AUSTIN, Texas — Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.
In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”
Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”
She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”
The popular practice of straight-ticket voting allowed general-election voters to vote for all of the candidates of either party in an election by simply picking a straight-ticket option at the top of the ballot. But Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot.
Most states don’t allow for one-punch voting, but its elimination in Texas met intense opposition from Democrats, who fear the change will be most felt among voters of color and lead to voter drop-off, particularly in blue urban counties that have the longest ballots in the state. In Harris County, for example, ballots can go on for pages because of the number of state district judges and other local officials up for election. Democrats worried that having to vote on each individual race would slow people down, causing longer lines at the polls.
Over the past four presidential elections, one-punch voting has generally proved more popular among Democrats in Texas’ 10 largest counties. About two-thirds of people who voted in Texas in the 2018 general election used the straight-ticket option.
Although the change was signed into law almost three years ago, a last-minute amendment to the legislation delayed its implementation until this year’s general election. The delay proved ill conceived for the majority party in 2018, when down-ballot Republicans faced a rout in urban counties where Democrats were aided by straight-ticket voting.
The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.
“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”
Despite the partisan split on the 2017 law, there was considerable uncertainty about how the elimination of straight-ticket voting would impact the 2020 elections in Texas. Some Republicans have privately expressed concern that Donald Trump supporters would vote for president and then leave the polls, hurting the GOP down the ballot. Democrats, meanwhile, worried that long lines in urban areas would deter their voters.
Multiple voting cases have ended up in court in Texas in the months since the coronavirus pandemic began. Democrats sued to expand eligibility for mail-in voting, but those attempts have failed so far. Meanwhile, in July, Gov. Greg Abbott added six days to the early voting period, moving the start date up to Oct. 13 from Oct. 19, citing the contagion. He is facing a lawsuit over the extension from members of his own party.