Gridlock begins in the voting booth

Voters lament political gridlock–while they’re encircling the oval for straight party voting.

Straight party voting is, in itself, a form of gridlock. No consideration is given to each candidate on the ballot. Minds are made up with one darkened oval for the party. And when there’s gridlock in the voting booth, it seems disingenuous to bemoan a lack of compromise at the legislature.

It’s a common practice in Iowa. Iowawatch.org, using statistics from the Secretary of State’s office, reported that about a third of Iowans voted a straight party ticket in the 2014 election. But it’s not a common practice nationwide. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Iowa is in the company of just ten other states still allowing straight party voting: Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. Voting for the party, without selecting each candidate, is trending downward.

Image by Shutterstock.

Image by Shutterstock

Opponents of selecting the oval for straight party voting say it reinforces unhealthy partisanship and also causes non-partisan offices on the ballot to be left blank. Supporters of the practice say that it’s easy to understand and removing the efficient option could mean longer wait times in the voting lines. And, there’s no clear party winner with the practice. Sometimes Republicans benefit and sometimes Democrats. Regardless, even with removing the straight party oval option, voters can still vote 100 percent of the time for their chosen party’s candidates. It just requires selecting each candidate individually.

Since politicians many times fail to find paths of compromise that result in accomplishments for our state and nation, maybe it’s all wrong to think of them as our leaders. Maybe the real leaders are the average voters. By discontinuing the practice of straight party voting and showing a willingness to consider the merits of all candidates on the ballot, voters will be leading by example.

There is, it seems, something unreasonable about straight party voting. Do we really believe that either all Democrats or all Republicans are the “bad guys?” Sounds discriminatory. We don’t discriminate in other areas, and we shouldn’t in our political lives either.

True, we have different viewpoints, opinions and beliefs. And this belief system typically aligns well with one party or the other. It’s pretty simple to align with a party.

Aligning with a candidate is tougher. It takes times to become informed about how one candidate differs from another. How has an incumbent performed in office? What has he or she accomplished? What qualifications or campaign promises does a challenger offer?

Today’s media does make it easier to be informed. Most newspapers have online editions. Social media, although not always the most reliable source, helps by getting people talking about the issues and asking questions. News radio shows have proliferated. Cable television has many channels devoted to non-stop news and commentary, and the steadfast, major networks continue to provide local and world news nightly.

There are typically a dozen or more choices to be made on each ballot. Democrats or Republicans accustomed to straight party voting might consider one candidate from the opposite party who could earn their vote. When in doubt–either from lack of information about the candidate or because both candidates are equally appealing (or equally displeasing)–vote party preference. But if the voter cannot find one, acceptable candidate running opposite his or her party choice, a clearer understanding will develop of why gridlock exists. If voters see only red or blue, why would we expect elected officials to behave differently?

There’s an attitude of gridlock that begins in the voting booth. Adjusting voting behavior, by eliminating the straight party oval option and encouraging voters to consider each candidate, won’t  change the world. But a change in attitude brings a change in expectation, an expectation that politicians who were sent to problem solve–do so. No matter which party is in the majority at the time.

There is hope. In the book, “Political Behavior of the American Electorate,” authors William Flanigan and Nancy Zingale closed their research by stating, “Despite the political elite and political activists, a sizable portion of the electorate is moderate or unconcerned about ideology and lacking in firm partisan attachments.”

Democrats and Republicans voting for moderate and reasonable candidates just might elect a group of workers who can put our state and nation first and partisan politics second. If that doesn’t work, voters might consider joining the growing Independent party. If its numbers keep climbing, it’ll be fielding more successful candidates on the ballot.

Perhaps, then, we will see the death of gridlock.

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