In a farewell to the ability to cast a ballot for one party with a single vote, two-thirds of Texas voters cast straight-party ballots in the 2018 midterm election, the highest percentage in at least two decades, a Texas Monthly analysis of county voting records found. Perhaps the most startling exception to that rule was the more than 400,000 split-ticket voters in the 40 most populous counties who cast a ballot for Democrat Beto O’Rourke in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate as well as incumbent Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who handily won reelection.
Overall, Democrats performed better in straight-ticket voting than at any point since Republicans seized control of state government in 1994, helping them pick up congressional and state legislative seats as well as a number of appellate court positions in Texas’s urban and suburban areas. GOP straight-ticket strength helped Republicans to maintain their stranglehold on statewide elective positions, the analysis shows.
Texas voters will no longer have the straight-party option because the Legislature passed a law last year ending the practice beginning with the 2020 election. (Ironically, the lawmaker who authored the legislation to end straight ticket balloting, Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, lost his own race for reelection, in great measure because of straight-ticket balloting.) Texas was among eight states still authorizing straight-party voting, and Texans have chosen the option with increasing frequency over the past 20 years. 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:
- Sixty-seven percent of all voters in those 40 counties cast straight-party votes, with Democrats holding a 50-49 percent advantage over Republicans. When you include the other 214 Texas counties, which voted for statewide GOP candidates by a 3-to-1 ratio, Republicans would have a lead of several points over Democrats in straight-ticket votes.
- By comparison, Haag found that 64 percent of Texas voters cast straight-party ballots in the 2016 presidential election in the counties he studied, the highest percentage since he started doing his research in 1998. This year’s straight-party voting level appears to be at least three points higher than the 2016 percentage.
- In each election Haag studied since 1988, Republicans held an edge over Democrats in straight-party voting in the counties making up 80 percent of the vote. The GOP advantage peaked at 17 and 18 points in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, respectively. But the Texas Monthly analysis of this year’s vote shows Democrats with a slight straight-party lead in the 40 counties we reviewed.
- The one-third of voters who didn’t vote straight party split their tickets at the top of the ballot, with about 58 percent favoring Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and 57 percent voting for Republican Governor Greg Abbott. At least 400,000 people voted for both O’Rourke and Abbott in the 40 most-populous counties, or about 6 percent of all voters in those counties.
- Abbott carried those 40 counties by almost 5 points, thanks to a strong performance among ticket splitters. He won statewide by 13 points against Democrat Lupe Valdez because he built up a 55-point margin in the other 214 counties, which accounted for 17 percent of the total vote.
- O’Rourke won those 40 counties by 7 points over incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz, again because of strong performance among voters who split their ballots between Democrats and Republicans. But Cruz eked out a three-point statewide win by winning the other 214 counties by 48 points.
- The huge margins built up by Abbott, Cruz and other Republicans suggest that the GOP rolled up a massive advantage in straight-ticket voting in those rural counties, helping Cruz in the hotly contested Senate race.
- The heaviest straight-party voting was in Texas’s large urban counties, where 69 percent of voters did so, with Democrats piling up a 19-point advantage.
- In suburban counties, 65 percent of voters cast straight-party ballots, giving Republicans a 19-point advantage. However, O’Rourke won 56 percent of the vote among people who didn’t cast a straight-ticket vote in these suburban counties, greatly narrowing the GOP’s traditional overall margins there.
- In the small-town and rural counties in our review, 63 percent of voters went straight-party, with the GOP building up a 34-point advantage.
- Reflecting hardening partisan divides nationwide, only six of the 40 counties in our review saw straight-ticket results in which the parties were separated by less than 10 points—Tarrant, Fort Bend, Williamson, Nueces, Jefferson and Hays. Twenty counties had spreads of at least 40 points between the two parties.
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.”
State Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said Republicans repealed straight-party voting because they feared it was increasingly advantageous to Democrats. But he said he didn’t think the party would suffer without the one-punch approach used by so many voters. “In fact, I think that it will work to our advantage because I believe that we have voters that are paying attention. It was obvious from this last election cycle,” Hinojosa said. “And these voters that are paying attention are going to look at the ballot and they’re going to go down the ballot, they’re going to want for people that are going to be representing them at the courthouse, not just at the state level and not just on the presidential election.”
Texas Republican Party Chairman James Dickey was cautious when asked which party would benefit from the end of straight-ticket voting. “The one thing that is certain is that it is near impossible to predict unintended consequences of blanket government action and that is true in this as in everything else,” Dickey said. “So I am reticent to make predictions on what the ending impact of this change will be. What I can say is that based on history at the very least I believe it will avoid the blanket wave flips like we saw on the appeals courts.”
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.
Voters skipping over races they know little about is a good thing, Dickey said. “I would argue that if a voter is not well-informed in a race, an unwise choice is worse than no choice at all,” he said.
Jones said that unless the state and counties invest a lot of money in newer voting technology and more machines, voting lines will grow much longer because people will have to spend more time with dozens of races on a ballot since they no longer have the straight-party option. That could deter many potential voters and be viewed as a sign of vote suppression, he said, adding that courts could intervene and continue straight-ticket voting for one more election.
“Knowing this conservatism of Texas, I don’t think we’re going to see a doubling or tripling of resources dedicated to elections,” Jones said. “If significant additional funds are not provided by the state during the 2019 legislative session, then we’ll see a Democratic lawsuit regarding Voting Rights Act violations, and conceivably straight-ticket voting being retained (by a court) for 2020.”