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Matthew Stokes: On Straight Ticket Voting

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

There’s a story once told by the great pundit George F. Will.  When he was first hired to write for National Review, the conservative magazine, he confessed to his boss, NR editor William F. Buckley, Jr., that he wasn’t sure he could manage to put out three columns a week.  That was easy, Buckley replied. There are sure to be three things each week that will irritate you, and you should write on them. Speaking for myself, I don’t have to write three columns each week, but this rule works pretty well.  If I’m ever stumped for an idea, sitting still and letting the news roll by usually helps.

The smoke has cleared on this year’s midterm elections and it is clear that Republicans are in a bad place.  The House of Representatives is lost for at least two years and the most favorable Senate map in ages produced only minimal results.  The GOP still held serve here in Alabama, but that hasn’t stopped state pundits from trying to analyze voter behavior. For example, there’s this take from Joey Kennedy of the Alabama Political Reporter suggesting that straight-ticket voting is making us stupid.  Kennedy finds it inconceivable that a person’s political orientation could be such that they would simply pull one lever for either the Democrats or the Republicans as a clear indication of one’s political convictions.  Instead, he’s content to write a long screed of half-truths and insults about his own state under the guise of trying to make this place better.

This is a problem in two ways.

It insults fellow citizens.  Too many in our media and other circles cannot imagine that anyone would vote for the GOP at every level.  I agree that voting in this way may be unwise, but it doesn’t render the voter stupid. I did not vote a straight ticket in this most recent election, and I have to admit it was a bit tedious.  I will also pause to note that it’s rich to read writers suggest that things ought to be more difficult at the ballot box when most pundits have fainted at the mere mention of an ID or address verification on election day.  All the same, it is unhelpful in tone, if not in substance, to suggest that straight ticket voting is a matter of stupidity. I might concede that the process is a relic of a bygone era, and was instituted to help one party hold on to power more easily.  I would also likewise suggest that voters often engage in straight ticket voting because that particular party has won their loyalty.

If we’re in the business of analyzing voter behavior, this a point that we cannot ignore.  For almost two decades, left-leaning pundits have suggested that voters are voting against their own interests, having been hoodwinked by wily politicians.  I won’t deny that happens, but it is foolish to think that adult citizens only vote in a particular way because their parents, spouses, or pastors convinced them, too. I’ve spilled lots of ink around here on my own frustrations with the politics of Donald Trump, but in doing so, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that voters actually like the man.  Calling people stupid might work in college football (Happy Iron Bowl week!), but as citizens, we ought to respect one another enough to avoid falling back on insults and complaints about our supposedly backwards and regressive state.

The other problem here is this complaint places blame with the voters and the system, while absolving the losing candidates and their party.  Doug Jones’ election in 2017 gave state Democrats false hope in that they came to believe voters were willing to switch parties for a good candidate. That turned out to be a half truth.  Voters abandoned Roy Moore because he was a horrible candidate. Alabama Democrats weren’t that bad in 2018; indeed, they were far from it. All the same, if left-leaning pundits create an echo chamber that says the real problem with our elections is straight ticket voting, it keeps losing candidates from doing the hard and difficult work of evaluating their own missteps.  

Maybe Kennedy and others are right, and we should ditch straight ticket voting.  It wouldn’t hurt to force voters to think more closely about each race. Voting on each individual race is tedious, just like marking in all the bubbles on an old scantron test.  Working slowly down the ballot might well force voters to think more closely about their options and therefore take each race more seriously.  I do find it interesting that the same media class that screams blue murder over any changes to voting laws would demand a law making the act of voting more difficult, but who am I to judge?  It seems that so much of this tinkering with the electoral process, especially in the post mortem of a major national election, is less about the integrity of the process, and more about the frustration of seeing your side lose.

In the end, you can change the law all you want, but it won’t change the fact that whatever the issues one may have with Alabama Republicans, the state Democratic Party remains a flaming dumpster fire unwilling to do what it takes to become competitive with its opposition.  That’s bad for our politics, our state, and, yes, it’s really, really stupid.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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