JEFFERSON CITY — A record number of people showed up at the polls last month, but a growing number of Missourians turned in incomplete ballots, making their presidential picks but skipping the other races.
More than 2.9 million people in Missouri voted for president — nearly 200,000 more than in 2004. But compared with four years ago, tens of thousands more voters trailed off, skipping races for the state legislature and even for governor.
So why would someone go to the polls and wait in line for several hours in some cases but then stop before completing the ballot? One likely culprit is the end of straight-ticket voting.
In 2004, more than 1 million people — or about 40 percent of those who voted — cast a straight-ticket ballot.
Until 2006, Missourians had been able to vote for every Republican, Democratic or Libertarian candidate merely by checking one box at the top of the ballot, instead of placing a mark by each individual name. But the Republican-led state legislature, over the objection of Democrats, did away with that option.
The generally accepted theory was that the repeal would drop participation in contests listed lower on the ballot, as people accustomed to the timesaving straight-ticket option grew weary of having to choose between numerous individual candidates.
“The farther you go down the ballot, the greater the drop off as more voters skip those races,” said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied straight-ticket voting. “Essentially, the straight-party punch was the great equalizer to limit that effect.”
In the first presidential election since that voting option was repealed, the general theory for straight-ticket ballots seems to have held.
More Missourians voted for each office on the ballot in 2008 than in 2004. But there also was a corresponding increase in the number of ballots that picked a presidential slate but did not make selections in the other races. That trend grew more pronounced the farther down the ballot the office was printed.
Missouri’s ballots are organized with the presidential race first and the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general and state legislature races following.
For example statewide, 47,421 people — or about 2 percent — voted for president but skipped the gubernatorial race between Democrat Jay Nixon and Republican Kenny Hulshof. It is not a huge portion of the electorate, but it means that in 2008, there were 35,656 more people who voted for the president but skipped the governor’s race than did in 2004. In 2004, less than 1 percent of Missourians who voted for president skipped the gubernatorial race between Republican Matt Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill.
In the attorney general’s race — the last statewide office to appear on the ballot — the margin of voters who skipped the race this year increased by 66,154 votes over 2004. Despite being the first attorney general race for an open seat since 1992, the number of people who passed on voting for either candidate in 2008 nearly doubled to 5 percent.
Kimball said the consistent increase in the number of voters skipping down-ballot races suggests that repealing the straight-ticket voting option affected lower races. But he said it is unclear whether the repeal mattered enough to change the outcome of the election or control of the state legislature.
Voters overwhelmingly picked Nixon and selected just one Republican in the five statewide races. But the Democrats’ success did little to dent the Republican control of the legislature. The GOP expanded its majority in the Senate, and the Democrats picked up just three House seats, which was less than they had hoped.
But Kimball said it is unlikely that voters started mixing their ballots with Republican lawmakers and Democratic statewide officials because of the straight-ticket repeal.
“For so many of the state legislature races, it was no contest to begin with,” he said. “There just weren’t competitive races.”
And even though Democratic voters in 2004 were more likely than Republicans to cast straight-ticket votes, the partisan tinge didn’t necessarily hold true for the increases in partially completed ballots in 2008.
Voters in heavily Democratic St. Louis city, for example, dropped off down-ballot races with greater frequency in 2008 than in 2004. But that trend also held true in the staunch GOP turf of Barry County in southwest Missouri.
And while those living in St. Louis were more likely to cast incomplete ballots, there was a greater bump in the portion of the electorate skipping down-ballot races in Barry County than in St. Louis.