Sep. 25, 2018
AUSTIN — Texas Republicans scoff at Democratic predictions of a blue wave and brag that GOP dominance in state politics isn’t subject to anti-Trump sentiment fueling elections across the country this year.
One reason the GOP is so comfy: Texas is one of just eight states still offering “straight-ticket” voting, a shortcut that allows voters to click one box at the top of the ballot and automatically register votes for a single party’s candidates in every race — as many as 100 offices in some counties. It’s a practice that’s going out of style across the U.S., but one proven to help Texas Republicans sweep statewide elections over the past two decades.
Nearly two-thirds of the voters in the state’s most populous counties automatically voted the full Democrat or Republican ticket in the last two major elections, according to the Center for Public Political Studies at Austin Community College.
Lawmakers in 2017 voted to phase out straight-ticket voting after November elections, so it won’t be a factor in 2020. In the meantime, political analysts say the practice will likely create a safety net this year to help GOP statewide candidates weather a surge of momentum from a re-energized Democratic Party.
Percentage of Straight-ticket voting in Texas General Elections Since 1998, courtesy of Austin Community College Center for Public Political Studies
Year, Straight-ticket Voting as a Percentage of Vote Cast for Highest Office on Ballot, Republican Percentage of Straight-ticket Vote, Democratic Percentage of Straight-ticket Vote
1998, 47.60%, 52.68%, 46.61%
2000, 49.00%, 51.00%, 49.00%
2002, 49.60%, 52.00%, 48.00%
2004, 55.55%, 57.00%, 43.00%
2006, 45.04%, 51.33%, 47.44%
2008, 57.59%, 50.28%, 48.99%
2010, 59.17%, 58.12%, 41.16%
2012, 64.16%, 53.74%, 45.24%
2014, 61.05%, 58.26%, 40.69%
2016, 64.04%, 49.74%, 48.38%
On the other hand, nearly half of the straight-ticket voters in 2016 cast ballots for Democrats, an 8 percent increase over the gubernatorial race in two years before. If that growth continues into the midterm election, this could be the year straight ticket voting helps Democrats in contentious races in the House of Representatives, including three in the Houston area and two in San Antonio.
Straight-ticket voters stick to their brand much like some people are loyal to one make of a car, said Peck Young, director of Center for Public Policy and Political Studies who has studied decades of voting trends. That loyalty is one of the reasons Republicans dominate Texas politics and consistently sweep the top of the ticket, he said.
“That ain’t a rational deal, that’s an emotional vote,” said Young.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is counting on that straight-ticket vote in his red-hot race against Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate, Young said. Elections are a game of numbers, and it’s the volume of the straight-ticket vote that has Cruz focused on energizing his Republican base to vote the party line instead of reaching for swing voters.
“Cruz isn’t up there trying to persuade soft, non-straight ticket voters to vote for him. Cruz is solidifying the Republican base. Everything is said to maximize the Republican straight-ticket vote,” Young said.
A buoy for down-ballot Republicans?
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is one candidate that a straight-ticket ballot could help. Paxton was indicted in 2015 on three felony counts of securities fraud, a case that won’t be resolved before the November election. He says he is innocent.
The looming charges have fueled his Democrat opponent’s campaign. Paxton is also being blasted by Democrats up and down the ballot for leading a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act that would strike down the law’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions that can drive up premiums or result in denials of coverage.
A poll over the summer showed Paxton as the most vulnerable of the state’s top-ranking Republicans running for reelection, virtually tied with Justin Nelson, a little-known Democrat and Austin attorney who is running against him. Over a quarter of registered voters were undecided in that June poll from the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, which is the most recent public survey of the race.
Nelson, a first-time candidate, reminds voters every chance he gets that the state’s top law enforcement officer is under indictment. He said his campaign’s internal polling shows that people are less likely to vote for Paxton after they hear about his personal legal troubles.
Paxton’s campaign did not return requests for comment, although his spokesman has said the Republican’s internal polls consistently show he has a 10-point lead.
“Paxton’s entire strategy is to pretend to be the generic Republican,” said Nelson. “He wants people to forget about this race, and frankly, he wants stories that talk about him without mentioning the indictment or the corruption or the fraud.”
The charges stem from allegations Paxton convinced colleagues to buy stock in a company without disclosing he would make a profit from their investments.
Paxton says he is the victim of a political witch hunt from members of his own party.
A federal judge threw out a similar set of civil charges against Paxton, although the criminal charges loom. Procedural moves have turned into years of delays of his criminal trial.
Paxton remains popular among conservative Republicans for fighting the Obama administration and vestiges of the former president’s legacy, such as the Affordable Care Act.
“Straight-ticket this year is probably going to save most statewide Republicans who would otherwise face a more hostile electorate,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston and political analyst. The straight-ticket vote fueled by conservatives gives Republicans in top statewide positions a built-in wall of support, he said.
“This is why most Republicans are not shying away from conservative policy positions - priming Republicans to turn out and vote straight ticket cements an organic advantage in midterms,” said Rottinghaus.
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller could also benefit from the straight ticket vote. He has been criticized for taxpayer-funded trips he has taken, who he’s hired for jobs and board positions, and how he’s divvied out bonuses. He is also known for a series of social media controversies, ranging from sharing a message calling then-presidental candidate Hillary Clinton a vulgar word to posting articles that turned out to be fake.
Some fellow Republicans are unhappy with Miller, who drew two opponents in the Republican primary.