In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 25 into law, which will eliminate the straight ticket voting option beginning in 2020. In the November 2016 elections, an estimated 63% of voters cast straight ticket ballots. The biggest selling point among supporters of the law revolves around the idea that voters will work to be more informed once it is in place, as the current straight ticket system allows voters to vote blindly for one party. A proposed amendment, requiring Department of Justice confirmation of the constitutionality of the measure prior to removal of straight ticket voting, did not pass with the bill.
The removal of straight ticket voting has become popular over the last few decades, with 14 states passing measures to end straight ticket voting since 1994. Two of the more recent attempts to remove straight ticket voting come out of Michigan and West Virginia. The Michigan law went up to the Supreme Court where the lower court decision striking down the law was upheld. The order did not include an explanation of the Court’s decision. However, the District Court in Detroit cited several reasons when it struck down the law, including “a disproportionate burden on African-American’s ability to vote.” Straight ticket voting was repealed in West Virginia in 2015 with little fanfare or resistance.
Before Texas enacted this law, it was one of nine states that permitted straight ticket voting. Although few states offer this option, it is used heavily in those states that permit it. Opponents of the new law are concerned that removing straight ticket voting removes a right to vote while supporters say it removes a method, but not the right itself. More specifically, opponents of removal suggested in Michigan and suggest in Texas that this law creates is an increased voting time as voters must check each individual box. This serves as a method of voter suppression, primarily among those with inflexible work schedules as they cannot commit to standing in line for several hours.
The size of the Spanish-speaking population in Texas is likely another reason that opponents do not support this law. Straight ticket offers an easier way for those who are more comfortable with Spanish to vote without needing assistance. While a requirement for translated election materials exists, voting can still be significantly more difficult for those whose native language is not English. Removal of the straight ticket option could lead to suppression of Hispanic voters. Without that option, Spanish-speaking voters may feel they are an inconvenience by taking longer to vote than a native English speaker. Furthermore they may not feel confident in their votes without the option to select all candidates from one party. Either way the lack of straight ticket voting creates a serious issue. Legislators did not conduct a study to determine if this measure would have a disparate impact on minority voters. The choice not to create a study over something that changes the voting system so drastically seems shortsighted, and might suggest that the legislators were concerned about the results the study might garner.
Before this bill became a law, Texas Democrats said they would work to challenge the removal of straight ticket voting in court. Only time will tell if they live up to their promises and whether courts in Texas will act as they did in Michigan, or instead permit the removal of straight ticket voting to stand.