While pushing a single button is quick and easy, some local candidates this fall could find themselves short-changed by straight-ticket voting.
Bartholomew County residents are being advised that if they cast a straight-ticket ballot for the Nov. 8 general election, their votes will no longer automatically go to their party’s candidates seeking at-large positions.
This would include certain county council candidates, as well as at-large township board members, according to language in an amendment co-authored by State Sen. Greg Walker (R-Columbus).
The election law change also will affect town council races with at-large races in Hope and Hartsville, county elections supervisor Shari Lentz said.
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Straight-ticket voters now will need to individually select candidates for at-large races, said Walker, who serves as the Senate Elections Committee chairman.
“It’s a big change,” said Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps, who is responsible for election supervision and voter registration. “I’m just afraid some offices are going to be under-voted by hundreds or even thousands.”
After being approved 63-31 by state representatives and 38-16 by state senators, Walker’s amendment became Indiana Public Law 21-2016 when it was signed by Gov. Mike Pence on March 21.
“What is the purpose?” asked Republican Evelyn Pence, a 36-year member of the Bartholomew County Council seeking re-election to her at-large seat. “I’ve asked, but nobody seems to understand.”
Although straight-ticket voting, also called straight-party voting, once was common nationwide, Indiana is now one of only nine states that still provides the straight-party voting option.
When evidence emerged showing inconsistent categorizing of straight-ticket ballots by voting machine vendors, questions emerged about whether some tallies reflected the intent of some voters, Walker said.
In addition, there also is confusion that sometimes leads to discarded ballots when Hoosiers who vote straight-ticket also cast individual votes for races with multiple candidates, Walker said.
Other problems arise when straight-line voting is submitted on absentee ballots, Bartholomew County Republican chairwoman Barb Hackman said.
“You can come up with all different types of scenarios where straight-ticket voting can undermine what a voter intended to do,” Walker said.
If that’s the case, the General Assembly shouldn’t be trying to straddle the fence, Bartholomew County Democratic Central Committee chairwoman Nancy Ann Brown said.
“Why do the mixture, which is going to really confuse things?” Brown asked.
Getting rid of straight-ticket voting was exactly what lawmakers were originally considering earlier this year. But that turned out to be a nonoption because lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wanted to keep it, Walker said.
Although other methods of rectifying potential problems were examined, all turned out to be more complicated and troublesome that what the new amendment requires, the senator said.
In Phelps’ opinion, the creation of what Brown calls a mixture might be what state lawmakers consider “the first step in doing away with straight-party voting.”
Some Democrats including Brown said they suspect Republican lawmakers are intentionally trying to complicate the voting process in order to discourage non-GOP voters from casting ballots.
But since more than four times as many straight-party Republican tickets were cast locally during the 2012 presidential election when compared to Democrats, some local officials including county commissioner Larry Klenhenz said the new law could have the most negative impact on GOP at-large candidates.
“This is a nonpartisan issue,” said Pam Clark, one of three Democrats seeking at-large seats on the county council this year. “This is not about which party benefits. It’s about voters’ rights. What matters is that the law has been passed, and there has not been any advance notice given to voters.”
While Phelps said he agrees that voters need to be educated, he and Lentz said they were concerned that a massive outreach program about the changes could make an already-complicated election year more confusing to Bartholomew County residents.
Anticipating a substantial number of voters with only the presidential election on their minds, Phelps said he expects many will be surprised Nov. 8 when they encounter:
- Voting centers for the first time during a general county-wide election.
- A top-of-the-ballot referendum to make hunting, fishing and harvesting wildlife a constitutional right.
- Nonpartisan school board races, as well as at-large races, that require manual selection of candidates.
“I’ve heard from a lot of other county clerks who feel this election isn’t the best time to be making these changes,” Phelps said.
Although on-screen instructions will be provided to remind straight-party voters about their manual selections, concerns remain among Republicans and Democrats that many won’t bother to read them for the sake of speed and efficiency.
Besides including an insert with each absentee ballot, the best approach under the circumstances is to train poll workers to fully explain the situation individually to each voter just before they cast their ballot, county officials said.
The additional instructions, as well as the time involved in manually casting votes, should require each straight-line voter to invest no more than 90 additional seconds at the polls, Phelps estimated.
Indiana Public Law 21-2016
- Voters using straight-party ballots in Indiana in the November general election will have to individually mark choices for candidates in partisan at-large races.
- If the voter does not mark these additional candidates, no votes will be counted on the ballot for partisan at-large races.
- Since the school board is not partisan, the new law does not apply to those races and no additional steps are needed. Voters who fail to mark choices on school board races will not be casting a vote in those contests.