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.
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.
In New Mexico, 23 percent of the ballots cast in 2010 were straight ticket votes for the Democratic Party , 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.”
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).
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.
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.