The latest rumor going around the Capital regarding straight ticket voting is that the big three, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Joe Straus have struck a deal. Apparently this deal will allow straight ticket voting in all partisan races except at the District Judge level. If true, and it seems very likely that it is, this change will fundamentally alter the strategy of county races.
As you probably already know, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s son Ryan was defeated in the Democratic sweep of Harris County last November. In 2009, then Sen. Patrick filed SB 392 eliminating straight ticket voting in judicial elections. In 2013, Sen. Patrick filed SB 103 eliminating straight ticket voting in judicial elections. Although both bills made it out of the State Affairs Committee, neither bill received a vote in the full Senate.
House Speaker Joe Straus had filed a bill in 2009, HB135, that would have eliminated all straight ticket voting, not limited to judicial elections. But that was a couple of months before he became Speaker and the bill never made it out of the Elections committee.
So there has been support of one form or another for eliminating straight ticket voting from both leaders for quite some time. Abbott doesn’t appear to have weighed in on the issue.
The current push for a change seems to have gotten momentum when Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called for an end to it in his State of the Judiciary address to the State Legislature on February 1st.
I will say only a word about judicial selection, but it is a word of warning. 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.
There is no perfect alternative to judicial elections. But removing judges from straight-ticket voting would help some, and merit selection followed by nonpartisan retention elections would help more.
Speaker Straus immediately agreed and went further, calling for eliminating straight ticket voting altogether:
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus wants to end straight-ticket voting in all elections, he said Wednesday after Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht’s State of the Judiciary address.
“I agree with Chief Justice Hecht that we should end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, but we shouldn’t stop there,” Straus said in a prepared statement calling for Texas to join the other 40 states that do not allow the practice.
Straus said that ending straight-ticket voting would encourage voters to learn about individual candidates’ qualifications and that he looks forward to working with the Legislature on the issue.
“Too often, good men and women are swept out of down-ballot offices due to the political winds at the moment,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Patrick agreed with Hecht about the need to eliminate it for the judiciary:
“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.”
According to insiders in Austin (yes, I hate those anonymous quotes too but what do you do?), the leaders hit a stumbling block at the appellate and statewide levels. Thus the rumored compromise limiting the changes to the District Judge level.
If this becomes law, it fundamentally changes the strategy for county races, at least for the Harris County Republican Party. For years, the HCRP formed a “joint judicial campaign” wherein the judicial candidates all chipped in and ran as a group. Not only did this help the judicial candidates, it helped all Republican candidates. After all, when a voter hears “vote Republican” a thousand times during a campaign, it doesn’t limit that vote to judicial candidates.
Obviously there would be no more “joint judicial campaigns”, at least not in the form we have seen previously. I suppose the candidates could still pool their money and tell people that Republican judges are the greatest but would that be effective for the judges? Will people vote straight ticket and think their vote counts for the judicial positions? Most likely, candidates will have to come up with other strategies and maybe even try to run on their own merit and funding. If so, will this lead to the election of the wealthiest judges, not the most meritorious? It will be interesting.
What will the HCRP do with a significantly reduced amount of money available under one umbrella? How will it affect local officeholders, many of whom have been able to come up through the grassroots without having to raise significant amounts of money because they were able to piggyback on the judicial campaign? Will we go back to the old days of money being the primary influence?
And why exclude the appellate and statewide judicial candidates?
There are a lot of things to think about and a lot of questions to be answered before making a change to the straight ticket voting system. Gromer Jeffers, Jr. has some thoughts on the issue:
Are there unintended victims of straight-ticket voting?
Judicial candidates often complain that campaigning as a candidate in the minority party is fruitless because it’s hard to overcome the wave of votes from people who are voting based on party affiliation.
Last week Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said the state should end straight-ticket voting in judicial elections, which prompted Straus to call for a complete ban.
The reality is judicial candidates are obscure to voters. Contenders in the political party out of power don’t have much of a chance. But that wouldn’t suddenly change if voters were forced to make specific choices in every partisan race.
That’s because polls show over and over again that the main motivator for American voters is party identification. There are few truly independent voters left in this country; most identify with one polarized party or another.
Hecht’s desire to have judicial elections free of straight-ticket voting misses the larger point: Judicial candidates should run in separate nonpartisan elections. That would force voters to examine those candidates from a different lens and shorten the ballot in other election years.
I hope that our legislators think about this issue long and hard before changing it.