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What Are The Effects Of Abolishing Straight Ticket Voting In Texas? 'A Pain In The Butt'

A man wears a face mask featuring the seal of Virginia as he fills out his ballot at an early voting site in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 18, 2020.
Alexander Drago
A man wears a face mask featuring the seal of Virginia as he fills out his ballot at an early voting site in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 18, 2020.

This election was the first in decades to not include a straight ticket voting option on ballots across Texas. Back in 2017, the Republican-controlled state legislature scrapped the option, but the change didn’t take effect until this election.

Democrats unsuccessfully sued to stop the change, but not everyone on the left cared too much.

“I was somewhat agnostic on it,” said Ed Espinoza, the executive director of the left-leaning group, Progress Texas.

“I didn't really see it as a huge issue coming into this election,” he said. “Having said that, there was a surprising amount of drop off from the presidential race to the Senate race and railroad (commissioner) race this year. And the senate race was the second race on the ballot, and railroad was the fourth race on the ballot.”

About 11.2 million Texans voted in the presidential race. That figure dropped by about 165,000 for the senate race, and about 240,000 for the railroad commissioner race — not enough to change the outcome of either election. But other elections were closer.

“There were six legislative races that were within one or two points,” Espinoza said. “And, yeah, in those cases, straight ticket absolutely could have made a difference. Sure.”

Stefan Haag is a retired professor of government at Austin Community College. He studies straight ticket voting, and said the effects of not having that option can be felt most acutely in state house races — like that of Democrat state representative Vikki Goodwin, who flipped the Travis County district blue in 2018 by about 5,000 votes. This time, that margin narrowed to about 1,300.

“The Democratic Party is probably more dependent upon straight ticket voting, especially in the large urban counties,” he said. “So, in that 2018 study, we found that 77% of the Democrats — especially in high minority precincts — would vote straight ticket.”

Dinorah Alcoser lives in San Antonio and always voted straight ticket for Democrats. She said she wishes she still had the option — especially after waiting in line for 90 minutes to vote.

“It’s a pain in the butt. It took a little bit longer than it should have,” she said. “It just added a few more minutes to my day.”

But some voters liked the change, like San Antonio resident Lucas Hamrick, who described himself as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

“In previous years, I had voted straight ticket Republican,” he said. “However, this year, without that option, I took a little bit extra time to look a little bit more closely at local politics to see you what the constituency needs versus what the candidates are offering.”

He wouldn’t say who he voted for at the top of the ticket, describing the choice as “the lesser of two evils,” but he did discuss his down ballot decisions.

“As we got to more county level positions, my beliefs align more with the Libertarian candidates that were on the ticket,” he said.

And this is where the lack of straight ticket voting might actually hurt Republicans, as Stefan Haag explained.

“Libertarians tend to associate with the Republican Party,” he said. “It's more like their economic views.”

But, he said, Republicans might lose Libertarian-leaning voters in races focused on social issues, like education.

“Their social views tend to be more progressive,” he said. “In the education sense, that might come in, in terms of their progressive views on social issues. They say, ‘some of the things that the Education Board has done in terms of curriculum and things like that is just crazy.’”

The Texas State Board of Education District 5 — which runs through the Libertarian-leaning Texas Hill Country — flipped blue this year. If Republican candidate Lani Popp had picked up even half of the votes cast for the Libertarian candidate, she would’ve won.

The ripple effects of straight ticket abolition are nuanced. It can help or hurt both sides, depending on the race. For now, Texas joins 15 other states to abolish straight ticket voting over the past three decades — only six remain.

The key swing state of Michigan actually falls in both categories. Straight ticket voting was abolished by the state legislature in 2016, but residents voted to bring it back in 2018. But even with a straight ticket option, more Michiganders voted in the presidential race than in the senate race.

For many voters, the top of the ballot will always matter the most.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony