By Jason M. Roberts
The election reform bill that is being considered in Pennsylvania will inflict considerable harm on Pennsylvania’s voters and the state’s Democratic party.
While there are good provisions in this bill, my research suggest that the elimination of the straight ticket voting option will depress turnout in urban areas and areas with large numbers of minority voters.
My research on straight ticket voting has demonstrated that it is typically concentrated in urban areas that contain large Democratic constituencies.
More than half of voters in North Carolina used the straight ticket option in 2012, but this percentage was considerably higher in urban counties with large minority populations.
These areas are densely populated and as a result the voting precincts are often heavily trafficked on Election Day. Allowing voters who wish to vote for all candidates of the same party the option of doing so with a single ballot mark speeds up the voting process for the voters in these precincts.
Banning straight ticket will increase the length of lines at the polls in many areas.
In North Carolina, wait times increase significantly after the straight ticket option was eliminated in 2013. In fact, in 2014 North Carolina had the longest estimated wait times in the country — despite having an early voting period. The increased wait times were not evenly distributed throughout the state, but rather increased the most in urban areas that have large minority populations.
Long wait times are not just an inconvenience for voters: They are associated with high rates of ballot rolloff in down ticket races and most troubling they deter some voters from participating at all.
In North Carolina, my research found that in counties with high levels of straight ticket voting in 2012, approximately 4 out every 100 African-American voters who voted in 2012 were deterred from voting in 2016 due to the elimination of the straight ticket voting option in North Carolina.
It is no surprise that Pennsylvania Republican support removal of the straight ticket option as they have pursued this policy goal in a number of states including North Carolina, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia.
Their argument that they want to encourage more “contemplative’’ voting, however, is farcical. The trial record in Michigan laid bare the fact the Republicans wanted this change so that they could win more elections in the state by deterring Democrats from voting.
When the bill eliminating straight ticket voting in Michigan passed the state’s Senate, Betsy DeVos sent an email to the chamber’s majority leader congratulating him on the bills passage and saying, ”While only time will bear out the importance of this for those running ‘down ticket,’ the implications are significant!”
The implications of this bill’s passage would indeed by significant. The increased funds for voting equipment and a loosening of the rules surrounding absentee balloting are positive steps, but their long term positive effects on turnout are likely to be swamped by deterrent effect of eliminating the straight ticket voting option.
Pennsylvania will likely again be an electoral battleground in 2020 and we have every reason to expect very high turnout in the state.
Eliminating straight ticket voting on the eve of this election will hand a significant advantage to Pennsylvania Republicans.
Having such a bill signed by a Democratic governor is nothing short of an “own goal” that the party should avoid at all costs.
Jason M. Roberts is the associate chairman and a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill.