Ending the straight-ticket vote

Old habits die hard, especially among politicians. So don’t look for Delegate Ryan Ferns’ thoughtful bill to sail through the West Virginia Legislature without quite a bit of debate – most of it, probably, after hours as Democrat lawmakers discuss the personal pros and cons of the measure.

Ferns, D-Ohio County, has introduced a bill to eliminate straight-ticket voting in Mountain State elections. He insists it has wide support among House leaders.

For decades, straight-ticket voting has been among the best friends Democrat office seekers have in our state. It allows voters to simply mark at the tops of their ballots that they want to elect all candidates of one party. Most of the time, that means Republicans need not apply, especially when the Democrat Party has enjoyed popular leaders such as the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

But times have changed. According to some counts, the number of straight-ticket ballots cast by Democrats last fall was nearly equaled by those posted by Republicans. It’s interesting what the name “Barack Obama” at the top of a list of candidates will do.

Voters ought to make decisions based on individual candidates, not party affiliation. But because many, both Republicans and Democrats, are too lazy and/or too brainwashed to do that, the practice tends to benefit candidates from the most popular party with the most charismatic candidates at the top of the ticket.

As we’ve reported, however, Democrats no longer are unchallenged in West Virginia politics. At one time they held a two-to-one edge in voter registrations. That has narrowed substantially, with the GOP gaining – and about one-sixth of voters declaring themselves independent.

Ferns thinks last fall’s near-equal numbers of Democrat and Republican straight-ticket voters will make leaders in his party less hardheaded about eliminating what they have viewed for many years as an advantage – not just for their party but also for them personally. Many of them don’t mind it a bit if they get elected on someone else’s coattails instead of on their own merits.

The number of co-sponsors Ferns attracted for his bill may indicate such a shift in thinking. The measure has 10 co-sponsors, including seven Democrats. Of that number, Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and Finance Committee Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, are particularly impressive.

But the House is one place and the state Senate can be a very different one.

Delegates have seen the growing power of Republicans up close and personally. After decades in which the GOP was no more than an irritant for Democrat leaders in the House, it now has real power. The election last fall sent 46 Republicans to the House to counter 54 Democrats.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, presides over a totally different situation, with 25 Democrats comfortably in the driver’s seat over their nine Republican colleagues.

One indication of whether a bill has a chance of passing is whether similar versions of it are introduced in both houses of the Legislature. To my knowledge, Ferns’ proposal has no counterpart in the state Senate.

Straight-ticket voting is a very old, cherished practice among many Democrat politicians who have benefitted from it. Many of them will consider the near-equal number of straight-ticket ballots from their party and the GOP last fall to have been merely a fluke, not worth abandoning the process that has been so good to them.

They’re probably right. It is impossible to over-estimate the effect Barack Obama had on last fall’s election in West Virginia. Next time around, with a Democrat less objectionable to so many Mountain State voters, the straight-ticket pattern favoring Democrats could be resumed.

So it may be too early for the old politicos to give up what many of them consider to be an ace in the hole at election time.

Straight-ticket voting should be eliminated, of course. Within the next week or so – when we see whether a Senate bill to that effect has been introduced – we’ll probably know whether it’s going to happen this year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net