Hays County seats go from Red to Blue

An influx of straight-ticket Democratic voters at Texas State University is one primary factor that led to a handful of key Hays County seats to turn blue Nov. 6.

That wave was part of a larger national movement that flipped a handful of state and national seats during the 2018 Midterm elections, sending shockwaves across the state.

In the 2018, 21,870 Democratic voters in Hays County voted straight-ticket, a 66 percent increase from 2014. The increase in turnout and straight ticket voting drastically affected congressional, county judge and local house races.

“In a perfect world, you vote candidate by candidate, but for students, and particularly mine, it is difficult to stay informed with all of the local races, while balancing work and school,” said Dr. Susan Kirby, a business government and society professor at Texas State University. “Some students tell me that they are overwhelmed with the voting and ballot process. It’s not ideal to vote straight-ticket, but it’s certainly easier.”

It is difficult to describe why voter turnout was historically high at the university. Elected representatives and university professors alike are pointing to Democratic Congressmen Beto O’Rourke, who fell only 200,000 votes short of Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate race.

Locally, the County Judge and Texas House District 45 races flipped blue for the first time in more than a decade. Additionally, historically Republican congressional races went blue in Hays County, even if those particular candidates didn’t win their respected race.

“Historically, we have seen high straight-ticket vote cycles in the county,” said Jennifer Anderson, the elections administrator for Hays County. “However, it’s usually on Presidential elections. This isn’t typical for a midterm.”

According to the county’s cumulative report, voter turnout in Hays County nearly doubled since the 2014 midterm election. One area of exponential growth was in Precinct 334, which includes Texas State University and the surrounding area.

Just over 1,900 out of 4,100-plus registered voters in Precinct 334 participated in the election, according to county data. Of those 1,900-plus voters, 968 cast a Democratic straight-ticket ballot, or 49.5 percent of the entire university voting population.

“A lot of my students were excited about Beto’s message but weren’t really concerned with local politics as much,” Kirby said. “Did they vote a straight-ticket at the polls? We’ll never know, but, they are certainly more likely to do so.”

Predicting university turnout to be at an all-time high was on the radar of top Democratic officials leading up to the Nov. 6 election. During an emergency Hays County Commissioners meeting on Oct. 26, the commissioners unanimously voted to extend early voting days across the county, including the polling location at the university.

The Hays Free Press reported that this meeting was prompted by allegations of voter suppression after reports of two hour wait times at Texas State University.

At the forefront of this call for extended hours were Democratic leaders across the county and Central Texas.

The effort paid dividends for Democrats. Ruben Becerra, the underdog Democratic candidate who ran against a seasoned 14-year Republican Commissioner Will Conley, won precinct 334 by a landslide. Becerra received 1504 votes in Precinct 334 compared to Conley’s 355.

Erin Zwiener, representative-elect for the Texas House of Representatives for District 45, flipped a Republican seat that has been red for a decade.

Zwiener won by seven percent more than Republican Ken Strange. According to the Hays County canvas report, Zwiener received 1,496 votes at the university, compared to Strange’s 365.

However, Kirby said the numbers from Hays County do indicate that there was a handful of voters who only voted for O’Rourke, as there were more votes in the Senate race than in other statewide elections.

Straight-ticket voting eliminated by Governor Abbott

But in 2017, Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 25, eliminating the straight-ticket voting option starting in 2020. 

The Texas Tribune reported straight-ticket voting accounted for nearly 64 percent of the total votes cast in the state’s 10 largest counties in the 2016 general election.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six states still have straight party voting after 2020.

Critics of the change state that eliminating straight-party voting can create voter fatigue, with some reports that eliminating the option can suppress minority votes.

However, proponents of the change said elimination of straight-ticket voting forces voters to become more informed at the polls.

“It doesn’t change anything from an elected official standpoint,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a good change for local non-partisan jurisdictions, as I think it will clear any confusion about what happens down ballot when you select ‘straight party’ as an option.”

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