MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - For the first time in recent general elections, a slim majority of Alabamians cast straight party votes in the general election in November. The use of the straight party ticket vote was more popular among Democrats, but almost half of Alabamians voting for the Republican presidential candidate cast straight tickets as well in the general election.
Some political observers feel straight party voting means fewer voters consider the qualifications, positions or experience of candidates, especially at the local level.
In other words, actual thinking by voters may become less common if straight party voting becomes more common.
Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University, told the TimesDaily of Florence recently: "That means that half the electorate is not even considering the resume or experience of the candidates. They're just saying, 'I'm an D' or 'I'm an R.' "
According to figures provided by the Alabama Secretary of State's office, slightly more than 51 percent of Alabama voters in November cast a straight party vote. In 2008, by comparison, 50 percent of Alabamians who voted did so by a straight ticket ballot. However, in 2010, a non-presidential election year, 47.5 percent of ballots cast were straight ticket.
Alabama does not register voters by party, so it is impossible to say exactly what percentage of Democrats or Republicans voted a straight ticket. But in the November election, 64 percent of President Obama's votes in Alabama came from straight ticket votes. Gov. Mitt Romney received 44 percent of his Alabama votes via a straight ticket vote.
In Montgomery County, 54.7 percent of ballots cast were straight ticket votes. In Jefferson County, 58.7 percent of all ballots were straight ticket. But in Wilcox County, more than 75 percent of ballots cast were straight party ballots.
Only 11 states now allow unfettered straight ticket voting: Alabama, Oklahoma, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Kentucky, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey allows it only in primary elections, North Carolina in all races except for presidential elections, and Rhode Island only in general elections, according to the NCSL.
Straight ticket voting certainly affects the results of races down the ballot. Sometimes Republicans benefit; sometimes Democrats do.
The phenomenon was a strong factor in helping the Alabama Republican Party gain complete control of statewide politics. The GOP now holds every office elected statewide in Alabama, including the governor's office, all 19 appellate judgeships, all seven constitutional offices, each of the three seats on the Public Service Commission, and the state's U.S. Senate seats. In addition, the GOP has strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
But in counties with a strong Democratic base, such as Montgomery County, the reverse has happened. In 2010 and again in 2012, no Republican in Montgomery County who ran countywide won. Even Montgomery County Probate Judge Reese McKinney, a Republican veteran who worked hard to build relationships in both political parties, was defeated this year.
Of course, in the decades that Alabama was a one-party state, dominated by Democrats, straight ticket voting was the overwhelming method of casting ballots, and Democrats ensured that it was an easy process. Now the tactic is being used against them.
But those Alabamians who see themselves as independents, linked to no party, are the losers. Voters who study the candidates, weigh their experience and their stands on issues, and then choose candidates regardless of party affiliation risk seeing their votes overwhelmed by a tide of straight party voting.
That also means the democratic process, with a little "d", is not what it should be.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. E-mail him at email@example.com.