A Straightforward Decision

If you find yourself voting in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina or Utah, you might be surprised by an option at the top of your ballot. It goes by many names–straight-ticket voting, straight-party voting, or master-lever voting. By any name, it’s a ballot system which allows a voter to select the full slate of candidates of the party of their choice with just a check of a box. While its supporters argue that it speeds up the voting process, it does so at the expense of down ballot races and third party candidates. The process has gradually fallen out of favor, with shifting demographics causing even lawmakers who enjoy a majority in their state to eliminate the option. Today, only nine states continue to use straight-ticket voting; eliminating this practice encourages voters to be informed about who and what they’re really voting for. As such, all states should eliminate straight-ticket voting from their ballots.

High profile races bring people to the polls. But races down the ballot are equally important, if less glamorous. For someone facing sentencing for a crime, for example, District Judge is a very important office indeed. Yet voters usually lack information about these underrated, but important, races. Candidates spend little money on campaigns and voters are often simply uninterested, so voters don’t know much about these down-ballot candidates. Instead, they straight-ticket vote based on their preference for one of the major parties or for the party of the candidate at the top of the ticket who drew them to the polls.

This lack of informed voting has only been exacerbated by straight-ticket voting. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy contributed to a ‘Blue Wave’ that swept in Democratic candidates in down-ballot races, an effect credited in part to straight-ticket voting in Texas. Unfortunately, that wave sent Frank Aguilar to the bench in the 228th Criminal District Court. He overcame his opponent, the incumbent Marc Carter, who had been on the bench since 2003 and had a distinguished career in public service, both in the U.S. Army and in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. In contrast, Aguilar didn’t have a website for voters to research his candidacy and  did not respond to the Houston Chronicle during the paper’s endorsement process. Most egregiously, he was charged with assaulting a woman he was dating while he was magistrate judge. He was acquitted of that charge, but nonetheless, was not the ideal candidate for District Judge. Of the 1,207,754 total voters who voted in Harris County,  515,812  selected straight-ticket Democrat out of 1,207,754 total voters.  That approximately 42.7% of voters likely chose to straight-ticket vote based on their enthusiasm for Beto O’Rourke or the Democratic Party, not a desire to see a man accused of domestic violence on the federal bench. Straight-ticket voting simply doesn’t make sense in races where experience and qualifications are more relevant than party affiliation.

In fact, some states have recognized that for certain offices, party affiliation is irrelevant, or impractical due to non-partisan races. In these states, candidates in some or all judicial races appear on the ballot without a party affiliation. This becomes problematic in states like Michigan that combine non-partisan races and straight-ticket voting, voters may be under the impression that they’ve voted in all races when in reality they’ve left the non-partisan races blank; this phenomenon is called voter roll-off. The presence of straight-ticket voting increases voter roll-off by 12%, to 33.6% from 21.3%. Voters may believe they’ve voted in these elections or they may just ignore them after their straight-ticket vote. Either way, these races are negatively affected by the decreased rate of voting in these races.

"The position of a national party has little bearing on who one should trust to dispense justice in their community. And for those candidates without a national party, straight-ticket voting makes the de facto two-party system even more difficult to challenge."

Candidates in down-ticket races aren’t the only ones negatively affected by straight-ticket voting: not all parties appear as an option for straight-ticket voting. In the 2018 midterm elections in Texas, the options for straight-ticket voting were the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Libertarian Party. Smaller third-parties, like the Green Party, had not cleared the 5% of the vote in a statewide election required to make it onto the ballot. And in states where small parties do qualify for straight-ticket voting, voters may become confused: in 2012  9,424 voters in Rhode Island straight-ticket voted for the Moderate Party.  Of them, more than 8,000 did so with no Moderate Party candidate on their ballot.

If it hurts independents and third-parties, it might be assumed that straight-ticket voting should benefit the party that holds the majority in a state, as loyal supporters of the party could be expected to cast a straight-ticket vote. But in one state that has eliminated straight-ticket voting, the opposite has proven true: in Texas, long considered a Republican stronghold, Republican state legislators voted to eliminate straight-ticket voting as it began to benefit Democrats. Ironically, straight-ticket voting was set to be eliminated in 2020, so the measure failed to prevent the effects of the ‘Blue Wave’ in the 2018 midterms. Such efforts highlight that eliminating straight-ticket voting may make political sense, too. If lawmakers have both pragmatic and values-based reasons to eliminate it, straight-ticket voting is far more likely to disappear in the states where it remains and stay off the ballot in the states that have already eliminated it.

Despite these existing issues, straight-ticket voting does have supporters as well. A ballot on average has 17 offices, but they’ve been known to run to 94 separate races. Expecting the average voter to be well researched on dozens of races may be unreasonable. Party affiliation serves as a useful heuristic in those low-information races. After all, candidates do choose their own party affiliation. Proponents of straight-ticket voting also argue that eliminating the option will increase wait times at the polls, thus lowering voter participation. In Michigan, a federal judge blocked legislation to eliminate straight-ticket voting on the basis that it discriminated against African-American voters because they are more likely to cast a straight-ticket ballot. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the matter, which means that Michigan’s ban on straight-ticket voting will go into effect. Nonetheless, these concerns have helped keep straight-ticket voting on the ballot in the states where it remains.

In other states that eliminated straight-ticket voting, there were concern about the effect on voters. Before North Carolina eliminated straight-ticket voting, the Buncombe County Board of Elections estimated that filling out a ballot would take 1 to 2 minutes more than it did before. While 1 to 2 minutes more is not insignificant, it’s important to note that 41 states already conduct their elections without straight-ticket voting. Voter turnout is correlated with restrictive voter ID laws, a lack of early and absentee voting, and other laws that make voting more difficult. Relative to the hurdles in place already, eliminating straight-ticket voting would be a drop in the bucket. After North Carolina eliminated straight-ticket voting, voter turnout between the 2014 Midterm elections and the 2018 midterm elections increased, despite the lack of a top of the ticket race. Although voter turnout is complicated by other factors in this midterm election, it does suggest that straight-ticket voting doesn’t necessarily cause voters to shy away from the polls.

Overall, straight-ticket voting makes American politics more polarized and less local. The position of a national party has little bearing on who one should trust to dispense justice in their community. And for those candidates without a national party, straight-ticket voting makes the de facto two-party system even more difficult to challenge. With 37% of Americans self-identifying as independents and political parties that contain a spectrum of views, voting on the basis of party alone is antiquated at best and antidemocratic at worse.

Photo: “Straight Party Ballot

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