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Don’t expect any surprises in the judicial races

There’s a simple reason why the Democratic candidates and incumbents are expected to win all the judicial races in Harris County, as they did in 2016 and 2018. I’ll tell you why in a minute, but see if you can guess the reason for yourself.

Harris County judicial candidates from both parties traditionally have had little control over their electoral fates, with outcomes at the top of the ballot largely dictating results at the bottom in recent years. A single party has won every county-level judicial race in four of the last six election cycles, and from 2008 to 2016, more than half the judges from the party that carried Harris County finished within one percentage point of their fellow candidates that year, according to analysis from Rice University political science Professor Mark Jones.

After Democrats Hillary Clinton and Beto O’Rourke won Harris County by 12 and 17 percentage points in 2016 and 2018, respectively, Republicans acknowledge they face long odds of winning the countywide vote this year. Party officials and judicial candidates are encouraged, though, that Texas no longer allows voters to cast their ballots for every candidate from one party by pressing a single button, a process called straight-ticket voting the Texas Legislature eliminated.

“A lot of people do not know the judicial races,” said Kevin Fulton, vice chair of the Harris County Republican Party and the head of the party’s coordinated campaign for its judicial candidates. “Harris County has one of the longest ballots in the country. Most people do not know the difference between their county court and district court judges, and so they were just going in and checking the top of the ballot for ‘straight Democrat’ and not knowing the impact they were having on the bottom of the ballot.”

The absence of straight-ticket voting, Fulton said, gives Republican judicial candidates more influence over the outcome and leads to more people voting for “a judge that they actually know or a philosophy they actually believe in.”

Jones offered a different outlook.

“Barring one of the two dozen Democratic candidates committing a felony between now and Nov. 3, no Republican has any hope whatsoever of winning one of those races,” he said. “Even if they committed a felony, I’d be skeptical that they would lose.”

I’ve had plenty to say about straight-ticket voting, and I’m not going to repeat myself again. The willingness to believe that Democrats will somehow forget to vote in many, many more races than Republicans is adorable, not backed up by any evidence that I have been able to find, and will hopefully die a deserved death after this election.

As for the reason why Professor Jones is right about the judicial elections in Harris County? You may want to sit down for this, but the answer is because there are more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. Shocking, I know. But how do I know? Let’s use my favorite metric, which happens to be judicial races themselves, to demonstrate. Here are the high and low vote totals for each party’s candidates in a District Court, County Court, or Court of Appeals (i.e., First or 14th) race over the past four Presidential years:


2004 
Rep 524K to 545K
Dem 460K to 482K

2008
Rep 526K to 564K
Dem 533K to 585K

2012
Rep 550K to 580K
Dem 555K to 581K

2016
Rep 580K to 621K
Dem 643K to 684K

However you want to look at this, the size of the Republican electorate didn’t budge much from 2004 to 2012, and grew by less than 100K voters total over that 12-year span. For Democrats, the growth was over 200K voters. Pretty simple, no? Part of the problem for the Republicans is that Harris County’s voter rolls really started to grow after 2012, and that increase in the voter population was fueled by people who mostly vote Democratic. That trend isn’t reversing, it’s not even slowing down just yet. We’re probably going to get well over 1.4 million votes cast in Harris County this year – remember, County Clerk Chris Hollins thinks we can hit 1.7 million – which means it’s going to take over 700K votes to win a countywide race. Which party’s candidates do you think is better positioned to do that? That’s pretty much all you need to know.

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