And I’m still complaining about how the subject is being approached and discussed.
Fewer than half of Texans voted straight ticket in 1998, according to research by Austin Community College political scientist Stefan Haag, but that has jumped to close to two-thirds in four straight elections since 2012.
Both Democrats and Republicans benefitted from straight-party voting this year, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Straight-ticket voting tends to benefit the majority party in whichever jurisdiction you’re operating. And so therefore it benefitted the Republican Party statewide, but it worked to the detriment of Republicans in the major urban counties, with Harris County and Dallas County being the two leading examples, but also the 1st, 14th and 5th court of appeals districts, where it also worked to their detriment,” Jones said, referring to Democratic sweeps of appellate judge races in some areas.
Texas doesn’t track statewide numbers on straight-party voting, so compiling data requires a county-by-county search. Texas Monthly looked at the state’s 40 most-populous counties, which accounted for 83 percent of the votes Texans cast in the 2018 midterm. That approach is similar to that used by Haag, who has been tracking straight-ticket voting in Texas since 1988 by looking at counties that account for 80 percent of the statewide vote. Here’s what we found:
The end of straight-ticket voting likely will help the Republicans check the Democrats’ recent momentum in the 2020 election, at least in lower-profile races, University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “Only the most committed voters are likely to continue to vote all the way down the ballot. Republicans have more committed voters than Democrats at this point. So I think that advantage will shift back towards the Republicans in those down-ballot races.”
Jones and Rottinghaus said the end of the straight-party option could have profound impact on elections. Many voters will “roll off” the ballot after voting at the top of the ticket, leaving down-ballot races blank. Other voters may be pushed away from polls because of hours-long lines.
“I would say that we are very likely to see down ballot drop off. Most voters saw greatly from voter fatigue by the time they are at page three of the ballot and because of very long ballots we’ve got in the state it’s very likely that people just grow frustrated and simply stop voting,” leaving numerous races blank, Rottinghaus said.
There are some interesting statistics in the story, which you should go read, about big counties and smaller counties and Republican versus Democratic places. Dems appear from the numbers given to have been more likely to vote a straight ticket this year, which I would attribute to their overall enthusiasm level and the desire to send a message to Donald Trump and his enablers. Republicans still voted a heavy straight ticket as well, and in the end given that there were more Republicans voting overall, there were probably more Republican straight ticket voters. You have to check that on a county by county basis to know for sure, and I for one don’t have the time for that.
But of course it’s the unsupported assertions by the usual political science talkers that are driving me crazy. What evidence do you have for “voter fatigue”? What evidence do you have that Republicans are “more committed”? At least I’m willing to cite some actual numbers. What do you have, Brandon Rottinghaus and Mark Jones? Show your work, like you’d make a student do. I will say, if you look at Harris County results, the undervote rate in the judicial elections creeps upward as you go farther down the ballot. In those ranges I cited in that link above, the low end was always from the one of the first races, and the high end was always close to the bottom. But races like County Clerk and others that come after the judicial races have lower undervote rates, so it’s not just about “fatigue”, it’s about how much a voter knows about the race. The County Judge race this year had an undervote rate of 1.81%, on par with the statewides way up near the top of the ticket. Someone needs to show me some actual data that illustrates either of these effects – and states precisely what they are, in a scientific manner – before I will believe them.
But hey, you know what else we have? We have some non-partisan bond and ballot referenda, all of which appear at the very bitter end of the Harris County ballot, and not just from this year. Why don’t we take a look at some of these and see what the undervote rates have been?
2018 City of Houston Prop A - 16.80% Prop B - 13.37%
Prop A was the Renew Houston cleanup measure, while Prop B was the firefighter pay parity proposal. The undervote numbers roughly correspond to the “effective” undervote rates I calculated for the 2018 judicial races. Note that for stuff like this, it’s the straight ticket voters who may be dropping off, since they would still have to scroll down to vote on these things. But overall, most people made their way down to the bottom and cast a vote, with the higher profile issue not surprisingly getting more action.
2012 Metro Mobility referendum - 21.66% 2012 City of Houston Prop 1 - 26.84% Prop 2 - 29.03% Prop A - 23.91% Prop B - 22.96% Prop C - 24.84% Prop D - 24.47% Prop E - 24.56% 2012 HCC Prop 1 - 22.88% 2012 HISD Prop 1 - 18.98%
The Metro referendum was the one that gave the agency a greater share of sales tax revenue. The first two city propositions were charter amendment cleanups that I couldn’t tell you anything about, while the next five were all bonds, as were the HCC and HISD issues. Typically, the HISD one got the most attention, and thus had the lowest undervote rate. Remember that in 2012, the “effective” undervote rate was higher than it was this year.
2010 City of Houston Prop 1 - 14.38% Prop 2 - 18.93% Prop 3 - 11.80%
Prop 1 was Renew Houston, Prop 3 was the red light camera referendum, and Prop 2 was something that I remember zero about. These undervote rates are pretty low, especially for the super-high-profile red light referendum.
Remember, these elections don’t involve people or parties, and they are at the end of the ballot. To whatever extent voters get “tired” and drop off, these are the place where you would see it. Straight ticket votes would not affect them, and voters have no partisan cues to go by. Some of these issues are confusing, and more than a few were very low profile. If anything, I’d expect these to represent the high end of voter dropoff in a “no straight ticket” context. Obviously, we won’t really know till we start seeing the election results in 2020 and beyond. But at least we can see that the overall dropoff rate isn’t that crazy – at the high end, it’s about what we see in an At Large City Council race, and at the low end it’s like a district Council race. Again, my expectation is that in a partisan context, with the trends we’ve observed, the actual undervote rates we’ll see will be less than this. But we’ll see. And at least I’m willing to put up my data.