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Some Low-Profile Local Races Go Unnoticed at the Bottom of the Ballot

A voter casts a ballot in Travis County on November 2, 2010.
Photo by Marjorie Cotera for the Texas Tribune
Get comfortable at the polls, voting could take a while.

There’s been plenty of attention this election season at the top of the ballot – to the governor’s race. But some local ballots in Texas can be up to 4 pages long. And voter attention spans drop off dramatically after checking the box for governor.

In 2010, the gap between those who voted for governor and lieutenant governor statewide was more than 44,000. That's 44,000 people who walked into the voting booth, check governor, and said, "I'm done."

It's what Rice University political scientist Mark Jones calls "drop-off."

So, why's it so hard for voters to completely fill out a ballot?

Jones says there are different reasons why someone doesn't vote in every race or on every proposition on the ballot. One of the more common reasons is the length of the typical Texas ballot.

"In Texas, we elect a large number of judicial positions. You particularly find drop off as you move further and further down the ballot. In many large counties, people are often asked to vote in close to 90 to 100 races," Jones says.

Austin's ballot is a good example of that. My own ballot, which I got a preview of by going to the 'What's on the ballot' section of the Travis County Clerk's Elections webpage, has 50 items on it.

That's actually less than most of you reading this will have, because I don't live in the Austin city limits. So I miss out on the City Council races and the rail and road bond.

With all those items to vote on, it's no wonder that people get to the polls and find more than a few races where they haven't heard of any of the candidates. Robert Shapiro is a political science professor at Columbia University. He says it's up to the down ballot candidates to remind people to keep voting all the way down the ballot.

They neeed to "attempt to gain further visibility of their races, so voters will be likely to look for them. Through their campaign ads and so forth. I mean, that's where money comes in in terms of paying for campaign ads and things of that sort," Shapiro says. "And to the extent that they could do it, giving voters a sense what the ballot looks like and where to look on the ballot for the particular race."

Jones says there is one way for voters to combat ballot fatigue: straight party voting. That's when you pull up the ballot and the first thing you check is to either vote for all Republicans on the ballot or all Democrats.

"The one silver lining to straight ticket voting, if you think there's quite a bit of drop-off now, which there is a noticeable level of drop-off, if we didn't have straight ticket voting, the drop-off would be even more severe," Jones says.

Straight party, or straight ticket, voting means people are casting a ballot for one party in all federal, state and judicial races. But this shortcut doesn’t fill out the entire ballot, a problem addressed in a campaign ad released a couple of years ago featuring the cast of NBC's political drama "The West Wing."

So, going back to my ballot, if I were to straight party vote, I wouldn't have my voice heard on a state constitutional proposition, a couple of Austin Community College bond proposals, and the Austin ISD school board race -- unless I kept going to vote on those specific races.

For many more voters inside the city limits, that would include non-partisan races, including the Austin City Council races, the mayoral race and local bond elections.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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