In 2014, a Utah County politician ran unopposed in the general election and won. That wasn't unusual for strongly Republican Utah County.
What was unusual is that fewer than half of the votes in that race were cast directly for him. How did the only candidate in the race perform so poorly?
One factor was that after he had won his party convention handily, troubling things were revealed about his past. A write-in campaign resulted in 30 percent write-in votes in the race.
Another 25 percent of the votes were not cast directly for him. Instead, they were “straight-ticket” votes, cast not for the candidate but for the party he belonged to. The result is that only 45 percent of votes cast were definitely for him.
Utah is one of only nine states that still offers a straight-ticket option on the ballot. Voters can mark their ballots for a particular party, which counts as a vote for a candidate of that party in every partisan race. The voter might not know who’s in that slate of candidates or even look at the names of those running.
Think of that for a moment. Simply because this candidate was affiliated with a party, he automatically received one-fourth of all the votes, sight unseen.
It didn’t matter that he was tainted by scandal or that members of his party opposed him. Thousands of voters gave him a free vote purely on the basis of his party affiliation.
Straight-ticket voting offers some convenience to that 30 percent of Utah voters who choose that option. In a typical general election, roughly half of the contests are partisan races, so a voter in the booth might save a few minutes by casting a straight-ticket vote.
But by doing this, voters entrust their votes entirely to the vetting process of the political party. If a candidate made it through that, then no matter what misdeeds he or she covered up or levers he or she pulled to get the party’s nod, he or she gets that person’s vote — even if that person knew nothing about that race.
Straight-ticket voting doesn’t just allow unfit candidates to get automatic votes. It gives partisans from all major parties a built-in edge over independents, discouraging them from running. The result is more partisan polarization and less representation in government for the 40 percent of Utahns who aren’t affiliated with any party.
Straight-ticket voting is bad for the health of our political system. Abolishing it won’t prevent someone from voting for all candidates of a party, but by requiring them to mark each choice, we can at least be assured that they've looked at each race and made a deliberate selection.17 comments on this story
Back to that candidate who nearly lost an unopposed race: Greg Graves still defiantly holds his seat as Utah County Commissioner, despite calls from constituents and political leaders from his party that he step down for inappropriate behavior.
We can’t know for sure, but perhaps without so many straight-ticket votes, Graves would have had a better chance of being defeated by a write-in, sparing Utah County from subsequent scandal.
I call upon our legislators to eliminate the straight-ticket option from our elections, as most other states have sensibly done. No longer should a candidate be able to count on receiving votes that they didn't earn. Let each ballot choice stand on its own. Abolish the straight-ticket option.