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How many undervotes would it take?

This story about the race for County Clerk has broken me.

Teneshia Hudspeth

[Stan] Stanart has finished in line with the Republican straight-ticket vote in each of his three elections, winning the clerk seat in 2010 with 53 percent of the vote when Republicans won 54 percent of the countywide straight-ticket vote. In 2014, Stanart won with 54 percent, matching the Republican straight ticket. When Stanart lost his seat in 2018, he received 43 percent, running about a point below the Republican straight ticket.

This year, straight ticket voting has been eliminated statewide, adding a layer of uncertainty to what otherwise would be an all-but-impossible uphill climb for Stanart, Houston political analyst Nancy Sims said.

“We don’t really have any ability to predict voting behavior without straight-ticket voting,” Sims said. “I do think both candidates who are deeper in the ballot are going to face more challenges because people are less likely to know them. And I think none of the county races are a shoo-in with the lack of straight-ticket voting.”

Maybe I’ve obsessed too much over the straight ticket voting effect and what not having it may mean this year, but can we please at least try to think about this in terms of the actual numbers? I will once again use the judicial races as my proxy for partisan preferences. In 2016, the typical judicial race was roughly a 52-48 win for the Democratic candidate; there was some variation in there, from about 51-49 to 53.5-46.5, but 52-48 was close to the mark for the average. If we assume that the Clerk candidates would perform at basically the average partisan level of the county, then if every Republican voter goes all the way down the ballot, you will need more than seven percent of Democratic voters to stop voting before they got to this race for it to tip from Teneshia Hudspeth to Stan Stanart. If five percent of Republicans failed to vote in this race, you would need over twelve percent of Democrats to do likewise. If ten percent of Republicans undervoted for Clerk, seventeen percent of Democrats would have to do the same.

It’s even starker if we’re talking about a 2018 partisan context. In 2018, the average judicial race was 55-45 for the Democrat. Under those conditions, if every Republican votes in every race, more than eighteen percent of Democrats would have to miss this one to affect the outcome. If five percent of Republicans skip this race, 23% of Dems would have to do likewise. If it’s ten percent of Republicans undervoting, you’d need more than 26% of Dems to do the same. That’s the level of undervoting you get in Houston City Council At Large races, where nobody knows who most of the candidates are.

Is this plausible, or even possible? I don’t know. We’ve never had an election with no straight ticket voting before, so nobody knows what is possible or plausible or likely. I spilled many electrons following the 2018 campaign shooting down bad arguments about straight ticket voting, all of which are underpinned by the assumption that if Democrats couldn’t vote that way they would be at a big disadvantage because they’re so much more likely to not vote the full ballot. If you want to make that argument, then by all means, go ahead and make it. You may be right! I have no idea. But let’s be clear about what you are arguing, rather than vaguely waving in the direction of “well, not having straight ticket voting could be bad for Dems”.

One more thing: What is clear is that not having straight ticket voting will make it take longer to vote (even if those effects may be overstated), and that in turn may cause longer lines at polling places, which as we all know is a thing that disproportionately affects voters of color, who are the Democratic base. This effect is most closely felt in Harris County, which has so damn many judicial candidates on the ballot. Harris County, and County Clerk Chris Hollins, have taken a lot of steps to minimize this effect, with more mail voting, more voting locations, longer early voting hours, and so forth. (We have also seen how resilient Harris County voters have been, though they should never be put in that position.) We have no way of knowing what the longer-time-to-vote effect of not having the straight ticket option will be, but we do know that Chris Hollins and the Democrats on Commissioners Court have done their best to minimize it. To tie this back to the Clerk’s race, which is where this post started, it’s impossible to imagine Stan Stanart doing all this work to make it easier to vote in Harris County. Even with the move to an appointed elections administrator, that in itself would be enough to not vote for Stan Stanart.

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5 Comments

  1. Manny says:

    If people of color are not willing to stand in a long line, and people without color will, then shame on the people of color. If the elections makes life harder for them then it is on them.

    But I do wonder why it always that people of color are the ones to be presumed that they will not wait.

    Level the playing field and one would find that people of color are more than willing to wait as those without color.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/09/black-americans-have-wait-longer-vote-heres-how-fix-it/

  2. blank says:

    What is clear is that not having straight ticket voting will make it take longer to vote (even if those effects may be overstated), and that in turn may cause longer lines at polling places, which as we all know is a thing that disproportionately affects voters of color, who are the Democratic base.

    This is generally true, but if I recall correctly, the bottleneck in the process in getting the ballot, not filling it out. Specifically, at my polling place, there is a line to get a ballot, which is usually long and has 1-2 servers. However, by contrast, after getting a ballot, the voter then goes to a voting booth of which there are many, so the voter rarely waits in this second line. The lack of straight-ticket voting could hypothetically affect this second line. But, as long as there are a relatively large number of polling booths, then the effect on lines should be minimal. Of course, I am making these statements based upon my polling location, so it may be different elsewhere.

  3. C.L. says:

    I don’t think long lines or delays in getting a ballot or…anything else…is going to dissuade folks from voting in this election.

  4. brad says:

    It will be interesting to see how people attempt to gauge the impact of no straight party voting on the election results.

    We could just ask the anti-democratic Republicans if their ploy worked to suppress their opponent’s voters. I am sure they researched this anti-straight party ploy to the Nth degree before going forward.

  5. Souperman says:

    I realize I’m weird, but ever since I started voting, I’ve never chosen a straight ticket option. Maybe the whole idea of being responsible for each line item on the ballot, I don’t know. Maybe it was back when we didn’t contest nearly enough offices and I had to occasionally throw a protest vote to the Libertarians. I just decided 20 years ago and stuck with it.
    I am, however, a Democratic voter all the way through the ballot and haven’t seen a Repub worth voting for in a very long time, so it’s the same effect. So this changes nothing for me personally.