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.
A number of stories have been appearing in regional press outlets concerning the impact of voting law changes in North Carolina, most prompted by a new analysis released by Democracy North Carolina (linked in the first story below).
A quick rundown of sources with quick annotations.
- The N&O, as it’s fondly referred to in the state, is still pretty much the newspaper of record. This story http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/12/25/4429126/vote-still-out-on-impact-of-states.html by Colin Campbell details some early analyses by Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina with rejoinders by Susan Myrick of the Civitas Institute. (Can’t find any printed reports by Myrick.)
- This story http://www.macroinsider.com/politics/data-show-nc-unaffiliated-voting-surged-in-2014-h10907.html highlights another portion of Hall’s report that shows how a surge of unaffiliated voters played an important role in Tillis’s Senate victory over Hagen.
- In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Robert Popper, previously Deputy Chief in the Voting Rights Section from 2008-13 and now Judicial Watch, argues that higher turnout in NC in 2014 belies any claims that voting law changes suppressed the vote. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-voter-suppression-myth-takes-another-hit-1419811042
- Nate Cohn of the Upshot / NY Times provides another angle on the partisan impact of turnout in NC in 2014. There was strong turnout among many groups in NC, Cohn argues, but these groups broke for Tillis. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/upshot/why-even-a-good-midterm-turnout-for-democrats-in-north-carolina-fell-short.html
A new article in the American Political Science Review by four graduate students at Harvard University uses a creative field experiment to show that local election officials are less likely to respond to informational inquiries from individuals with “putatively Latino names.”
In the article, titled “What Do I Need to Vote? Bureaucratic Discretion and Discrimination by Local Election Officials”, the authors describe the results of a large (N=6825) contact efforts, spread across 46 states. The emails contained requests for information about voting or about requirements for a voter ID and are fairly generic:
The text of the voter ID email was as follows:
I’ve been hearing a lot about voter ID laws on the news.
What do I need to do to vote?
(Jose Martinez, Jake Mueller, Luis Rodriguez, or Greg
The control email was as follows:
I’ve been wondering about this. Do you have to vote in
the primary election to be allowed to vote in the general
(Jose Martinez, Jake Mueller, Luis Rodriguez, or Greg
These are fairly
generic emails, but there was a statistically significant lower probability of receiving any response and receiving an informative response for those emails sent from names that appeared to be Latino. See the table for the key results (click on the image for a larger view).
The authors are quick to note that this is not an article about election officials per se, but about discretion provided to “street level bureaucrats” in implementing laws and regulations. However, they also note that this may raise concerns about the impact of voter ID laws on specific populations.
For interested readers, the full abstract is below:
Do street-level bureaucrats discriminate in the services they provide to constituents? We use a field experiment to measure differential information provision about voting by local election administrators in the United States. We contact over 7,000 election officials in 48 states who are responsible for providing information to voters and implementing voter ID laws. We find that officials provide different information to potential voters of different putative ethnicities. Emails sent from Latino aliases are significantly less likely to receive any response from local election officials than non-Latino white aliases and receive responses of lower quality. This raises concerns about the effect of voter ID laws on access to the franchise and about bias in the provision of services by local bureaucrats more generally.
Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy
Volume: 13, Number: 4, December 2014
A story in the San Jose Mercury News has the seemingly odd title: “Snail Mail the solution to slow Silicon Valley vote totals?”
And it is an odd story–the reporter is trying to get at a point but has botched it pretty badly under some inaccurate quotes and incomplete understanding about the technology of processing mail ballots and peculiarities of California election law.
Let’s start with the quote, about voting by mail and turnout. I’m not quite sure if Tony Green, chief spokesperson for Secretary of State Kate Brown, said what the reporter said he said–the one sentence lead in just doesn’t jibe with Tony’s quote:
Advocates say all-mail elections boost turnout while avoiding the equipment and personnel costs of traditional polling places.
“Oregon had the highest turnout of any state in the country in November,” said Tony Green, spokesman for that state’s elections office. He said they usually have very strong turnouts that are credited to the ease of voting by mail. “You have mailing costs, but significantly lower personnel costs.”
The quote is all about mailing costs and personnel–but there is that (accurate) statement that Oregon had the highest turnout of any state in 2014. Is this attributable to voting by mail? If it is, that would be something of a surprise, since I have shown in numerous places (most recently here with my colleague Peter Miller) that voting by mail makes a slight contribution to Oregon’s turnout rate–at best a few percentage points.
Oregon’s demographics are what mainly contribute to it being a high turnout state. I haven’t look in detail at the 2014 data, but I’d be very surprised if the comparatively high turnout in 2014 was because Oregon comparatively has lower percentages of those groups (notably African Americans and Latinos) who turned out at comparatively lower rates in 2014.
In addition, Oregon had a number of high profile ballot initiatives, into which outside donors sank tens of millions of dollars that smashed previous records for such spending.
I’ve had great interactions with Tony, as I’ve had with all of the election officials in Oregon, but the more accurate statement would be that VBM has led to clean registration rolls, lower costs, and high levels of voter satisfaction, even if it does not translate into substantial increases in turnout, at least in federal contests.
But the real gist of the story in the Merc has to do with how ballots are cast and counted in California. California has a very liberal set of balloting procedures, put in place so that no citizen is disenfranchised just because they happen to drop a ballot at the wrong precinct, or drop an absentee ballot at the precinct place, and now even if they mail the ballot by election day (rather than delivering it by election day).
(Kim Alexander of the California Voting Foundation details the various procedures in this extensive report.)
The main reason that California has a slow count is that a) millions of California voters hand deliver their absentee ballots to the precinct place on election day. These ballots are not read through the optical scanner at the precinct place–they can’t because the signatures need to be verified, the ballots need to be separated from the ballot envelope, the ballots need to be inspected (and potentially “remade” or “remarked”–and this can only be done under the scrutiny of an elections board), and, finally, the ballots can be counted.
The technology referred to by the reporter, in place in King County, WA, can not speed up the tallying of ballots in the Valley if and until California were to go fully by mail. The reason Washington, and Oregon, and Colorado, and other fully vote by mail states can process their mail ballots quickly is because all counting is done at the central office.
There are not tens of thousands of precinct places with millions of unprocessed vote by mail ballots accumulating in “red bags,” waiting to be delivered to the county offices after polls close.
All in all, the story is a mish mash. “Snail mail” really has little to do with the question of the slow count, and vote by mail won’t solve California’s slow count unless they get rid of precinct place voting altogether. I don’t see that on the horizon.
Sec’y of State Tom Schedler encourages voters to cast an early ballot: http://www.theadvertiser.com/story/news/local/louisiana/2014/11/21/know-early-voting-starts-saturday/19353791/
State Rep. Marcus Hunter claims that the early voting period needs to be extended because of Thanksgiving. http://www.thenewsstar.com/story/news/politics/2014/11/21/early-voting-runoff-election-begins-saturday/19350131/
Landrieu marching in an early voting rally: http://www.ksla.com/story/27459110/landrieu-kicks-off-early-voting-period-by-marching-with-voters
Another rally in Monroe, LA: http://www.myarklamiss.com/story/d/story/la-dems-hold-voting-rally/40289/sejB5OWYdk-ecIwmnLVSVA
Electionline has a great story on “vote shaming” and how some are reacting to the tactic. Christopher Mann, Assistant Professor of Communication and Political Science at LSU is prominently quoted in the story and does a good job explaining the academic research the underlies the technique.
Self promotion alert.
Here is a story profiling my distinguished chaired visiting professorship at Appalachian State University.
A set of companion bills (HB111, SB84) have been introduced in the Texas legislature that would allow for same-day registration during the period of early voting (SB84 looks like it is an attempt to institute same day registration for early and election day voting).
This has always struck me as an easy lift. At a recent conference, Charles Stewart referred to the “two percent rule,” indicating that most election reforms would result in, at best, a 2% change in turnout. I agree with Charles except for same day registration; we have lots of evidence that this reform results in a larger and consistently positive boost in turnout.
And since the same day registration occurs during early voting, there is no issue with jurisdictions not having enough time, staff, or resources on election day to make sure the registration is valid.
These may have no chance in the legislature, but it’s nice to see the debates occurring.
A number of changes in California law should result in more ballots being counted because voters have a few more days to return the ballots, and election officials have a few more days to resolve any outstanding issues with signatures.
But this will surely slow the count in California as officials process vote by mail ballots.