Do Straight-Ticket Options Hurt Independents?

There's a good case that independent candidates suffer in states that allow voters to support a full slate of Democrats or Republicans with a click of a single button.
by | May 13, 2010
 

Before I leave the topic of straight-ticket voting, I have a couple other things to share. First, one thing I didn't mention in my previous post is the effect that straight-ticket voting can have on independent candidates. This subject came up in a recent Detroit Free Press article about Joe Schwarz, a former congressman and moderate Republican who is thinking about running for governor of Michigan as an independent:

East Lansing Republican pollster Steve Mitchell said the notion that large numbers of voters seek a moderate alternative is fanciful. The voters, like the candidates, he said, have been moving away from the political center.

...

In addition, Mitchell noted that many Michigan voters use the straight-ticket option and wouldn't even notice an independent is on the ballot.

"It would kill Joe Schwarz," Mitchell said. "He doesn't have a prayer."

I actually don't think Mitchell is right about Schwarz. The governor's race will be the most prominent contest on Michigan's ballot this fall. If Schwarz were to catch fire, his supporters would be showing up at the polls to vote for him more than any other reason. It's not as though they'd simply forget about him because the ballot offered a device to vote straight Democratic of Republican.

Mitchell's logic makes a lot more sense for lower-profile races. Let's say you have an independent candidate running for state legislature who has a real chance to win. A good example from this year would be Alabama Sen. Harri Anne Smith -- an outcast Republican who is running for reelection as an independent.

Lots of voters in Alabama will show up focused on the governor's race or a local congressional race. Alabama offers a straight-ticket option, which many voters will probably choose to take based on their partisan preferences for governor and Congress. But, if citizens in Senate District 29 had to vote each race individually, some of those same voters might support Smith ("oh yeah, that's our senator"). In this way, there's a good case that straight-ticket voting hurts independents running in downballot races.

Secondly, I had an interesting conversation with David Kimball a political scientist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis about the origins of straight-ticket voting. He reminded me that as recently as the late 19th century governments didn't typically print ballots. Political parties did. Back then, ticket splitting literally required a voter to split ballots acquired from different parties, then splice them back together again.

One product of the progressive era was the (generally) non-partisan, professionalized election administration that we enjoy today. When that transition took place, lots of states offered straight-ticket voting -- it seemed natural to let voters choose one party all at once, since that's what they'd been doing all along. Since then, states gradually have been shifting away from offering the option -- five more have done so since 1994.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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