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Straight-Ticket Voting: In or Out? Depends Where You Live

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[Image courtesy of TexasTribune]

One of my favorite election-geeky things about following the news from across the country is the occasional opportunity to see states heading in opposite directions on an issue. The latest example is on the question of straight-ticket voting: while policymakers in Rhode Island consider whether or not to eliminate the option, some legislators in New Hampshire are looking to reinstate it.

Straight-ticket voting is currently authorized in 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; however, in 2012 New Mexico's Secretary of State decided not to offer the option, which is not required under state law.

In Rhode Island, the question is whether or not to continue the use of the so-called "master lever" that is permitted under state law. The effort is being sponsored by the founder and chair of the Moderate Party, who believes that straight ticket voting confuses voters. He believes this can occur in two ways: first, when the voter chooses the straight-ticket option and then splits the ticket on one race, which then invalidates her vote on all other contests. The other potential problem is the impact on non-partisan candidates whose contests are not covered by the "master lever" and therefore don't get votes from voters using that option.

The Rhode Island may be gaining steam, with the announcement by the Secretary of State that he intends to offer a bill eliminating the straight-ticket option.

At the same time, a group of New Hampshire legislators are moving in exactly the opposite direction by supporting the return of straight-ticket voting, which was repealed in the Granite State in 2007. One of the four sponsors of the bill, GOP Rep. Fred Rice, says restoration of straight-ticket voting would be a matter of convenience and speed the process for voters. Moreover, he adds:

Why in the world would you vote for somebody else down the ticket that does not share that philosophy and would be, in essence, working against them? If you believe in that person at the top strongly enough, then you want everyone to be supporting him. Then you ought to be voting a straight ticket to ensure that happens.

New Hampshire's effort may not have the same momentum as Rhode Island's, however; the Democratic chair of the House Elections Committee supports the current non-straight-ticket system, but says he will keep an open mind when the bill receives a hearing.

For me, the straight-ticket voting question is less interesting in and of itself (though I know my political scientist friends probably can and do have a lot to say about it) and more illustrative of the persistent variation across states in lots of different aspects of the election process. I know the debate on national election standards is likely to revive in the current Congress, but these two stories - and the passion they appear to provoke within each state - is a useful reminder that any such effort to standardize elections nationwide must take continued "local flavor" into account.

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