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Analysis: Rising criticism threatens one-punch voting in Texas

Most states have dropped straight-ticket voting, but not Texas. There's another attempt coming in the current legislative session, and it's got some high-level supporters.

Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Justice Nathan Hecht, gives his State of the Judiciary speech on Feb. 1, 2017 to a joint session of the Texas Legislature.

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Partisan efficiency experts might love the time-saving charms of straight-ticket voting, but a number of the state’s top elected officials are ready to outlaw the practice.

Straight-ticket, or one-punch, voting allows people to cast a ballot for all of one party’s candidates with one pull of the lever, stroke of the pencil or click of the voting button.

One and done.

Its requires partisan faith on the part of a voter, an expression of trust in a party’s primary voters, a conviction that the chosen candidates — no matter who they are, what they’ve done and whether they are qualified — are better than candidates offered by the opposition party.

And it makes the coattails of the people at the top of the ballot very, very influential.

Just ask a judge.

“I will say only a word about judicial selection, but it is a word of warning,” Texas Supreme Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said this week in his State of the Judiciary speech. “In November, many good judges lost solely because voters in their districts preferred a presidential candidate in the other party. These kinds of partisan sweeps are common, with judicial candidates at the mercy of the top of the ticket. I do not disparage our new judges. I welcome them. My point is only that qualifications did not drive their election; partisan politics did. Such partisan sweeps are demoralizing to judges and disruptive to the legal system. But worse than that, when partisan politics is the driving force, and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty.”

State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, has filed legislation — House Bill 433 —to end straight-ticket voting in Texas. He might have some angels: House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both sponsored bans in the past. Both remain critical of one-punch voting.

The major political parties are reluctant to part with it, however — it’s part of the regulatory advantage that makes the Republicans and the Democrats appear to offer the only viable choices for Americans — or Texans — who want to take part in civic life.

The two-party racket just about kills the possibility that you can find a candidate with whom you completely agree. Instead, you’re generally stuck with two options, left to choose the least undesirable candidate in a field of two.

Libertarians and Greens and Teas and Occupies and who knows who else would love to elbow their way in, but this is a protectorate.

A strong argument against is that partisan coattails can be stronger than brains. Every election seems to end with an unintended consequence, often a good judge tossed aside because the political winds replaced one party’s flag with another — or a loon elected by voters who actually knew nothing about their candidate.

The two-party system works as a sorting hat, where the most partisan voters of all choose in the primaries which candidates come to the general election party, and the rest of us are left to choose which of the remaining contestants is the least objectionable. Straight-ticket voting allows them to apply their strength — sometimes locally, sometimes statewide — from the top of the ballot to the bottom. They elbow each other aside, squashing third-party candidates in the process.

That assumes, of course, that voters even know who the candidates are. One of the best arguments for straight-ticket voting is that there are too many people on the general election ballot, that too little is known about them and that the party label is the average voter’s most reliable guide to which candidate is more likely to agree with that voter’s political preferences.

A strong argument against is that partisan coattails can be stronger than brains. Every election seems to end with an unintended consequence, often a good judge tossed aside because the political winds replaced one party’s flag with another — or a loon elected by voters who actually knew nothing about their candidate.

Judges have been frustrated by that for a long, long time, arguing against straight-ticket voting, against partisan judicial elections, against judicial elections of any kind — and for anything that could arguably replace selections based on the ever-changing political climate with selections somehow related to merit and job performance.

The Dallas and Harris County courthouses were both dominated by Democrats for years. Republican sweeps wiped out those Democratic judges — the bad ones and the good ones. Now both counties have reversed themselves, ejecting many Republican judges — including the ones who were provably better than their replacements.

Patrick’s 2009 bill would have eliminated one-punch voting in judicial elections. It didn’t pass, and the then-senator moved on to become lieutenant governor. Last November, one of the judges swept away in the general election was Ryan Patrick of Harris County — son of Dan.

“I have spoken out on this issue many times and have introduced legislation in previous legislative sessions to end straight-ticket voting so that voters evaluate every candidate based on their principles and priorities,” Patrick said through a spokesman. “Straight-ticket voting has a tremendous impact on our judiciary and I was glad Chief Justice Hecht mentioned it in his address today. I look forward to working on this issue this session."

Another legislator filed an across-the-ballot straight-ticket ban ahead of the 2009 session, but he got tied up after he was elected speaker of the House.

Straus, like Patrick, is still on the bandwagon. “I agree with Chief Justice Hecht that we should end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, but we shouldn't stop there,” Straus said, also via spokesman. “Texas should join 40 other states and end straight-ticket voting in all elections. This change would encourage voters to learn more about individual candidates, their platforms and their qualifications. Too often, good men and women are swept out of down-ballot offices due to the political winds at the moment.”

Maybe Simmons will have some help this time.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The Texas Legislature is primed to go, but this is going to be a session outside the limelight. The Texans are busy, but the spotlight is on the new administration in Washington, D.C.
  • The debate over education savings accounts and other voucher programs is only peripherally about educating kids. It's really a debate about money. 
  • Texas state leaders are debating several important issues in a most public way, delivering their messages to one another through rallies, press conferences, trade association meetings and the media. Get your popcorn ready.

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Politics Dan Patrick Joe Straus Nathan L. Hecht