2018 Election

Straight-Party Voting Shows Increasing Political Polarization in Alabama, Controlled Outcome of Some Races

Alabama voters are casting straight-ticket ballots in growing numbers, highlighting a trend toward political polarization in the state.

That move was on full display in Tuesday’s election and appeared to be a critical factor in the outcome of some races.

About 65 percent of those who participated in the general election voted straight tickets, according to totals from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office.

The greatest proportion of straight-ticket voting was in the Black Belt county of Greene, where 86 percent of all voters cast a straight-party ticket for either the Republicans or Democrats. Perry County followed with 83 percent of its vote, and Bullock County came in at 81 percent. Straight-ticket Democrats accounted for 77 percent of the votes in Greene, 70 percent in Perry, and 67 percent in Bullock.

Cleburne County had the highest proportion of Republicans voting straight ticket, accounting for 68 percent of the total vote. In Blount County, 66 percent of the voters cast straight-ticket ballots for the GOP, and the figure was 64 percent in Winston County.

In Jefferson County, 42 percent of all voters cast straight-ticket ballots for Democrats and 30 percent were for Republicans. The percentages were 49 percent for Republicans and 16 percent for Democrats in Shelby County, and 60 percent for Republicans and 12 percent for Democrats in St. Clair County.

“I think it means that people are becoming more polarized,” Secretary of State John Merrill said. “More people who are conservative are voting a straight ticket for Republicans. The Democrats are doing the same thing, voting for candidates who are more liberal, but there are not as any of them in Alabama.”

William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, agreed that polarization is growing.

“People are upset by the sharply leftward mood of the Democratic Party and don’t want anything to do with any of its candidates,” Stewart said. “A smaller percentage feel that way about the GOP and Trump, especially African-American voters and women who identify with the me-too movement.”

Larry Powell, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he sees polarization as a significant factor but not a complete explanation for the higher percentages of people voting straight ticket this year. In 2010 and 2014, just less than 50 percent of the voters voted by straight ticket.

Straight-ticket voting allows someone to vote for everyone on the ballot who is running under the banner of their chosen party just by filling in one oval at the top of the ballot.

Both parties pushed straight-ticket voting in cases where they thought it would benefit them, Powell said.

Two contests where straight-ticket voting likely was the deciding factor were for Alabama chief justice and Jefferson County sheriff.

Parker-Vance Contest

Democrat Robert Vance Jr. was seen by many as his party’s strongest candidate in a statewide race this fall. A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, Vance was the only Democrat to raise more money than his Republican opponent in a statewide race, but he garnered only 43 percent of the vote against Tom Parker, a Supreme Court associate justice and ally of twice-ousted Chief Justice Roy Moore.

“Statewide, that (straight-ticket voting) helped defeat Judge Vance,” Merrill said.

Powell added, “I think that is true. If this had been a bipartisan state, Vance would have been a strong candidate.”

By contrast, Powell noted, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Moore earlier this year in a special election for the U.S. Senate. That was the only contest on the ballot, he said, so there was no issue of straight-ticket voting.

Still, Stewart noted that Vance lost to Moore in an election for chief justice six years ago.

“Alabama’s conservative majority of voters are smart enough to know that politics is involved to a greater extent in judicial decisions,” he said. “If not, why the gigantic struggle over (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh? People were reasonably familiar with Parker and know he is conservative. The fact that Vance had bipartisan support from VIP former justices didn’t help him. Presumably, Judge Vance won’t be willing to be the Democratic Party’s sacrificial lamb again. He is a good judge and Jeffco is fortunate to have him.”

In the Jefferson County sheriff’s race, longtime incumbent Mike Hale was unable to overcome straight-ticket voting by Democrats, whose straight-ticket voting accouted for 58 percent of the votes cast.

“That’s what defeated the sheriff,” Merrill said. “He worked like a dog and out-spent his opponent and put up a tremendous effort to build bipartisan support among blacks.”

The secretary of state, whose office oversees elections in Alabama, said the two parties have flip-flopped over the years in their views of straight-ticket voting.

When Democrats held most state offices, he said, they encouraged voters to pull the lever – or mark their ballot – for candidates of that party. Republicans are now pushing that idea, and Democrats are urging voters to pick and choose among individual candidates.

Alabama is one of eight states with ballots that offer straight-ticket voting, and Merrill said he does not believe that will change.