Gary Johnson

Send the Straight-Ticket Ballot Option Straight to the Trash

Having a "one-punch" option to choose every candidate from a political party alters election results, changes politicians' behavior, and reinforces the advantage of the locally dominant party.

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Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Can an elected secretary of state unilaterally change the ballot in a way that benefits her political party, contradicts previous legislation and blunts the campaign of the most serious third-party candidate running for U.S. Senate in 40 years? That's what the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously rejected yesterday.

Last month, the Land of Enchantment's Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, decided to reimplement "one-punch" voting just 69 days before the election. One-punch ballots — also called straight-ticket ballots — enable voters to choose an entire slate of candidates from a political party by filling in a single bubble, rather than a bubble for each candidate.

New Mexico was, in fact, one of several states to get rid of the straight-ticket ballot option this century. The Legislature voted it out in 2001 (the law signed, as irony would have it, by then-Gov. Gary Johnson in 2001). Despite this, Democratic secretaries of state kept claiming the prerogative to leave this option on the ballot, until a GOP secretary of state was elected in 2012.

Johnson, a two-time presidential candidate from the Libertarian Party, is making an insurgent bid for the Senate. In the only survey conducted since he entered the race, Johnson is polling at 21% to Democratic incumbent Martin Heinrich's 39%. (Republican nominee Mick Rich attracted 11%.) Registered Democrats in New Mexico outnumber Republicans 3 to 2, and only 1% of voters are registered as Libertarians.

One-punch voting is a time-saving tool for partisans but not for those of us who select candidates on a case-by-case basis. Unsurprisingly, having this option on the ballot alters election outcomes. Where it's available, citizens are more likely to vote a straight-party ticket. They are also considerably more likely to cast a vote in down-ballot partisan races, but considerably less likely to vote in nonpartisan races or for ballot initiatives.

Toulouse Oliver contended that "straight-party voting provides an option for voters that allows their voices to be heard while cutting in half the time it takes them to cast their ballot." But even some members of her own state party rejected that explanation.

"It's not a matter of voter convenience; it's a matter of partisan advantage in low-information elections," state Sen. Jacob Candelaria tweeted right after Toulouse Oliver's decision.

It's not just independents and third-party pols who feel the one-punch effect straight in the kisser. In solidly red or blue districts, it gives opposite-party candidates an even steeper hill to climb. If 2018 Democratic heartthrob Beto O'Rourke falls just short of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz, you can give partial thanks to the Lone Star State's straight-ticket voting (which will be eliminated by 2020).

Candidates and political parties change their behavior in straight-ticket states, in large part by declining to go independent or simply not competing. In Texas, for example, "90% of county offices were uncontested on the November [2016] ballot," Texas Election Source Publisher Jeff Blaylock told the San Antonio Express-News, "and that is largely because we're in a cycle where straight-party, one-punch voting continues to fuel the self-reinforcing cycle that drives down the number of choices that voters ultimately have."

Elected officials who have grown sour on the two major parties — think Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who on Sunday told CNN's Jake Tapper that he thinks about leaving the GOP "every morning" — are heavily disincentivized to bolt where one-punch still remains.

"Straight-ticket voting makes it prohibitive to run outside of the major parties," Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told me late last month. Amash, an independent-minded cuss and self-described libertarian, has run his entire political career as a Republican in a one-punch state. Maybe that can change. Just last week, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a federal judge's decision to uphold the state's straight-ticket ballot practice — even though Michigan legislated the practice away in 2016.

From a legal standpoint, it now seems untenable to let judges or bureaucrats defy the will of legislatures regarding ballot laws. Other critics have also argued that straight-ticket violates the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, although that interpretation has not previously won the day. States are still properly free to experiment with how they conduct democracy.

But that doesn't mean the practice of one-punch voting is right. Yes, we live in politically polarized times, increasingly viewing the other major team as an implacable enemy. Yet the long-term trendlines for both party registration and political self-identification are clear: The only growth categories are ones not named "Democrat" or "Republican."

Businesses don't get to write their own regulations, and yet we constantly cede decisions about ballot access, electioneering and even candidate debate-inclusion to the two fatigued major parties. If Democrats and Republicans are so attractive, they shouldn't need the extra boost at the ballot box. It's time to kick one-punch straight to the curb.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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