CRC Memorandum

  No. 1065 A publication of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan September 2002  

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Proposal 02-01: Straight-Ticket Voting

Proposal 02-01 on the November 5 statewide ballot is a referendum on Public Act 269 of 2001, an amendment to the Michigan Election Law enacted following the national controversy surrounding the 2000 Presidential election. Much of PA 269 deals with election matters such as providing for training of local elections officials, challenged ballots, an expedited canvass if the vote differential is close, screening of absentee ballots, and penalties for stealing campaign signs and for campaign work while being paid as a public employee to perform election duties. However, provisions in PA 269 -- enacted by votes in the Senate and House that followed party lines -- that prohibit straight-ticket voting led Democratic Party members to circulate petitions to ask a referendum on enactment of this act.

Under Michigan law, when sufficient signatures are filed to call for a vote, the act in question is suspended until the results of the election are determined. A yes vote on Proposal 02-01would approve enactment of PA 269 and the election reforms would become law. With a no vote, PA 269 would not take effect, and a new bill would be necessary if the other elections reforms contained in Act 269 -- such as providing for challenged ballots or an expedited canvass -- were considered important enough to pursue.

Straight-Ticket Voting

A straight-ticket ballot option -- also known as a straight-party option or one-punch voting option -- permits voters to pull a single lever, punch a single chad, or make a single mark in the partisan section of a ballot to vote for all candidates with that partyís designation. For example, choosing the straight-ticket ballot option in the November 2002 election will cast a vote for the party candidates on the partisan ballot for the offices of Governor, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, Attorney General, as well as the candidates running for the Michigan Senate, Michigan House of Representatives, and partisan county and municipal offices. The straight-ticket ballot option does not affect non-partisan candidates or ballot questions.

Elimination of the single-ticket ballot option would not prohibit a voter from casting votes along party lines. It would simply take away the ability to cast all of those votes with a single vote.

Why is Straight-Ticket Voting Available?

Two developments in the voting process in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the adoption of the straight-ticket ballot option.

The Long Ballot. The first development was associated with Jacksonian democracy, in which the appointive status of many governmental officials was abandoned and converted to direct election for short terms. The people in the United States directly elect more officials than most other nations, and the general election ballot in Michigan is among the longest in the nation. In 1984, CRC reported that Michigan voters elect over 19,000 state and local officials. A single voter is asked in an election cycle to vote on between 54 and 150 officials of state government and the judiciary and from 23 to 37 local government officials. (See Council Comments No. 951, The Long Ballot in Michigan, November 1984.)

Australian Ballot. The second development was adoption of the "Australian ballot." Prior to this reform, votes were cast when each voter submitted papers with the names of the preferred candidates for each office. Ballots could be written out at home, at the polling place, or prepared ballots could be picked up from newspapers, party offices, union halls, or churches with the names of candidates supported by that particular institution.

Introduction of a voting system originated in Australia in 1856, which used government-printed ballots that listed all qualifying candidates, brought reform to elections, but significantly slowed the voting process. Voters now had to go into a voting booth and mark each of the names of their preferred candidates.

Confronted with a large number of individual candidates, a result common for many voters is "ballot roll-off," where voters cast votes for high profile offices but fail to vote for offices further down the ballot. Ballot roll-off is commonly attributed to voter fatigue -- when voters tire of the voting process. Voter fatigue occurs most frequently for offices for which there is little recognition of the office responsibilities and little ability to judge the qualifications of the candidates -- and voter confusion -- when voters lack full understanding of the voting technology, ballot instructions, or ballot design.

In Michigan and many other states, the legislative reaction to the combination of a long ballot and the Australian ballot was to enable voters to cast a single vote for all candidates with their preferred partyís designation.

What Led to the Prohibition against Straight-Ticket Voting?

The debate over the design of the ballot used in Palm Beach County, Florida in the 2000 election made clear that there is no such thing as a "neutral" ballot design. Ballot designs, election processes, and provision of options such as straight-ticket voting, while seen by one of the political parties as straight-forward and accommodating, can often be viewed by another political party as biased.

While the direction of straight-ticket voting tends to reflect party strength in each jurisdiction (in Utah, for example, more voters cast Republican straight-ticket votes than Democratic), a study of "Straight-Party Ballot Options and State Legislative Elections," (by David C. Kimball, Chris T. Owens, and Matt McLaughlin) cites several studies that show unrecorded votes ("ballot roll-off") are more common in areas with concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income residents, less-educated citizens, or elderly voters. They cite another study finding when the straight-party option is available, Republicans are more likely to vote straight ticket the conventional way without using the straight-party punch. Their conclusion is that in urban areas, the presence of a straight-ticket ballot option helps Democratic candidates, while its absence helps Republican candidates.

Use of the Straight-Ticket Option

"Straight-Party Ballot Options and State Legislative Elections" indicates that roughly one-third of voters in the United States use the straight party option when it is on the ballot. Table 1 is a tally of Michigan counties and cities where data are available from the canvass of the 2000 presidential election. Although not a random sample, these data indicate that usage of this option in Michigan might be more frequent than is the case nationally. The table also illustrates how use of the straight-ticket option affects parties in different geographical areas. In Detroit and Southfield, more than two-thirds of the ballots cast used the straight-ticket option, predominantly for Democratic Party candidates. In West Michigan, Ottawa County voters used the straight-ticket option on almost the same percentage of ballots cast, but these votes were cast predominantly for Republican Party candidates.

Table 1
Straight-Ticket Voting Use by Voters in Select Counties and Cities in the 2000 Presidential Election

Votes Cast
Party Identification for Those
That Used the Straight-Ticket Option
Unit Total
Ballots Cast
Number Percent of
How Many
How Many
Bay 52,043 16,864 32.4% 4,990 29.6% 11,586 68.7%
Berrien 65,685 34,598 52.7% 19,952 57.7% 14,250 41.2%
Calhoun 54,658 24,324 44.5% 11,265 46.3% 12,696 52.2%
Charlevoix 12,713 4,912 38.6% 2,913 59.3% 1,859 37.8%
Clinton 32,339 12,278 38.0% 7,570 61.7% 4,534 36.9%
Crawford 6,600 1,801 27.3% 866 48.1% 819 45.5%
Dickinson 12,952 3,712 28.7% 1,465 39.5% 2,172 58.5%
Emmet 14,901 5,302 35.6% 3,728 70.3% 1,524 28.7%
Gladwin 11,972 3,980 33.2% 1,603 40.3% 2,287 57.5%
Genesee 194,629 97,232 50.0% 24,852 25.6% 71,041 73.1%
Gogebic 8,491 2,845 33.5% 818 28.8% 1,970 69.2%
Ingham 123,664 45,863 37.1% 17,288 37.7% 27,779 60.6%
Iosco 13,529 4,134 30.6% 1,783 43.1% 2,266 54.8%
Kalamazoo 102,377 45,590 44.5% 23,981 52.6% 20,890 45.8%
Kent 252,455 130,612 51.7% 82,358 63.1% 46,928 35.9%
Lake 4,824 1,575 32.6% 513 32.6% 1,025 65.1%
Livingston 76,084 28,525 37.5% 18,691 65.5% 9,320 32.7%
Midland 39,352 15,237 38.7% 9,403 61.7% 5,598 36.7%
Missaukee 6,641 3,094 46.6% 2,183 70.6% 873 28.2%
Monroe 62,307 21,094 33.9% 7,956 37.7% 12,840 60.9%
Ottawa 111,460 64,975 58.3% 51,533 79.3% 12,905 19.9%
Presque Isle 7,286 2,089 28.7% 979 46.9% 1,105 52.9%
Saginaw 94,913 41,135 43.3% 12,767 31.0% 28,368 69.0%
Sanilac 18,726 8,606 46.0% 5,342 62.1% 3,142 36.5%
Washtenaw 145,974 60,604 41.5% 21,867 36.1% 38,737 63.9%
Dearborn 39,998 15,517 38.8% 7,216 46.5% 7,861 50.7%
Dearborn Heights 25,061 11,168 44.6% 4,325 38.7% 6,843 61.3%
Detroit* 300,478 210,936 70.2% 9,315 4.4% 201,621 95.6%
Farmington Hills 40,699 18,531 45.5% 9,361 50.5% 8,928 48.2%
Grand Rapids 74,645 39,083 52.4% 17,824 45.6% 21,259 54.4%
Marquette 8,066 2,577 31.9% 909 35.3% 1,661 64.5%
Rochester Hills 35,429 15,356 43.3% 10,234 66.6% 4,921 32.0%
Southfield 37,809 25,117 66.4% 2,934 11.7% 22,183 88.3%
Troy 39,400 17,423 44.2% 11,364 65.2% 6,059 34.8%

* The percent using the straight-ticket option and the Republican/Democratic split of those votes in Detroit are taken from the Kimball, Owens, McLaughlin report cited above.

(The percentages of total single-ticket voting for each party does not add to 100 percent due to votes cast for the Reform Party, Libertarian Party, Natural Law Party, U.S. Taxpayers Party, and Green Party not shown because they represent less than 1 percent of total single-ticket votes. Voting technology in many Michigan jurisdictions does not allow election officials to count the number of ballots cast using the straight-ticket option. While it is possible to count how many votes each candidate received, it cannot be determined whether the votes resulted from placing a check next to that name or next to the straight-ticket option that automatically marks a vote for all candidates with that party designation.)


Straight-Ticket Voting Issues and Trends

According to "Straight-Party Ballot Options and State Legislative Elections," the straight-ticket option reduces ticket splitting and provides a decision making shortcut that may reduce voter fatigue or confusion. Given an inability to judge the positions and qualifications of every candidate, the straight-ticket option provides an easy way for voters to tap into one of the strongest voting cues, party identification.

The argument is made that straight-party voting promotes a "parliamentary"-type system, in which the election of governmental officials from the same party provides some assurance that the policies adopted will be consistent with those of the head of the ticket. The counter argument is that a split ticket promotes divided executive and legislative branches to provide a level of checks and balances on the actions of the two branches of government.

The trend among the states has been to eliminate the straight-ticket ballot option. As recently as the 1960s, over half the states provided a straight-ticket ballot option. Enactment of PA 269 would leave only 16 states in which it is possible to vote with the straight-ticket option (See Map 1). Illinois (1997) was the last state to eliminate this option.


Map 1
States with Straight-Ticket Voting Options

Source: Federal Elections Commission


Non-partisan positions, such as judges, and ballot questions appear at the end of the ballots in Michigan. It might be feared that eliminating the straight-ticket voting option would lead to greater ballot roll-off and reduce the number of ballots cast for these positions and issues. However, the Michigan Department of State reports that while ballot roll-off is evident in the partisan sections of the ballot for those not using the straight-ticket option, voting in the non-partisan and ballot sections do not reflect that roll-off. It appears that many voters skip over the lesser known positions in the partisan section to vote on judicial positions and ballot questions.

Encouragement of voter participation is a goal pursued in election reform. The straight-ticket voting option helps to alleviate some of the intimidation created by the long ballot and the need for voters to learn the qualifications of every candidate. It also reduces the amount of time needed to vote, helping to cut down on long lines and frustration with the voting process.

Finally, it is also argued that maintaining the straight-ticket option is not the proper response to the issues created by the long ballot. A number of alternatives have been offered that might alleviate ballot roll-off resulting from voter fatigue and confusion.

One approach is to find ways to shorten the ballot. Providing for the appointment of more officials could shorten the ballot. If candidates running for offices positioned near the end of ballots tend to win elections on the coattails of the higher profile candidates (President or Governor), providing for appointive status for those offices would likely have the same effect. The straight-ticket ballot option, it is argued, allows candidates to win election based solely on party affiliation and not office qualifications.

Splitting up elections could also shorten the ballot. A school election, for instance, would allow voters to vote on candidates for the State Board of Education, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University governing boards, local school boards, and community college districts, as well as any millage, bond, or sinking fund questions. Other groupings could be made for consolidating election and shortening the ballots at general elections.

Other reforms would change voting methods. Voting by mail (similar to Oregonís system), permitting a week long voting period (as is done in Texas), weekend voting, and other voting reforms offer voters more time to vote and more time to study the candidatesí positions.