Straight-ticket voting disappearing

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The title of this column would seem to make no sense in light of the recent 2020 national election — which appears to have been nearly entirely a straight-ticket election. To have a straight-ticket election in 2020 refers to the fact that more than 45 states chose senators and the president from the same party. Indiana was not a test case this year as we didn’t have a senatorial race. Our voting patterns do suggest that had we had a senatorial election, we would have voted straight-ticket.

As you may be aware, only Maine (so far) has selected a “split” vote between senatorial candidates and president. A split vote (as political jargon has it) is when voters select the candidate of one party for president and select their senator(s) from the other. When Maine selected Democrat Joe Biden to be president and retained Republican Susan Collins as one of their senators, they “split their vote.” This means that all other states reporting so far chose senators and a president from the same party.

Straight-ticket voting as used as an analytical tool to look at national election results is different from the concept of straight-ticket voting as individual states define it. In the national election, as just described, the term is used to analyze election results. At the state-level, straight-ticket voting refers to how a voter’s ballot is constructed. In Indiana, as you are likely aware, straight-ticket voting is still allowed. This means that at the top of the ballot, voters are given the choice to check a single box to vote “straight Republican” or “straight Democrat.”

In last week’s LWV column, the writer took to task voters who would use such an option, as it keeps voters from thinking critically about all candidates on the ballot and encourages partisan polarization among voters. Such risks can be especially acute at lower levels of government where the predominant issues, such as land or economic development, don’t easily break down neatly into Republican and Democratic views. In addition, straight-ticket voters end up not voting on important ballot questions and not voting in nonpartisan elections (like school boards). Indiana did, in 2016, modify its straight-ticket option to allow straight-ticket voters to vote on such issues. That is progress, but still allows for a “lazy blanket vote,” as it’s been called, for all partisan races.

Since the days of Jefferson, America has described itself as a nation that requires an educated citizenry to operate properly. Why, then, did this country ever allow “straight-ticket voting” which short-cuts encouraging citizens to educate themselves?

This strategy was born after the Civil War when the two parties we know today were gaining their power. This time period between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th has been called both the War of the Parties and the Golden Age of Political Parties. Both parties were happy to encourage states to have straight-ticket voting. Straight-ticket voting, in fact, helps both national parties and they’ve become dependent on it: the straight-ticket option allows parties to “stretch resources further since they don’t have to spend much to publicize candidates for local or other ‘obscure’ offices.” As one can see, such strategies do not favor the individual voter and her/his choice-making.

In general, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, straight-ticket voting has declined among the general population. Also, according to Kay Stimson, immediate past director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State, “the overall trend by state lawmakers in recent years has been to abolish it.” Since 2011, seven states have axed STV. For the 2020 national election, only Alabama, Indiana (see above), Michigan, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina allowed straight-ticket voting.

For those immersed in the present, it’s good to remember that time changes everything. Nationwide, straight-ticket voting used to favor Democrats, now it favors the GOP, but not uniformly. A case brought to the Supreme Court by Michigan in 2018 wanted to keep their 127-year history of STV intact: for our northern neighbors, straight-ticket voting historically protected Democrats. One of the slogans of the Great Depression broadcast across the nation was, “Make it emphatic, vote straight Democratic.” These days, as here in Indiana, straight-ticket voting “emphatically” favors Republicans. (Note the six states that retain it.)

What the individual voter can learn from this is to choose to stand apart from STV. Make your own choices. In our time, nearly four in 10 U.S. adults (38%) identify as politically independent. Most “lean” toward one of the two major parties. Leaning is different from iron-clad loyalty. When you vote, think for yourself. Choose not to use straight-ticket voting.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontco.org or voice mail 765-361-2136.

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