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Proposed Change to Election of Judges Gets Cool Reception

Legislation that would remove Texas judges from the straight-ticket voting process garnered a mostly cool reception Tuesday at a hearing, as both Democrats and Republicans said that tinkering with the ballot turns off voters.

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Legislation that would remove Texas judges from the straight-ticket voting process garnered a mostly cool reception Tuesday at a Texas House committee hearing, as both Democrats and Republicans said that tinkering with the ballot turns off voters.

House Bill 25, authored by state Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas, would only impact partisan elections in judicial races.

Sheets, an attorney, told his fellow House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee members that good judges are being unfairly ousted when a Republican or Democratic wave occurs during a general election.

"We're not eliminating straight-ticketing voting," Sheets said Tuesday. "We're just making it so voters would have to manually select, and the thought process is that more people would select the judicial candidate [based] on the individual.”

But two fellow lawyers and Republican representatives, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches and Mike Schofield of Katy, voiced reservations about how adjusting a ballot in any way could make it more confusing for voters, which could dampen turnout.

"I think we should be encouraging people to vote, not discouraging people to vote," Clardy said.

Schofield, a former policy adviser for former Gov. Rick Perry on several issues, including voter ID legislation, said making such a big decision without finding out more from states that have eliminated straight ticket voting recently, would be premature.

The committee left Sheets’ bill pending in committee.

Texas and nine other states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah — still allow straight-ticket voting in some form, where voters can cast a vote for either party's slate of candidates by pushing one button or punching one hole in a card.

But the practice is on the chopping block.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Wisconsin eliminated it in 2011, North Carolina in 2013 and Rhode Island did so last year.

This month, West Virginia passed a bill eliminating straight-party voting, and the measure has moved to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's desk.

Only seven states, including Texas, elect their supreme court, appellate and all trial court judges in partisan races. The other six are: Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. However, nearly two dozen states use partisan elections for some judicial races. 

Glen Maxey, legislative director of the Texas Democratic Party, testified that "chaos and long lines" could be the result of HB 25 if voters had to stop to consider individual judicial candidates after casting a straight-ticket vote for all others.

Also testifying against the bill was state District Judge R.K. Sandill, a Democratic judge from Harris County. Sandill said a judicial campaign was expensive enough to run based on party. Removing straight-ticket voting would mean judges would have to work even harder to get voters to recognize their names, leaving little time to work at their judicial bench.

"If I have to beat the streets…I can't do my job," he said.

For years, many judges have wanted to make their races nonpartisan.

"A justice system built on some notion of Democratic judging or Republican judging is a system that cannot be trusted,"  former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson said in his 2011 State of the Judiciary address to the Texas Legislature.

Jefferson, who left the bench in 2013, had wanted a constitutional amendment that would remove judges from partisan elections. "I urge the Legislature to send the people a constitutional amendment that would allow judges to be selected on their merit," he said three years ago.

Jefferson, now an attorney in private practice, said Tuesday he was in favor of Sheets’ bill.

"I would say it would be a small but important step in the right direction," Jefferson said, adding that there are two problems with keeping judicial elections, partisan ones.

"One of the big problems is that it really confuses the public into thinking there is a material difference in a judge who is a Republican and a judge who is a Democrat," he said. "The second, it removes judges from office, not based on how diligent they are, they're removed just because they're in the wrong political party." 

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