Iowawatch.org has written a nice analysis of straight ticket voting in Iowa, based on data newly released by the Iowa Secretary of State’s Director of Elections, Sarah Reisetter. (The story has been picked up by a number of papers in the state, including the Des Moines Register.)
It’s wonderful that Iowa is releasing this information; the county by county breakdowns, further broken down by absentee and in-person voting, is available on a Tableau spreadsheet at Iowa Watch. (Although a constructive suggestion to Director Reisetter and newly elected Secretary of State Paul Pate: use social media to your advantage. Your Twitter feed is four years old and has a grand total of zero tweets; your Facebook page has never been updated; and there is no press release or URL that I can find with these data or an announcement of the data. It’s hard to crowd source policy recommendations when the data are hidden.)
The main story line, however, is about efforts in the state legislature to remove the straight ticket option from the Iowa ballot. Rep. Jim Cownie says that removing the straight ticket option will “remove some partisanship from the [election] process”, while former U.S. Representative Jim Leach, now a visiting professor at the University of Iowa Law School, writes that removing the option will be in the “best interests” of Iowa voters, and that the option is there because “activists in each party who have believed at various points in time that it benefits them.” Unattributed “critics” cited in the story forward the claim that “(w)hile it helps candidates with party affiliations, it also results, critics fear, in voters skipping the rest of the ballot, overlooking ballot initiatives, township races and the retention of judges.” (Political science refers to this as “roll off”.)
There is no doubt that including a straight ticket option on the ballot increases the proportion of voters who cast a straight ticket. But it is not clear that the other claims made by Leach, Rep. Cownie, or “critics” stand up to scrutiny.
I contacted two experts on straight ticket voting, Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin and David Kimball of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, co-authors of a 2002 University of Michigan Press book on split ticket voting and 1998 APSR article on the same topic. I posed these questions to Burden and Kimball, with their responses below.
- Do you think having a straight ticket option on the ballot increases roll off? Answer: yes, slightly, but it’s more a function of ballot design than the straight ticket option per se.
Kimball: In my research with Martha Kropf we found that the straight-party option only slightly reduces roll off in presidential and gubernatorial elections. We also find that the straight party option substantially increases roll off on ballot measures – people who check a straight party tend to think they are finished voting and don’t realize the feature does not apply to nonpartisan portions of the ballot.
- Does the straight ticket option increase party polarization / partisanship? Answer: no, or very unlikely.
Burden: I don’t see what mechanism would cause the straight-party option to increase polarization (of candidates or voters). Maybe it makes candidates less able to differentiate themselves from partisan tides and ideological movements. One could argue that it might do the opposite, by making simple party labels more important than issues.
Kimball: The trend is that several states have dropped the straight party option over the last two decades as polarization has increased. Actually, I don’t think the straight party feature has any impact on polarization, although I have not tested that claim.
- Does the straight ticket option encourage voters to “vote the candidate” or result in more informed voting? Answer: a strong no.
No direct response from Burden and Kimball other than a confirmation of my own summary of the extant literature:
Gronke: Your 1998 paper, if I read it correctly, shows that providing the straight ticket option reduces Pres/Senate ticket splitting (no huge surprise there) but more interestingly that more distinct ideological positions by candidates *decreases* split tickets (doesn’t this run contrary to the claim by Jim Leach in the story that the straight ticket option will increase polarization?).
I also found this oldie goldie by Jack Walker that does a nice job summarizing a few decades of research into the topic, fairly conventional findings (these days): more complex ballots increase roll off, straight ballot options are chosen by better informed voters (not less informed), etc. Both results, again in my view, argue against Leach’s claims.
To summarize: there is some evidence that having the straight ticket option on the ballot increases roll-off in down ballot, non-partisan races, but mainly because it is not made clear to voters that the straight ticket option does not apply. That may be fixed via good ballot design. There is little evidence that the straight ticket option increases partisan polarization and there is longstanding and consistent evidence that removing the straight ticket option makes voting more complicated and difficult.
One final empirical point of reference is North Carolina, which eliminated straight ticket voting as part of a package of election reforms in 2014. While there are not data yet to be analyzed from the 2014 election, 56% of voters in the state used the straight ticket option in 2012.