Five ways ending straight-ticket voting could affect Iowa's 2018 election

For the first time in living memory, Iowans will not have the option of filling in one oval to vote a straight ticket for a political party in this year’s general election. Republicans eliminated straight-ticket voting here in 2017, as GOP legislators have done in several other states in recent years. The more publicized provisions of Iowa’s new law, on voter ID and signature verification, will benefit Republicans by creating obstacles for eligible voters in groups that tend to favor Democrats (people with lower incomes, college students, racial minorities, and senior citizens).

By contrast, the impact of eliminating straight-ticket voting is less clear. More Iowans filled in the Republican oval than the Democratic one in the 2014 election, the only midterm for which such statistics are available.

One thing is for sure:

The undervote for Iowa’s down-ballot races will be much larger than usual.

About 37 percent of more 1.1 million Iowans who cast a ballot in the 2014 general election used the straight-ticket option. Lyle Muller and Danielle Wilde reported for Iowa Watch in December 2014,

Republicans benefited most in the mid-term election, with 212,085 straight-ticket ballots accounting for 18.7 percent of all votes cast on Election Day, Nov. 4, and in absentee and early ballots leading up to that day. Most of the Republicans’ ballots were cast on Election Day.

A total of 194,299 Democrats voted straight tickets, accounting for 17.1 percent of the total vote of 1.14 million. Most of the Democrats’ straight-party votes were made by absentee and early ballots, the data obtained by IowaWatch reveal.

Another 3,498 Iowans voted straight Libertarian tickets, and 9,653 voted straight ticket for the “New Independent Party,” which nominated candidates for secretary of state and agriculture. You can find county-level statistics on straight-ticket voting in 2014 at the Iowa Watch site.

Even with more than 400,000 voters filling in the straight-ticket oval, which automatically assigned their preference to their party’s candidate in every partisan race, the “undervote” for the lower-profile down-ballot races was sizable. Republican Paul Pate defeated Brad Anderson in the secretary of state race by 20,073 votes, and 49,817 ballots were unmarked for that race. More than 43,000 Iowans didn’t mark their ballot for an attorney general candidate, 50,000 Iowans chose no one for state treasurer, 55,000 did the same for secretary of agriculture. The largest undervote total was in the state auditor’s race: nearly 80,000 Iowans did not mark their ballot for either Republican Mary Mosiman or Democrat Jon Neiderbach.

Most people who turn out to vote this November will pick a candidate in the governor’s race, but the undervote for several other statewide offices could easily be larger than the margin between the top two candidates.

The same may be true in one or more Congressional races. Republican Rod Blum defeated Pat Murphy in the first district four years ago by by 6,617 votes. The undervote for that race was 6,641.

The closest state Senate race in 2014 was in Senate district 41, where Republican Mark Chelgren won by 374 votes, as 536 ballots were not marked for either candidate. In nearby Senate district 39, Democrat Kevin Kinney won by 1,065 votes, and there were 859 undervotes.

In the lower chamber, Republican Darrel Branhagen won the open seat in House district 55 by 27 votes; there were 331 undervotes. Democrat Charlie McConkey won his House district 15 race by 75 votes, and there were 200 undervotes.

Again, these results happened with more than a third of Iowa’s 2014 voters marking the straight ticket oval. The undervote will be much larger this year, as state legislative races receive a small fraction of the media coverage of the candidates for governor or Congress.

Even though voters who participate in primaries tend to be highly politically engaged, more than 21,000 of some 182,000 Iowans who cast a ballot in this year’s Democratic primary for governor did not choose a candidate in the race for secretary of state. The undervote was more than five times larger than Deidre DeJear’s 3,812-vote margin against Jim Mowrer.

Critics of straight-ticket voting have sometimes argued that removing the option will produce a more informed electorate. I agree entirely with what University of Iowa political science Professor Timothy Hagle told Iowa Watch in 2014: “I would say that if you’re thinking that you would like to eliminate straight-ticket voting to cause people, or to force people to learn more about the candidates, I don’t think it’s going to happen that way.” Many voters who are committed to one party will go to the trouble of marking the ballot on every line, but those who care mostly about the top-ticket races won’t devote any additional time to researching the contenders for other offices.

Another impact from eliminating straight-ticket voting is easy to predict:

The lines will be longer on election day.

Iowa City-based blogger John Deeth, whose day job is in the Johnson County elections office, wrote last year,

People tend to have very strong feelings, both ways, about the straight ticket, but a third of all voters used that option. I’m not sure how eliminating straight ticket voting increases “integrity,” but it’s gone. Republicans clearly saw some advantage in dropping it, even though statistically straight ticket voters lined up very close to non-straight tickets. […] As a non-political, simply practical matter, eliminating the straight ticket will slow things down at the polls, as a third of the voters may be spending more time in the booth.

Iowans who intend to vote in every federal statewide, or state legislative race will need to fill out at least eight ovals, depending on whether they live in one of the Senate districts on the ballot this year. That will be more time-consuming, especially for the elderly or some people with a disability. In addition, every election-day voter will be asked to show ID or sign an oath verifying their identity, which will be more time-consuming.

The upshot is that Iowans planning to vote on their way to work or school on November 6 would be well-advised to plan for delays. I’m concerned some may need to bail on voting in order to get to work on time. The same goes for caregivers of young or older relatives, who may feel they can’t afford to be away from home for ages waiting to cast a ballot. Some may not manage to swing back by their polling place before closing time.

The next three points are more speculative.

Money and incumbency may become more important in down-ballot races.

Candidates for partisan offices will have their political party affiliation listed on the ballot next to their names, so probably most Iowans who would have voted a straight ticket will fill in the oval next to the Democrat, Republican, or Libertarian. But as they review their options for various offices, some may lean toward the candidate whose name is more familiar. In a state legislative race in particular, that’s usually the incumbent or the candidate who has spent more money on advertising, direct mail, and yard signs.

The party whose supporters are more “fired up” will benefit.

Since Oregon doesn’t have straight-ticket voting, I recently asked Senator Jeff Merkley how he thought the change in Iowa’s law might play out. He suggested that voters who feel more aggrieved and “determined to reclaim something that looks like the America we know and love, government by and for the people,” will be more likely to fill out the whole ballot. Presumably that dynamic would work in favor of Democratic candidates. Several special elections over the past year have produced higher than usual participation by voters who lean toward Democrats.

On the other hand,

If a wave materializes, the coat-tails may be shorter than usual.

I’m not confident 2018 will be a wave election, but it could become one. Without straight-ticket voting, a convincing victory for a candidate for governor or Congress may be less likely to affect the down-ballot races. Remember, more than 400,000 Iowans who voted in 2014 used the straight-ticket option. Tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will leave ballot lines for some offices blank this time around.

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

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  • I would never accuse a Republican

    of overthinking a strategy. Given the Iowa stats, it looks like they may have critically underthought this, and it could bite them in the ass here in Iowa. At the least, that is a pleasant thought I choose to have today, right or wrong.

    Until the last few cycles, I had never voted straight ticket, figuring, for example, that some experience may lend itself to some measure of competence in a lower level position, like, say, county treasurer. But these days I am perfectly happy to seek out the Democrat and fill in his or her oval line by bloody line, even if I don’t know a damn thing about the person. In the long term, that’s potentially not good. But it’s in the spirit of that book I should have taken home from the library the other day, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.” I read enough in house to understand the author’s point is that sometimes it is totally because you DO in fact give a f*ck that you may need to act in an “I don’t give a f*ck” as to the consequences manner. A few women being hauled off in the Kavanaugh hearing this week sort of just popped back in my mind just now, though I suspect they accomplished nothing.

    • I'll be voting for one Republican on the county level...

      …for certain issue, strategic, and experience reasons, plus I know and like the candidate personally, plus the opponent is a total unknown. But that has become an extremely rare decision.

      As a poll watcher for several years in a middle-class neighborhood in the Eighties, I used to encounter mixed-party couples fairly often. More often the husband was Republican and the wife Democrat, but sometimes it was the other way around. I wonder how often that happens now. I’ll bet the “mixed” number has dropped way down.