Everyone who watches the political process knows that there was an element of political partisanship when Michigan’s majority Republican Legislature voted a few months back to eliminate straight-party voting in elections. Power plays for party advantage go on all the time, conducted by both sides. On the Nov. 5 ballot, the state’s voters will have the chance to endorse what the Legislature did, or reject it.
In Georgia, Democrats abolished straight-party voting in 1994 because Georgians were increasingly opting for Republican presidential candidates and the Democrats wanted people to keep voting their way in local and state races. But now that evidence is mounting that the strategy has backfired, Democrats are mounting a major effort to restore straight-party voting. So within a decade, a major party in Georgia has been on both sides of the issue.
The political rhetoric over the Legislature’s vote to eliminate the straight-party option in Michigan doesn’t inspire confidence. Republicans generally deny partisan motives, as if they’d be for it even if they thought it would work against them on Election Day. Then you have people on their moral high horses opposing the ban in apocalyptic terms. One Democratic state senator argues that the ban “disen-franchises” voters, calling it nothing less than a “devastating attack on democracy.” The Michigan Trial Lawyers Association terms it “a body blow to voters’ rights and voters’ access.”
Oddly enough, some of the same people who urge voters to thoughtfully “vote for the person” want to make sure that on this occasion voters can quickly and easily do just the opposite.
Almost every election year, Michigan voters face initiative or referendum questions. Four will appear on this fall’s ballot, including the straight-party vote issue. No one argues that it would be wise to offer voters two boxes, one that says “Vote YES on all questions” and another one that says “Vote NO on all questions.” On the other hand, no one claims that we’ve been deprived of our rights because we have to examine ballot questions one by one and vote yes or no on each.
The Legislature’s ban on straight-party voting poses no threat to democracy. Already, the majority of states — 33 as of the 2002 presidential election — do not permit straight-party voting, and somehow those states have not become Third World satrapies. No one in Michigan will be denied the right or the opportunity to vote as a result of the Legislature’s action. Anyone who wants to vote only for candidates of one party will still be able to do so.
Putting aside the super-heated partisanship, is there merit to ending the straight-party voting option? In some places in Michigan, the percentage of the electorate that votes a straight ticket approaches 60 percent in general elections. About as many vote straight Republican in Kent County as vote straight Democrat in Wayne County. Without the ability to do that, the process of voting will take a little more time and lines could become longer, discouraging turnout. Some say this argues against the ban. But I think it argues for more polling booths. That’s how 33 other states have handled it. Why should that solution be beyond our reach?
Besides, there truly is merit in removing the straight-party option if it prompts voters to be more thoughtful because they have to look at individual names on the ballot and think about the choices in front of them before they vote. If the prospect of thinking and choosing keeps some people at home on Election Day, then it seems to me the problem here is not with the ballot. It’s with an electorate that doesn’t take its responsibilities in a free society seriously.
Many straight-ticket voters ignore important items on the ballot like nonpartisan races or those referenda and initiative questions. If the ban encourages them to cast a more complete ballot, then surely the cause of democracy is served. Surely, the right to vote is precious enough to be worth the effort of a thoughtful casting of votes, issue by issue, candidate by candidate.
Properly implemented, ending straight-party voting represents an appropriate refinement of democracy. But you’d hardly know this from the overheated political rhetoric that dominates the discussion.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)