Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: How South Carolina encourages voters to turn off their brains

IF YOU’D RATHER vote for a yellow dog than a Republican — or, I don’t know, for a spotted cow rather than a Democrat — that’s your absolute right. I and others who routinely vote for both Republicans and Democrats will think you are an unwise voter, but we would never try to deny you the right to be unwise.

But should our state government actively encourage you to do that?

South Carolina and nine other states do — although one of the others is trying to stop, and being stymied by federal judges.

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Michigan straight-party voting ban won’t take effect

Straight Ticket Voting States

Scoppe: A silver lining

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Imagine, if you can, that you are a loyal partisan, but your House member keeps fighting ethics reforms and other measures you care about. He has become to you far worse than a yellow dog or a spotted cow, and in November he has a challenger. A challenger who supports ethics reforms and those other measures that you care about. So you’ve decided to finally cross that great divide and vote for someone from that other party.

But when you step up to the voting machine, you realize that in order to vote for that challenger — or even leave that race blank — you will have to vote individually in each race on the 15-page ballot. Now, that’s something half of us do all the time, but it’s foreign to you. You’ve always just selected that straight-ticket option and been done with it. And you overslept this morning and had to wait in a long line and you have too much to do at work, and you’re intimidated by having to navigate the whole ballot, and the state of South Carolina coos to you, “Oh, come on, baby; don’t waste all that time. One vote and you’re done!”

And so with the active encouragement of the state of South Carolina, you vote for someone you can’t stand and help defeat a candidate you would rather have in office.

Maybe this doesn’t happen often, since people who vote straight tickets are unlikely to think much about the merits of the competing candidates. But by making it easier to pick a party than individual candidates, the state also encourages this very sort of thinking. Trains people to look at politics as black and white, as an all-or-nothing, yes-no, either-or dichotomy with no room for gray. Or Maybe. Or something less than all but more than nothing.

You’d expect partisans to applaud that training — and indeed it was partisans who devised the system, wrote it into our law and now refuse even to consider changing it. But as The State’s Jamie Self recently reported, the two top partisans in our state — Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore and Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison — want to eliminate the straight-ticket option. (They also want to stop our legislators from drawing their own districts in a way that shuts out challengers, but that’s a complete non-starter, since it would require our legislators to give up control over something that matters to them.)

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Few competitive races for SC voters in November

The Rise and Simultaneous Fall of Straight-Ticket Voting

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Republican voters and some legislators long have derided straight-ticket voting, which they see as a primarily Democratic — and more specifically, a primarily black — practice. There’s a lot of history and political heft behind that belief: The very day Messrs. Moore and Harrison showed up in Ms. Self’s article condemning straight-ticket voting, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revive a Michigan law banning straight-ticket voting, which a lower court had struck down as discriminating against African-Americans.

But the straight ticket is becoming increasingly popular among S.C. Republicans, just like the absentee voting that they used to decry as an invitation to voter fraud before they started aggressively encouraging older Republicans to try it. In 2014, Republicans cast 295,416 straight tickets, Democrats 310,252. Republican straight tickets have been trending upward for years now, and given how many more Republicans we have than Democrats, I expect we’ll soon have more Republican straight tickets.

So this is not the time you’d expect Republicans to embrace a change. The fact that both chairmen want to eliminate the one-vote option is one of the most hopeful things I’ve heard this year about our election system. Even more hopeful is their reasoning: They want to train voters to be less predictable — that is, to be less partisan — in hopes of making the general elections more competitive. It’s a position you’d expect from Mr. Harrison, whose party is such an outnumbered minority, but not from Mr. Moore, whose candidates are more often the ones unopposed in November.

Of course, the fact that the Republican Party chairman wants to eliminate this option does not mean Republicans legislators will follow suit. Ditto the Democratic Party chairman and Democratic lawmakers. And even if the Legislature were to abolish the one-vote option, there’s that whole federal court problem looming. But that was a procedural ruling that we can worry about tomorrow.

For today, let’s bask in the possibility that we could one day join the 40 other states that require voters to actually vote for the candidates of their choice, rather than handing that job over to political parties. After all, we need to feel good about something in this dreadful election season.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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