The House Elections Committee approved a bill to end the “single-punch” option for straight-party voting by a 5-2 party line vote following more than an hour of public testimony.
Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) explained that House Bill 25 was about getting voters to think about the candidates on the ballot and not just vote blindly for candidates of one party. Limited knowledge about the candidates leads to bad candidates getting elected, Simmons told the House Elections Committee, and “that yields bad government.” Simmons said that candidates running for levels of government closest to the people are typically the least scrutinized. Simmons cited examples from several states where eliminating the single-punch option resulted in increased participation down the ballot, particularly for races and propositions that were nonpartisan.
Voters would still have the option of voting for all candidates from the same party if they chose, Simmons said.
More than a dozen witnesses provided testimony, including Texas Election Source’s Jeff Blaylock, who described how increasing levels of straight-party voting have fueled a self-reinforcing cycle leading to fewer candidates running, fewer people being interested in going through the ballot and more people using the “single-punch” option. Blaylock said the impact was particularly striking at the county level, where nearly 90% of county offices went uncontested on the general election ballot in 2016.
Local election officials, including Bexar Co.’s Jacque Callanen and Harris Co.’s Ed Johnson, described several impacts on election administration, including an inability to program any race above the straight-party line, confusion about emphasis votes (casting a vote for a candidate for which a straight-party vote was already recorded) and voters forgetting to cast votes for nonpartisan races at the bottom of the ballot. Johnson said concerns about long lines at the polls could be addressed by county election officials, and he added that the gubernatorial election would be a good opportunity to learn about the bill’s impacts and make adjustments before the next presidential election, when turnout is traditionally higher.
Former District Judge Erin Lunceford told the committee about how she was defeated by a less experienced (“She never tried a jury trial before.”) opponent because of straight-party voting. Lunceford, along with all other Republican incumbent judges on the ballot in Harris Co., were swept out of office in November 2016 when Harris Co. saw a record straight-party voting advantage for Democratic candidates.
Manny Garcia of the Texas Democratic Party opposed the bill, arguing that it would make it harder for people to vote and raising the issue of Michigan’s repeal being tossed by a federal court because of the Voting Rights Act. A representative from the Texas NAACP was also opposed to the bill, suggesting that its impact on minority communities could prompt a similar lawsuit here.
Representatives of the Green and Libertarian Parties supported the bill. Bexar Co. Republican Party Chair Robert Stovall said the bill was not a party issue. “This has become an issue of the uninformed voter,” he said. A Harris Co. Republican Party representative cautioned against the committee creating an unfunded mandate if the bill requires counties to increase staff for election administration.
Simmons filed a similar bill last session, but it did not receive a vote in the Elections Committee.
Note: Jeff Blaylock, publisher of Texas Election Source, is on record as being in favor of House Bill 25.
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