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Let’s not overstate the no-straight-ticket effect

With all due respect, this is some ado about not very much.

With straight-ticket voting no longer an option in 2020, the Harris County Clerk estimates the average resident will spend a significantly longer time in the voting booth this fall, which could cause long lines at polling sites in the state’s most populous county.

In an effort to avoid voting delays, Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins has nearly tripled the number of early voting sites to 120 and increased Election Day polling places by 8 percent, to 808. The $27.2 million plan, the most expensive election in county history, also includes extended voting hours and drive-through balloting.

Gov. Greg Abbott also has added an extra week of early voting.

With a projected record turnout of as many as 1.7 million voters, the clerk’s office hopes residents vote early or by mail, if eligible, said Benjamin Chou, Hollins’ director of innovation.

“No matter how much we do, I think at the end of the day there will be lines,” Chou said. “It’s just a matter of will we avoid a nightmare scenario by doing as much as we can, by stretching the limits of what we thought was possible even just a few months ago.”

The Legislature abolished straight-ticket voting, effective in 2020, in an effort to ensure residents make informed choices about candidates.

The elimination of that method, combined with a ballot with more than 80 races and limited access to mail ballots have made this year particularly difficult for elections administrators. A stopwatch test by Hollins’ office calculated that a straight-ticket ballot takes two minutes to cast, while selecting a candidate for each individual race in November would take 15 minutes.

Using those estimates and turnout data from 2018, when 76 percent of voters selected a straight ticket, a Houston Chronicle analysis found county voters would spend a combined 187,000 more hours in the voting booth if forced to vote each race individually.

A more likely outcome is that some voters, late for work or family obligations or simply overwhelmed by the length of the ballot, make choices in only the top races, said University of Houston political science Professor Elizabeth Simas.

“The fear would be they go to vote for president, maybe vote for senator, and then they walk out,” Simas said. “And we’re not going to get a large number of votes cast for the races that are much lower down the ballot.”

I will stipulate that going from clicking one button and being done to having to click a button fifty-something times will make your stay in the booth that much longer. (I have no idea where that “ballot with more than 80 races” item comes from. I just checked my own sample ballot, and I counted 54 total races, and that includes a handful of races with just an unopposed Democrat. The non-Presidential ballot is longer, as there are more statewide contests and more local judicial races, but we’re not in 2022 just yet.) There’s no question that it will take voters longer to vote the whole ballot, and if you are the kind of voter who deliberates over every race and carefully chooses a candidate in each, then yes, you could be there for 15 minutes or so.

But here’s the thing: That kind of voter wasn’t the person who had been clicking the straight-party button before now. And I can tell you, from my own personal experience, if your intent is to mostly or entirely vote for just the candidates of your preferred party, then it doesn’t actually take all that long to complete the ballot. I feel pretty confident saying I’ve been in and out of there in five minutes or less.

I don’t want to minimize the problem. It is going to take longer for many people to vote this year. There will very likely be some lines as a result. It’s clear that part if not all of the reason for eliminating straight ticket voting was the belief by Republicans that making it take longer to vote would benefit them. There have been so many stories this cycle in which a Republican candidate or consultant refers to this, as if it’s a key part of their strategy to win in an electorate that does not favor them. Putting aside the fact that I don’t believe “ballot fatigue” is a thing that significantly favors Republicans, I just don’t think the time factor will be that big, either. We have plenty of voting locations, we have six extra days plus a whole lot of hours to vote, and we have a lot more people voting by mail this year. I appreciate that Chris Hollins is thinking about this, but it is not something that will keep me awake at night.

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7 Comments

  1. Thomas says:

    Yeah, I think you’re hitting on the real point here.

    Ballots in urban counties — i.e. where the Democrats live — are longer. Mine here in Lubbock has 26 races on it, with four of those only being on the November ballot thanks to COVID postponing the municipal/ISD elections in May, and 10 of 26 are uncontested so it’s really 16. So even without a straight-ticket option, it won’t take long to fill out the ballot.

    But if what took less than a minute now takes five minutes, that time adds up, and creates lines.

  2. Whatever you do, wait until you see a flying flag and the statement “your ballot has been cast”. Otherwise, a pollworker will be likely chasing you down to bring you back. Please cast your ballot. If left uncast, the ballot, by law, must be cancelled if the voter cannot be located.

  3. Manny says:

    Just look at the ballot for my precinct here in Harris County, there are 55 choices, that is not bad, I have voted where there are many more choices when one considers, bonds, constitutional changes, ordinances, etc.

  4. Jules says:

    Straight ticket voting is back

  5. […] long ballots; I’m guessing this opinion was written a few days ago, because that recent Harris County study was not […]

  6. Jim Riley says:

    If it really takes 15 minutes vs. 2 minutes, then the right of a secret ballot is severely compromised.

    It may cause illegal electioneering. Imagine you are an 18 YO who has studied for the coming election, even figuring out what hide inspectors and public- weighers do (or did). Imagine the disappointment when you discover that these positions no longer exist.

    You’re waiting in line eagerly waiting for chance to vote your choices, and there is a man who is berating his wife (and every one in sight) “Jeez Louise, One and Done, Two and Through, Git it done” You’re quite sure he will beat his wife – and possibly anyone nearby if they’re not going quick.

    And if there was really that difference, election officials would take that into account when allocating voting machines. Certain precincts have more straight ticket voting than others. This is not necessarily related to race or partisan difference. You can simply look at precinct voting results. Calculate demand (15 minutes for deliberate voters, and 2 minutes for in-and-out voters). If a precinct had 200 deliberate voters and 200 in-and-out voters, that is a total of 3,400 voter-machine minutes, 56.67 voter-machine-hours, or about 5 machines for a 12-hour voting day. Kick in an extra machine or two for variable time for voting.

    If the distribution is 300 deliberate and 100 in-and-out voters, that is 4700 voter-machine minutes, or about 78.33 voter-machine hours or 7 machines.

    And the 100-300 precinct only needs 2100 voter-machine minutes, 35 voter-machine hours or 3 machines.

    Walmart, USPS, and even the Tax Assessor-Collector know about this. A smart young County Clerk ought to be able to figure this out.

  7. C.L. says:

    If you’re gonna vote straight GOP or straight Dem, you don’t care if the process takes you 30 secs or is going to take you 10 mins once you get into the booth. You’re there for the long haul, whatever it takes.