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If Tuesday’s election needed yet another element of uncertainty, the end of a straight-ticket voting option in Texas has certainly provided it.
The 2020 general election is the state’s first in recent history without an option for voters to check one box to vote for every candidate from a single party, and nobody seems sure about how it will affect lower-profile races. There’s a lot at stake in some of those lower-ballot races — most notably in contests for the Texas House, where Democrats hope to take control for the first time in nearly two decades.
Beyond the absence of the straight-ticket option, record-breaking early voting turnout and the coronavirus pandemic have prompted long lines at polling sites, sparking questions about whether voters will be too fatigued to cast votes in races at the bottom of the ballot.
“You could see maybe 10[%] or 15% drop-off between the number of people that vote in the presidential race versus the number of people that vote in the legislative races,” said Derek Ryan, a GOP voter data expert. “If you’re standing in line for an hour to cast your vote for the presidential race — will you just be ready to be done with it?
The state does not collect data on straight-ticket votes, but the practice has been popular recently among voters. Two-thirds of Texans who voted in 2018 used the option, according to a study by the Austin Community College Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. And in the 2016 general election, straight-ticket voting accounted for almost 64% of total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties.
In 2017, the Legislature voted to eliminate the straight-ticket voting option starting in 2020. Republicans generally supported the legislation, saying it could help produce better-informed candidates. Democrats argued that the legislation would disproportionately impact voters of color. A back-and-forth played out in the courts this year when a federal judge moved to reinstate straight-ticket voting, but a panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against that last month, affirming the state law.
The change comes at a time when the Legislature, specifically the Texas House, could see considerable change in its partisan makeup. Dozens of state House seats are competitive this cycle, with Democrats being effectively nine seats away from gaining control of the lower chamber. One of the main prizes for Democrats, if they were to flip the House, would be to have a bigger seat at the GOP-led table for the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political maps.
Ryan said there could be “some extremely close” state House races where “the results would be different” if people who cast ballots in the presidential race also voted in the lower-ballot contests.
Regardless, parties and candidates say they have been working for years to inform voters of the straight-ticket change and encourage them to make it to the end of the ballot. It’s unclear, though, whether those efforts— via block walking, pamphlets on which candidates a particular group has endorsed, and other actions — will make a difference, especially in the state’s larger, more urban counties that typically have longer ballots.
“I would love to say I think everyone is going to vote down the ballot,” Kim Gilby, chair of the Williamson County Democratic Party, told The Texas Tribune last week. “But there’s going to be drop-off — there always is.”
In Tarrant County, a once reliably red swath of the state that’s now home to competitive races up and down the ballot, county GOP Chair Rick Barnes said last week that he does not think the end of straight-ticket voting will affect the overall election results.
“I think there’s still a lot of people who are voting straight ticket, but they’re having to go all the way down the ballot to do it,” Barnes said.
Barnes also said the party isn’t overlooking the importance of municipal elections, which were delayed due to the pandemic and are on the general election ballot. Some of those are nonpartisan, but many are not.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever spent as much time talking about constables,” he said. “We’re talking about constables everywhere because we know we’ve gotta get people to vote all the way down.”
At the statewide level, state Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat who heads the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, said last month that younger Texans old enough to vote were dropping off the ballot because “they didn’t want to make an uninformed vote.” She said that’s where groups like hers come in.
“We have to help [the] candidate tell their story,” Israel said last month during a Texas Tribune Festival panel discussion. “If we help them tell their story and make that distinction on their vision of Texas, we feel confident that they will do well this year.”
State Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said during the same panel discussion that he feels good about Republicans’ chances down the ballot thanks to name ID. A number of GOP candidates, he said, have roots in the state House districts they’re running to represent after serving in local office for years or competing for the seat in previous elections.
“People don’t like to vote for strangers,” he said. “They like to vote for people they know and they think are going to win — it’s in our DNA.”
Some Republicans have privately expressed concerns. In 2019, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, were secretly recorded by hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, which ultimately led to Bonnen saying he will retire at the end of his term. Among other things said during that meeting, there was a brief exchange about the end of straight-ticket voting, with Sullivan saying he thought Republicans would “regret” the move and Burrows saying he “trusted the governor’s office and others who swore it was the best thing since sliced bread.”
“It’s going to be real easy for that person — again, that person just coming out for [President Donald] Trump — to go, ‘I’m done,’” Sullivan said. “That’s my fear.”
With straight-ticket voting no longer an option, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.
“I don’t think anyone can really tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt they understand how this is gonna impact voting,” Phelan said.