The Senate Business & Commerce Committee heard testimony on, and ultimately approved, a bill that would end single-punch, straight-ticket voting in Texas: House Bill 25 by Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton). It passed the House last week on a near party-line vote.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Sen. Kelly

Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), the committee chair and bill sponsor, said voters typically do not research candidates beyond those running for the top offices when using the single-punch option. “Ironically, the down-ballot candidates that receive the least attention during the election are often those that affect voters most directly,” Hancock said as he presented the bill.

Representing the Texas Democratic Party, former Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin) testified against the bill. He called the bill’s referral to B&C, instead of State Affairs (where the companion legislation was referred), as “what the federal courts have noted as ‘abnormal legislative procedure’” in past litigation on Voter ID and redistricting. Maxey raised concerns that eliminating the single-punch option could “disproportionately negatively impact our minority citizens whose right to vote is protected by the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.”

Jeff Blaylock, publisher of Texas Election Source, testified in favor of the bill. He agreed with Hancock’s statement that single-punch voting has the greatest impact on down-ballot races. Increasing rates of single-punch, straight-party fuel a “self-reinforcing cycle that drives down the number of choices that voters ultimately have in general elections,” Blaylock said. “In this past election cycle, nearly 90 percent of county offices were uncontested on the November ballot.”

Straight-ticket voting leads to self-reinforcing cycle

House Bill 25 would be an “important step toward breaking this cycle and hopefully restoring to Texas voters a willingness to go through a ballot and evaluate candidates on a race-by-race basis.” Texas is one of 10 states that use a single-punch option, and Texans use that option more than voters in the other nine states, Blaylock said.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said he was “trying to understand the harm” the bill seeks to remedy. “People use party affiliation very effectively” when they do not know the down-ballot candidates. “The party identification will give you some insight.” Whitmire said he was “shocked” that Republicans would want to eliminate single-punch voting “because they’re doing pretty damn good under the current system.”

Blaylock replied that voters could still use party identification to make their selections down the ballot, but the “harm in doing nothing is … voters who are very thoughtful about picking who they believe are the best candidates regardless of party are being drowned out by people who are making a single mark” at the top of the ballot.

Michael Openshaw, a Collin Co. political activist, said the bill would make Republican candidates better because it might encourage real partisan competition there. “We need to be voting for individuals, not for parties,” he said.

Yannis Banks, representing the Texas NAACP, opposed the bill, expressing concerns that it would have discriminatory impacts on minority communities. “People are short on time and know how they want to go,” so the single-punch option enables them to cast their votes conveniently. “They like having that option,” he said. “Why are we taking this from them when we use it more than anyone else?”

The bill was initially left pending while the committee continued through its agenda. The committee reconvened later in the morning to vote out pending business, including House Bill 25. The panel’s two Democrats, Whitmire and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), were absent.

Note: Jeff Blaylock, publisher of Texas Election Source, is on record as being in favor of House Bill 25.