For this legislative session, Representative Mike Lang has filed two bills to further a couple longstanding goals that have been planks in the Texas Republican Party’s party platform; namely (1) enforcing voter registration by party (see party plank 66), and (2) drastically cutting down on the frequency with which elections take place (party plank 76).
I. CLOSING THE DOOR ON OPEN PRIMARIES – VOTER REGISTRATION BY PARTY
H.B. 1072 — Sometimes, voters who philosophically identify with one party or the other will “cross over” to vote for spoiler candidates who happen to be running for nomination in the other party’s primary election. To combat this, Representative Lang has authored legislation to enforce closed primaries by requiring voters to register by party
Voter registration by party is a common feature of registration in a number of states that have so-called “closed” primary elections, such as New Mexico, New York, and Oregon. (In this context, a primary election is “closed” if the election is administered in such a way as to exclude participation by voters who are not registered as members of the same party).
Current state law already specifies that by voting in a party primary, a person affiliates with that party for a full calendar year, and is prohibited from voting for or signing a nominating petition for any candidate not affiliated with that party.
But under current Texas law, registered voters are not compelled to self-identify as being members of one party or another, and functionally are unaffiliated with any party unless and until they decide to vote in one or another party primary election. Additionally, under current law, Texas voters aren’t permanently assigned to be members of one party or another.
H.B. 1072 proposes a change in the existing law by outlining a procedure for permanent voter registration by party affiliation in Texas.
Currently, a voter’s party affiliation (or lack of same) in Texas is determined by the individual voter’s choice in affirming support for a particular party’s slate of candidates, either because the voter has chosen to vote in that party’s primary (for political parties that conduct primary elections), has subscribed to an oath of affiliation to participate in the party convention, has signed a candidate’s nominating petition (for political parties that nominate their candidates by means of a convention process), or has signed an independent candidate’s petition for placement on the ballot (for those candidates who do not seek party affiliation at all).
So to recap, under current Texas law, our primaries are “closed” in the sense that as voters we aren’t allowed to vote in more than one party’s primary in any particular calendar year, but are “open” in the sense that we can choose which party primary we want to vote in, as long as we don’t also try to vote in the other party’s primary. We are required to affiliate with a party for one full calendar year when we support any of that party’s candidates for nomination in the general election.
H.B. 1072 would require registered voters to assert party affiliation when registering to vote; that affiliation would renew and “follow” the voter indefinitely.
H.B. 1072 would also make closed party registration a requirement for candidates running in a particular party’s primary. In other words, in order to run as, say … a Republican Party candidate for county commissioner, one would be required to have previously identified as a Republican Party member when registering to vote.
Representative Lang’s bill is likely to alarm voters who recognize that for local races, one party’s primary is often the de facto general election.
In brief, if this bill passes, the proposed law is likely to leave Republican voters in solidly Democratic urban areas like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, or Austin unhappy with their lack of primary ballot choices for local offices. At the same time, Democrats in solidly Republican rural areas, or in contemplation of statewide primaries, will similarly be frustrated with a lack of meaningful choice in their nominating elections.
Representative Lang’s other bookend election bill is designed to cut down on the number of elections that we participate in each year.
II. FEWER ELECTIONS
H.B. 1271 – A reduction in the number and frequency of local elections is (as noted above) a key legislative goal of the Republican Party.
Prior to 2005 (and the enactment that year of H.B. 57, which eliminated the winter and summer election dates, and severely curtailed the capacity of local governments to order special elections for non-uniform election dates), elections in Texas were traditionally conducted on one of four days in a year. Winter elections took place in January (later moved to February), Spring elections happened in April (later moved to May), Summer elections were held in July (later moved to August), and Fall elections were held in November.
Winter elections tended (for reasons relating to fiscal budget cycles) to be bond elections for cities and school districts. Spring elections were officer elections for local governments. Summer elections were used for run-offs, local incorporations, and some small government officer elections. And the November elections were (as they are now) the “big show” – federal and state officer elections in even-numbered years, and state constitutional amendment elections in odd-numbered years.
In a bold stroke as part of an omnibus school finance bill enacted in the third called special legislative session in 2006, local elections in odd-numbered years were largely eliminated with a change in the Texas Education Code regarding school district board election schedules.
Subsequent legislative efforts have been focused on “cleaning up” all those nooks and crannies of state law that still permit some flexibility on election scheduling, in order to further limit the number of elections taking place in any particular year.
H.B. 1271 would get rid of all elections in odd-numbered years, and all May elections.
The bill would limit all elections (including bond elections, water district elections, local government elections of all forms, etc.), by requiring that these elections either take place on the same day as the political primaries or the statewide officer elections (i.e., the first Tuesday of March or the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years).
The bill shuts down local tax-rate and bond control by limiting the number of funding elections, and limits the rate of turnover in local governments in order to preserve existing incumbencies.
But here’s the thing – while local governments do “save” money by having fewer elections, we the voters lose out.
I put the word “save” in scare quotes for a reason – the administrative expense of conducting democracy isn’t offset by what economists would refer to as the “negative externalities” resulting from a lack of civic engagement and the lost opportunities for voter participation in the decisions made by local government.
Hey, we could save even more money by not having any elections, right? In fact, that savings has been implemented by allowing for the cancellation of local elections when races are uncontested.
How far do you as voters want to push this cost savings argument? Because really, the infrastructure of democracy, and of government itself, costs money. Why even bother with elections at all?
For another take on the damage caused by the “cost saving” argument in favor of disenfranchisement of voters, see this online essay by Hal Berghel, a professor of computer science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Why am I citing a computer science prof? Because he makes an interesting argument that I have not seen elsewhere: “This postmodern Jim Crowism is all about challenging voter access, 21st-century style, but with a new twist.”