Hundreds of thousands of new voters have been added to North Carolina's voter registration rolls this year. The candidates, parties and interest groups will spend millions to get N.C. voters to the polls. Once these voters are in the voting booth, however, thousands will be disenfranchised by the design of the ballot.
Imagine, for example, you are a first time voter with a desire to vote straight party – to vote for all the candidates of a particular party. If you look at the official ballot that Mecklenburg County and all other counties are set to use on Nov. 4, you'll find the following sentence: “A Straight Party vote is a vote for all candidates of that party in partisan offices. Individual partisan office selections are not necessary if you select a Straight Party below.”
If you followed those directions, filled in the Democratic or Republican oval in the Straight Party Voting section and then left, you might think you'd just voted for president.
But you would be wrong.
Obscure change to the law
On North Carolina's ballot, the presidential contest is not included in the list of “Partisan Offices.” In order to cast a vote for president and a straight party vote, you need to make two marks – one in the presidential contest and the other in the straight party section. (And a straight-ticket vote does not cast a vote in judicial races, because those are nonpartisan.)
A state law passed in 1967 prohibits the combination of the vote for the president with any other office on the ballot. Why would a General Assembly controlled by Democrats in 1967 pass such a law? Straight party voting reduces the time it takes people to vote. It also means more votes are cast for offices lower on the ballot because people can simply register their vote for all partisan offices with one mark.
But for Southern Democrats in the 1960s, the specter of increasingly liberal candidates at the top of the ticket raised a problem. If the vote for president were included in the straight party option, Democrats who did not like the presidential nominee might be less inclined to vote straight party. The solution – separate the vote for president from the straight party vote.
Unfortunately, this ballot design introduces confusion. Some voters check the straight party option without realizing the need to vote separately in the presidential race. In studying the effect of ballot design on voting outcomes in North Carolina in 1992, Duke professor Sunny Ladd and I estimated that the straight party voting option caused nearly 1 percent of voters who went to the polls to fail to cast a vote in the presidential race.
Enough to make a difference?
If the ballot design causes about 1 percent of voters to fail to register their preferences, should we worry? In many elections, the presidential vote in North Carolina is not close. But in 1992, George H.W. Bush narrowly defeated Bill Clinton in North Carolina by getting 43.34 percent of the vote versus 42.65 percent for Clinton. Polls indicate this year, for the first time in many years, the presidential race in North Carolina might be similarly close.
Election officials know the straight party voting option is confusing. The ballot for 2008 contains reminders that you need to vote separately for the office of president.
Yet the ballot instructions are still hard to follow. The McCain and Obama campaigns should experiment now with different get-out-the-vote instructions that are phrased so voters actually cast their ballots for president when they go to the polls. After the 2008 election, the state should also engage in focus groups and other research to make sure future ballots are less confusing.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain are promising to bring change to Washington. It would be highly ironic if the version of change N.C. voters select is based not on their views of the candidates in 2008 but on the design of the ballot selected by the General Assembly in 1967.
James T. Hamilton is the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.