Straight-party option would be eliminated under Evankovich bill
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 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.
In Allegheny County, 500,789 people are registered as Democrats, while there are 226,703 registered Republicans.
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.”
Former Plum Borough Republican Committee Chairman Dave Majernik said the measure to eliminate straight-party voting is ”long overdue.”
“I think it is a great idea,” Majernik said. “It forces people to make a decision on every candidate rather than make a decision along party lines.”
Majernik said the straight-party option, in some cases, results in voters casting ballots in races they do not have information about candidates.
“It gives too much power to the uninformed,” Majernik said. “They may want to vote for president, and it affects everyone down the line. If you don't vote straight party, you vote for the race you are interested in.”
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.”
Majernik disagrees with Eisenstein that eliminating straight-party voting in addition to the voter identification bill disenfranchises voters.
“That is ridiculous,” Majernik said. “Everyone can vote. The voter ID does not stop people from voting. It stops voter fraud.”
Plum Borough Democratic Committee Chairwoman Valerie Yockey believes voters, many of whom are seniors, do their research and are informed when they vote whether it be by office and candidate or by straight party.
“Seniors have done their due diligence and have chosen to vote straight party because of the ideals the party represents,” Yockey said.
Yockey also believes the proposal is hypocritical.
“It (the proposal) is interesting coming from a party that wants less government,” Yockey said. “They come up with one avenue after another to disrupt the process.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Karen Zapf contributed to this story.