Voting the Straight-Ticket Sweep

Will Republicans win big in states that make voting a straight ticket easy?
by | June 2010

In New Hampshire in 2006, Democrats won one of the great landslides in recent American political history. The party swept key races for governor, Congress and state legislature. It netted an increase of around 90 seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives alone. The result, political analysts said, reflected New Hampshire's turn left, but it also reflected a peculiarity of New Hampshire's ballot: the ease of straight-ticket voting.

In New Hampshire, voting for all Democrats on the ballot at once was as easy as pushing a single button. In 2006, Democratic partisans turned out in much greater numbers than their Republican counterparts. Even if the voters who showed up only focused on a high-profile congressional race, that one button made it easy for them to elect Democrats to offices up and down the ballot.

Around 15 states, including Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania, have a straight-ticket device similar to that of New Hampshire in 2006. Five months before this year's general elections, polls show that Republicans are more motivated than Democrats to vote. As a result, there's a chance that Republican gains will be bigger and broader in the straight-ticket states than they otherwise would have been.

However, David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied straight-ticket voting, suggests caution in attributing too much power to it. Missouri abolished the straight-ticket device in 2006, but the state's politics weren't fundamentally reordered. The reason, he explains, is that partisans still are partisans. It's relatively easy for someone to vote for all the candidates of one party, even without that button.

At least in most places it's relatively easy. In Texas, where ballots tend to be clogged with dozens of judicial contests, the straight-ticket option is a popular alternative. That's especially true in Harris County, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "We'll have about 100 races and hell, it would take 15 or 20 minutes to vote the ballot individually," he says. "But people get in and out in 30 seconds."

Voting a straight ticket is so popular in Texas that there are results like Dallas County's in 2006 and 2008. Dallas County isn't a monolithic Democratic bastion; President George W. Bush carried it in both 2000 and 2004. But for the last two election cycles, Democrats have won every single countywide post they've contested, powered by straight-ticket voting. Those results lead most election watchers in Texas to conclude that at least some low-profile races end up with different winners than they would have if the straight-ticket option weren't available.

Today Republicans are showing signs of a resurgence in New Hampshire, but they won't be winning any victories buoyed by straight-ticket voting. The newly empowered Democrats scrapped it soon after the 2006 election, fulfilling a long-time promise.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |