As the schoolyard legend goes, a student once passed a multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble exam by drawing a Christmas tree on the answer sheet. The thought goes that if you fill enough of the bubbles in, you'll eventually pass by sheer luck and no forethought, assuming blank lines and multiple answers do not throw out your entire answer sheet from the scanning machine. Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.
Even though there were only two bubbles to choose from, this is more or less what happened on election night in the Travis County Republican Party Chairman's race, when Robert Morrow beat popular incumbent James Dickey by about 6,000 votes.
This article isn't intended to call into question Mr. Morrow's credentials: we'll let his reputation speak for itself. And he will gladly tell you what he thinks if you ask. The press has done an ample job explaining who he is and what he believes, as well as placing the onus on the local Republican party for choosing him (except that it may not have been a conscious choice, as we'll explain below).
As previously reported, 32.1 percent of this year's Republican voters in Texas (as of week 1 in early voting) had no known Republican primary voting history; 7.3 percent were voters with only previous Democrat primary history; and 18.6 percent were voters with only general election history (no primary history whatsoever). Fully 6.2 percent had no previous general or primary history. Let that sink in.
That means an abnormally high number of voters who:
1) could not be easily identified by incumbent Dickey's shoestring-budget of a campaign (remember, Morrow did not campaign), and
2) were likely to be completely in the dark as to Dickey's or Morrow's qualifications (or lack thereof).
In other words, for those newcomers, their selection for Travis GOP Chairman was little more than a straw to show the wind. Morrow and Dickey could have just as easily been Candidate A and Candidate B.
Did the lion's share of these 57 percent of voters simply pick the name on top of the ballot? Did they choose the more familiar-sounding last name (we'll presume Morrow is more familiar-sounding than Dickey, despite the famous barbecue franchise and work clothing line. And didn't a Rob Morrow star on "Northern Exposure")? These are questions that only exit polling can answer -- data which we do not have (assuming no exit polls were conducted which covered the chairman's race).
HOW TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM
|Travis GOP officials at the 2016 Primary ballot draw.|
There are many ways the guessing game can be mitigated in future elections.
We could begin a bipartisan public awareness campaign that leaving a race blank is totally acceptable. As it stands now, some voters fear that any irregularity on their ballot will toss the ballot out -- a race left blank included.
We could reform the voting system where paper ballots can be requested and voters have an unlimited amount of time at the polling place to conduct an "open book exam" of their choices, so long as they don't leave the room, campaign, or intimidate other voters in the process.
Now that electronic voting is ubiquitous, ballot orders can be randomized so that no candidate gains the alleged advantage of being on top.
And there are perennial debates within both major parties of whether Texas should move to a closed primary system or a completely closed caucus like with Iowa.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Randomly picked candidates win more often than we like to admit. It is a problem that has plagued both major parties. But the good news is that far from the "implosion" predicted by the laughing hyenas on the opposite side of the aisle, these challenges provide opportunities for otherwise warring intra-party factions to work together to find new consensus.
Here are a few examples of "oops" moments brought to us by low-information voters.
Lyndon LaRouche, had launched a longshot campaign against the incumbent chairman, Larry Veselka. Jones had polled at 5 percent in the 1986 race, so a victory in 1988 was unlikely. Alas, Veselka said he was too busy with his work as an attorney to campaign effectively for re-election. During a slurry of other election activity that primary election month, Jones won by a narrow margin (54,394 votes, or 51 percent, to the incumbent's 51,318 votes, or 49 percent).
Houston Democrats responded by stripping the Chairman's office of most of its power and transferring it to the county party Secretary. But this was a short-lived fix, as state party chair Bob Slagle removed Jones for supposedly campaigning against Michael Dukakis that election year.
On March 2, 2010, Porter, with scant political experience and a low-profile campaign, unseated Railroad Commissioner Victor G. Carrillo, a former county judge of Taylor County and an oil and gas attorney for the Texas General Land Office.
Carrillo took office when appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Tony Garza of Brownsville, who became the United States Ambassador to Mexico under George W. Bush. Carrillo became quite the celebrity at Republican conventions and rallies as an advocate for energy independence and the face of a growing number of Hispanics in the party. Upon his defeat, Carrillo blamed racism for his loss, feeling that voters chose a more Anglicanized surname in Porter.
The Republicans have held the Commissioner of Agriculture post since 1992, when Jim Hightower was handily defeated. But the Dems had a chance when comedian Kinky Friedman hopped in the race, arguing again "how hard can it be?" and promising to fight for legal marijuana after his failed 2006 independent run for Governor.
Enter Hugh Fitzsimons, who made it a three-way race, but it was unknown Jim Hogan and the Kinkster who made the runoff. Hogan finally prevailed as the donkey party nominee, with 53.7 percent to Friedman's 46.3 percent. Once Kinky was out, the circus left town and Hogan received very little media attention.
Watchful Dems were shocked when they learned that Hogan was both a simple-living farmer/insurance agent but also (*gasp!) conservative. Hogan apparently ran on the Democrat ticket because he thought he wouldn't stand a chance against Republican Sid Miller, who went on to become Ag Commissioner in 2015.
Hogan didn't campaign at all, either in the primary or the general, but the conservative small-town resident garnered 37 percent of the vote. By contrast, former Fort Worth City Council member Wendy Davis got 39 percent of the Texas vote for Governor despite international media attention and significant fundraising.
Every so often a long-shot candidate with a famous name will make a run for public office. Sometimes they win nomination, such as Sam Houston, the Democratic nominee for Attorney General in 2014. In all honesty, this has been going on in America since at least John Quincy Adams.
On this year's primary ballot, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 5 candidate Scott Walker ended up with a whopping 41 percent in a four-way race. No, not the Wisconsin Governor and former presidential hopeful, but a mystery candidate. According to the Dallas Morning News editorial board, Sid Harle and Brent Webster were the two serious contenders, while "the fourth candidate in the race, Mansfield lawyer Scott Walker, appears not to be actively campaigning. He declined to fill out a candidate questionnaire or meet with the editorial board."
But with a name like Scott Walker, and in a race few voters know much about, it's entirely possible that voters would pick based on name-recognition alone. Walker has since put up a website and rolled out his credentials for a runoff with Webster.
UPDATES: It was pointed out to us that Chairman-elect Morrow sent a personal voter guide to an email list of local liberty activists, which included a recommendation for himself as Chairman of the Travis GOP.
What are your thoughts on Chairman-elect Robert Morrow? Feel free to leave your thoughts below. You may remain anonymous.