By Aaron Blake - 11/21/06 12:00 AM EST
With just one mark, more than 61,000 Rhode Islanders cast their vote for Senate candidate Sheldon Whitehouse and every other Democrat on the ballot two weeks ago.
The number outpaced the number of straight-Democratic voters in the 2002 midterm election by 23,000 — a 66 percent increase from one midterm to the next — and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has suggested the increase is partly to blame for his ouster.
In Chafee’s case, the increase isn’t enough to cover the 26,000 votes by which he lost. But many Republicans around the country lost by much narrower margins and, where figures are available, the number of Democratic “straight-party” voters rose much like it did in Rhode Island.
Some say the straight-party ballot option, which allows voters to choose all candidates from one party with a single selection, exaggerated the national Democratic wave in the 16 states that still use it and might have cost Republicans a number of congressional seats; others say it couldn’t have had that much of an impact.
Regardless, in several of these states, sharp increases in straight-party votes for Democrats are putting the magnifying glass to this slowly dying ballot option, and some state leaders are pledging to fight it in the months ahead.
The theory is that giving voters the option to vote exclusively for one party gives them an attractive shortcut and hurts individual candidates who would otherwise be considered on their merits. For example, even if a voter likes a certain Republican and would vote for him head-to-head, he or she might just check straight-Democratic and never make that head-to-head decision.
On average, about one-third of voters use the option where it is available.
Of the 29 seats House Republicans have lost thus far in this year’s election, 15 came in the 16 straight-party states, and three more are still possible. Also, several of the most stunning GOP losses occurred in these states, including Rep. Jim Leach in Iowa, Reps. Jeb Bradley and Charlie Bass in New Hampshire and Rep. Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania.
“I think it hurt us in a number of areas,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), a longtime straight-party option opponent who last week lost a bid to lead House Republicans’ 2008 campaign. “Clearly, the Democrats were able to win in some districts with candidates of notoriously limited qualifications.”
English first worked to kill the straight-party option as a state Senate staffer many years ago. Pennsylvania remains one of the 16 states to use it, but that number has fallen slowly since the mid-20th century, when more than half of states used it.
Missouri is the most recent state to kill the straight-party option, doing so before this year’s election, and Illinois got rid of it in 1997. In 2002, Michigan’s state legislature did away with it, but a Democrat-led ballot initiative saved it.
The straight-party option is largely seen as a boon to the party with the larger segment of the population, but it has predominantly been fought by Republicans and supported by Democrats in recent years, as was the case in Michigan, Missouri and Illinois.
As far as its impact on 2006, the statistical evidence is incomplete and doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. Most states and many counties don’t tally straight-party votes.
But anecdotal evidence makes it clear that straight-Democratic voting rose everywhere. In every county where numbers were obtained, it rose significantly over the 2002 midterm election and sometimes over even the 2004 presidential election, when overall turnout was much higher.
Straight-Republican voting, meanwhile, appeared constant.
In Linn and Johnson counties, which accounted for about three-fifths of voters in Leach’s southeastern Iowa district, straight-Democratic voting rose by nearly 10,000 votes, or 41 percent, between 2002 and this year. The amount exceeded the 6,000 votes by which Leach lost to Democrat David Loebsack in arguably the biggest upset of the election.
In Wisconsin, Green Bay-based Brown County cast more than one-third of the 8th District’s 275,000 votes and saw straight-Democratic voting increase from 7,300 to 14,000. Democrat Steve Kagen wrested the Republican-held open seat by about the same margin.
In Pennsylvania’s 4th District, where Hart lost by 9,000 votes, Lawrence County experienced a similar twofold increase in straight Democratic voters, from 4,700 in 2002 to 9,200 this year.
Straight-party voting could also sneak into some still-developing races in New Mexico and North Carolina, where Republican Reps. Heather Wilson and Robin Hayes appear to be headed for reelection but lead by less than 900 and 400 votes, respectively.
Numbers were unavailable in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, which contains the entire Louisville-based 3rd District and where Rep. Anne Northup (R) lost to Democrat John Yarmuth by 6,000 votes. But Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson said the results should renew interest in killing the straight-party option.
Grayson, a Republican, last year partnered with a Democratic state House leader in an effort to eliminate the option, and he promises to push it again this session.
“I anticipate that, because of the results in the election in various places around Kentucky, we might get a little bit more interest in it,” Grayson said.
Grayson pointed to a county clerk candidate in the Cincinnati suburbs who had withdrawn from the race two weeks before the election but remained on the ballot. Despite significant publicity and a note stating he had withdrawn, the candidate almost won, Grayson said.
Grayson attributed that to straight-party voting and also said down-ballot Democrats in Jefferson County might have been helped by the option this year.
Those down-ballot candidates are the biggest beneficiaries of straight-party ballots, while the higher-profile races tend not to be affected as much, said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“It tends to have a bigger effect on the contests that are farther down the ballot — the ones that would get skipped from voters getting tired of spending their time in the voting booth,” Kimball said.
He said the straight-party option might have played a role in the massive shift in the New Hampshire state House, where Democrats overtook nearly a quarter of the 400 seats, but the impact on races like Bradley’s and Bass’s was likely negligible.
Straight-Democratic votes outnumbered straight-Republican votes in the state by about a 60-40 margin. Despite the win, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan last week said Democrats will continue their long-standing opposition to the option and try to kill it now that they hold majorities in both houses.
A study of the 1992 election in North Carolina concluded the straight-party option could have a statistically significant impact on U.S. House races, but not on major statewide, U.S. Senate or even state legislature races.
Research on the topic is scant, but University of Rochester political science professor Richard Niemi said recent field experiments he has conducted show people are often confused by the straight-party option, and most experts agree that it encourages voters to not take the time to get educated about candidates.
“It seems pretty clear that what it was designed for is to keep people voting for a particular party without thinking about who they were voting for,” Niemi said.