A boon to democracy in eliminating straight-ticket voting

Zachary Price

In a time of historically low voter turnout and a seemingly unbreachable partisan divide, civic engagement recently got a boost from the unlikeliest of sources: the Texas Republican Party. Eliminating straight-ticket voting has received unequivocal support from Republican leadership in the Texas Legislature at a time when they find themselves disagreeing more often than not.

Straight-ticket voting is an option that allows a voter to click a button and choose all candidates of a specific party. Its elimination is brought on by Texas House Bill 25, signed by Gov. Abbott on June 1. The Republican leadership supported this issue due to shifting partisanship in Texas’ largest cities. Harris County, which contains Houston, shifted majorly Democratic in the 2016 election. This concerned Republican politicians who were afraid they were losing their grasp on one of the last big city GOP strongholds in the state.

What makes this move particularly surprising is how much Republicans have gained from  straight-ticket voting over the last 20 years. Without straight-ticket voting, it would have been "extremely unlikely" that Republicans would have won 121 consecutive statewide elections dating back to 1996, said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist. Seemingly confirming this, straight-ticket ballots made up more than half of the Republican vote in four of Texas’ five biggest counties in 2014.

There is no better example of rank partisanship taken to its natural end than the current composition of the Texas Legislature. One of the highlights of the 85th Legislature was the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” which was essentially a temper tantrum designed to kill other people’s bills by far-right “Freedom Caucus” members. On the Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former radio host, kept supposedly vital issues like the “bathroom bill” — which discriminates against transgender schoolkids — front and center.

The unfortunate caveat to this argument is that Texas Republicans have shown little interest in addressing the underlying problem. Given their recent track record — a number of lawsuits and efforts to suppress minority votes at every turn — it’s hard to take the argument that they’re just trying to “show that every race matters” seriously at all.

What Texas needs is less partisanship and more nuance. Texas already has an example of the type of downballot moderates that could be crafted by this bill, State Rep. Sarah Davis. As the legislature’s only pro-choice Republican, Rep. Davis is a unicorn among Texas politicians. She is so removed from her party that when ideological scores were assigned to each representative from the 85th Legislative Session, her score didn’t overlap with a single other legislator’s. This may be why she continues to get re-elected in her Houston-area seat, a district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 15 points.

Though not every elected official can (or should) emulate Rep. Davis. She’s a fascinating case study of what can happen if voters place qualifications over party. Ending straight-ticket voting won’t suddenly convince every voter to completely abandon party loyalty, but it provides an opportunity to educate voters about important down ballot races that most directly affect their day-to-day lives. If they know there isn’t an easy way out, perhaps they might just listen.

Price is a government sophomore from Austin. Follow him on Twitter @price_zach.