Texas was one of 10 states where 2016 general election voters could choose every candidate of a preferred political party with a single pull, punch or other action. About 63% of all votes cast by Texans were straight-ticket votes, almost certainly the highest rate among the 10 states.
Another 10 states have repealed the “single punch” option since 1992, including North Carolina, which eliminated it in 2013. In 2012, about 56% of all votes cast in that state were straight-ticket votes, which was second only to Texas. The 2016 general election was the first presidential election in decades where voters would be required to go through the ballot to vote for all partisan races.
One of the arguments against repealing a straight-ticket option is that it may cause voters to leave more races blank, either because they do not know the candidates or simply suffer “ballot fatigue.” A straight-ticket vote automatically counts for every candidate of that party unless the voter specifically overrides it with a vote for someone else in a race. There are no guarantees that a voter who would have voted a straight-ticket vote will vote for down-ballot candidates of the same political party.
We looked at the 40 North Carolina state house districts for which a Republican and a Democrat were on the general election ballot in both 2012 and 2016 for signs of such a drop-off in votes down-ballot. We found no systemic decline in down-ballot vote totals.
Statewide, about 6% more votes were cast in 2016 than in 2012. In these 40 legislative districts, 6% more votes were cast for the Republican and Democratic candidates combined. In 37 of these districts, the number of votes cast increased over 2012.
The decline in two of the remaining three districts is explained by the presence of a minor-party candidate in 2016 but not in 2012. In the final district, the decline in votes cast was just 145 out of more than 30K cast. Overall, there appears to have been no significant impact in down-ballot turnout.
However, the impact of votes cast for each party’s candidate appears to be a little harder on Democrats. Of the 91K more net votes received by the legislative candidates in 2016, nearly 70% went to the Republican candidates. In 11 of the 40 districts, the Democratic candidate received at least 1K fewer votes in 2016 than in 2012. Interestingly, every one of those districts has a majority Anglo population, and most have a supermajority Anglo population. These are predominantly rural districts that were won by President-elect Trump.
Biggest Declines in North Carolina Democratic Legislative Candidate Vote Totals
6,335 – NC HD46 (65% Anglo)
5,623 – NC HD2 (66% Anglo)
3,063 – NC HD67 (79% Anglo)
2,423 – NC HD1 (76% Anglo)
1,904 – NC HD91 (81% Anglo)
1,833 – NC HD44 (56% Anglo)
1,741 – NC HD10 (74% Anglo)
1,663 – NC HD3 (71% Anglo)
1,637 – NC HD9 (72% Anglo)
1,122 – NC HD84 (75% Anglo)
1,065 – NC HD25 (73% Anglo)
In 14 of the 40 districts, the Democratic legislative candidate received at least 2K more votes than the 2012 Democratic candidate. The Republican candidate received at least 2K more in 2016 than in 2012 in 17 of the 40 districts. Republican candidates lost ground in just seven districts. In three of those districts, a minor-party candidate ran this year but not in 2012.
In 2012, Republicans won 33 of the 40 districts. Democrats picked up a net of three seats out of districts in 2016.
We also looked at the 18 districts with a majority African-American population to see if the lack of a straight-ticket option had significant impacts on the House races there. The 19 Democrats who won those seats collectively received about 5,600 fewer votes than the 19 Democrats who won those seats four years earlier, a decline of roughly 1%. The biggest decline occurred in NC HD7, where a Republican ran this year against a Democrat who was unopposed in 2012.
We have seen drop-offs in the number of straight-ticket votes cast in Texas house districts won by African-American Democrats, so it is plausible that the same effect explains the decline in votes in these African-American majority North Carolina districts. In any event, the lack of a straight-ticket option does not appear to have had a significant impact on these legislative candidates, almost all of whom were unopposed.
We also looked at the seven counties with a majority African-American population and again found no significant impact. In every county, the Democratic legislative candidate received more votes than the Democratic presidential candidate, even when the legislative candidate had an opponent. Overall, the Democratic legislative candidates received 2K fewer votes combined in 2016 than in 2012, but Hillary Clinton received 8K fewer votes in those counties than President Obama did four years earlier.
In 2012, straight-ticket voters accounted for 87% of Obama’s support and 76% of the Democratic legislative candidates’ support in those seven counties. In other words, the share of voters who marked specific candidates’ bubbles rose from 24% of all votes cast for them to 100% without a significant drop in support. Thus, it appears that nearly all voters in those counties voted for mostly unopposed Democrats down the ballot without benefit of a single-ticket option.
Interestingly, it was a potential disenfranchising impact on African-American voters that caused a federal court to toss Michigan’s 2015 repeal of its straight-ticket option. We cannot rule out potential disenfranchisement in North Carolina from the repeal of its straight-ticket option, but we also cannot find any widespread numerical evidence of it. We also note that Michigan is not North Carolina, and thus the experience in one state may not translate to another.
In that vein, we note that North Carolina’s straight-ticket option had three distinct differences from how Texas implements it:
- First, the straight-ticket option did not apply to the office of President and Vice President. This change was made in the 1960s, when state Democrats did not want to be tied to their presidential candidate’s commitment to civil rights.
- Second, apart from statewide judicial elections, straight-ticket voting did not apply to down-ballot judicial offices, which are non-partisan races; and
- Third, straight-ticket voting did not typically apply to county commissioners or other county officials. Each county’s board of commissioners varies in size, length of term and method of election. Many counties choose to elect their boards by having all candidates on the same ballot, regardless of party. Voters choose two, three or five candidates depending on the county and year. Most other county officials are appointed by the board of commissioners.
Because of these differences, far fewer offices in North Carolina could be influenced by straight-ticket voters than in Texas, where all state, judicial and county elective offices are partisan. North Carolinians were already used to voting many offices without regard to the straight-party option (including President), so it’s repeal should be expected to have less impact than if Texas chose to repeal its straight-ticket option.
Rep. Ron Simmons (R-Carrollton) has again filed legislation that would repeal the straight-ticket option beginning in 2018.
Supporters of the North Carolina repeal said the single-punch option prevents voters from thinking critically about the candidates themselves and encourages partisan polarization (We have seen the later in Texas.). Other supporters said it would make it easier for alternative parties and independent candidates to compete for offices against the major parties.
Opponents said repealing the straight-ticket option was meant to thwart African-American voters from exercising their right to vote, a charge Republicans in that state vehemently denied (A federal court struck down other portions of a package of changes to voting laws for this reason, but it left standing the straight-ticket option repeal.). Other opponents said repealing a straight-ticket option would lead to longer waiting times at polls because many voters would need more time to cast their ballots.