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How much does lack of party label contribute to undervote for down-ballot primary races?

Post by Peter Callaghan / The News Tribune on Aug. 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
August 21, 2012 5:20 pm

Some call it ballot fatigue – the tendency of races that fall further down the ballot to receive less attention from voters.

Elections officials, however, call it undervote.

For example, in the just completed primary election in Washington state, 1,435,182 votes were cast — an anemic 38.5 percent. And the race for governor, uncompetitive as it was, got the most love from voters. Just 1.8 percent of those who filled out a ballot did not cast a vote for governor. In the race for U.S. Senate, the undervote was 3.4 percent.

But the dropoff gets more-severe further down the ballot: lieutenant governor, 6.7 percent; secretary of state, 7.4 percent; auditor, 11.7 percent; attorney general, 7.6 percent; land commissioner, 8.3 percent; and insurance commissioner, 9.7 percent.

Two races for statewide elected office were outliers — treasurer with a 35.5 percent dropoff and superintendent of public instruction with 21.5 percent. Treasurer is easily explained because Jim McIntire was running unopposed and many voters don’t bother with such races (me included).

But SPI had an incumbent (Randy Dorn) against four challenges. It had a similar profile as insurance commissioner and lands commissioner in that there was an incumbent facing off against challengers who ran very little in the way of a campaign.

So why the dropoff? Could it be the lack of party preferences in that one office? Voters who don’t know much about candidates often rely on party labels as prompts to help choose. No label often means no vote.

And that could also explain the undervote in the three races for state Supreme Court. One of the races involved a two-term incumbent (Susan Owens), an eight-month incumbent (Steve Gonzalez) and on open seat. Yet all three had similar undervotes 22.3 percent, 23.2 percent and 21 percent respectively. These non-partisan races had nearly identical undervotes as the race for school commissioner.

The pattern was not as dramatic in 2008. SPI saw the largest undervote among statewide elected offices but it was not quite as high as supreme court. But the 2008 races between Dorn and then-incumbent Terry Bergeson was higher profile

So does the lack of party labels do more to create undervote than the placement on the ballot and the existence of an incumbent.

“I don’t think there are very many people who know who the (supreme court) or SPI incumbents
are,” wrote Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan who has studied the cues that voters use to make decisions. “Or maybe this is saying that party label is a more powerful cue than being a down-ticket incumbent.”

I’m not suggesting that Supreme Court races become partisan contests. That would be an especially bad idea. But as folks are looking for explanations for the undervote (and what some consider under-informed votes) for supreme court, they should consider the structural hurdles in increasing voter participation in non-partisan races.

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