The single voting-law change that will affect the most North Carolinians on Tuesday – well over a million of them – is also the least discussed.
The media and voters have focused on voter ID and a shortened early-voting period, and understandably so. But Republicans’ overhaul of state voting laws included more than two dozen provisions, and voter ID doesn’t kick in until 2016.
Straight-ticket voting with the check of a box, on the other hand, is not an option for the first time since 1925. For almost a century, N.C. voters have been able to quickly cast their ballots for all Democrats or all Republicans, from U.S. Senate down to clerk of court. More than half of all voters voted a straight ticket in 2012. No longer. Now they will have to choose in each race on the state’s long ballot.
I’ll shed no tears over the change. The straight-ticket option was a crutch for the least informed or most partisan. Pushing that button said that you think the worst (fill in your party) is better than the best (fill in the other party). Many of you think that way, but I don’t. I try to judge a candidate’s intellect, integrity, character and work ethic, in addition to his policy stances and party affiliation.
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Many voters are unaware of the change, and straight-ticket’s elimination could reverberate in two ways: logistically and politically.
Logistically, it will almost certainly create longer lines at the polls. Some straight-ticket voters will quickly give up. Others, though, will take the time to slog through the whole ballot, from U.S. Senate down through Congress, the state legislature, county commissioners, the sheriff and the clerk of court.
Gerry Cohen, the retired longtime legislative special counsel, talked to me Friday from a Wake County precinct where more than 200 people were standing in line. “In my opinion, it’s the most significant change this year,” Cohen said. “Voters should be prepared to wait longer because of this.”
Cohen performed a study for legislators last year showing that 85 percent of black voters cast a straight ticket but only 40 percent of white voters do. That’s where the political reverberations come in.
Black and Democratic voters have long cast more straight-ticket ballots than white and Republicans have. In 2008, Democrats racked up a 401,000-vote cushion among the 2.2 million voters who voted a straight ticket. Elizabeth Dole beat Kay Hagan among those voters who didn’t pull the straight-ticket lever, but that wasn’t enough to dig out of the hole.
In 2012, straight-ticket voters gave Democrats a 308,000-vote lead, including a 78,000-vote edge in Mecklenburg County. Trevor Fuller, now the chairman of the county board of commissioners, actually lost to Michael Hobbs (who?) among voters who assessed each race individually.
Those kinds of numbers surely prompted Republicans to kill the practice, and it seems likely to help the GOP. In Mecklenburg, Democrats in down-ballot races like clerk of court appear to have the most at risk. That will hinge, though, on whether past straight-ticket voters walk out or brave the rest of the ballot.