August 21, 2012

How To Eliminate Straight-Ticket Voting

Patrick Laverty

The straight-ticket, straight-party or master lever (just a line in Rhode Island) is an anachronism from long ago and its time has more than come to be eliminated. Each year, a bill is submitted to the Assembly to eliminate it, but you can probably guess what happens to the bill. Yep, held for further study.

Even the guy in charge of elections in the state, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, is in favor of eliminating this option. But yet it stays. Why? Clearly it's because it gives one side a huge advantage.

One example of this advantage is in the 2006 Governor's race. That was the anti-Bush, anti-Republican election year and Governor Carcieri was one of the few Republicans to survive the figurative bloodbath. Democrats pointed to Carcieri's weakness in that he only won by two points, 51-49%. However, when one looks closely, we see quite the difference in the straight ticket votes. Charlie Fogarty, the Democrat in that race, pulled in more than 70,000 straight ticket votes. Carcieri garnered 17,000, which is quite the difference. I'm not going to claim that none of those votes would have gone to the respective candidates, but not all of them would have either.

I'll readily admit, the option would not change the result in most races, but there have been some that could have been changed. There was one in my hometown where even if you assume that 80% of the votes still would have been cast for the respective party's candidate, the final result would have been changed. Interestingly, the winner in that race had even been bragging about his straight ticket votes advantage well ahead of election day.

So how do we eliminate this option? How do we get people to pay attention and agree it's a bad thing? That's easy. Just use it. Advertise it and use it. I mean all Republicans. If many Republicans were to connect that one line and tell everyone that it's exactly what they did, it might be enough of a wake up call for the Democrats to start to think "Uh oh, they're figuring it out!" and immediately look to eliminate this "advantage" that the Republicans have used.

So there it is. Republicans, Moderates, all parties. Use it. Tell everyone you're using it. Tell all your friends what a great thing this straight ticket voting is. Go into the booth, connect one line and votes for everyone in your party! It's easy, it's fast, and there's very little thinking involved. Connect the line.

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I was with you until your recommendation that Republicans go straight-ticket voting. All this would do is throw away their integrity and erode the legitimacy of their criticism of the corrupt system by taking part in that same system. It would turn a moral issue ("this is ethically wrong") into a practical issue ("we don't like this because it doesn't favor us") and would forfeit any sympathy associated with the moral cause of elections fairness.

Posted by: Dan at August 21, 2012 10:08 AM

Yes, without straight ticket voting you might pickup a few accidental votes from Democrats who mark the wrong line. Good plan.

Posted by: Russ at August 21, 2012 10:22 AM

Maybe someone could explain this one to me...

"With the old mechanical machines, you could see who you were voting for. With the paper ballot for the optical scan machines, if you connect an arrow in a local race, you have canceled out your straight party vote in that race and you will not know this has happened. Over the past two years, we could not find a single person, poll worker, town council member or board of canvasser member who knew that votes were being discarded by the optical scan machine,” said Margaret Kane, Operation Clean Government president.

What's she talking about?

"if you connect an arrow in a local race, you have canceled out your straight party vote in that race and you will not know this has happened..."

Why wouldn't you? You marked the line. No surprise that counts. Were worried about the chance of someone unintentially connecting the lines?

"Over the past two years, we could not find a single person, poll worker, town council member or board of canvasser member who knew that votes were being discarded by the optical scan machine..."

That's because they weren't discarded. The votes were counted! I've worked at a polling location for years and can say that there is ZERO confusion about straight party voting.

Now if you want confusion, how about the elections where you're asked to pick more than one candidate in a race (for instance for convention delegates)? Lot's of people don't understand that. Sonme mark them all. Some think they are required to pick X number or their vote won't count. Some don't understand that you only pick delegates for the candidate for which you voted. Republicans, perhaps you should eliminate that. It's only fair!

Posted by: Russ at August 21, 2012 10:36 AM
For example, just 14,244 votes were cast in the non-partisan contest for the East Providence City Council At-Large seat last November, while races at the top of the ballot such as U.S. Representative and Governor recorded more than 15,550 votes.

Based on those so-called "under votes" in down-ticket races, it appears that some straight-party voters may not realize they also have to mark their ballots in non-partisan races and races in which they may vote for more than one candidate such as school committees and municipal councils.

Or the voters don't know and don't care about that race. btw, the optical scanning machine warns voters that they've undervoted (or over voted as in the case I explained above). Most say, no worries so long as my vote for President (governor, senator, whatever) counted.

Posted by: Russ at August 21, 2012 10:39 AM

I have to disagree with Dan, although he may be philosophically correct. That is based on my belief in the two party system. I do not see a great benefice deriving from a benevolent one party system.

On the other hand. If there is a particularly egregious Democratic candidate, and the Republican candidate has no hope of unseating him, it may be a wasted vote. Voting for a "lesser evil" Democrat might reinforce the idea that there is power at the polls. I suppose that is "making the best of what you have". Still, this does not produce a two party system.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at August 21, 2012 1:14 PM

Russ - The burden is not on the opponents of the straight-ticket voting option to demonstrate why it is harmful. The burden is on the proponents of any weird, additional voting mechanisms, such as the "master lever," to demonstrate their value. Given all of the obvious concerns about encouraging voter laziness, bundling of candidates, and disadvantaging the minority party, we'll all be happy to listen to your arguments in favor of the mechanism, although we won't be holding our breath.

Posted by: Dan at August 21, 2012 1:33 PM

"The burden is not on the opponents of the straight-ticket voting option to demonstrate why it is harmful."

Of course it is. This change will cost money. We shouldn't spend money for no reason.

"The burden is on the proponents of any weird, additional voting mechanisms, such as the "master lever," to demonstrate their value."

I thought that was obvious...
1. It saves time.
2. It is less error prone for those that want to vote straight ticket. Keep in mind, the process of drawing connecting lines is not exactly easy for some.
3. It is less likely for any particular line to be overturned in a recount (i.e. voter intent is clear).

Posted by: Russ at August 21, 2012 3:33 PM

"Of course it is. This change will cost money. We shouldn't spend money for no reason."

No, the master lever is the extraneous element to what most would consider the normal voting process and so, especially in light of the serious ethical and fairness concerns involved, the burden is on proponents such as you to justify its continued use. Whether it is a current or proposed method is irrelevant to the underlying issues - sound logic favors substance over form. The amount of money required to discontinue its use is so small as to be insignificant and is an extremely lame rationalization of the dubious practice.

Your additional rationalizations make little sense. The amount of "saved time" is insignificant and we shouldn't be expediting an important civil function such as voting at the expense of a meaningful and deliberate process. If connecting lines on a ballot is "error prone," then that is the true underlying issue and should be corrected in a more appropriate way. The master lever would be an incomplete and clumsy abatement method, and that very clearly isn't the driving force behind it. Your recount argument is also specious - somebody could just as easily misunderstand the true functionality of the master lever as any individual vote.

Posted by: Dan at August 21, 2012 4:34 PM

To answer the question above:

Take Burrillville for example. There are three council seats up this year. There are three Democrats and three Republicans running for those seats. Voters are allowed to vote for up to three candidates total, though they can obviously choose to vote for less.

If a voter goes in and "pulls the master lever" for the Democrats and then completes the line for one GOP council candidate for whatever reason, the system cannot tell which of the three Democrats the voter meant to cancel out so the system winds up not counting any of the votes for the three Democrats and only the single vote for the GOP candidate. In short, the voter winds up casting only one vote for council - for the GOP candidate.

The old mechanical machines did not allow this to happen because, well, they were mechanical. If you literally pulled a master lever it mechanically moved the levers for all candidates of that party. If you also wanted to vote for a single candidate of some other party you had to physically push a lever back in place for the candidate of the "master lever" party you were choosing not to vote for before you could vote for the other party's candidate. The "draw the line" system does not allow that to happen.

Posted by: Brian C. Newberry at August 21, 2012 10:28 PM

Thanks for the explanation, BCN.

Posted by: Russ at August 22, 2012 9:56 AM

It should be noted that the Secretary of State can put the party line vote anywhere on the ballot. It does not have to be located on the front top. It could just as well be placed on the back of the ballot and to the lower right or left or middle. That way people would have to look for it in order to cast a party vote.

Posted by: mark at August 22, 2012 3:59 PM

I am the first Republican since 1964 to be elected five times to the Hopkinton Town Council. I have also lost five races for town council.
Neither party in Hopkinton has filed a full council slate in a number of election cycles. Independents are winning. I am the only Republican town council candidate, although two council candidates who previously ran as Republicans are running as independents.
Only two Democrats filed and four independents filed and one Republican me. Two years ago both of the two independent candidates outpolled me and the one above me in vote totals, did no apparent campaigning, no contact with media, etc., and he was elected. Two years earlier he ran as a socialist for state senate. He ended up resigning.
Hopkinton elects five town council members at-large. In 2010 ALL Republican candidates except one and that person ran for school committee got less votes than Democrat and independent candidates for either town council or school committee.

Posted by: Scott Bill Hirst at August 22, 2012 7:47 PM

non partisan elections suffer with straight party voting

Posted by: kathy at August 23, 2012 2:48 PM

Scott Hirst,interesting how you tie Independents to Socialists. It's irksome to me as an Independent that you tried that stunt,yet it does bring up an important informational aspect of our elections.

How can we know the postions of Independent candidates? It's hard to find out what they think. It's hard to find out their philosophical positions.
Just as it's hard to find out about candidates for positions that are non-partisan.

Posted by: helen at August 24, 2012 2:14 AM
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