"The Straight Story" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Save for the inevitable runoff here and there, voters will be greeted in November by a ballot that will largely take shape tonight. But they'll have an option available to them in the fall that they don't, or didn't, have today: They’ll be able to vote the straight ticket — that is, they'll be able to vote for their preferred political party's entire slate of candidates with one punch of a button. Straight-ticket voting is significant because, in the words of Peck Young, the director of Austin Community College's Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, “it kind of decides who wins.”
Statewide, straight-ticket voting makes up roughly half of the total — usually a bit more in presidential election years and a bit less in gubernatorial election years. “I would assume that this time, it will be no less than 45 percent and no more than 49,” Young says. “That’s a huge chunk of the vote.” To appreciate how large, ponder this: In 2006, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Bell came in fourth in the non-straight-ticket vote, or swing vote, but his second-place finish in straight-ticket balloting was enough to pull him up to second place overall.
Historically, Republicans have a slight advantage. In 2008, even with the wind at the backs of the Democrats, straight-ticket voting favored the Republicans 50.28 to 48.99 percent, the smallest margin since the CPPPS began tracking statistics in 1998. The greatest margin was in 2004, when Republicans dominated by a spread of 57-43.
With statewide straight-ticket margins usually close, it's of lesser consequence in gubernatorial contests than it is down ballot. In Travis County in 2008, straight-ticket voting went 64 percent for Democrats, 34 percent for Republicans. “A Republican, if he’s going to win in this county, he’s got to carry the swing vote by about 75 to 25,” Young says. “You’ve got to be running against Dracula.” And in Collin County, where Republicans dominated at a rate of 66 to 33 percent, Young says a Democrat “has literally got to be Jesus Christ running against Judas or he loses.”
Use of the straight ticket has been rapidly increasing in urban areas, which provide a majority of the vote. Nine counties — Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Fort Bend, El Paso, Collin, Tarrant and Denton — made up nearly 55 percent of the total statewide vote in 2008. “What you’ve got is people in these small counties who talk to each other,” Young says, “and they care about who the hell the county judge is, and who they sheriff is, and they vote in those races. In urban areas, it’s less personal and voters tend to vote brands.”
To say that straight-ticket voting has affected Dee Margo's life is, in his words, “probably an understatement.” The El Paso Republican, running this year to represent House District 78, blames an overwhelming turnout of Barack Obama supporters for his failed bid for the same seat in 2008. “Everything was predicated on the top of the ticket, and voting straight ticket for only the top of the ticket,” he says.
Margo is a strong advocate for doing away with the practice, which is permitted in only 16 states. “Even if you want to vote all one party, I still think you ought to spend the extra 30 or 45 seconds it takes to go down and mark each ballot,” he says. “No one party has a corner on the best candidates. Never has, never will.”
The last two legislative sessions have seen a small push to eliminate the straight-ticket option. In 2007, state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, introduced a bill to do just that and it got nowhere. In 2009, the measure received the support of other prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. Wentworth managed to get the bill out of committee, but that's as far as it went. “Especially in Texas — as independent-minded as we are, with the spirit of independence we have in Texas — we ought to be voting for individuals,” he says. Yet there are strong institutional forces against change, he says. “Both parties like it. Both parties wanted to keep it. It’s not a partisan issue. They both believe that they’re advantaged and benefit from the ability of voters to go in and unthinkingly pull the lever for their party.”
He’s right about their enthusiasm. “We encourage people to do it,” says Republican Party of Texas spokesman Bryan Preston. “It helps everyone up and down the ballot, and it helps build the next generation of Republican leadership."
"Straight-ticket voting was a key element of our success in 2006 and 2008 and will continue to be part of the strategy to turn out base Democratic voters this November," says Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Kirsten Gray. "It's evident that Republicans agree our straight-ticket numbers will continue to rise, which is why they tried to change the rules."
Young is surprised that the people making a fuss mostly lean right. “Why would the Republicans want to do away with straight-ticket voting?” he says. “It’s been doing them enormous good. The truth is, the Democrats should have been complainging about it.”
Young, who was formerly a Democratic strategist, thinks the system’s just fine as is. “Doing away with it is, I think, a bad thing, because it ignores modern politics,” he says. “Modern politics is about modern advertising.” He doesn’t buy the line that these are unthinking voters. “Some of the people who vote straight ticket most reliably — I found in one study I did for a client — were literally guys who work for NASA. They weren’t voting straight ticket out of ignorance — that was the brand they were in favor of as Republicans.”
It’s difficult to predict whom straight-ticket voting will favor in November, Young says. “I don’t know what will happen to the brand names this time, because of the ‘everybody’s a jerk’ feeling in the country.”
For now, the debate continues. Wentworth, who sits on the CPPPS board, says he “probably will” try a third time to kill the option in the next session.
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