Texas elects its judges, leaving the nearly anonymous people in charge of the third branch of state government in the hands of voters who have only the vaguest idea of who they are.
It’s one of the built-in problems of running a big state. Ballots are long. Attention spans are short. Judges are almost as invisible as they are important – a critical part of government located a long way from the noisy and partisan front lines of civics and politics.
The top of the ballot gets the attention. The bottom of the ballot gets leftovers.
When a party’s candidates at the top of the ticket are doing well, it bodes well for that party’s candidates at the bottom – for the time being anyway. For at least one more election, Texans will be able to cast straight-party votes – choosing everybody on their party’s ticket without going race-by-race through sometimes long ballots.
Texas lawmakers decided last year to get rid of the straight-ticket option starting in 2020. It’s a Republican Legislature and governor and straight-ticket Democrats in Dallas and Harris and other big counties have been making early retirees of Republican judges in recent elections.
It’s easy to find supporters of straight-ticket voting in any political circle in Texas. What’s tough on a party’s judges in El Paso County might be good for the same party’s judges in Collin County. It’s popular with voters, too: nearly 64 percent of the votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in 2016 were straight-party votes.
You can see why Republicans are against it now: Their straight-party votes outnumbered the Democrats in only three of those counties in 2016. And why the Democrats who now want to keep it used to hate it: Republicans dominated one-punch voting in seven of the 10 biggest counties in 2004.
And it doesn’t matter what’s happening statewide – just how the statewide candidates at the top of the ticket are doing in a particular place. When he was winning election to the governor’s office in 2014, Republican Greg Abbott was losing to Democrat Wendy Davis in Dallas County. Guess how the day went for Republicans in countywide elections there that day? With the notable exception of Republican Susan Hawk in a hotly contested race for district attorney, every Republican with a Democratic opponent lost. Those with only Libertarian and/or Green Party opponents just topped 70 percent.
Without a change in law – always possible, with the Legislature in regular session early next year – this will be the last general election with straight-ticket voting.
Which means it’s the last time judges and other down-ballot candidates will have to pin their hopes and fears on whether their party is winning.
And some of them are worried indeed. Look, for example, at that 2014 Dallas County ballot: Ken Molberg, the only Democrat running for the state’s 5th Court of Appeals, got 54.6 percent over Republican Craig Stoddart. Stoddart won in the other five counties served by the court and won the election. That’s great for candidates like him, when it holds. But Dallas County has become a fortress for Democrats – enough to rattle Republicans at the top of the ballot and to make those at the bottom quake.
The Democrats, who sat out many judicial races in previous years, have candidates this year in most races for the Fifth Court and other multi-county state appellate courts that are dominated by big population centers: First Court of Appeals in Houston (nine counties), Third in Austin (24 counties), Fourth in San Antonio (32 counties) and 14th in Houston (10 counties). The Democrats are counting on big blue counties for upsets. The Republicans are hoping for offsetting turnout in each court’s red counties.
When straight-ticket voting comes to an end in Texas, judges will have to win by figuring out how to drag their supporters to the bottom of long ballots. For now, they have to worry about how their fellow partisans are doing at the top of the ticket — and whether the big blue counties will spoil their chances.