On the ballots used in the election last week in North Carolina, everyone had the opportunity to vote a “straight ticket.” It’s the first option on the ballot, thanks to the influence of the two major political parties who hold so much sway in our country.
For those who don’t follow politics, pushing the light next to the straight-party option means all of one’s votes will be cast for either the Republican or Democrat candidates. There are two very different problems with this option.
The first is that it allows voters to go to the polls after having done too little homework. Over the past decade, many laws have been passed to increase voter registration and to bolster turnout. Unfortunately, this hasn’t led to a more informed electorate. In fact, with totally inane television advertising ruling the day and the media less inclined to give much ink or air time to the issues, the probability is pretty good that voters today know less than ever about many of the candidates.
Because of this, too often an allegiance to someone at the top of the ticket — say John Kerry or George Bush in 2004, or Heath Shuler or Charles Taylor in 2006 — affects candidates all the way down the line.
A good example of this occurred in Haywood County this past election. Many political observers believe incumbent county commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican with a thoughtful approach to decision making, was beat because more than 4,800 Democrats voted a straight-party ticket. Many of those probably came to the polls because of the publicity surrounding the Taylor-Shuler race and knew absolutely nothing about this commissioner race. Informal exit polls conducted by The Smoky Mountain News indicated as much.
According to N.C. State Board of Elections statistics, there are 5.56 million voters in the state. Of those, 45 percent are registered Democrats, 35 percent are Republicans, and 20 percent are not affiliated with either of those parties. The truth is that our democracy would be best-served by removing the straight-ticket voting option from the ballot. It cedes too much power to the two-party system at the expense of doing homework on all the candidates.
The other problem with North Carolina’s balloting system is even more problematic. Because we have a straight-ticket option, many voters likely had their votes nullified in some races.
Once again, let’s use the Haywood County commissioner race as an example. There were three open seats. There were just two Republican candidates. If someone voted a straight party Republican ballot, they may have thought they could still vote for one of the Democrats in the Haywood commissioner race since the ballot said “you may vote for three” just above the names of the candidates for that race.
However, if a straight-party Republican voter also voted for one of the Democrats, their votes for the Republicans in that race would not have counted. That’s because of a little-known law that is printed at the beginning of the ballot. It says that if someone votes for a candidate not of the party for which they filled out a straight-party ticket, then they must also vote for the candidates of their party in that particular race.
In other words, if someone filled out a straight party GOP ballot and then voted in the commissioner race for one of the Democrats, their Republican votes in that race did not count unless they also pushed the light beside the Republican candidates.
This throwback to the old single-party Democratic days in the South was a means of protecting the status quo. Most often there weren’t enough Republican candidates to fill the vacant seats in most races. However, if one decided to vote straight-ticket Republican and then also voted for a Democrat to fill out the remaining seats, those Republican votes were lost. The problem today is that this quirk in the system is just troublesome and leads to votes not being counted as intended.
It’s two years before the next statewide election in North Carolina. Legislators — and voters — should take steps to change the election laws in this state to reflect today’s realities.