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Columbia Missourian

ANALYSIS: Straight ticket no longer option in Mo.

By DAVID A. LIEB/The Associated Press
October 26, 2008 | 6:09 p.m. CDT

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JEFFERSON CITY — Could Missourians choose Republican John McCain as president and Democrat Jay Nixon as governor? Or might they split their pick between Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof?

History suggests that's unlikely to happen in Missouri. But some political scientists nonetheless foresee the potential for a top-of-the-ticket split in the Nov. 4 election.

One thing is for sure: Because of a change in state law, it will be harder than in past presidential elections for Missourians to vote a straight-party ticket.

Missouri traditionally has voted for gubernatorial and presidential candidates from the same party. In fact, in the past 100 years, there have been just four instances when Missourians picked presidents and governors of opposite parties.

One of those happened in 2000, when Missourians voted for Republican President Bush while electing Democrats to most statewide offices, including Bob Holden for governor.

But 2000 was tragically unique. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash while campaigning for the U.S. Senate three weeks before the election. He won anyway, as the passion flowing from that event spilled over to the ballot booth.

Besides that, the most recent case of Missouri ticket splitting occurred in 1968, when Republican Richard Nixon won the White House but Democratic Gov. Warren Hearnes won re-election. That election also has an asterisk. It was the first, following a change to the Missouri Constitution, in which an incumbent governor was able to seek a second term.

When Republican Gov. Matt Blunt won election in 2004, Bush also won — keeping Missouri's top of the ticket homogenous.

But lawmakers in 2006 made a significant change to Missouri's ballots. They did away with the straight-party option that allowed people to cast a vote for every candidate from a particular party by checking a single box for that party.

In the 2004 presidential election, more than 1 million Missouri voters — accounting for about 40 percent of all ballots cast — chose the straight party option, according to the secretary of state's office. A majority of those straight tickets were Democratic.

This year will mark the first presidential election in which Missourians will not have a straight-party option. That means die-hard Democrats or Republicans will have to physically make a mark next to each candidate. That theoretically creates a greater potential for ticket splitting.

"Coattails work really well when you have straight-ticket voting," said George Connor, acting chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University. "I think that's going to have some bearing on this race — the fact that you don't."

Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Missouri's chief election official, has distributed 4,500 posters for local election authorities to place at voting precincts reminding people the straight-party option is gone. The posters declare: "Don't Forget: Make a Mark by Each Candidate You're Voting For."

A list of instructions mailed by Carnahan to local election officials advises them to train poll workers to hand ballots to people with a verbal reminder that straight-party voting is no longer an option.

Of course, nothing prevents someone from still voting for every Democrat or Republican on the ballot. In fact, that might be expected from people so loyal to their party that they previously were willing to check the straight-party box.

Political scientists David Webber and David Kimball, who both have researched straight-party voting, believe that Missourians this year could make a split-party pick of Republican McCain and Democrat Nixon.

But neither believes the repeal of straight-party voting would contribute greatly to that.

Webber analyzed the effect of the repeal of straight-ticket voting in the 2006 election by comparing votes for U.S. Senate and Missouri Senate.

The prevailing theory was that without the straight-ticket option, some voters would grow tired of making decisions and not vote in some down-ballot races. But Webber found that slightly more people actually voted in down-ballot legislative races in 2006 than in 2002.

And contrary to the theory that repealing the straight-party option would help Republicans, Webber's figures showed that votes for Democratic candidates for U.S. and state Senate increased more than for Republicans from 2002 to 2006.

Kimball said his own research also has caused him to rethink his original assumption that straight-party ballots contributed to the coattail effect of electing statewide officers of the same party as the prevailing presidential candidate.

"Over time, I've become more skeptical of that position," Kimball said.

Rather, from year to year, "the tide favors one party, and voters go with the tide, and the tide washes over all the candidates of that party," Kimball said. "I don't think it has really much to do with the straight-party punch."