Scrap straight ticket voting? Better to stick with the devil you know | Fletcher McClellan

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A compromise election bill that will deliver some badly needed election reforms won approval from the Republican-controlled state House and Senate on Tuesday.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the legislation, which will, among other things, bring the deadline for voter registration closer to Election Day, allow voting by mail, and insure that absentee ballots will be counted. Wolf plans to sign the legislation.

In response to concerns about election security, the legislation will also provide counties $90 million to install voting machines that contain paper trails for possible recounts.

These are needed changes in election law and administration that will facilitate voter access and increase citizen confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.

However, there is one additional item that could undo the benefits of the other pieces of the legislative package.

Conceding to GOP demands, Wolf  agreed to the end of straight-party voting , which allows voters to mark one box to choose a party slate of candidates.

Earlier this year, Wolf vetoed a Republican bill in that tied the end of straight-ticket voting to election security funding. He argued that the change would lengthen the time it takes for voters to complete ballots, leading to long lines at the polls.

GOP leaders replied that eliminating the straight-party option would result in voters making more thoughtful decisions by weighing the merits of individual candidates for each office.

House Republicans called the straight-party ballot “antiquated.” Indeed, Pennsylvania is one of only nine states to continue the practice.

Underlying the debate is politics, of course.

Democrats fear eliminating the straight-party option will disproportionately burden their supporters. Opponents characterize the change as a form of voter suppression that makes it harder for people with full-time jobs on Election Day to have sufficient time to vote.

Behind in overall party registration by 800,000 voters, the Pennsylvania GOP believes the change will help narrow the gap, particularly in down-ballot races. The presumption is that low-information voters, more likely to be Democrats, will only vote for president or governor and neglect to cast votes for less-publicized races.

The failure of voters to complete the lower part of the ballot is what political scientists call voter fatigue or roll-off. The effects of ballot structure on the vote is one of the oldest veins of research in the discipline.

Before the 1900s, ballots were composed and distributed by the political parties, a practice that unsurprisingly favored the party in power.

Once the so-called Australian or neutral ballot, printed by the state, was adopted at the urging of the anti-party Progressive movement, parties continued their influence over elections through the straight-party option and the party-column ballot, in which voters mark party candidates for office in a vertical line.

Reformers came up with the office-block ballot, which forces voters to jump from office to office to make their choices. This has the effect of reducing party voting and, at the same time, increasing roll-off and the number of spoiled ballots.

Politically, this meant that voters with less education and lower socio-economic status were more likely to cast incomplete or incorrectly marked ballots.

Going back to the 1930s, Republicans advocated the office-block format, as they are condemning one-punch, straight-ticket voting now.

Pennsylvania has, in effect, an office-block ballot with a straight-party option. Eliminating the one-check alternative will increase roll-off among voters who do not have the economic resources to influence politicians.

Democrats, most of whom oppose the compromise bill, are right to believe they will be disadvantaged. One study indicates that African-Americans are twice as likely as white voters to cast incomplete ballots when no straight-ticket option is available.

Presumably, Wolf, who has a doctorate in political science, knows all this.

He may be thinking that Democratic losses from the removal of the straight-ticket box will be offset by increased absentee voting (for example, from Democratic-leaning college students), and the later deadline for voter registration, which will be 15 days prior to the election instead of 30 days.

Another offsetting factor could be the kind of voting technology Pennsylvania counties adopt. For example, roll-off is minimized by machines that notify voters they have not completed their ballots. How technology will affect the decisions of the large number of older voters in Pennsylvania is a big unknown.

Or, Wolf believes that political alignments are changing. Democrats are gaining support among suburbanites and the well-educated, groups that are less affected by changes in the ballot.

Anyone who recalls the “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballot” in the controversial 2000 Florida recount knows that ballot design meant the difference between electing George W. Bush or Al Gore as president.

Ballot design in Pennsylvania may also determine whether President Donald Trump serves one or two terms.

Capital-Star opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly. Readers may follow him on Twitter at @McCleleF.