Reform Week: Remove Straight Party Lever

Member Group : Phil English

I am a big believer in giving citizens a maximum range of choices when they go to vote. However, I would make one exception to that general rule, in the name of increasing competition and challenging the status quo.

I would remove the straight party lever from the ballot.

Many people vote a straight ticket. That is their right. As a crutch, lawmakers have given voters a shortcut to voting at a stroke for every candidate nominated by their preferred party: a single lever (or spot on the ballot) where they can register a vote for every party nominee. Not every state has this, but Pennsylvania does. It is an artifact of a previous era, and I think its time has long past.

The straight party lever allows the majority party to automatically attract votes from less engaged voters in lower intensity races, where they might face challenges. It benefits majority party incumbents, and encourages blanket party campaign appeals rather than advocacy of individual candidates. It puts a particular burden on candidates who are heavily outnumbered in party registration: urban Republicans, rural Democrats, minor party nominees, Independents. All of these face enough natural disadvantages; if we want to foster greater competition, we shouldn’t be adding this one.

In my book, removing the staight party option doesn’t disenfranchise anyone. Voters will still be able to see who their party has nominated, and vote accordingly. Party sachems will still be able to urge voters to cast their ballot for all of their nominees. Party election day efforts will still be able to turn out the faithful and promote participation.

What this modest reform does is invite voters to review each contest and each individual choice, and in the process make a more individualized decision. The immediate electoral impact will be initially modest, and vary by constituency. It is no panecea.

What it does do is favor individual choices in each contest on the ballot. That does not make voters better informed, or guarentee improved campaigns. However, it sends the message that each contest is worthy of an individual exercise of the francise. Given that voting is a sacred right, I believe that is the correct approach.

I realize both parties hate the idea of eliminating the straight party voting option. For most party leaders, and most incumbents, that would make it a little harder on Election Day. That is not a good arguement for keeping this glaring antique.

In fact, I have never heard a good civics arguement for keeping the straight party lever. You are, of course, welcome to make one in your comments, which I welcome.