Did straight-ticket votes affect Victoria County election?

Gabe Semenza

Nov. 20, 2010 at 5:20 a.m.

More than one-third of Victoria County voters exercised a legal shortcut on Nov. 2, Election Day. They pressed the "straight-ticket" button.

The button allows voters in a single touch to cast ballots for a party's entire slate of candidates.

While Texas remains one of 16 states that offer the straight-ticket option, some legislators want to abolish it as other states have in recent time.

The debate centers on whether the method encourages less thoughtful voting. After all, both sides seem to agree: No one party has all the best candidates.


Straight-ticket voting began long ago to make voting easier for voters. The method remained common until the 1960s and 1970s, according to the book "Party Politics in America."

During the past 40 years, however, straight-ticket voting declined. During the past decade alone, three states, including New Hampshire and Missouri, did away with the voting method.

In Texas, however, straight-ticket voting numbers continue to soar. In the state's five largest counties, 62 percent of voters cast straight-party ballots in the recent election, the highest level in at least a decade, according to an analysis by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This voting trend affected many of the state's races, experts say, and most notably the race for governor and judgeships.

The voting trend was less pervasive in Victoria County, at least during the recent election. Here, elections office data show 34 percent of voters - or 6,691 of the 19,769 who voted on Nov. 2 - cast straight-ticket ballots.

"The majority of people here cast their vote by candidate rather than party affiliation," said George Matthews, the county's elections administrator.


A closer look at Victoria County's elections results shows 4,394 people, or 65 percent of straight-party voters, voted straight-party Republican; 2,297 voted straight-party Democrat.

The difference between the straight-party votes is 2,097 in favor of Republicans.

Each of the high-profile local races - for district attorney, county judge and county commissioner - were decided by fewer than 1,300 votes. Does this mean county Republicans instantly grabbed about a 2,100-vote lead, and thus won their respective races because of straight-party votes?

Not necessarily, Matthews said.

While voters in Texas can push the "straight-ticket" button and instantly select a party's slew of candidates, this method does not restrict them from voting a split ticket.

Voters, for instance, could vote straight-ticket Republican, but then manually deselect the Republican candidate in a specific race, and then select the Democratic or Libertarian opponent.

The elections office's digital system does not track how many voters did this. The system only counts the number of voters who pushed "straight ticket."

"Typically, a straight-party vote means the voter voted all one party, but it's not true all the time," Matthews said. "If it was always true, then you would have expected the Victoria County judge race to go to the Republican, but it went to the Democrat. It's the total vote that made a difference."


Straight-party voting clearly is making a difference at the state level, and it's there that a legislator wants to abolish the option.

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican, filed Senate Bill 139 in recent weeks to repeal the straight-ticket option - his third attempt at doing so.

In 2007, Wentworth's similar bill failed to get out of committee; the next time, it died in the senate.

Wentworth stands with a number of Republicans who say they oppose straight-ticket voting. One reason, although not cited, could be Democrats typically garner more straight-ticket votes in heavily populated urban areas, according to the Star-Telegram.

Michael Cloud, chairman of the Victoria County Republican Party, said he, too, opposes the voting method.

"I think it's very important that we have an educated voter," Cloud said. "I think every voter should look at every race as much as possible and vote their conscience. You don't have to think a lot to push the straight-party button."

James Gleason, a former Victoria College professor, agreed with Cloud.

"When we have these people who are so rigid in their thinking and vote only straight-ticket, they are missing out on what democracy is about," Gleason said. "I'm concerned about this trend in Texas to more straight-ticket voting."

Others, however, say the method is a time-saver. Straight-ticket voting gives voters a quick way to choose candidates that likely share their party-based philosophies.

In Harris and other large counties, where the ballots are often excruciatingly long, voters arguably can't be expected to be informed about all candidates.

In Victoria County, the Nov. 2 ballot had 36 races, including several for justices in state supreme and appellate court places. In these cases, party labels at least give voters a clue about what the candidate stands for.

"I'm in favor of straight-ticket voting in part because of that," said Kelli Gill, chairwoman of the Victoria County Democratic Party. "The federal government restricts judicial candidates on how much they campaign. The top of the ticket helps carry along some of those candidates. If you self-identify as a Republican or Democrat, odds are the candidates running will share some of those same values."

While lawmakers debate straight-ticket voting, a topic for local discussion reared its head again just weeks ago: Voter apathy. Of the 51,692 registered Victoria County voters, only 19,769 cast ballots on Nov. 2.

"That means one-third of the people made decisions for the rest of the people," Matthews, the elections administrator, said. "Everybody might complain about the election results, but they could have participated in the election if they'd so chosen."



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