Express-Lane Voting: It's Fast, but Problematic

Nearly two-thirds of Harris County's voters pulled the straight-ticket lever when they voted in 2008, ignoring all those pages of candidate names in favor of just voting for one party or the other. Democrats had a slight edge in straight-ticket voting in that county that year. In Tarrant County, the Republicans had the advantage, so the actual mileage varies by location.

When voters — let’s be charitable here — don’t know much about the people they’re selecting, the straight ticket gives them a cheat: Don’t know the candidate? Vote for the party of your choice.

The political parties like it, but is this a good idea?

Dan McClung, a Houston-based Democratic consultant, guesses that 70 percent to 80 percent of voters would never reach all of the local judicial races on Harris County’s long ballot without the straight ticket. That’s the part of the election where the deciding is left to blood relatives and close friends, to people who like the sound of one unknown name to another and to the people who vote on the basis of partisan flag.

People who know the candidates are relatively few and far between — these aren’t politicians who get on television or have well-financed ground campaigns. It’s probably risky to leave the choices to the sounds of names — except when a candidate has a famous name like John Adams or Sam Texas, both of whom have been in the running at one time or another this year.

That leaves party, and political sages like Mr. McClung say that can be enough. “If all they have is the party label, that’s actually quite a lot of information,” he said. Maybe. At least it explains how the local elections go when a county’s political preferences change. County courthouses in urban areas in Texas have a tendency to be either all Republican or all Democrat, depending on which party is in favor. Sometimes, the switch happens without changing personnel — judges who see the winds changing simply change parties and wait for the straight-ticket lever-pullers to re-elect them. Many of them don’t like the partisan stuff anyhow, and changing flags doesn’t upset their stomachs like it might if they were legislators.

One obvious problem with straight-ticket voting is that the parties don’t really vet their candidates. The people at the tops of the tickets have been through the wringer; you might not like them or support them, but you know most everything about them. That’s not the case down the ballot. Dallas County elected a Democrat to its top job — county judge — a few years ago and nobody in the party initially knew who he was. He was, among other things, a beneficiary of the straight ticket.

Steve Mansfield was arguably a straight-ticket wonder, elected as a Republican to the state’s highest criminal court in 1994 —on the ticket with George W. Bush et al. He served on the court until 2000 and later worked as a security guard at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Not a great monument to the straight-ticket voters.

Texas allows voters to debug their ballots by voting for a straight ticket and making exceptions by voting in individual races on the ballot. They can vote for the Republicans, for instance, and then for choice Democrats — or Libertarians or Greens — in specific races. Candidates can use that to elbow their way in: Bill Clements, the first Republican elected governor in modern Texas, had a campaign in Democratic South Texas in 1978 urging people to pull the lever and then to vote for him.

The straight ticket is up for grabs in some places. New Mexico is doing without this year for the first time in ages, and it’ll be a good Petri dish for the political scientists who can look at things like party preference, how many voters make it to the end of the ballot and how many candidates with names like Buzz Lightyear end up taking the oath of office.

In Texas, the straight ticket appears safe for now. So, you can vote for the people of your choice after looking at their records, their résumés and their platforms, picking and choosing like you would in the produce section at the grocery store.

Or you can vote straight ticket, trusting your party to put the proper mix of fruits and vegetables in your political cart. It’s easier than doing your homework.

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