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The Rise and Simultaneous Fall of Straight-Ticket Voting

Where it exists, it remains popular. But five states have axed it since 2011, and there's a federal push to abolish the option to vote for one party across the ballot.

The U.S. has recently seen a rise in straight-ticket voting -- that is, voters choosing candidates from only one party up and down the ballot. In most states, people have to make their straight-ticket choices contest by contest. But in more than a handful of states, voters can simply check a single box on their ballot that allocates all their votes to one party's candidates.

Where it exists, it's a popular option. But fewer and fewer states are offering it.

In fact, five states have done away with the straight-ticket option in recent years, and Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a moderate representing a purple-to-blue area of his state, has introduced a bill in Congress to end the practice for federal elections. "The overall trend by state lawmakers in recent years has been to abolish it," said Kay Stimson, the director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Some critics worry that the option keeps voters from thinking critically about all the candidates on the ballot and encourages partisan polarization among voters. Such risks can be particularly acute at lower levels of government, where the predominant issues, such as land use and economic development, don't always break down neatly into Republican and Democratic views. In addition, many voters using the straight-ticket option may end up not voting on important ballot questions and nonpartisan elections, which aren't covered by the single-ticket mechanism.

Among the strongest opponents of the option are third-party supporters. "Straight-ticket devices are very harmful to the nominees of minor parties and to independent candidates," said Richard Winger, publisher and editor of Ballot Access News. "Sentiment is running against the device. Bills to repeal it are regularly introduced in Texas and Indiana, and one was introduced recently in Iowa."

Other voting policy experts counter that the option makes it easier for some citizens to digest lengthy ballots. "It's one way a voter might choose to vote, and denying that option for any partisan reason seems questionable to me," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a voting advocacy group.

And of course, straight-ticket voting retains strong support among the parties it tends to help electorally in a given state. To a large degree, that's what has kept the option around this long in the first place.

Once Common, Now Rare

Straight-ticket voting was actually common in most states before the 1960s. Since then, however, it has dwindled to just eight states: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. In several of these states -- especially those in the South -- the straight-ticket option once helped Democrats more than Republicans but now disproportionately benefits the GOP.

With a strong majority of Alabamans voting Republican today, there's no impetus to change the rules. "The current Republican legislature's supermajority would not do anything to jeopardize their party's occupancy of all statewide offices," said William Stewart, a University of Alabama political scientist.

In Alabama, slightly more than 51 percent of voters in 2012 cast a straight-party vote. Slightly smaller percentages did so in 2008 and 2010.

Kentucky and Oklahoma have followed a similar course, shifting from predominantly Democratic to predominantly Republican over the past two decades. Straight-ticket voting is popular in both states. In Kentucky, for instance, upwards of 40 percent of voters used the straight-ticket option in 2015, the year of the most recent major statewide election. Overall, Republican voters used the option more often than Democrats did, and in Kentucky, experts say it may have swung some down-ballot races to the GOP.

Another state where the straight-ticket option remains popular is Texas; more than half of voters have used it during the past few election cycles, said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist. And without straight-ticket voting, it would have been "extremely unlikely" that Republicans would have won 121 consecutive statewide elections dating back to 1996, said Jones.

Good for Both Parties?

At the same time, straight-ticket voting in Texas helps some Democrats. In strongly Democratic urban areas such as Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, and in heavily Latino border counties from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso, straight-ticket voting tends to bolster Democratic candidates. The fact that it helps both parties to one degree or another has kept a lid on efforts to eliminate it.

What's more, both parties have become somewhat dependent on the straight-ticket mechanism. In a state with 27 million people in 20 different media markets, the straight-ticket option allows parties to stretch their resources further since they don't have to spend much to publicize candidates for local and other obscure offices.

"Down-ballot Republicans have in recent election cycles adopted a strategy of riding into office on the coattails of straight-ticket voting and a high-profile gubernatorial or presidential Republican candidate," said Jones.

Interestingly, Texas allows voters to choose a straight-party ballot but then select individual races where they want to flip to the other party's candidate.

The Road to Abolition

While Republicans clearly benefit today from straight-party voting in some states, the mechanism's GOP lean is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, the more common pattern has been for Democrats to benefit from straight-ticket voting -- and that has led a number of states, especially with newly empowered Republican majorities, to get rid of the option.

Five states have eliminated straight-ticket voting since 2011. Wisconsin got rid of it in 2011, North Carolina in 2013, Rhode Island in 2014, West Virginia in 2015 and Michigan in 2016.

In North Carolina, the GOP legislature moved to eliminate the straight-ticket option not long after 56 percent of voters had used it in the 2012 election. About 1.4 million straight Democratic tickets were cast that year, compared to 1.1 million straight Republican tickets.

Bob Hall, executive director of the voting rights group Democracy North Carolina, has written that the Republican effort can be traced to a Carolina Journal column by Jack Hawke, a former state Republican chair and former campaign manager for GOP Gov. Pat McCrory. It outlined how the Democrats had been outpacing Republicans in key races due in part to the device.

In Michigan, straight-ticket voting had been a feature since the Great Depression, when a Democratic battlecry was: "Make it emphatic, vote straight Democratic!" Back then -- and ever since -- observers have said that Michigan's straight-ticket option has benefited Democrats.

"One of the Republicans' suspicions has been that straight-ticket voting has helped Democrats on obscure education boards where voters generally make choices based on party affiliation more than any other factor," said longtime Michigan political journalist Bill Ballenger. "The Democrats control all these boards, even though Republicans control all the rest of state government."

In 1999 and 2000, a Republican governor and legislature moved to end straight-ticket voting, but Democrats mounted a successful statewide petition drive to overturn it. Then, earlier this year, the GOP-held legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder finally managed to eliminate it, over the objections of such figures as Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers and AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber. The only hope left for supporters of the straight-ticket option is a federal lawsuit now pending that was spearheaded by former Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer.

But not all decisions to eliminate straight-ticket voting were driven by partisan motives. In strongly Democratic Rhode Island, the impetus came from outside groups. In Rhode Island, the abolition effort was led by Ken Block, a businessman who founded the Moderate Party in the state.

Block failed as a gubernatorial candidate, but with "editorial support from the Providence Journal and many 'good government' groups," Block succeeded in pushing the elimination of straight-party voting through the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, said Timothy Murphy, the retired assistant managing editor of the Providence Journal. Then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent-turned-Democrat, signed it in 2014.

There's one additional wild card for 2016: In the states where straight-ticket voting still exists, it's unclear how the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump could scramble matters. Some Republicans fear that Trump's unpopularity among some GOP voters could limit Republicans' use of straight-ticket voting, possibly hurting GOP candidates far down the ballot.

*Correction: The initial version of this article misstated the status of straight-ticket voting in Utah. An attempt this year to eliminate it failed.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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