Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you can stretch your mind back to the 2006 elections, you'll remember that Democrats won some smashing victories. But, I thought none better reflected the party's triumph than the election of John Shea.
Shea was a candidate for New Hampshire's influential five-member Executive Council. To use one of the more pejorative terms in politics, Shea was a perennial candidate. He was running for the fourth time -- if you want to call it running. He didn't raise any money. He spent election night in Belgium.
The basic reason Shea won is that New Hampshire was the best state for Democrats in what was a very good election night for the party. But, at the time I thought that there was another reason Shea had won: straight-ticket voting.
In 2006 in New Hampshire, voting for all of the candidates of one party was as easy as pushing a button. Lots of Democrats showed up in New Hampshire angry at President Bush or supportive of Gov. John Lynch. By pushing that one button, they voted for Shea too.
And, that raises a question: This year, with the GOP expected to make gains, will Republicans’ wins be biggest and broadest in the 15 or so states that allow straight-ticket voting? I'm looking into that question for an item in the June issue of Governing and I have to say that I'm a bit more skeptical than I was in 2006.
For one thing, (the exception of New Hampshire not withstanding) it doesn't strike me that Democrats’ victories in the last two election cycles have been all that much more dramatic in the states that have a straight-ticket device than the ones that don't. Part of the reason probably is that if voters want to exclusively support one party, they will -- straight-ticket button or no button.
To the extent there's an impact, it's on downballot races. When citizens can vote a straight ticket with just one click, they vote for every office rather than dropping off when the names become unfamiliar. Partisans who showed up just to vote for president or governor end up voting for everything. When one party has a straight-ticket advantage, that means more votes for its obscure candidates like John Shea.
Two post-scripts: One place that straight-ticket voting won't influence the election results is in New Hampshire. That's because the newly empowered Democrats scrapped it soon after the 2006 election, fulfilling a long-time promise. At the time, that looked like it went against the party's self-interest. New Hampshire had turned blue, so why not let the partisan Democrats vote a straight ticket for years to come? Now, with Republicans resurgent in the state, the move looks savvy.
Secondly, John Shea was reelected in 2008 without the benefit of straight-ticket voting. Maybe he was a talented politician after all.
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