Will Abolishing Straight-Ticket Voting Encourage Voter Engagement Or Stifle Turnout?

May 29, 2017

A bill was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott last week that would eliminate straight-ticket voting in Texas. But opponents say the legislation could be headed to court.

Texas is one of 10 states that provide the option of voting for one party straight down the ballot. Proponents say it makes voting easier and reduces wait times at the polls. Critics say it makes voters less engaged with down-ballot local races.

According to a study from Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, straight-ticket voting made up nearly two-thirds of votes cast in the 2016 election.

In that same election, a lot of Republicans in down-ballot races lost big in the state’s urban counties. In particular, a lot of Republican judges were voted out, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's son Ryan.  

Erin Lunceford, a Republican who also ran unsuccessfully for a judgeship in Harris County, called herself a "poster child for why straight-ticket voting is bad for Texas."

"It results in the election of less qualified, experienced judges,” she told a hearing on House Bill 25.

Lunceford told a House committee she was by far the most qualified person for the judgeship and that the only reason she lost to Democrat Fredericka Phillips was because of one-punch voting.

Manny Garcia with the Texas Democratic Party doesn’t see it that way.

“She lost because [she ran] against the vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party, who is an African-American who is the African-American community’s candidate of choice,” Garcia said. “[Phillips is] an accomplished lawyer. That’s why [Lunceford] lost.”

Either way, political will was behind Republican efforts to get rid of straight-ticket voting once and for all. And they did it.

But there are some issues that are sure to come up.

“Straight-ticket voting is a preferred method of voting for a number of Texas' voters,” Garcia said. “In fact, a majority of Texas' voters. And it’s particularly popular with the Latino and the African-American community in the state.”

Legally speaking, that could be a problem. 

Opponents of HB 25 argue Texas lawmakers are trying to make it harder – yet again – for minorities to vote, particularly in urban counties. 

In the past several months, federal courts have ruled the state unconstitutionally targeted minorities when it passed a voter ID law in 2011 and when it drew up new congressional and state House districts around that same time. Both cases found the state violated the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting laws that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

Since minorities are more likely to use straight-ticket voting, Garcia argues, opponents could make the case lawmakers intended to discriminate by passing HB 25.

“They are trying to make it harder for people to vote,” he said. “It’s why we continue to fight for the Voting Rights Act, and it’s why we expect that this piece of legislation will ultimately head to the courts.” 

Alan Vera with the Harris County Republican Party had warned lawmakers during the House committee meeting that they could be creating longer lines in Houston.

“Ending one-punch voting needs to consider the fact that a significant percentage of Harris County voters will require about two and half times as long to complete the ballot as they do with one-punch voting,” he said.

It’s not just Republicans who are happy to see one-punch voting go. Third-party candidates are also relieved.

Kevin Ludlow of Austin, who has run unsuccessfully as a Libertarian against embattled Democratic House Rep. Dawnna Dukes, said getting rid of straight-ticket voting is a great thing. He has long pointed to straight-ticket voting as an impossible obstacle for third-party candidates in those races.

“I think raising the burden a little bit more on the individual to actually have to do some work – God forbid – in the electoral process, I think that’s a huge positive,” he said. “And I hope people embrace it. And I think the only way they will embrace it is if they actually start to see some change.”

Democrats argue, however, that there’s no research that says eliminating straight-ticket voting will automatically ensure people are more invested in down-ballot races. They say it will just ensure fewer people vote.