Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Small: Straight-party voting a cop-out for losing candidates

Straight-party voting a cop-out for losing candidates
By Jonathan Small

Following this month’s election results, some officials claim straight-party voting is a major problem in Oklahoma. They imply many Oklahomans really wanted to vote for candidates from the other party but instead simply checked the straight-party option. Some Democrats suggest their failure in top-of-the-ballot races are a byproduct of straight-party ballots.

That’s believable only if you ignore common sense. The most high-profile race in Oklahoma this year was the governor’s race. It was literally the top spot on the ballot. Are we to believe voters really wanted to vote for Democratic candidate Joy Hofmeister rather than Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt (or vice versa) but instead checked the straight-party box and never looked a few inches down their ballots?

Notably, the ACLU of Oklahoma claimed it received reports from Oklahoma and Cleveland counties of voters being improperly encouraged to vote straight party by poll workers. Those were two of only three counties won by Hofmeister. Does that mean straight party voting inflated Hofmeister’s numbers?

About 1.155 million ballots were cast in Oklahoma this month. About 480,000 were marked “straight party.” The split was 69.82% for Republicans, 29.08% for Democrats, and 1.10% for Libertarians.

The share of Oklahomans voting straight party has increased over recent election cycles, but that doesn’t automatically mean people don’t know who they are supporting, particularly in major races. And even in down-ballot races where candidates are not well known, people often use political party affiliation, which often represents public policy leanings, to determine preference even when marking a specific candidate box.

Also, if you mark the “straight party” line but then fill in a box for a specific candidate from the opposite party, state law specifies the mark for the individual candidate counts. The State Election Board could not report how often that happened when contacted this week, but it is not unusual.

And straight-party has been an option literally since statehood. One 1907 ballot on display at the Oklahoma Election Board shows voters could choose between the Republican, Democratic, and Socialist tickets that year.

One Democratic lawmaker who sought in recent years to eliminate straight-party voting described it as a relic from a time when many voters were illiterate and chose a party symbol rather than the candidate. Yet it makes little sense to say people today, when literacy is the norm, are somehow less informed than their predecessors if they select the straight-party option.

For decades, Oklahoma Democrats held political majorities and weren’t concerned about straight-party voting. It’s now that Republicans hold political majorities that some Democrats see a problem with straight-party voting.

The reality is this: Many people use party brands to determine which candidate to support. And many voters split their ticket.

Successful candidates tailor their message to, and successfully turn out, their straight-party voters as well as ticket-splitters who support them. Those who blame the straight-party option for losses are only highlighting why their candidacies failed.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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