Say good-bye to voting straight ticket

CONCORD – Voters will probably face long lines at the polls Tuesday, but for the first time in decades, they’ll be unable to place a single mark on the ballot and walk out.

Leaders in both political parties can’t predict what that will mean, but they anxiously await the results of the first statewide election without straight-ticket voting.

“This is the first time we’ll have this experience, so who can know for sure? Many assume it could hurt us, but I think it could hurt the Republicans in certain parts of the state as well,” said House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, during a recent interview.

The lack of straight-ticket voting is expected to hurt lesser-known races at the bottom of the ballot, such as county offices and state representatives, whose contenders hoped to benefit from the coat-tail effect of party victors in high-profile races like president and U.S. Senate.

Since the Democrats are currently expected to do better at the top of the ballot statewide, any such harm would presumably fall on them – even though their party is the one that did away with it after taking control of the Statehouse in 2006.

New Hampshire had been among a minority of states nationally that permitted voters to cast candidates for every candidate by placing an “X” next to a party’s insignia. Secretary of State Bill Gardner said as many as “25 percent to 35 percent” of voters in a presidential election have voted straight ticket in the past.

Democratic leaders always viewed the device as a tool to keep the Republican Party in the majority. If so, it didn’t work in 2006, when Democrats swept all the major offices – and then used that power to remove the straight-ticket option.

“There is some irony in the fact that Democrats are responsible for getting rid of this, and that could be to their detriment,” said Dale Kuehne, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“I’ve got to admit that I’m worried about the ramifications for this first election as people get used to it, but this was the right thing to do,” Norelli said.

Supporters of the change also contend that straight-ticket balloting causes confusion among voters as many would make the mark and then proceed to vote for candidates from both parties further down the ballot.

“We see it done more every four years because so many people don’t vote in the state elections and some of them are less informed about all the races further down the ballot, so they just cast a straight ticket,” Gardner said.

2006 was a state election year, when straight-ticketing made a real difference.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter parlayed widespread dissatisfaction with the Bush administration into a flood of straight-ticket votes to upset Republican Jeb Bradley.

Little-known Nelson Democrat John Shea stunned 20-year incumbent Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding, R-Hopkinton, with the same partisan lift.

Republican State Chairman Fergus Cullen said that unlike many other leading GOP figures, he did not oppose getting rid of straight-ticket voting.

“At the end of the day, I believe candidates right down to the local level need to make their case with the voters,” Cullen said.

To Cullen’s way of thinking, straight-ticket voting has the most impact when there’s a heavy swing of traditional support.

“I compare straight-ticket voting to how much bigger a tide is when you have a full moon. That’s what we saw in 2006,” Cullen said.

The competitive races for president, U.S. Senate and Congress could get many voters in the habit of picking hopefuls from both parties at the top of the ballot, Cullen said.

A sure result of this change is that there will be far fewer votes for candidates running for county and state representative than there are in the higher profile contests.

“We know there will be some who just vote for the president and maybe a few other contests and then leave,” Norelli said. “The question is: are those folks more likely to go with us or the Republicans had they bothered to take the time to fill out the ballot?”

Gardner pointed out the new design of the ballot this year visually will be easier for voters to pick all candidates of the same party.

“They will be lined up vertically so if you are inclined to vote straight ticket in the past, all you have to do is line up the circles next to those candidates, top to bottom,” Gardner added.