Tuesday, January 15, 2013

HB143 - Straight Ticket Voting

This morning the Election Law Committee heard testimony on HB143: An Act Allowing Straight Ticket Voting.  This bill is sponsored by Representatives Notter, Peterson, LeBrun, and Rice - all Republicans.

The NH legislature abolished straight ticket voting in 2007, after the Democrats took control of the NH House for the first time in 150 years. The state has had 3 voting cycles without it, but now, after the significant losses by the GOP in 2012, they've decided to attempt to bring it back. I was interested to hear the justifications, so I attended the hearing.

Representative Frederick Rice of Hampton was the designated speaker from the group of sponsors.

He was asked by one member of the committee how this bill would impact those candidates who get their names on both sides of the ballot. He did a little dance around that, and said it wasn't a legislative issue, but an issue for the political parties to decide - who is and isn't a member of their party. Assuming the bill would work the same way it did in the past, a straight ticket vote means voting for anyone listed as a candidate for whatever party one chooses. In 2002, when I ran for the legislature, a number of came up and said "I voted for you - I voted straight ticket!" and were horrified to learn that they'd also voted for Gene Chandler, who that year had worked hard to get on both sides of the ballot.

Representative Rice went on to say that a candidate who elevates themselves won't be a casualty of straight ticket voting.  (One might wonder what the point is, if  that's the case.)

He stated a number of times that it's primarily a matter of convenience. Apparently reading down the whole ballot and filling in those little circles with the pencil is inconvenient.

Rep. Bob Perry asked how many states have straight ticket voting. Rep. Rice did not know. I do - because I went home and looked it up.

 There are 15 states that have STV: Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia all have unrestricted STV. New Jersey has STV only in primary elections. N. Carolina has STV for all races but the presidential elections. Rhode Island has STV only in general elections, and New Mexico chose to suspend STV in the November 2012 election.
Straight ticked voting is on the decline in the US. A number of states  have abolished it in the last decade or so. Georgia abolished STV in 1994. Illinois abolished STV in 1997. Michigan tried in 2001, but it was repealed. Missouri abolished it in 2006 as part of their Voter ID law. NH abolished STV in 2007, S. Dakota in 1996, and Wisconsin in 2011. 

Rep. Marcia Moody asked if someone voted straight ticket, then crossed over further down and voted for another candidate if that would cancel out their vote. Rep. Rice didn't know. Representative LeBrun had to slip him copies of the bill twice, and do some explaining to him. Apparently it would not cancel out the vote. Rep. Rice explained that straight ticket voting is like buying a refrigerator at Home Depot - the buyer gets the basic package, but gets to choose the options.

After Rep. Rice completed his testimony, Rep. Peter Schmidt was up next, to testify in opposition to the bill. Rep. Schmidt said that convenience to voters should not be the determining factor in how we vote. He said it's not a good argument, that voters should know who they're voting for. "Voting should be an informed act, a significant act." Rep. Schmidt said that he would not vote solely on the basis of party affiliation if he didn't know a candidate, "that is irresponsible."

He also referenced the number of voters who did vote solely on the basis of party affiliation in 2010 and came to regret their decisions. (Martin Harty, anyone?)

During Rep. Schmidt's testimony, Josh McElveen and a cameraman from WMUR came in and did a little taping of Schmidt's testimony. McElveen  and Rep. Notter both went out into the hallway for a chat.

Committee member Rep. Marston mentioned the long lines at the polls on election day. Representative Schmidt pointed out that those lines were caused by new voters registering on election day. Rep. Marston said that as a town moderator he knows that voters want convenience - that one check mark is so convenient, when there are so many choices on a ballot.

Rep. Schmidt responded, "Why not send someone to their house with a ballot and a pen and let them vote in bed?"

There was also some question about the interpretation of language in the bill in the area of instructions on voting a straight ticked.  Rep. Schmidt's interpretation did not jibe with that of Reps. Notter, Peterson, and LeBrun.

Former Rep. Harriet Cady testified in favor of the bill. She said that it is convenient and less time consuming. As a supervisor of the checklist, she's encountered new young voters who don't even understand the 2 party system. Students in our society are not well educated in our voting system, and they take an inordinate amount of time in the voting booth.

So, rather than educate them, just give 'em a pencil and let them vote a straight ticket?

Bottom line: this bill comes from Republicans in the southern part of the state. Even after the exhaustive gerrymandering done by the GOP in the last legislature, some Republicans STILL lost their seats. Former Speaker O'Brien barely clung to his seat (winning by 67 votes) in a district that was especially designed to keep him. Since gerrymandering isn't enough to maintain a permanent GOP majority, they'll try every gimmick they can think of. The one thing they seem unwilling to try is doing something about the very real problems our state faces. They'd prefer to fritter away their time (and our tax dollars) on manufactured "problems."

 The saddest thing about the testimony today was the kind of low expectations that the members of the minority party have of NH voters. Apparently we're too lazy to bother to read a ballot all the way down, and not clever enough to fill in all the little spaces - and actually researching the candidates to know whom we're voting for seems to be far beyond our ability.


Kelley Monahan said...

Susan, Glad you went, thanks for the report. An informed voter should be the goal, NOT convenience.

susanthe said...

That's exactly right, Kelley.

Bob Perry said...

I was swept into office, along with so many other Democrats in the election of November, 2006. Parenthetically, I was swept out of office with so many Democrats in 2010, but won a special election last summer against a bone-fide member of the Free State Project, running as a Republican. But my point is this: In my first year in office, 2007, I thought it incongruous that we should repeal straight ticket voting ... after all, we as Democrats had just won a resounding victory. Why would we want to look a gift horse in the face? In my inexperience, my colleagues told me that Democrats had made a promise to repeal straight ticket voting, as it caused much consternation at the state's polling places with people voting a straight ticket, and then voting elsewhere on the ballot, which amounted to over voting; thus, the intent of the voter could not be determined, and the ballot was not counted. In my home town, my moderator asked me as a freshman state representative to repeal straight-ticket voting. We did. We kept our promise. I voted to repeal, even though in my own mind I thought Democrats benefited from straight-ticket voting. Straight-ticket voting was repealed in 2007. In addition, I do not conclude the bill presented today to reinstate straight-ticket voting makes it more convenient for voters. Making voting more convenient was not the wish of those across the country who voted to implement photo I.D. laws, curtailed early voting, shortened voting hours, intentionally placed too few voting machines at polling places, and otherwise attempted to suppress the votes of students, minorities, the disabled, and the elderly. Voting is as absolute a right as any enumerated by the New Hampshire Constitution, and as a legislator, my goal is to honor that Constitutional right to open access to the ballot box.