Opinion Columns & Blogs

November 2, 2008

Make sure your vote counts

Shortly after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 first proposed by President John Kennedy, the story goes, he turned to an aide and observed, “We just lost the South for a generation.”

Shortly after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 first proposed by President John Kennedy, the story goes, he turned to an aide and observed, “We just lost the South for a generation.”

His meaning was clear. In the Old South states where opposition to desegregation was a gnawing issue, Democrats would find it hard to win national elections.

Within four years his words seemed prophetic. Republican Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential race nationally and in North Carolina. While Democratic presidential candidates have won nationally three times since Johnson's prediction, in North Carolina they've won only once – 1976 when fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter won a single term.

The coming wave

Johnson wasn't the only one to see it coming. Democrats in the N.C. General Assembly, who have dominated the legislature for most of the last century, also saw the Republican tidal wave coming. That's why in 1967 they took steps to insulate state government from presidential races. They voted to separate the presidential election from the rest of the state ballot for U.S. senator, governor, lieutenant governor, eight other Council of State offices, and a long list of legislative, county commissioner and other candidates running on the Democratic ticket.

That meant two things. If you cast a straight-ticket vote for Democratic Party candidates, you aren't voting in the presidential race. Same thing for the Republican ticket. You also have to cast a separate ballot in the presidential race. The effect has been that North Carolina voters continued to elect Democrats in most state offices while they were also supporting Republican presidential candidates. N.C. voters did elect three Republican governors during that time, plus one lieutenant governor, a lot of Republican judges and Council of State members and U.S. senators, and lots of legislators. But in the main it has helped Democrats hang on to state government offices.

It may also have backfired. Researchers have long realized that a lot of N.C. voters haven't been recording a choice for president. Research in other states shows that the number who deliberately choose not to cast a vote for president tops out somewhere around 1 or 1.1 percent. But in North Carolina that rate is much higher. Duke University researchers found that as many as 3.15 percent of N.C. voters did not cast presidential ballots in 2000, and 2.57 percent in 2004. They concluded that most of those undercounts are likely voters who don't understand North Carolina's ballot setup and don't realize they aren't voting for president. It's even conceivable that the undercount may have helped George H.W. Bush when he narrowly defeated Bill Clinton in North Carolina in 1992. Clinton won nationally, but Bush helped keep alive the Republican's long victory streak in N.C. presidential elections – unbroken since 1968 except for that 1976 election.

An obvious irony

The irony of all this is obvious as North Carolina approaches a historic election Tuesday. It's possible that the 1967 decision to uncouple the presidential ticket from the straight-party ticket in N.C. election could cost Democrat Barack Obama a lot of votes here, conceivably even the N.C. election. It's also possible that decision could cost Republican John McCain some votes from straight-party Republicans as well. But if Obama is benefitting from support from voters new to North Carolina – or who previously have not voted – then many may not realize a straight-party vote won't help their presidential candidate. Only a vote in that separate race will.

Lawrence Norden, an expert at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, points out that North Carolina is the only state that has this arrangement of a separate presidential ballot from the straight-party ballot. South Carolina used to have it, too, but got rid of it last year.

New voters at disadvantage

North Carolina's ballot has instructions telling voters how to cast ballots and a warning about straight-ticket voting. But Norden, whose expertise includes ballot design, says the N.C. ballot “puts new voters at a real disadvantage” because most people think straight-party voting means voting for every candidate in that party.

Norden isn't a fan of straight-party voting, though it does make voting faster and simpler. But he thinks North Carolina ought to get rid of the split voting process. If not, it should at least make changes in design that makes it clearer how to vote.

Legislators must fix

“It's very conceivable that this could have an effect” on the presidential race outcome in North Carolina, he notes. “There's an irony that it was passed by Democrats and now it could harm Democrats.”

Whatever you think about the split ballot, don't blame election officials. It's the responsibility of state legislators to fix this, and they've got some work to do. They ought to clear up the confusion by making it possible for those who want to vote a straight ticket top-to-bottom to do so.

I don't like straight-ticket voting. But if we've got a ballot that fools some voters into thinking they've voted for president when they haven't, this state is engaging, intentionally or not, in fraud.

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