STRAIGHT TICKET VOTING

An Overview by Jeff Toste

For the Green Institute

Background

Straight-ticket
or straight-party voting allows voters to make one pull, punch, or mark
in order to vote for all candidates of a single political party.
Straight-ticket voting originated to simplify the voting process and
improve voter turnout. Unfortunately, the result of straight-ticket
voting is an unfair advantage for major political parties. For those
states that have it, third-party candidates
must work to overcome difficult ballot access laws to gain
straight-party status. However, even if acquired, straight-ticket
status does not help third parties that lack name recognition. In
addition, independent candidates cannot qualify for straight-ticket
status. Many voters who lack understanding of the voting process often
do not realize they have options other than straight-ticket voting. As
of 2007, only 17 states still use straight-ticket voting in some form.
It is time to eliminate straight-ticket voting as one step towards
improving our democracy.

Jeff Toste

Burden for Third Parties

The
seventeen states still using straight-party voting in some form are
Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey,
New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South
Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. However, in order
to qualify for straight-party status, third-party candidates must gain
ballot status. Thereby, straight-ticket voting and ballot access laws
are in many ways "two sides of the same coin" for third parties. They
both work against allowing third parties a level playing field in the
political process.

In Alabama
minor parties must petition 3% of the last gubernatorial vote for the
early June petition deadline. In 2006, 3% was equivalent to
approximately 40,000 signatures.[1] For
third parties with few resources 40,000 signatures is a nearly
impossible task. In 2004, other states with similar requirements for
ballot status include North Carolina with 69,734 signatures, Texas with 43,991 signatures and Rhode Island with 18,557 signatures.[2]
In addition to signatures, many states also require third parties to
maintain a percentage of the vote for every Presidential and/or
Gubernatorial races in order to keep their status.

The
daunting organizational efforts and tremendous resources required to
achieve initial signatures and maintain the required percentage of
votes for ballot access--and straight-party status--are too often
unavailable to third parties. Eliminating straight-ticket voting would
improve the democratic process by helping to shift the focus away from
party status to individual candidates.

Marginalization

Should
a third party overcome ballot status obstacles and acquire
straight-ticket status, it is of little benefit. Due to lack of name
recognition and financial viability, a straight-ticket vote for a third
party is an unfamiliar option. In addition, independent candidates are
altogether shut out of the straight-ticket option as they cannot
qualify for straight-ticket status.

Voters,
like consumers, are influenced and attracted to familiar "brands" that
are marketed to them, sometimes over many generations. This type of
advertising requires financial resources that are beyond the means of
smaller political organizations and most individuals. This
money-oriented electoral climate discourages individuals from exploring
alternative political choices. Whether as a candidate or voter, due to
financial resources needed to effectively compete, we are left with
what could be easily be characterized as a "democracy of dollars."

The
result is a marginalization of candidates and voters by effectively
limiting what many would otherwise consider viable options.
Straight-ticket voting is a form of political "branding" that
undermines democracy.

Voter education

Voter
education is fundamental to democracy. Yet "only three states have
created separate state standards devoted solely to civic education,” [3] and "a little over 24 percent of students tested [for civics knowledge] were able to achieve a proficient score.”[4] First-time voters and those who lack an understanding of the voting process often do not realize their options.

Straight-ticket
voting oversimplifies the voting process and discourages voters from
examining candidates who do not belong to major political parties. "Top
of the ticket" races of major parties receive the majority of media
attention during election season. Straight-party votes cast with top of
the ticket races in mind influence voters to overlook bottom of the
ticket races. This gives an unfair advantage to those running for local
office who are affiliated with the major party. Many voters go to the
polls unaware of third party or independent voting options and are
therefore denied those options.

Straight-ticket
voting is typically the first choice on a state's official election
ballot. It does not empower the voter or encourage them to understand
the importance of each office and each race; instead it oversimplifies
and degrades the voting process.

Conclusion

Straight-party
voting allows voters to vote for all candidate of a single political
party. Like ballot access laws, straight-ticket voting only serves to
give an unfair advantage to major parties with greater name recognition
and resources. In addition, voters unaware of the voting process often
do not realize they have options beyond the oversimplified
straight-party option. The elimination of straight-ticket voting is one
more step towards improving our democracy.

Jeff
Toste is the former co-chair of the Green Party of Rhode Island. In
2003, he served with community and political leaders from Rhode Island
as a member of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Committee convened by
the RI Secretary of State. Recognized as one of the most active members
of HAVA, Toste proposed a state commission to study Instant Runoff
Voting; was a leader in ensuring a paper trail to validate votes; and
suggested a system to facilitate a voter registration program for
ex-felons.

In
2002, Toste ran for State Senate and got 23% of the vote – the highest
percentage of votes for any non-Democratic candidate in a general
assembly race for that year in Providence. In a second bid for the seat
in 2004, Toste won one-third of the vote – even though district lines
were redrawn after the 2002 election eliminating much of his original
base of support. In 2006, he won 30% for the same office.

Other information: Letter to the editor: “Straight-ticket voting doomed my run” from the Providence Journal April 26, 2007


[1]Ballot Access News,” March 21, 2007, Richard Winger, Ed.

[2] Libertarian Party Ballot Access Report & Ballot Access News

[3] Center for Civic Education

[4] National Assessment of Educational Progress, “The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2006”