No compelling reason to end straight-ticket voting in Texas

Posted Saturday, Mar. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas


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Since Thomas Jefferson, American political leaders have suggested that one of the key elements needed in preserving the democracy is having an informed electorate.

That's a noble goal, and yet it's a distant if not impossible one to reach. How much information does a voter need -- and from which sources -- to be truly informed?

Historically, and especially in our current divisive political climate, many voters have decided they could be guided best in their choices by the knowledge of one important thing: a candidate's party affiliation.

And in many states, including Texas, marking a ballot using only that information is made a lot easier through "straight-ticket" voting, being able to mark a ballot with one punch or stroke for all candidates in the same party.

The practice has been discouraged in recent years, supposedly in an effort to reduce overly partisan elections and to force voters to be more deliberative in the election process.

The issue of straight-ticket (or straight-party) voting is usually brought up for discussion by members of a political party whose candidates lost, in part, because of overwhelming straight-ticket balloting by the opposing party.

It can be particularly devastating when a presidential candidate wins by a large margin and has an impact on down-ballot races, even to the point of changing political power in county courthouses and state legislatures.

In Texas, which has permitted single-ticket voting since 1911 and is one of 15 states still using it, a record 64 percent of voters cast straight-ticket ballots in the November election, according to an analysis by Austin Community College's Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. Although Republicans outvoted Democrats statewide, President Barack Obama's coattails influenced local elections in many counties, including Dallas, Travis and Harris.

Two bills introduced in the Texas Legislature and one in the U.S. House would directly affect Texas' long-standing practice of straight-ticket voting.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, has a bill (HB2060) that would abolish it altogether, and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is calling for an end to straight-party voting for judicial races in his Senate Bill 103. Branch had a similar bill in the 2011 session, but it died in committee.

It's argued that, particularly in judgeship races, voters don't know enough about the candidates, and straight-party votes often have produced some unqualified officeholders.

In the U.S. House, two "centrist" representatives from states that still have straight-ticket voting are calling for ending the practice in federal elections, a move they say would cause the voters to emphasize the person rather than the party.

The People Before Party Act, HR936, is sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

There is no evidence that having voters pick candidates individually as opposed to a group will increase electoral knowledge. In fact, some proponents of straight-ticket voting believe that to abolish it will mean fewer people will vote in the down-ballot races and skip other initiatives like constitutional amendments and referendums.

That would be particularly true in large counties that have scores of candidates on the ballot.

At least two states that recently repealed single-party balloting (New Hampshire and Missouri) have had legislation introduced this year to reinstate it.

The Star-Telegram Editorial Board said two years ago that legislation to do away with straight-ticket voting is "unnecessary, unrealistic and unwise," and that legislators interested in selecting more-qualified judges could better spend their time by passing a law to make judicial races nonpartisan.

The board sees no new evidence, or compelling reason, to deviate from that opinion now.

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