A federal court last month scuttled the state’s voter ID requirement, but ignored what political professionals say could affect this November’s election more than anything — the elimination of straight-ticket voting.
Straight-ticket voting allows voters to choose all candidates from one party by checking a single box.
It’s popular. During the 2012 presidential election, 56 percent of North Carolinians voted straight-ticket as Democrats cast 1.4 million straight-ticket ballots and Republicans 1.1 million. In a 2013 survey, the Raleigh-based Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found 68 percent support for straight-ticket voting and 21 percent opposition. PPP found Democrats and Republicans supported it almost identically.
But in 2013, North Carolina lawmakers eliminated straight-ticket voting while passing the Republican-backed election revisions law. On July 29, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of the election revisions including the voter ID requirement, it didn’t touch the straight-ticket elimination. The change wasn’t challenged in that case.
Steve Greene, an N.C. State University political science professor, predicts the election will see what pollsters call down-ballot “fatigue” — in which voters leave selections unmarked.
“The further you move down the ballot from the prominent offices you’re going to have significant uncertainties,” Greene said. “When people say they support ‘the Democrat’ or ‘the Republican’ it is an easy thing. But if you have to go through the entire ballot, people might say, ‘I don’t know this person,’ and not vote on certain offices.”
Political observers said they saw some drop-off in down-ballot voting in 2014, but some are watching this year’s presidential election before drawing major conclusions about its effects.
A widespread practice across the country before the 1960s, straight-ticket voting has been in decline for decades. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 20 states allowed it in the 1990s. Now it is just nine: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
In the past three years, North Carolina has joined Rhode Island, Michigan, and West Virginia in ending the custom.
Political scientists say which party benefits generally depends on location, local dynamics and the particular election cycle.
Still popular in the South, the straight-ticket option was used by 51 percent of Alabama voters in 2012, according to Governing magazine. Voters in Texas, Kentucky and Oklahoma also embrace it, with experts saying it has tended to swing down-ballot races to the Republicans.
In North Carolina, it’s the opposite, and more of a Democratic tradition. Current supporters, who are mostly Democrats, argue Republicans are eliminating it to thwart African-American voters. This is a similar line of logic the federal court followed when overturning parts of the 2013 law. On Thursday, federal judges cited race again in striking down nearly 30 state House and Senate districts as illegal racial gerrymanders.
Republicans say the move has nothing to do with race. They argue the straight-ticket option prevents voters from thinking critically about individual candidates. They also say it encourages partisan polarization.
Republicans say lower-level elections are particularly problematic, where issues like land development don't always fit neatly into Republican versus Democrat divisions. “The idea of continuing straight-ticket is to say that voters are stupid and that they are not smart enough to make their own decisions,” said Francis De Luca, president of Civitas Institute, the Raleigh-based conservative think tank.
An additional complexity: North Carolina always had a curious wrinkle in its straight-ticket provision. Voters could check one box to select all a party’s candidates — except for president and vice president. No other state had this oddity, which came about in the 1960s when North Carolina Democrats feared being too closely aligned with the national party’s civil rights involvement and Vietnam War opposition.
Described by some as a ballot flaw, the quirk has caused confusion. A North Carolina straight-ticket voter who doesn’t vote for president is described as making an “undervote.” The 2000 election featured a 3.15 percent presidential undervote, or roughly 92,000 ballots with no presidential selection. The 2004 undervote dropped to roughly 75,000 and by 2008 it was 48,300 votes, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections.
This year’s ballot, which local elections boards are currently wrestling over, will likely be even more complicated and much longer, pollsters say. Some predict long lines at polling stations.
Jim Williams, a PPP polling analyst, said that although Republicans pushed to end the practice, it could go against them this election.
“Ironically, there's a lot of energy on the Democratic side this year to be vigilant in educating voters about the new ballot geography,” he said. “They feel they are under siege.”
Williams said presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent significant money on voter outreach during March’s presidential primary and could again focus energy on educating voters about the new ballot.
“The Trump campaign didn’t bother with voter education in the primaries,” he added, “but the state Republican apparatus could pick up the slack in that regard.”
De Luca also foresees a lively November. When asked who might benefit from the loss of the straight-ticket option, he chuckled. “It depends on who brings what people to the ballot. If Trump brings the mythical nonvoters, and they vote for Trump, but don’t follow through on the rest of the ballot, it will hurt Republicans.”
With North Carolina a presidential battleground state and also the epicenter of the national voting rights battle, new ballots, undervotes and voter mistakes could be more important than ever. In 2000, Florida’s dramatic 36-day recount battle between Al Gore and George Bush came down to just 537 votes, many of which were ballots in dispute.