Straightening Out Straight-Party Voting

The following article appeared in the May 3, 2002, edition of the MIRS Newsletter in answer to the question: "As the Michigan Democratic party works to secure on the ballot a referendum on the Legislature's removal of straight party line voting as an option, is the law as passed true election reform or a GOP power play?"

No one who watches the sausage factory known as the political process can claim with a straight face that there isn't some element of political partisanship-perhaps a big one-in the contentious debate over the elimination of straight-party voting.  Power plays for party advantage go on all the time by both sides.  It's the nature of the beast.  Sometimes it works out to the advantage of the citizenry at large, other times it benefits the powers-that-be at everyone else's expense. 

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

That point is abundantly evident in Georgia, where the same issue has been front-and-center in recent months.  The Democrats there got rid of 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, the 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.  Does anyone think that an altruistic spirit of true election reform is driving that?

Last September, a former Democratic Governor of Georgia had some interesting remarks about what he thought any lawmaker who wants to revive straight-party voting is really saying: "I don't trust my constituents enough to believe that many of them are informed and qualified voters, so I am voting to make it easy for them and in doing so, they will likely keep me in elective office."

The political rhetoric over this issue in Michigan doesn't inspire confidence.  Republicans generally and sanctimoniously deny partisan motives in ending straight-party voting, as if they would be for it even if they thought it would work against them on Election Day.  On the other side, you have people on their moral high horses opposing the ban in wildly hyperbolic, even apocalyptic terms.  One Democratic State Senator argues that the ban "disenfranchises" voters, calling it nothing less than a "devastating attack on democracy."  The Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, a huge funder of Democratic candidates and causes, terms it "a body blow to voters' rights and voters' access." 

Strange, isn't it, that some of the same people who will take the high road on most occasions and urge voters to thoughtfully "vote for the person" want to make sure that voters can quickly and easily do just the opposite.

The fact is that this is not the death knell of democracy.  The Republic will survive.  The planets will stay within their orbits and the sun will still come up in the east.  The majority of states-at least 33 at last count-do not permit straight-party voting and somehow those states have not become Third World satrapies.  The ban is not going to deny anyone the right or the opportunity to vote.  Anyone who wants to vote only for candidates of one party or the other will still be able to do so. 

Putting aside the super-heated partisanship, the question remains: 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 could therefore produce long lines, in turn discouraging turnout.  Some would say that this argues against the ban, but I think it argues for more polling booths.  Isn't that how those other 33 states have handled it?  Why should that solution be beyond our reach?

There is real merit in the ban if it prompts voters to be more thoughtful because they have to actually 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. 

Advocates of the ban-Republican or Democrat-who say that too many straight-ticket voters ignore important questions on the ballot like nonpartisan races or referenda have a good point.  If the ban encourages them to cast a more complete ballot, then surely the cause of democracy is served. 

Whether the cause of good government is served, however, is another matter.  People can end up with rotten government by not voting, and they can get it just as surely by voting.  As precious as it is, there's nothing about "democracy" that guarantees people will make the right choices. What people commonly think of as "democracy" is preferable to dictatorship because it permits changes in government policy without the need to shoot, hang, or guillotine anybody.  Those changes, however, will be in whatever direction public opinion is blowing at the moment-good or bad, smart or stupid, helpful or destructive.

This issue provides a perfect opportunity to explore a related concern that comes up after almost every election.  It's expressed this way: "Isn't it awful that so few people vote.  What we need are laws that make it easier to vote or laws that penalize people if they don't."

Don't get me wrong.  I cherish the right to vote-so much so that I don't want it belittled by those who think that just showing up at the polls and pulling a lever or two is all it takes to assure the survival of representative government.  There are some people who should vote, and then there are others who would do representative government a big favor if they didn't until they at least did their civic duty and became informed.  Imbedded in the popular complaint about the decline of voting among the American electorate is at least one assumption that is demonstrably false: that higher voter turnout is needed to somehow "make democracy work."

In the first half-century of America's experience as a nation, voter turnout was often much lower than it is today-frequently less than 20 percent of adult males actually cast ballots and the rest of the population was prohibited from voting altogether.  Part of this is explained by the presence of property requirements for voting in many states.  Most of our Founders and early leaders believed that people ought to have a direct and personal stake in the system before they could vote on who should run it.  The fact that in those years we managed with low voter turnout to elect the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams proves my point.  Voting should be regarded as something to be earned and taken seriously by those who vote and when it is, you can produce some pretty good legislators regardless of the total turnout or how the options are presented on the ballot.

Then there are those who want to make it so easy to vote that you wonder how anything so costless could be very meaningful.  A few years ago, a Colorado organization called "Vote by Phone" was promoting the idea of allowing Americans to cast their votes on Election Day by telephone from home instead of at local polling stations. 

Under the plan, all registered voters would be given 14-digit voter identification numbers.  Voters would call a toll-free number from touch-tone phones, punch in their ID numbers, and vote on candidates and ballot issues by punching other numbers.

Whether or not the science exists to resolve the inherent technical, security, and privacy questions, making voting easier should never take precedence over other systemic improvements-such as better-informed citizens voting and more reliable, truth-seeking statesmen and stateswomen running for office.  Low voter turnout is much less of a danger to our political system than quite a few other things.  For example: politicians who lie or prevaricate, steal, shirk their duties, shred the Constitution, or create rapacious bureaucracies; voters who don't know what they are doing and won't take the time to find out who is running for what; and people who think that representative government will be preserved by simply pulling levers or punching ballot cards or making phone calls.

Surely, the right to vote is precious and vital enough to be worth the effort of a trip to the polling place and a thoughtful casting of votes race by race, issue by issue, candidate by candidate.

Moreover, those who bemoan low voter turnout shouldn't be so quick to stereotype the non-voters.  If a non-voter's excuse is that he doesn't know what he should to vote intelligently, he should be thanked for avoiding decisions he's unprepared to make and encouraged to educate himself.  If a non-voter is simply disgusted with lies and broken promises, or just doesn't want to choose between Scarface and Machine Gun Kelly, then maybe it's the politicians who should listen and learn; the non-voters are trying to tell them something.

The furor over ending straight-party voting is much ado about very little.  It's probably sound policy if properly implemented but the political rhetoric over it prevents a genuinely thoughtful examination of its merits.