TribTalk Q&A: Rep. Ron Simmons on ending straight-ticket voting

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for the Texas Tribune

State Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, has long advocated for an end to straight-ticket voting. Ahead of the 85th Legislative Session, he's filed House Bill 433 in another effort to curb the practice. Simmons recently sat down with TribTalk for a Q&A about his bill.

TribTalk: What's wrong with straight-ticket voting?

Ron Simmons: Well, there's nothing wrong with it, per se. In fact, even under my bill, people can continue to vote straight ticket. They just can't one-punch vote. One-punch vote encourages people to not even think about all of the candidates on the ballot, just think about, maybe, the top of the ticket. However, there might be some local, some major differences between candidates that are important that are not party related.

As an example, my recent opponent has run against me three times: as a Socialist, a Green Party member and as a Democrat. I don't think that the Democrats in House District 65 are Socialists, but yet he got 44 percent of the vote with no effort whatsoever. It could be on the other side of the equation, too. It doesn't have to be R versus D — it could be D versus R.

TT: Does this have to be statewide? Could you allow it on a local option basis?

RS: I do not know the answer to that. All the studies that I've seen of other states, it's been statewide. We're one of only eight or nine states doing this. So it's a very small percentage of the states, and I just give voters more credit to be able to study up on the candidates and vote down the ballot. If they don't want to vote for somebody, then don't vote for them, or in that particular race.

TT: Do voters, given the chance to study issues, really study the issues?

RS: Well, they don't have to now, with one-punch voting, but I'm hoping that they will. I'm hoping that they will pay attention. The minimum is that it will force a candidate that has just been riding the coattails of a party to have to go make his or her case to the voters. So it will make the voters get more information about every race, and then it will be their choice as to whether or not they want to educate themselves.

TT: Do you vote only for Republicans?

RS: For me? Yes. Now, I did grow up in Arkansas, where sometimes you didn't have any Republicans to vote for. Back then, it was Southern conservative Democrats. But since I've been in Texas, I don't think I've ever voted for anyone but a Republican. But I never one-punch vote, either. I always go down. I always have done this — I always go down and mark every ballot and if there happened to be a case where I didn't know anything about that, I would defer to the party values.

Now of course in municipal elections, we don't know whether they are Republicans or Democrats.

TT: Do you skip races?

RS: I have not skipped races, no.

TT: Some proposals have suggested getting rid of straight-ticket voting only in judicial races. What do you think about that?

RS: I've heard that, but I'm going for the whole thing. I think it ought to be the whole thing.

I went back and did some studies, and even where you had contested primaries, there's not that much of a drop-off of people going down the ballot, percentage-wise. There's a reasonable drop-off, like in this last year when you had all the 17 different presidential candidates on the Republican side. There was some drop-off from the presidential race to the next one. But from the next one on down to the bottom, there's just not much drop-off. People in primaries vote down the ballot all the time.

TT: Sometimes straight tickets wipe out all of the judges from one party or the other out of a local courthouse, as has happened in Dallas and Harris and other counties.

RS: Right. And you cannot tell me that, in a county like Dallas, that every incumbent that lost in 2008 or back [in 1984] was the worst candidate.

TT: In low-information races, the argument for straight-ticket voting is that party affiliation might be the best and most useful information voters can have.

RS: And they can choose to do that, but they would have to punch the name in every race, that's all. It's not like we're keeping them from voting for John Smith, Republican, or John Smith, Democrat. It's just that you have to make that selection, that's all.

TT: Would you be sensitive to this if your district wasn't a place where this can matter?

RS: My own situation is what made me aware of this, the first time I ran. I began doing research then. But I wouldn't have taken it further if I didn't think that it was a good answer statewide. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was at an event recently where he was asked, and he's supporting it. I know House Speaker Joe Straus is supportive of it. I'm not sure what Gov. Greg Abbott believes about it. I think there's an opportunity here to get it done. We'll see. You never know. Crazy things happen in the Texas House.

TT: How will you get other Republicans to go along in a state where — in most counties — they win so easily?

RS: Because, for Republicans, what happened in Harris County this time, what's happened in Dallas County in the past — we probably lost Kenneth Sheets because of this, not that the [Democrat] wasn't a good candidate; we almost lost Rodney Anderson because of this; and in Bexar County as well. Those represent a lot of districts. Those will probably influence other members. It doesn't matter in Amarillo one way or the other. Those guys are going to win no matter what.

But there will definitely be some pushback. The Republican Party is not yet united on this — there's no question about it. I'm not sure about the Democrats. We'll have some lifting to do.

TT: Are Republicans in counties like Denton, Collin and Tarrant and other places like that protected, to some extent, by straight-ticket voting?

RS: Maybe in the past. But as urban sprawl increases, the redness of all these counties has changed. The reason my district is 59-41 [Republican to Democrat] as opposed to Pat Fallon's district, which is probably 70-30, is because I touch Dallas County. It's just growing that way. My district is more diverse and all those types of things, and that's fine, that's just what happens. I believe they'll be fine with it by the end of the day. I believe that I'll have to make the case, but I'll go around and explain it to people and try to make the best argument.

All of us benefit from a more educated voter. That's the bottom line. I think if you read the Federalist Papers, if you go back and read the writings of some of our founding fathers, they expected people to be actively engaged in their governing process. Part of that is in selecting the candidates. Will some people vote just because they like a name? Sure, I can't control that. I do the best I can on what I think is the right thing to do.

Ron Simmons

State representative, R-Carrollton