Texas: latest in two decades of efforts to end straight ticket voting for judicial races

Straight ticket voting is not unique to Texas, but it has manifested perhaps uniquely in Texas judicial elections where entire or near-entire turnovers of local benches have occurred in recent years. This was cited by the state’s former chief justice as a key concern he had over elections in the state. Now in the 2015 session (the Texas legislature meets every other year) there are several proposals to address the issue.

The law in question is Section 52.071(b) of the state’s Election Code

The following instruction shall be added to the instruction required by Section 52.070(b): “You may cast a straight-party vote (that is, cast a vote for all the nominees of one party) by placing an ‘X’ in the square beside the name of the party of your choice. If you cast a straight-party vote for all the nominees of one party and also cast a vote for an opponent of one of that party’s nominees, your vote for the opponent will be counted as well as your vote for all the other nominees of the party for which the straight-party vote was cast.”

HB 25 would end straight-ticket voting for all judicial races. Instead, any straight ticket votes would not be counted for judicial office. Individuals would be directed (using language developed by the Secretary of State) on the ballot such straight-ticket votes would not count and they would have to individually vote on all judicial offices.

HB 1444 is limited to counties with a population of over 1,000,000 and covers both judicial races and local executive races as well, including district attorneys, clerks, sheriffs, tax assessors, etc. The 1,000,000 population threshold would effectively limit the impact of the bill to five counties: Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis.

This isn’t the first time an effort has been made to end or limit straight ticket voting for judges in the state, however none of have been enacted. Details below the fold.

HB 498 of 1993 End straight ticket voting for lower level courts (Courts of Appeals, District Courts, County Courts, Justices of the Peace). Hearing held 4/21/93 but no vote.

SB 200 of 1993 End straight ticket voting for all judges, sheriffs, and constables. Approved by subcommittee of Committee on Elections & Ethics 5/11/94. Died in full committee.

HB 729 of 1995 End straight ticket voting for lower level courts (Courts of Appeals, District Courts, County Courts, Justices of the Peace). Hearing held 3/28/95 but no vote.

SB 232 of 1995 End straight ticket voting for all judges, sheriffs, and constables. No hearings. Died in committee.

HB 1175 of 1997 Ends partisan elections for judges and replaces with nonpartisan, subject to constitutional amendment HJR 69 being adopted. Approved by full House. Approved by Senate Judicial Affairs Committee 5/19/97. Died on Senate floor when HJR 69 was killed by House.

HB 391 of 1997 End straight ticket voting for all judges. Hearing held 4/30/97 but no vote.

SB 621 of 1997 Provides for gubernatorial appointments subject to Senate confirmation to fill vacancies in the offices of appellate justices and judges, for a partisan election followed by retention elections on a nonpartisan ballot for those justices and judges subject to SJR 25 being adopted. Provides District Court judges to be removed from straight-ticket voting. Approved by Senate Judicial Affairs Committee 4/10/97. Died on Senate floor when SJR 25 was killed by Senate.

HB 3837 of 1999 Provides for yes/no retention elections for appellate courts and end straight ticket voting for Courts of Appeals and District Courts. Hearing held 4/26/99 but no vote.

HB 666 of 1999 End straight ticket voting for all courts except Justices of the Peace. Hearing held 4/26/99 but no vote.

SB 59 of 1999 Provides for gubernatorial appointments subject to Senate confirmation to fill vacancies in the offices of appellate justices and judges, for a partisan election followed by retention elections on a nonpartisan ballot for those justices and judges subject to SJR 9 being adopted. Provides District Court judges to be removed from straight-ticket voting. Died on Senate floor when SJR 9 was killed by House.

HB 555 of 2001 End straight ticket voting for all courts except Justices of the Peace. Hearing held 2/26/01 but no vote.

HB 1518 of 2001 Provides for gubernatorial appointments subject to Senate confirmation to fill vacancies in the offices of appellate justices and judges, for a partisan election followed by retention elections on a nonpartisan ballot for those justices and judges subject to HJR 6 being adopted. Provides District Court judges to be removed from straight-ticket voting. Hearing held 2/26/01 but no vote.

SB 129 of 2001 Provides for gubernatorial appointments subject to Senate confirmation to fill vacancies for state’s courts of last resort (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals) subject to reconfirmation contingent on SJR 3 being adopted. Provides District Court judges to be removed from straight-ticket voting. Died on House floor when SJR 3 was killed by House.

SB 392 of 2009 End straight ticket voting for all judges. Approved by Senate State Affairs Committee 4/28/09. Died on Senate floor.

HB 1857 of 2013 End straight ticket voting for all “county or precinct offices”, including County Court Judges and Justices of the Peace. Hearing held 4/1/13 but no vote.

SB 103 of 2013 End straight ticket voting for all judges. Approved by Senate State Affairs Committee 5/3/13. Died on Senate floor.