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Voting change proposed

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

By choosing just one lever or button, Pennsylvanians have had the ability to select either the Democrats' or Republicans' entire slate of candidates for more than 70 years.

But that would change if a proposal in Harrisburg by state Rep. Eli Evankovich — and 15 Republican cosponsors — becomes law.

The House State Government Committee had a hearing Dec. 11 on Evankovich's legislation to eliminate the straight-party ballot option in Pennsylvania, which would mean voters would have to identify their preferred candidate in each individual race rather than being able to press one button to choose all Democrats or all Republicans automatically. Pennsylvania is one of only 14 states that provides a straight-party option, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Not only would the change reduce some of the polarizing partisanship in elections, Evankovich said, it would encourage voters to review candidates at the bottom of the ballot instead of simply choosing a party's lineup based on the higher-profile candidates who are running.

“I think that the tool should be in the voters' hands,” said Evankovich, a Murrysville Republican who is in his second term. “If you want to vote straight party, you're still welcome to. I think it puts more of the responsibility, rightfully so, in the voters' hands.”

The straight-party voting provision has been part of the state Election Code since its passage in 1937, said Matthew Keeler, deputy press secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Of the 60,890 ballots counted in the general election last month in Westmoreland County, 26 percent of voters clicked on a straight-party button. Democrats collected 7,187 straight-party ballots, vs. 6,839 for the GOP. Of the 180,867 ballots counted in the general election last month in Allegheny County, 27 percent of voters clicked on a straight-party button. Democrats collected 34,793 straight-party ballots, vs. 13,076 for the GOP.

Statewide, 3.8 million voters identify themselves as Democrats, compared to the 2.8 million who are registered as Republicans, according to the Department of State. Another 946,000 voters in the Keystone State are lumped in the “other” category.

The state's Green Party chairman, Jay Sweeney, said is he open to the proposal of eliminating the straight-party ballot option. Third parties always are trying to encourage people “to think outside the box,” he said.

“We're trying to get people out of the habit of voting just Democrat or Republican,” said Sweeney, whose party has about 15,000 members statewide. “If they have to think more about the choice for each individual race, that could only benefit us.”

Democrats are less enthusiastic.

“Republicans are at it again,” Marc Eisenstein, spokesman for the state Democratic party, said in an email. “Just as they pushed for a voter-ID bill that they hoped would disenfranchise voters, Republicans are again trying to make it harder for Pennsylvanians to vote.”

State Rep. Daniel Miller, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat who serves on the State Government Committee, said he thinks Evankovich makes an interesting argument. But, Miller said, he hasn't seen anything that indicates there is a problem with the straight-party voting option.

“Obviously, we hope people are informed, but more important, we hope people vote for who they want to,” Miller said.

Voters generally considered themselves to be strong partisans — voting for their registered party regardless of the candidate — until the 1980s, when they began to split their ballot more often, said Melanie J. Blumberg, a political science professor at California University of Pennsylvania.

Lately, as partisanship has grown stronger again, some people are reverting to voting straight party, she said.

“By using party ID, it's a shorthand method to choose candidates that you believe think like you do,” Blumberg said. “Whether that's right or wrong, that's up to you.”

“I don't perceive any harm in it — other than if people rely on it for the purpose of not learning about any candidates,” she added.

Evankovich pointed to the results last month in Westmoreland County, where voters “just split their ballots all over the place.”

Three Democrats won re-election to row offices at the county courthouses, while the Republican court of clerks won a second term, and the Republican candidate for Superior Court had more votes than the Democratic nominee.

“To me, this is completely bipartisan,” Evankovich said. “It doesn't cut one way or another in terms of a party.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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