The Rio Grande Valley might be the largest region in Texas that is a true bastion for the Democratic Party. Longtime residents might remember billboards along Valley highways asking voters to “ pull the palanca,” the straight-party lever on old mechanical voting machines.
A Republican Party presence is growing here, however, and some individual GOP candidates have had some success in recent years, but Democratic dominance continues, as evidenced by the results of Tuesday’s general election. Of the 152,960 people who cast ballots in Hidalgo County, 118,907 of them — about 78 percent — voted straight-ticket, rather than for individual candidates. In Cameron County 32,174 of the 146,121 ballots were for the party rather than for specific candidates. Of the straight-party ballots, 64 percent of those cast in Cameron County and 71 percent of those cast in Hidalgo County were for the Democratic Party.
This election was seen as a referendum on the controversial policies of Republican President Trump and the sometimes brusque support or defense he receives from other members of his party, and that might have lead more people to vote with or against the party as a whole.
Obviously, such high numbers of straight-ticket votes influence individual races. We’ll never know for sure, but a popular candidate’s chances for success might have been wiped out by high straight-ticket numbers. Similarly, those numbers might have brought success to someone who was not supported by those who voted for specific candidates — say, someone who is under indictment.
Moreover, party affiliation can be less of a factor in local races, where candidates’ party membership can be driven by unique local factors rather than the party’s national platform.
Those facts fuel arguments against straight-ticket voting. Texas is one of only eight states that even allow it, and that will change in 2020; the state legislature last year passed a law that removes the option from future ballots.
Opponents of the removal say people have a right to support a party’s overall platform rather than individual candidates, and the straight-ticket option is merely a convenience; those who wish to support specific candidates still are free to do so. People who oppose the straight-ticket option assert that it can discourage people from learning about the candidates so they can cast informed votes, and people can still choose one party’s candidates down the line.
It’s worth noting that most allegations of ballot problems, such as vote switching, seem to involve straight-ticket picks, and often are attributed to voter error, such as choosing the party option and then selecting an individual candidate further down the ballot.
Many straight-ticket voters are minorities or older voters with a lifetime of devotion to their party. Might the loss of the option discourage people with limited English skills or physical limitations that make it hard to work with a long ballot, or to properly penciling in little bubbles on ballots that have them? Such sheets can require a keen eye and steady hand.
Voters are allowed to bring someone along to help them, and elections staff can offer some assistance. Officials in most states already have determined that voting for individuals should be encouraged, and eliminated the straight-ticket option. Texas is one of the last to join them, and the change probably is for the best.