Texas is on the verge of eliminating straight-ticket voting, which supporters say would force voters to pay attention to every race on a ballot but critics say could decrease turnout and put the state at risk of yet another civil rights lawsuit.
“I disagree that (straight-ticket voting) is a right, I believe it is an option,” said Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, author of House Bill 25. “I believe this will provide better candidates, better elected officials and I do not believe it will harm voting down the ballot.”
Statewide, 63 percent of Texas voters cast straight-ticket ballots during the November general elections, according to Texas Election Source, a non-partisan data-driven public policy group. In Bexar County, the figure was 57 percent with 340,847 voters casting straight ticket ballots for either all Republicans, all Democrats, all Libertarians or all Green Party candidates out of a total of 598,691 votes cast. Forty percent of all straight ticket ballots were for the Republican Party; 57 percent went to the Democrats.
The figures are similar for previous years; more than half of Bexar County voters have cast straight ticket ballots in the last four presidential election years.
When voting a straight ticket, also known as “one punch” voting, a voter only has to punch one button to vote for all the candidates in the voter’s chosen party instead of having to click on each individual race, which in some years and some larger cities could number as many as 100.
While critics of the bill are largely Democrats, observers over the years have noted that both major parties have unexpectedly lost down-ballot races when there is heavy straight-ticket voting.
HB 25 was approved by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, 7-0 with two absent, on Thursday morning and is now headed to the full Senate. It already has passed the House; if the bill is approved by the full Senate without any changes, it will be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott.
During the House floor debate last week, Simmons said the bill would help all Texans by ending blind one-punch voting, with most voters not even thinking about the candidates that are down the ballot.
According to Texas Elections Source, Texans cast a record 5.6 million “one-punch” votes in 2016, a 13 percent increase over the previous record set in 2012, placing the state first nationwide.
“In this past election cycle, 90 percent of county offices were uncontested on the November ballot and that is largely because we’re in a cycle where straight-party, one-punch voting continues to fuel the self-reinforcing cycle that drives down the number of choices that voters ultimately have in general elections,” said Jeff Blaylock, publisher of Texas Elections Source.
Texas is one of only 10 states that still allow straight-ticket voting. North Carolina eliminated it in 2013, and Blaylock said Texas Elections Source ran various analyses after that change but found no systematic decrease of turnout.
Democrats have said that some ballots contain as many as 100 offices or more, and that forcing people to vote item by item would significantly increase waiting lines, which in turn could lead to voter suppression.
At Thursday’s hearing, Sen John Whitmire, D-Houston, expressed concerns similar to those of House Democrats at last week’s debate. He said that “one-punch” voting is used by Texans who are clear on their party affiliations, and that eliminating the option would leave the public at a loss of what to do, especially with down-ballot candidates such as judicial and school board races.
“I don’t know how you expect people of any persuasion to understand down-ballot candidates,” Whitmire said. “I am shocked, quite frankly, that the people in charge of the state right now want to go there because they’re doing pretty damn good under the current system, but I do think it will certainly confuse a lot of voters that will just give up.”
Glen Maxey, member of the Texas Democrats executive committee and former Texas legislator, said that having the bill heard by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee instead of Senate State Affairs is what federal courts have noted as abnormal legislative procedure in past litigation.
The chair of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee is Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who is the author of HB 25’s Senate companion bill.
Since March, federal courts have ruled against Texas three different times in cases of discriminatory intent against African-American and Hispanic voters. In March, courts ruled that the Legislature knowingly discriminated in 2011 when it drew three congressional districts. Last month, the same judges found that lawmakers redrew House districts during the same year for the same purposes.
A federal judge also ruled in April that the Legislature intended to discriminate on racial grounds when it approved Texas’ voter ID law in 2011, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Simmons said on the floor that he was unaware of the court decisions.
Maxey also noted that the Legislature has not conducted any impact study to determine whether eliminating straight-ticket voting would disproportionately impact minority citizens’ right to vote, which is protected by federal law.
“Precincts with higher percentages of African-American and Hispanic voters have more straight-party ticket voting than precincts with lower African-American and Hispanic voters,” Maxey said. “This takes away one method of voting that minority voters overwhelmingly use to choose the candidates of their choice.”
This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News May 11, 2017.