For people who want to vote a straight-ticket — vote for all the Democrats or all the Republicans on the ballot — they can simply fill in one oval near the top of their ballot and be done.
However, for non-party or non-partisan races, such as judicial retention or soil conservation commissioner, a voter will need to mark each race.
Iowa is one of 16 states that allow voters to vote a straight-party ballot, that is, cast a ballot for everyone on the ballot listed under a particular party.
Additionally, Iowa election law allows a voter to mark a party in the straight-party voting box, then mark a vote for any party in any other races the voter chooses. That mark will override the straight-ticket vote.
For party loyalists, it’s a way to not only vote for their preferred candidates, but a way to vote for a philosophy.
“I believe in a philosophy of smaller government,” said Jon Ozeroff of Iowa City, while waiting to hear Mitt Romney at a rally in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 23. He thinks the federal government is too big and in “way too much debt.”
“I don’t see any Democrats who support smaller government,” Ozeroff said. “If Democrats bought into the small-government philosophy, I would vote for some of them.”
Parties benefit from straight-party ticket voting, but “it’s not something we push,” said Linn County GOP chairman Steve Armstrong of Cedar Rapids.
“I think it’s a strategy of the past,” added Democratic chairwoman Diane Hoffmann of Mount Vernon. “I think the average voter really resents the parties saying, ‘If you are a Democrat, you have to vote for all these Democrats,’ rather than weighing people’s talents and visions for the position.”
Iowa has too many independent voters for it to be a viable strategy, Hoffmann said. “We have to sell the people our candidates have the best vision for the future.”
Campaigns say they don’t make straight-ticket voting a part of their strategy because they are hoping for support from both parties.
“We support all the Republican candidates on the ballot, but we’re trying to get the support of people of all parties,” said Jason Flohrs, campaign spokesman for GOP 1st District congressional candidate Ben Lange.
His counterpart in U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s campaign takes a similar tack.
“We’ve focused a lot of effort to reach out to registered Republicans and no-party voters who aren’t the sort of people who vote straight ticket,” said Jeff Giertz.
For example, he said Braley has made an effort to reach out to veterans by talking about his work on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
“That impresses many Republicans,” Giertz said. “They may be Romney supporters or undecided, but are supporting Braley.”
The Iowa Secretary of State doesn’t track straight-ticket voting, so it’s left to county auditors.
Starting with the 2000 general election, between 27 percent and 35 percent of Johnson County voters have cast straight-ticket ballots. In Linn County, it has ranged from 21 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2006.
Although the parties say they don’t push the practice, Democrats outpace Republicans in straight-party voting.
In Linn County, for example, the straight-ticket votes had been about 65 percent Democratic and 35 percent GOP. It was closer to a 55-45 split in 2000 and 2006.
In 2010, when there was a Republican wave, the gap narrowed significantly. Likewise in 2008, when Democrats grabbed power nationally, straight-ticket voting fell in Linn County and hit a low point in Johnson County.
Good for democracy?
There’s a feeling straight-ticket voting is not good for democracy, according to Kirk Jowers of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, a state where the practice still is allowed. Voters don’t have to look at the individual candidates. They simply walk in, fill in one oval and walk out without giving each candidate due consideration.
Straight-ticket voting dates back to the 1820s and was seen as a way for a political party to increase its dominance.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a single voter might be asked to vote for as many as 150 government officials. Confronted with such a large number of races, many people voted only for the candidates running for high-profile offices. Given one-party dominance in many places and people not voting in many races, many states adopted straight-ticket voting.
For Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the tradition is probably reason enough to keep it.
“The only reason I say that – and it’s not a very good reason — but we’ve been doing it for 100 years or longer and what problem has it caused?” he said.
It’s not something he encourages when campaigning for himself or other Republicans, Grassley said.
“I encourage people to vote for the candidate,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever said, ‘Vote straight Republican.’
“Maybe I ought to,” he added with a chuckle.
If there is any trend in straight-ticket voting these days, it is to eliminate it. Wisconsin ended the practice during the past legislative session. Missouri ended the practice in 2007 and Illinois stopped it in 1997.