntzinger suggests that Texas would be better off with nonpartisan judicial and DA races but adds that she has determined in recent years that the Democratic Party is a “better fit” for her. Huntzinger is open about being a lesbian, and the GOP’s negative stance on same-sex relationships has surely been a factor in her break from the party.

Huntzinger contends that even some Republican loyalists are eager to see a change in the district attorney’s office.

“(Reed) believes that you’ve got to bring your toothbrush to the courtroom for every single case and expect to get hit with a hammer,” Huntzinger said. “Well, there’s more to prosecuting than that.”

That ought to be a race worth watching. In the meantime, I submit to you that regardless of what may be going on in Bexar County, this story is related to these two.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said on Monday he will run to replace state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who announced his resignation earlier this month.

In a press release announcing his candidacy, Toth, a Tea Party conservative, emphasized the need for “conservative advocates” like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz who will “go against the tide and stand for what is right no matter the consequences.”

“As Ted Cruz has courageously demonstrated, simply being a conservative vote is no longer enough,” Toth said.

We’re a ways away from seeing switches at anything but the urban county level, but the more tightly the GOP binds itself to Ted Cruz and his blinkered, unbending zealotry, the closer that day comes. A statement from the TDP is beneath the fold, and BOR, EoW, and PDiddie have more.

(more…)

Money in judicial races isn’t about partisanship

Dan Patrick isn’t the only one seeking to change how we select judges in Texas.

Rep. Justin Rodriguez

Freshman state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is an attorney who has been frustrated for years by this state’s hyper-political process for selecting judges (and the big money that flows into those races), and he was tempted to prescribe a specific remedy during his first legislative session.

Rodriguez is a political realist, however, and he knows that any attempt to reduce the partisanship in our political system will itself be perceived as a partisan act. So he took a different course.

Rodriguez filed legislation Thursday that would create a bipartisan interim committee to study all options for improving the selection of state appellate and district judges. The committee would consist of five senators and five representatives and present its recommendations to the Lege at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session.

“I had a little bit of heartburn over this (bill), because I’m not the kind of guy who likes to study the life out of things,” Rodriguez said. “But realistically, this had the best chance of passing, and it starts the dialogue.”

It’s a dialogue that definitely needs to happen. This state is one of only six that continues to elect its supreme court justices in partisan races, and partisan judicial races tend to attract the most fundraising money. Between 2000 and 2009, $211 million in contributions flooded into state supreme court races in the United States, a 150 percent jump from the previous decade, according to a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress.

This culture of big-money bench manipulation inevitably seeps into appeals- and district-court races, with individual candidates standing in for the competing interests of the progressive Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the conservative Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Removing party labels from judicial races wouldn’t be a panacea, but it likely would reduce bundling by large-scale party donors and lift some of the pressure that Texas judges feel to follow the party line.

Once they’re elected, a retention-election system could keep judges accountable by allowing constituents to decide whether they can stay on the bench. It might also alleviate the all-too-real nightmare of grandstanding Texas district judges sentencing 18-year-old kids to eight years, with no chance of parole, for graffiti and pot possession charges.

“If justice is truly blind, then we have to figure out a more sublime way of selecting the referees in these matters,” Rodriguez says. “I wish I could tell you what the silver bullet is, but I’m hopeful with this bill we can have a good debate on it.”

Rep. Rodriguez’s bill is HB 2772. I appreciate that Rep. Rodriguez doesn’t claim to already have an answer, unlike some people, but I continue to not understand the fascination with non-partisan and retention elections. As I’ve said before, I don’t see how the money disappears if the partisan labels go away. Labels or no labels, the money will be there because the interest in the outcomes will be there. It’s true that TLR tends to fund Republicans and TTLA tends to fund Democrats, but that’s because each group’s interests tend to align with the parties in question. TLR pours plenty of money into Democratic races as well, as we saw in the recent SD06 special election, because they seek to maximize their influence. If Democrats start dominating statewide races like Republicans have been doing, I guarantee you TLR will be right there backing the candidates that they think will be the most amenable, or the least hostile, to their interests. It’s the way of the world. If you want to change that, you have to take the money out of these races, which is an impossible thing to do in a post-Citizens United world.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is a way to truly blunt the influence of big campaign financiers that won’t run afoul of current law and precedent and which still allows the election of judges, if that’s what you want. I’m having a hard time seeing any path that doesn’t lead to an appointment system, if there is no change in campaign finance law. But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Rep. Rodriguez’s study will come up with something that I’m not seeing. I doubt it, but it can’t hurt.

Jefferson pushes for judicial reforms

Most of what Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson had to say to the Lege during his biennial address was good stuff that I hope the Lege will heed.

Wallace Jefferson

Presenting his State of the Judiciary speech to Texas lawmakers, Jefferson said that “wrongful convictions leave our citizens vulnerable, as actual perpetrators remain free” and recommended the Legislature create a commission “to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms.” He cited the recent exoneration of Michael Morton, who spent nearly 25 years in prison for murder.

The creation of such a commission nearly passed in 2011, but failed at the last minute. Part of the opposition has come from Jeff Blackburn, chief legal counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization that attempts to overturn wrongful convictions and investigate why they happen in the first place. He said recently that such a commission would have to be “extremely well-funded,” and would more likely become “a paper commission that would give a lot of people an excuse to turn away from a lot of the real issues we face in the criminal justice system.”

But the bill creating such a commission, House Bill 166, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, got a favorable review from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday.

Jefferson also pushed for indigent defense and more money for civil legal aid. “We must do more,” he said, “to keep the courthouse doors open for all of our neighbors.” He called on lawmakers to increase the amount of funding dedicated to organizations that provide indigent civil legal aid and criminal defense.

Jefferson touted reforms in creating an electronic filing system to lessen the use of paper in courts statewide. “Our courts operate much like they did in 1891,” he said, “with paper, stamps on paper, cabinets for paper, staples, storage, shredding of paper.” He backed Senate Bill 1146, by state Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to decrease the cost of electronic filing, which he called “a key to ensuring access to our judicial system.

“The era of big paper is over,” he said, prompting laughs and applause from lawmakers.

Finally, Jefferson announced the creation of a special committee of the Texas Judicial Council to look at reforming the state’s guardianship system, in which court appointees make decisions and manage the interests of incapacitated individuals. “An exploding elderly population will stress the guardianship system,” he said. “We must begin to address these issues and prepare.” Currently, he said, Texas has 368 state-certified guardians handling 5,000 guardianships. The number of individuals needing guardianship, he said, is 40,000.

The Statesman has more:

Jefferson also criticized the practice of writing Class C misdemeanor tickets for disruptive conduct in Texas schools, forcing children to answer the charge in court and leaving some, particularly those who cannot afford a lawyer, vulnerable to arrest and a criminal record.

About 300,000 such tickets are written each year, he said.

“We are criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses,” Jefferson said. “We must keep our children in school, and out of our courts, to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison.”

Bills that have been filed to address these concerns are SBs 393, 394, and 395, all by Sen. Royce West. Everything mentioned here by Justice Jefferson is something I support. My only complaint is this:

Another regular feature of these speeches is a call for lawmakers to revisit the way judges are selected. Currently, the judges are elected in partisan contests. “A justice system based on Democratic or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,” Jefferson said during his last speech before the Legislature.

This session, several bills aim to address this issue. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has filed SB 103, which would end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, where a single selection of Democrat or Republican at the top of the ballot carries through elections for all offices, including judges. Two years ago, Jefferson explicitly called for this policy change, saying straight-ticket voting led to “hordes of judges replaced for no good reason.”

*sigh* You know how I feel about this, so I’ll spare you another rant. Let’s just say I hope the rest of Justice Jefferson’s agenda gets a higher priority from the Lege than this does. Grits and EoW have more.

A Republican view of 2014 in Harris County

Big Jolly is feeling pessimistic about his team’s chances in Harris County next year.

Now let’s look at who will be on the playing field for us. There will be a lot of statewide action, with unknown Dems – let’s ignore them for now. Sen. John Cornyn is a good conservative senator but at this point, I don’t see anyone rushing out to vote for him. Abbott in the governor slot will draw a few people out but Harris County isn’t his base and remember that the Dem won Harris County in 2010. Who knows with Lt. Gov., but again, I don’t see any excitement.

So drop down to county races. Once again, it will be up to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to carry the load and pull a terrible field with him. Problem is, there is a large faction (let’s call them the SD7 bunch for now) that are begging people to run against him in a primary. And frankly, if they get the right candidate, Ed’s in trouble. As we saw this year when Mike Anderson damaged the party by defeating Pat Lykos, it is difficult to recover from a nasty primary at the top of the ticket. If Ed survives the primary, he’ll be fine in November but not able to carry the field with him. If he doesn’t survive the primary, say hello to County Judge Democrat.

County Clerk Stan Stanart has had problems running the office and the people he’s hired are suspect. I’ve heard rumors that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse will challenge him in the primary – if so, that would certainly make for a stronger ticket but those are just rumors. Personally, I’d like to see former candidate for State Rep 149 candidate Jack Lee take a crack at it. If Stan is on the ballot again, he’ll go down.

District Clerk Chris Daniel has done a good job and is out in the county every day talking up the office. That hasn’t stopped people talking about challenging him in a primary. The most prominent name I’ve heard is former HCRP Executive Director, now some sort of communications guy for Commissioner Steve Radack, and miracle survivor of a plane crash, Court Koenning. Regardless of the candidate, this office will probably switch to the D’s.

Then, you have a problem with some gosh awful incumbent judges (who will cost some very good incumbent judges their bench). I, and many of us in the party, will not push a “Vote Straight R” message unless these judges are upset via the primary, which is a very difficult thing to do. The Straight R campaign has been the bedrock of the last two campaigns – without it, we’re going to lose a few points and certainly increase the down ballot undervotes. Imagine a Harris County judicial system 75% in the control of Democrats because that is what it will look like after 2014.

Combine all this and BAM!, Harris County Republicans have got a real problem. Just a little straight talk for your weekend.

As I see it, the Republicans have three advantages going into 2014, and three disadvantages. On the plus side:

1. All those non-habitual off-year voters who came out for them in 2010 must now be considered to be likely voters. Voting is a habit, and all those people now have a track record of voting in non-Presidential years. Even with some amount of dropoff, that’s huge. They can all be identified and targeted by Republican campaigns, which will make GOTV efforts that much easier and more accurate. As I said before, we can’t know for sure how many people were responding to a unique political environment, but the simple fact is that the political universe expanded, and that’s going to have an effect going forward. Any discussion of 2014 needs to take this into account.

2. Ed Emmett has the best political brand in the county. He’s established a reputation for being a low-drama get-things-done type who works well with others, and he still has the luster of his performance during Hurricane Ike. Only Sheriff Garcia is in his class for attracting crossover support. As I said in my early look at 2014, I’d consider him a favorite in any scenario outside of a 2010-style wave for the Democrats. If I were a Republican running for county office in 2014, I’d grab onto Judge Emmett with both hands.

3. It remains the case that Republicans start out with a turnout advantage in off years. 2010 was the extreme edge of this, but even under normal conditions they have the edge in likely voters. That won’t last forever – one can argue that it already won’t be the case in Harris County in 2014 – but until demonstrated otherwise, this is how it is.

So they have those things going for them, which is nice. On the down side:

1. Demography, demography, demography. The GOP is the party of white people, and white people are shrinking as a share of population in Harris County. Remember, Democrats had decent turnout in 2010, and despite a perceived advantage in enthusiasm last year, Republicans still lost most of the judicial races and had a countywide incumbent get knocked off. If the HCDP has a decent turnout plan, and if there’s anything to all that talk about a national investment in Texas Democrats, the Harris County GOP could well be in deep trouble.

2. Infighting and personality conflicts are always a problem, but I think the Republicans have bigger issues here than the Democrats do. This is partly because they’d been in control for so long – if your opponent can’t put up a decent fight, you’ll eventually start fighting among yourselves – and partly because of the same forces that have riven the Republican Party around the country. Big Jolly is more in tune with that than I am, so I’ll just say that primarying Emmett would be nuts. Jolly is right – if the GOP wants to hand that office over, go right ahead and take Emmett out next March.

3. Fears of contested primaries, even acrimonious ones, holding down turnout in November are generally overrated. Elaine Palmer won a nasty, divisive primary against Judge Steve Kirkland last year, but that didn’t stop her from winning in November. That said, Republicans tend to have higher rates of undervoting in downballot elections – 2010 was the exception to this – so they are more vulnerable to these issues. With the exception of the two HCDE At Large offices that are on the ballot plus Judge Jim Sharp, the Republicans are playing defense up and down the ballot, and that’s harder to do. It’s hard to know what the national mood will be like in another eighteen months, but a repeat of 2010 sure seems unlikely. Anger is a strong motivator, but it burns out after awhile. Again, I think Jolly puts his finger on the issue – what exactly will motivate Republicans to go to the polls next year? The scenario to ponder is not 2010 but 2006, when GOP turnout lagged statewide. That could have some interesting implications, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Point is, I can think of lots of things that may wind up driving Dems to the polls next year. That’s something for the GOP here to be concerned about.

Election Day in SD06

It’s highly unlikely that this will settle anything, but today is Election Day in SD06. If you live in SD06 and have waited till today to cast your ballot, you can find your polling place here or here. I’ve already done my spiel about turnout and finance reports, so let’s see what the media has to say. Here’s the Texas Trib:

Alvarado and Garcia have campaigned at breakneck speeds after Perry officially announced Saturday’s election date on Dec. 13. The ensuing weeks have seen several candidate forums and fundraisers.

The most recent campaign finance filing period ended Jan. 18, with Garcia reporting about $164,000 raised since Jan. 1, expenditures of $300,000 and about $228,400 remaining in her war chest. A pre-election telegram report, which is filed to report contributions received after the date of the last report, shows Garcia raised an additional $14,500.

Alvarado raised about $185,000 during the same time period, spent about $315,000 and has about $110,000 left on hand. She also raised about $20,000 after the filing date, according to her telegram reports on file with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The Houston Chronicle reported Wednesday that plaintiff’s attorney and Democratic donor Steve Mostyn provided a bulk of Garcia’s support. Mostyn has donated more than $200,000 to Garcia throughout the course of the campaign, including about $187,000 in in-kind contributions from Mostyn’s Texas Organizing Project PAC.

The publication also noted that Alvarado received $22,000 from the Houston Police Officers Union and a $15,000 donation from HillCo lobbyists in Austin.

[…]

Garcia also hit Alvarado after the representative touted an endorsement from Stand for Children, an education advocacy group that Garcia said supports school vouchers.

“Sylvia Garcia strongly believes in fully funding our public schools, not using those dollars to help wealthy private schools take money away from our children,” Guerra said in a statement.

Hitting back, Alvarado said she has always supported public education and is on the side of educators and school districts.

“I am a product of HISD,” she said. “If there is any doubt on where I stand on public education, look at my voting record. I am the only one in this race with a record.”

In her release, Garcia includes a link to a document on the Stand for Children website called “What We Stand For: School Choice.”

“This paper begins with an overview of existing choice programs and a discussion of the current evidence available on these policies and their impact on student outcomes and equity,” the researchers write.

Calls to Stand for Children seeking clarification on where the group stands on the issue of vouchers were not immediately returned.

“School choice” means different things to different people, but I have zero doubt that Alvarado would oppose vouchers. There’s nothing in her record or her rhetoric to suggest otherwise. It would be nice to get some clarity from Stand For Children on this, but this will not keep me awake at night.

More from the Chron:

Alvarado said she was focusing on the issues the district’s voters care about: education, the economy and jobs, health care.

“We’re knocking on doors, phone-calling and keeping on message,” she said. “I’m happy we haven’t lowered ourselves into the gutter the way our opponent has.”

Garcia rejected the negative-campaigning charge. “Any time you compare a record – and that’s all we’re doing – your opponent will say you’re going negative. We’ll just have to let the voters decide.”

Whatever you think about the race so far, any real nastiness will come out in the runoff. That’s just how the world works.

[Dorothy] Olmos, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the State Board of Education in 2010, said she is working her ground game, as well.

“We’re knocking on doors and beating the bushes,” she said.

Olmos, a former teacher and hair salon operator, noted that she received 80,000 votes in the general election for the State Board of Education, 35,000 from Senate District 6.

Dream big, Dorothy. RW Bray got 38,201 votes in SD06 in November, and that’s about twice as many votes as will be cast in total for this race. As a point of comparison, Lawrence Allen, the incumbent Democrat in SBOE 4 that Olmos opposed in 2012, got over 77,000 votes in SD06. And just to fully beat this into submission, by my count there were 27,556 straight ticket Republican votes cast in SD06. This means that nearly 80% of Dorothy Olmos’ vote total in SD06 came from straight ticket voters, of which there will be none today, and that just under 7,500 people made the deliberate and conscious choice of voting for Dorothy Olmos last November. Of course, if she were to match that vote total in this election, she’d be a near lock for the runoff, but I feel pretty confident saying that ain’t gonna happen. I’ll have a brief post about who does make the runoff tonight and a fuller one tomorrow morning. Stace has more.

UPDATE: It will be Sylvia versus Carol for the runoff. No surprises at all.

A personal view of judicial elections

I’ve mentioned in this space before that my father Charles A. Kuffner, Jr. was a Supreme Court justice in New York. (Note: The Supreme Court in New York is basically the equivalent of a District Court in Texas. The top court in New York is the Appellate Court.) He was elected to that position in 1982, and lost his re-election bid in 1996. (Yes, they have 14 year terms in New York.) As you might imagine, he has followed my series of posts about judicial elections with interest, and while discussing it in a recent phone conversation, I encouraged him to write about his experience for publication here. Here’s what he sent me:

Is there a best way to select a Judge?

I have had this discussion with my son and many others over the years. Since I have been exposed to both the election of Judges and the selection process for the Judiciary I offer this commentary.

Both systems have their obvious flaws but over all I prefer the election of Judges with some limitations. Let me tell you my experience.

In 1982 the State of New York funded additional Judgeships Statewide with 13 new positions for the 2nd Judicial Department, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The political leaders worked out a formula, 10 Democrats, 3 Republicans, 2 Republicans from Brooklyn and 1 for Staten Island. (Staten Island was included since the Senate Finance Chair was from Staten Island).

A joint committee selected by the politicians interviewed all candidates and if approved the person would run in November dually endorsed by the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the Republicans. You should know that without the Democratic endorsement a person had no chance for election.

12 Republicans interviewed from Staten Island, but for one reason or another consensus could not be reached. I was candidate #13 and interviewed just before the judicial convention. Previously, I was on that screening committee and was not a candidate for the position. I was passed by the joint committee and was elected in 1982, and served from 1983 until 1996.

In 1996 I sought the Democratic dual endorsement, which previously was automatic, but denied that endorsement. I ran as a Republican and was defeated. A little history; I was endorsed by every Bar Association in the district as “Highly” qualified and even a “Highly” qualified rating was obtained by the umbrella group representing the “white shoe” lawyers. Interestingly, I was the only trial court Justice to received the “highly” qualified rating. Even with these credits, along with being President-elect of the Association of Supreme Court Justices, it meant nothing to the straight line Democratic voters in the 2nd judicial district. Add to that was my reversal rate after trial which was about nil.

I then applied to the State and the City for an appointed judicial position. I interviewed at the State level and even though I had an affirmance rate after trial of about 98% I was not recommended to Gov. Pataki. More history; I opposed the Pataki plan to limit judicial discretion in sentencing defendants and was so quoted in the New York Times.

The appointment process for the NYC Criminal Courts mirror that of judicial selection set up I originally went before when I was elected in 1982. I came out of the Mayor’s committee as recommended and was even interviewed by Mayor Giuliani but all for naught. I was not appointed: thus ended my judicial career.

Reality check: there isn’t a major party leader that will give up the power over judicial candidate selection whether by election or appointment. Jobs are the life blood of political parties and judicial patronage appointments mean untold millions of dollars that find their way back to the party in power. From my own experience I can tell you that every mortgage foreclosed meant at least $500 to the lawyers I appointed as referee to sell; for every commercial property that goes into foreclosure, a receiver is appointed to collect rents, etc. That fee is usually 5% of monies collected. For every person in need of guardianship, a lawyer is appointed as an evaluator and is paid a percentage of the estate to be managed; in the Probate courts the amount of patronage paid to politically connected lawyers is staggering. Need I say more?

If I had to recommend a system for appointment of judicial candidates, I would have as a committee membership roster, Court employees who work in the Courts where the vacancy exists; lawyers who routinely practice in that court; former jurors who sat for trials and a psychiatrist/psychologist. Why these folks? Easy, court employees are keen observers and evaluators of courtroom demeanor; lawyers want to practice before a colleague whose work habits and scholarship are known; jurors because they also have 1st hand knowledge of the stresses and strains in a courtroom during trial and lastly mental health professionals who can gauge the all important qualifications of demeanor, temperament and character of the candidate.

Once the candidate or candidates are selected they are appointed and sit for 2 years and then run for a longer term in a non-partisan election on their record.

Pie in the sky? You bet, but if you want to eliminate party politics from the Judiciary radical changes have to me implemented.

So there you have it. The system is a little different in New York, but the parallels are obvious enough. Again, my point is not to defend the status quo but to point out that the question of how best to do this is complex, and we are not well served by simplistic solutions such as eliminating straight-ticket voting for judicial races. More discussion is needed, and I hope I’ve provided some useful items towards that end.