Rice University’s Baker Institute released a research report examining the impact of straight-party voting on judicial elections in Texas, one of only two states that initially elects, and re-elects, its judiciary in partisan elections where voters have the option of making a single mark/action to vote for all candidates of a party (The other is Alabama.).
The consequence of this combination is “extremely limited variation in the share of the vote received by judicial candidates and a concomitant tendency for judicial sweeps whereby one party wins all of the judicial races within a jurisdiction,” said Mark Jones, the study’s author. From 2008 to 2016, more than 90% of all judges elected were part of a partisan sweep of judicial offices at the state, appellate district and county level, and the trend is toward a greater percentage of partisan sweeps. In 2016, partisan sweeps accounted for more than 95% of all judicial elections.
For example, all one party’s judicial candidates won their elections in three of the last five election cycles in Harris Co. In 2016, Democrats had the largest straight-party vote advantage in county history, and the party swept all 34 countywide offices, including all judicial races.
In many of these sweeps, the worst performing candidate is within a percentage point or two of the best performing candidate. In Harris Co., Democratic appellate court candidates ranged from 51.12% to 52.76%. Democratic district judge candidates ranged from 50.93% to 54.11%, and 15 of the 24 candidates were within 1% of the average of 52.29%. That lack of variation is indicative of high levels of straight-party voting, coupled with a slight but noticeable drop-off in voter participation down ballot. In the 177th Judicial District, about one out of every seven voters who did not vote straight-party also did not vote in this judicial race. Incumbent Judge Ryan Patrick lost, 51.4%-48.6%, to his Democratic challenger.
In addition to partisan sweeps in the state’s larger counties, the often lopsided share of straight-party vote across the state leads to many judicial races having a candidate from a single party in November.
The report examines four options for reforming judicial selection in the state: nominating commission, retention elections, nonpartisan elections and simply removing the straight-party option for judicial elections.