Politics & Policy

Not-So-Straight Ticket

Old Democrat voting rule may hurt Obama in N.C.

With North Carolina coming down to the wire, an obscure voting statute is coming into play. In the Tar Heel state, a straight-ticket vote does not include the presidential or statewide judicial candidates. Voters must make those votes separately to have their vote counted.

For the judges, their offices are officially non-partisan so that can be disregarded. But on the presidential level, where the campaigns are decidedly partisan, the law could have a definite impact on the outcome.

For many voters, the process is confusing. After all, why would a straight ticket vote not include all candidates from a particular party?

#ad#As Mike Baker of the Associated Press Raleigh bureau points out, the law was created by the Democrats.

From Bakers story:

Democrats created the straight-ticket law in the 1960s. More conservative than the national Democratic party, state Democrats feared that relatively liberal candidates at the top of the ticket might reduce their appeal among straight-ticket voters, so they made sure the presidency would be a separate question for voters.

This could hurt Barack Obamas chances in the state, as many first-time voters leave the voting booth under the impression they had voted for every Democrat on the ticket, including Obama.

This is not to say first time voters are incapable of understanding the law, or anything of the sort. It is to say, however, that obscure laws are just that, obscure. Many voters of both parties — first time or not — vote straight ticket in North Carolina without knowing separate votes for presidential and judicial nominees are necessary.

Having worked three Senate races in my home state, Ive seen what a challenge it can be to have this information absorbed by even politically engaged voters. Anyone who was politically active in North Carolina in the 2004 campaign probably heard Paul Newby, then a candidate for the N.C. Supreme Court, use his daughter’s slogan, Scooby-Dooby, vote for Newby to remind voters they could not vote for him via straight ticket. It worked, Newby won.

The Obama campaign is working hard to get that information to voters. And, of course, sample ballots and correct voting instructions are available at every Board of Elections and every polling place. The question is whether or not the Obama camps efforts will be enough. How many North Carolinians will leave the voting booth believing they have voted for Obama — or, in fairness, John McCain — when in fact they havent? It defies common sense that a straight party ticket would be anything but.

As the Associated Press story highlights, in 2004, North Carolina had a higher undervote percentage (voting in down-ballot races, but not for president) than the national average. Having the state’s undervote percentage below the national average cost some 18,000 votes in the presidential race.

In 2004, 18,000 presidential votes in North Carolina did not mean much. In 2008, it can be the difference between winning and losing.

(The flip-side question is interesting, too. How many Democratic voters will punch the ballot for Obama without voting in any other races?)

Of course the irony here is rich. Some 40-plus years after the North Carolina Democratic party changed the rules for fear of a nominee too liberal, the Democrats have nominated the most liberal nominee in the history of American presidential politics. And it could be the obscure rule change they created that keeps Obama from winning the state.

Doug Heye is a veteran of political campaigns, Capitol Hill and the Bush administration. Heye has been involved in North Carolina politics since 1990. He served as communications director for Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) both in the United States Senate and during his successful 2004 campaign.

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