Election 2016

Harris County Courts Brace For Potential Democratic Wave

In 2008, a strong turnout for Barack Obama swept Republican incumbents off the district court benches. A backlash against Donald Trump may bring a similar result in 2016.

Early voting kicks off on October 24. In addition to the presidential contest, Harris County voters will have the chance to weigh in on more than 30 county-wide races. Most of these are for judgeships.

Harris County’s elected judgeships split evenly between the two major parties. Republican incumbents hold 11 district judgeships, as well as one county criminal court seat and one at the county civil court. Democrats are defending 12 district judgeships, including three open seats.

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

Houston Public Media's Coverage of Election 2016

But it wasn’t always this way.

“In 2016, we’re dealing with a lot of Democrat incumbents who were originally swept in in the Obama wave in 2008, and we think their time has come,” says Paul Simpson, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party.

The county went heavily for Barack Obama in his first election. Straight-ticket voting cleared the bench of GOP judges who had dominated it for years. Republicans have made steady gains in off-year elections since. Simpson is convinced the voters who turned out to support Obama, and elected more-liberal judges, won’t come out in the same numbers for Hillary Clinton.

But Brandon Rottinghaus, who teaches political science at the University of Houston, says there’s a still a strong chance 2016 could bring another Democratic wave. Many Republicans are expected to stay home rather than vote for Donald Trump.

Harris County Civil Courthouse
Harris County Civil Courthouse

“These races are going to swim or sink with the tides at the top of the ticket,” Rottinghaus says. “This is always the issue in electing judges, where most people simply don’t know enough about these judges to make a good decision about whether or not they should be reelected or elected.”

If straight-ticket voting is simpler, it also has its costs. New judges lack the experience of the judges they replace. That can create problems for anyone who has to appear in their courtrooms.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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