By Paul Rozycki
There are at least two ways to win an election.
Obviously, the best is to have a great candidate, put on the strongest campaign, sell your ideas to the voters and hope they support your views. At least that’s the classical democratic view of winning an election.
The other way is to massage the rules of the election so your party has a built-in edge. For the last decade or more the Republicans have been masterful at writing and rewriting the election rules to give them a great advantage.
Gerrymandering election districts
Perhaps most significant is the gerrymandering of election districts across the nation. In states where the Democrats have won the most votes for a particular office such as the state senate, state house or U.S. House, the Republicans have often claimed the most seats because of the way the election districts were drawn. Democrats aren’t exactly innocent in this gerrymandering game either. Given the opportunity, they have done the same to the Republicans.
Voter ID laws
Another technique is the voter ID requirement that has been passed in a number of states (though the courts have overturned several of those voter ID laws.) On the surface it seems reasonable to require a voter to have a legal identification card of some kind in order to cast a ballot—after all we need an ID to cash a check. Those who support those laws argue that they only want to protect the integrity of the ballot and prevent voter fraud. But most studies show that real voter fraud is very rare today and more the colorful lore of past corrupt political machines. The real reason behind these laws is that if voting becomes just a bit more difficult (not everyone has an ID and there can be some cost and effort to obtain one.) some people will decide not to bother voting—and most of those would be Democrats.
So the nut-and-bolts details of an election do matter.
In Michigan, the most recent tweaking of the rules has been the attempt to end what is commonly called “straight-ticket voting”–where one can vote for all the members of the Democratic or Republican Party by checking a single box.
On one level, it seems reasonable. After all, shouldn’t the voters take the time to learn about each and every candidate before they cast their ballots? Shouldn’t they know about the candidates for the Wayne State Board of Trustees as well as those running for president? Isn’t that what democracy is all about?
Yes, in the abstract that’s probably true. But one look at the motivation behind eliminating the straight ticket vote tells a different story. In Michigan most of those who use the straight ticket vote are Democrats—often minorities in urban areas. Those who favored the legislative change were Republicans.
Eliminating the straight ticket option would have several effects. First, it could hurt those candidates below the presidential level. The “down-ticket” offices—members of Congress, the state legislature, county officials and others would not benefit from the ‘coattail effect’ from the top of the ticket. In particular, the educations boards would be ignored. Usually there is little campaigning or information on the candidates running for the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State boards, as well as the State Board of Education. Usually the party that does well at the top of the ticket carries the educations boards. (In fact, the votes for the education boards are one of the best determinants of which party is doing well in a given election.)
Second, if the voters were required to pick their way through a long list of candidates, almost certainly the lines at the polls were be longer and voters might be discouraged from voting at all. Given the history in Michigan, the odds are that most of those discouraged voters would be Democrats—often those in urban areas. Worries about long lines and voting delays have caused many county clerks and election officials to support keeping the straight ticket option.
Third, Michigan voters had the opportunity to vote on ending the straight-ticket ballot in 1964 and 2002 and they said no on both occasions. This current version included an appropriation of $5 million to prevent the voters from repealing it by way of a referendum. Recently the legislature has often used the addition of a small appropriation to prevent the voters from undoing laws they have passed.
Fourth, party labels can be a pretty decent “brand” to decide who you like or don’t like. Today, if you are a conservative and favor a smaller government you will most likely prefer the Republican brand. If you are a liberal and prefer a more activist government you would likely prefer the Democratic brand. It’s not perfect, but in an age of ideologically divided parties, the party labels can tell the voters a lot.
Finally, the straight ticket is only an option. Voters are always free to go through the whole ballot and cast their votes for individual candidates as they choose.
Now it’s true that we are only one of 10 states to still allow for the straight-ticket vote. But Michigan has had it since 1892, and it’s worked pretty well.
It’s also true in in some abstract, pure democracy voters ought to be fully informed of every candidate on the ballot—from president to dog catcher. But the world rarely works that way, and this proposal was clearly aimed more at aiding Republicans than encouraging a fully informed electorate.
As things now stand a federal judge has blocked the law citing its discriminatory impact on minority voters. A federal appeals panel agreed.
More last minute appeals are possible before the November election, but for now, it looks like we still will have the option of voting a “straight ticket” this fall.
EVM political columnist Paul Rozycki can be reached at Paul.Rozycki@mcc.edu.