History of Straight Ticket Voting and the Movement to Abolish It

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In 1994, Texans — along with the rest of America — went to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. Besides electing politicians to state and national offices, Texans also elected clerks, county officials, local political offices, and judges, including to Texas’ highest criminal court: the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Steve Mansfield ran as a Republican candidate for a seat on the court. He operated his campaign mostly from his car and motels, armed with about 50,000 push cards. Still, it’s highly unlikely that many of the 4.5 million Texans who filled out ballots knew who Steve Mansfield was; all they saw, if they even looked that far down the ballot, was his name and party affiliation.

What voters didn’t see was Mansfield’s dubious background: he had used illicit drugs in his youth, paid a fine in Florida for practicing law without a license, earned a reputation of conning women through personal ads, married, divorced, and neglected to pay for child support. He claimed to be born and raised in Texas when in fact he was born and raised in Massachusetts, and, in fact, was not a criminal lawyer at all.

Mansfield passed the Texas bar exam only two years earlier and almost all of his legal experience was serving as in-house counsel to insurance companies.

So, how did Mansfield get on the Republican ticket and, ultimately, elected? The short answer: lazy vetting on the part of the GOP and straight-ticket voting on the part of the Texas electorate.

Straight-ticket voting (STV), also known as straight-party voting, is the practice of voting for all the nominees for political office from a particular party, i.e. selecting all the Republicans or Democrats running for local, state, and national office.

While one way to vote straight down party lines is to literally go through the whole ballot and select each candidate of a preferred party, some states — including Texas — offer an option on the ballot which allows voters to check a single box to automatically select each candidate of their party of choice.

STV is a fast, convenient way to fill out a ballot, but by casting a straight-ticket ballot, a voter is essentially putting blind faith in their party to select (and thoroughly vet) quality candidates for “bottom ballot” offices like judges, clerks, etc. Indeed, STV takes a trusting soul.

Unsurprisingly, there are several cases of candidates like Steve Mansfield getting elected to offices for which they are woefully unqualified.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states offer STV options on their ballots, though the practice is steadily going out of fashion. Seven states have abolished it since 1994.

Should straight ticket voting be abolished in all states?

The latest state to pass a law abolishing STV is North Carolina, which abolished the ballot option as part of a sweeping Voter ID law passed earlier this year. New Mexico broke tradition in the 2012 elections when its GOP secretary of state unilaterally excluded the STV option in 2012’s election ballots. Democrats sued and the senate passed a bill with language to reinstate STV earlier this year.

Naturally, a state’s decision to include or abolish the STV option is inextricably political.

, while 18 percent were Republican STVs. Despite the difference, the GOP still won control of New Mexico’s governorship and the secretary of state’s office.

While it seems there isn’t necessarily a relationship between winning major offices and the amount of STVs won, these considerations didn’t stop the secretary of state from removing it, probably out of fear that it would help the Democrats in future elections. New Mexico’s GOP defended the move, arguing that it would bring “New Mexico into the twenty-first century.”

As facetious as the justification was, STV is, in fact, a very old school method of voting in the United States.

Today, many Americans take for granted the fact that the country’s voting system is based on privacy and standardized, government-issued ballots. In fact, it wasn’t America that pioneered the secret ballot, but rather Australia, thus earning the moniker “Australian ballot.”

Australia first used the secret ballot in 1856 and it quickly spread to European democracies and finally the United States. It wasn’t until 1892 that an American president (Grover Cleveland) was elected entirely by secret ballot.

Prior to the adoption of the Australian ballot, local political parties, not the government, provided ballots to voters with their party’s candidates already selected. There was nothing intimate about elections; ballots were cast in public, under the watchful eyes of party henchmen.

In order to make sure their ballots were being cast, parties would often color-code their ballots or give them unique shapes. That way party bosses could easily tell which party voters were selecting. Although it was possible to vote a split-ticket, it was discouraged because it was oftentimes confusing for the voter and they risked retribution and intimidation from party bosses.

When the United States adopted the Australian ballot, political parties no longer had control over the ballot. The format of the ballot was left to state governments. Some states adopted the Australian format where the names of all the candidates running for the same office are listed together in the same column (see picture).

australian ballot

Most states at the time adopted what is called the Belgian ballot format where the names of the candidates are arranged in parallel columns, each column representing a particular political party (see picture below). The Australian format favors voting for individuals whereas the Belgian ballot favors voting by party and thus incentivizes straight-ticket voting.

Belgian ballot

In short, for most of U.S. history, straight-ticket voting was the rule, not the exception. However, since the 1960s and 70s, the tide has turned against party loyalty. Today, over one-third of voters identify as independents.

Partially as a result, there is a movement at the national level to do away with STV. On March 4, 2013, a bipartisan coalition led by U.S. Reps. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) introduced H.R. 936, also known as the People Before Party Act of 2013, which seeks to ban STV for federal elections. Govtrack.us gives the bill a 7 percent chance of surviving committee.

Regarding the legislation, Dent stated the following:

“Voting is one of the most important rights and responsibilities of any American citizen. This legislation will promote thoughtful decision making in the voting booth by ensuring that ballots are designed to ask voters to select an individual candidate rather than a political party,”

“This legislation is one step we can take to reduce the role of parties in our elections and encourage everyone to vote for candidates for each federal office by voting the person, not the party,” he added.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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Leave a Comment
  1. Chris Charlton Now they are going to dumb down the voting, how lazy can Americans be that they don't even want to research the people they are voting for to run the country.
  2. Thomas Beebe Washington warned against them. But they do some good, such as publishing a platform.
  3. Thomas Beebe The option to split the ticket is not denied; how many voters know the qualifications of many on the ballot? Hell, how many know the qualifications of the one at the top?
  4. Ben Hardin No big deal one way or the other. There are much more important issues crying out for comprehensive electoral reform. For example, primaries and subsequent general elections should be nonpartisan. If some party wants to claim a candidate as their own that's ok with me.
  5. Benjamin Crabtree I have been voting in Texas for 40 years and not once have I even considered marking the straight party ticket - not that lazy.
  6. Belell Kaeh yes, cynicism, the solution to everything.
  7. Ted E. Bear This is ok, but then you flip the ballot over and the candidates on there don't have a party affiliation listed. That's why voters need to educate themselves !
  8. Americans for an American Rebirth Voting is a complete waste of time, the corporations completely own not only the polls, the media, and the parties, but EVERY candidate you are shown has already been approved by the people who own the Corporate Empire of America.
  9. Americans for an American Rebirth As soon as we eliminate the parties completely, there is a SMALL chance that we can start making a better country without violence.
  10. Erik McCormick People should never put faith in a single party. However, people are lazy and don't do their research, so I don't really see a problem with getting them out of the voting booth faster. Shorter lines for me.
110 comments
Chris Charlton
Chris Charlton

Now they are going to dumb down the voting, how lazy can Americans be that they don't even want to research the people they are voting for to run the country.

Thomas Beebe
Thomas Beebe

Washington warned against them. But they do some good, such as publishing a platform.

Thomas Beebe
Thomas Beebe

The option to split the ticket is not denied; how many voters know the qualifications of many on the ballot? Hell, how many know the qualifications of the one at the top?

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

No big deal one way or the other. There are much more important issues crying out for comprehensive electoral reform. For example, primaries and subsequent general elections should be nonpartisan. If some party wants to claim a candidate as their own that's ok with me.

Benjamin Crabtree
Benjamin Crabtree

I have been voting in Texas for 40 years and not once have I even considered marking the straight party ticket - not that lazy.

Belell Kaeh
Belell Kaeh

yes, cynicism, the solution to everything.

Ted E. Bear
Ted E. Bear

This is ok, but then you flip the ballot over and the candidates on there don't have a party affiliation listed. That's why voters need to educate themselves !

Americans for an American Rebirth
Americans for an American Rebirth

Voting is a complete waste of time, the corporations completely own not only the polls, the media, and the parties, but EVERY candidate you are shown has already been approved by the people who own the Corporate Empire of America.

Americans for an American Rebirth
Americans for an American Rebirth

As soon as we eliminate the parties completely, there is a SMALL chance that we can start making a better country without violence.

Erik McCormick
Erik McCormick

People should never put faith in a single party. However, people are lazy and don't do their research, so I don't really see a problem with getting them out of the voting booth faster. Shorter lines for me.

Roy Dickinson
Roy Dickinson

the dumbing down of the electorate continues !

Kathleen Findlay
Kathleen Findlay

I don't fit in any of the parties. I disagree with all of them over one thing or another.

Virginia Fran Boyd
Virginia Fran Boyd

A lot of people will vote straight party tickets. Never, ever do this. Do your homework and find out who is the best to fill the job.

Rachel Favori
Rachel Favori

Yeah! Abolish straight ticket voting! There are always candidates that I support mixed with those I don't trust to lead. I end up not marking them at all because I cannot bring myself to vote in the bad apples. It's not fair to the good ones or my fellow countrymen.

Carol McNeely
Carol McNeely

just another way to screw us all over, you need to vote the best person in to office whether they are republican or TEA Party. Or Tea PARTY.

Nancy Costello
Nancy Costello

Good for people who just blindly vote a party line. Not so much for thinkers along the Independent Voter lines.

Barbara Holmes
Barbara Holmes

Some voters, who do their homework prior to the election, find every Democrap they research and/hear to be disgusting liars, deceievers, in unity and therefore, not want this unity controlling America. A straight Republican ticket interrupts their "unity".

Mary Lourigan
Mary Lourigan

WI used to allow this also, with all the changes here, who knows what is what. I never did vote that way. I always vote for the candidate of my choice.

Jacqueline Lynn
Jacqueline Lynn

As bad as letting the DEAD and ILLEGALS vote on our RIGGED MACHINES!

Amanda Felix
Amanda Felix

I'm sure both parties love the sheople in their group but to SPV is to show your ignorance toward your party. Okay, you are a Dem or Rep or Ind... but at least research who you are voting for and if the guy or gal on the other party appears better, then vote for said person. Don't worry, the public, your party won't know who you voted for, it's private, no one will know unless you say it. Life long Democrat, Republican or Independent does not mean life long stupid

James William Junior
James William Junior

for low info voters only, just another way for the two major parties to stay in power

Linda Nebrich Beilein
Linda Nebrich Beilein

Not good. I always check out the credentials of who I vote for otherwise I would be giving up my constitutional right of choice.

Michael Loudermilk
Michael Loudermilk

This should already be illegal in all fifty states, its goes against everything our democratic system was built on....

Don Kasbohm
Don Kasbohm

You mean to tell me that IL actually managed to do something RIGHT???

Rebecca Woo
Rebecca Woo

The example given shows what can happen when people are apathetic and too lazy to do their homework. It's a dangerous way to vote. I'd rather have people not vote than be this uncaring about what happens in their country and communities.

Cindy Hall
Cindy Hall

i find info on all i vote for no matter what party your in,if your doing things that i think are good for our country i vote for you.

Jennifer Lavorel
Jennifer Lavorel

Easier than making the effort to understand positions and issues, which admittedly can consume gobs of time and energy. One question, I think, is whether straight party voting is better than not voting at all.

Angelica Scott-Phillips
Angelica Scott-Phillips

I am going to play devils advocate here...it's a persons right to be misinformed ignorant arrogant or just plain stupid...that's why the idealists the progressives and the hands on street Savy educated need to vote evey 2 or 3 to their 1 straight ticket. Other wise you end up like well texas...

Gary Olson
Gary Olson

Each vote for each candidate for elective office should, and must for the security of our nation, be entered into the record by the direct participatory hand of the voter. To check a box to slect the candidate is absolving the responsibility the voter has for electing the candidate of his choice by direct ballot. To do otherwise is not in the best interest of country, your state, your city or any other place where your vote counts, and it does count. If you leave the choice to someone else, then you have relinquished your duty as a citizen.

Terry David Bell
Terry David Bell

A good idea of course, but the states have the right/obligation to decide about ballots, electors qualifications, and elections.

Keith Watkins
Keith Watkins

worst idea ever. if you're doing that, why vote at all?

E Phil Haley
E Phil Haley

STV gives way too much power to the party. The power used to reside in the people; now it seems we've abdicated our position to one party or the other.

Michael Patrick Mahoney
Michael Patrick Mahoney

Of the 14, you'll find that at least half are states where Republican governors and lawmakers are pushing voter suppression/disenfranchisement legislation.

Paula Ralaford Davis
Paula Ralaford Davis

My mom took me with her to vote when I was 4. She told me all I ever needed to know about voting was to put an X under the picture of the elephant. I never voted straight ticket until the last 2 general elections.

Brian Biesemeyer
Brian Biesemeyer

Voters are ignorant and lazy. It isn't a problem in the ballot system, it's a problem in our society.

Dan Zink
Dan Zink

It's terrible. Lazy voters would use this and all it does is continue to put the big two parties in control. No one should vote straight party! Every candidate is different no matter what party they run under!

Sandra Brinker
Sandra Brinker

Stupid idea. Voters should be smart enough to know something about the candidates.

Debbie Nance
Debbie Nance

Obama has showed us a straight tickey of either party is not good