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Analysis: Live by the party, die by the party

Straight-ticket voting is generally popular with the political party in power, but not all Texas Republicans like it. The advantages and disadvantages vary widely by county.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Austin, Texas.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here. This story has been corrected.

After one week of Texas lawmakers pre-filing legislation they hope to pass in 2017, only one bill thus far contains the word “straight,” a measure “relating to abolishing shampoo apprentice permits and shampoo specialty certificates.”

It always helps to remember that divine providence gave us the Texas Legislature to help us through hard times. Maybe “Shampoo Apprentice” will be the next big thing on cable TV. Thank state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, for House Bill 340 next time you see him.

That’s a delightful discovery, but it wasn’t the reason for the search. Straight-ticket voting — specifically, bills that would ban it in Texas — was the search subject. And although there is not a bill yet, you can safely bet one will be filed.

For every political candidate rescued by straight-ticket voters, another is doomed. The most recent election offered some case studies. Every county-wide election in Harris County went to the Democrats, as did straight-ticket voting.

Texas voters knew what they wanted to do in high-profile races, like the one for president, but straight-ticket voting — where ballots are cast for all candidates of a particular party — becomes more important as the names on the ballot become less familiar. When it comes to county-wide races for judges, for instance, voters often don’t know much about the candidates or the issues.

They vote for the parties instead, casting their fates on the basis of general ideology, or at least the brand names they like most.

In the Harris County races, that kind of thinking wiped out a lot of Republican judges and other county officials. It saved others, perhaps, like state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, who won re-election in spite of his support for a hospital district proposition that proved very unpopular with the same voters.

The politics of straight-ticket voting are simple: It’s popular with a voting district’s majority party and unpopular with the minority.

The Republicans are obviously winning state elections, but in recent elections they've been losing the state’s urban areas. Houston is blue. Dallas is blue. Even Fort Worth is blue, although Tarrant County overall continues to turn in solid and important election majorities for the GOP.

Forty states don’t allow straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states have dumped or limited it since 1994, according to NCSL.

Texas lawmakers regularly propose getting rid of it, either all the time or in all judicial elections. The list of lawmakers who have, in recent years, filed legislation to abolish or limit straight-ticket voting includes then-Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. They have since become, respectively, the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House and for all of the regular chatter about House-Senate wars, they have some common ground here.

For every political candidate rescued by straight-ticket voters, another is doomed.

Dallas County Republicans are regulars among the straight-ticket abolitionists. Reps. Cindy Burkett, Morgan Meyer, Ken Sheets (who lost his re-election bid this month), Ron Simmons and Jason Villalba have all sponsored bills. So did Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. Former Reps. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, Anna Mowery and Kim Brimer, both R-Fort Worth and Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, all tried. Former state Sens. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, took swings at it.

The names you don’t see — because they don’t have to file legislation to keep the current setup — are those of the lawmakers who want to keep things just like they are. Republicans in Collin and Denton counties are getting along just fine with straight-ticket voting, as are their Democratic counterparts in Travis and El Paso counties.

It’s the voting equivalent of turning matters over to the political hacks in the smoke-filled rooms — or to the smaller crowds of voters, the true believers — who decide which candidates ought to emerge from the party primaries. It helps keep red counties red and blue counties blue, excising bad candidates — and good ones — on the basis of which party they’re in.

And straight-ticket voting remains popular with voters. In this year’s general election in Harris County, 65.3 percent of voters pulled the lever for the Republican or the Democratic Party. The Democrats had a 5.3-percentage-point advantage, which is why all of those officials were turned out of office.

In Dallas County, the total was 65.1 percent. It was 64.5 percent in Tarrant County, with an eight-point Republican advantage. More than half of Bexar County’s voters, 55.6 percent, cast what have been called one-punch votes — hitting the ballot just the one time for the party of their choice.

Nobody filed a bill abolishing straight-ticket voting during the first week, but someone will. There are still plenty of lawmakers from those lopsided counties who’d like to save themselves and their friends at the local courthouse. And they keep trying. 

Editor's note: Rep. Chris Turner, who once sponsored legislation regarding tallying straight-ticket voting — but not abolishing it — was erroneously included in an earlier version of this column.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The assembly of a Trump administration in Washington, D.C. could send a ripple through the political waters in Texas, particularly if the president-elect hires from within the state's congressional delegation.
  • Winning isn't everything when it comes to party control. If it was, Texas lawmakers would have nothing to do. But they still have plenty to fight about, and Republicans in Washington, D.C., will, too.
  • It won't change the color of the leaves on the trees, but the civics seasons in Texas have changed. Say goodbye to the elections and hello to the legislative session.

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