GREENFIELD — Usually, straight-party voting can only help Republicans in Hancock County.
But this year, Republican ballots could wind up helping a Democrat.
Straight-party voting, also known as straight-ticket voting, is when a voter selects the political party of his or her choice, and all of the candidates in that party automatically get that person’s vote.
Straight-party voting is optional; about 60 percent of Hancock County’s voters split their ticket, or vote in each race individually.
Straight-ticket voting here almost always favors Republicans, who essentially have a built-in advantage over Democrats in every race. For example, the difference between GOP and Democratic straight tickets in 2008 in Hancock County was more than 6,000 votes. With that much of a head start, it’s hard for Democrats to make up ground among the rest of the voters who split their ticket.
But this year, straight-ticket voting may have an unintended consequence. Democrat Crystel Myers is running for Hancock County coroner. Dan Devoy and Joe Fortner – both Republicans – are also running for the seat. But they are running as independents, not Republicans. The party’s original nominee, Tamara Vangundy, was forced from office, and the party chose not to slate a replacement.
If recent trends hold and people don’t specifically vote in the coroner’s race for Devoy or Fortner, Myers could become the first Democrat elected in a countywide race in at least the past 10 years.
“This is the first election in decades in which the straight-party ballots will help one Democrat,” said Michael Adkins, chairman of the Hancock County Democratic Party.
Straight-ticket voting is becoming less popular. Indiana is one of only 15 states that still allows it. A bill in the Indiana General Assembly this year tried to outlaw it.
At the polls, voters may choose “Republican,” “Democrat,” or “Libertarian” to vote for all of the members of their favorite party, instead of picking a candidate in each race.
But Hancock County Clerk Marcia Moore explains that even if voters choose a straight ticket, they may still vote individually for a different candidate in a particular race. In that case, one may vote straight-ticket Republican but then individually select a candidate in the coroner’s race.
Voters must also select school board candidates individually, because those do not have a party affiliation.
But voters could avoid voting straight-ticket entirely and vote for each office separately.
“I think it’ll be down,” Adkins said of straight-party voting this year. “You’re going to have some Democrats who may have voted straight-ticket who won’t vote for somebody this time out, and vice versa for some Republicans.”
Adkins thinks the U.S. Senate race, among Republican Richard Mourdock, Democrat Joe Donnelly and Libertarian Andrew Horning, could fuel considerable ticket-splitting. Adkins said Mourdock’s statement last month on abortion and rape may have turned many voters away from him.
In the 2008 presidential election, 29 percent of those who voted in Hancock County – 10,083 people – voted straight-ticket Republican. About 11 percent, or 3,850, voted straight-ticket Democrat. A total of 20,388 Hancock County voters split their tickets. That’s about 60 percent of the total voters.
The percentages of straight-party ballots were nearly identical in the 2010 countywide election. In this year’s primary election, 93 percent of Hancock County’s voters chose a Republican primary ballot. That’s where all of the contested races were; only 7 percent of voters chose a Democratic ballot.
Straight-ticket voting has been the thorn in a side of Democrats and third-party candidates for years. Libertarian Phil Miller last year encouraged voters to keep an open mind to his candidacy for Greenfield mayor, but he lost to Republican Dick Pasco. About half of Pasco’s votes came from straight-ticket Republican ballots.
Democrat Mike Merlau has said straight-ticket voting is the reason he can’t win a county seat. Merlau unsuccessfully ran for county surveyor in 2010 and county commissioner in 2008.
He is running against Republican Commissioner Brad Armstrong for the second time. But when both were newcomers in 2008, Armstrong won with more than just straight-ticket votes; he walked away with 20,742 votes four years ago compared to Merlau’s 11,701.
Adkins is running for the state Senate District 28 seat and acknowledged that straight-ticket Republican voting will probably hurt him this year. He said he’s been able to get his message out to voters, but he has lacked funds to get enough of the district’s Marion County voters to pay attention to him.
Adkins is running against Republican Mike Crider for the seat long held by retiring Republican Sen. Beverly Gard. The district covers all of Hancock County, Warren Township in Marion County and part of Shelby County.
“We are picking up some voters who tend to vote Republican, and that’s a step in the right direction,” Adkins said. “If we’d had more money and more mobilization, we’d have picked up more.”
Janice Silvey, chair of the Hancock County Republican Party, says she hopes people are aware of how straight-party voting works.
“I think the people that vote straight ticket have probably always voted that way,” Silvey said. “The only thing I’d like to say is, if they’re going to vote straight ticket I don’t think people realize since we don’t have a Republican coroner candidate they can still vote for one of the two independents.”
Even though Devoy easily won the GOP caucus earlier this year to fulfill the rest of Vangundy’s term, the Republican Party is not officially endorsing a candidate for the race. A newspaper advertisement, for example, features campaign signs from all the Republican candidates, but neither Devoy nor Fortner are included.
“I would like for them to make sure they vote for one of the independents who are both Republican,” Silvey said, adding that she worries many people don’t know that.
All three candidates have qualifications for the job. Myers has a degree in mortuary science. Fortner is a paramedic and emergency medical services coordinator and has served as a deputy coroner and former deputy for the sheriff’s department. Devoy is the closest thing the race has to an incumbent, serving as acting coroner since September. He was also deputy coroner for eight years.
Fortner said he’s talked to a lot of people who don’t realize they can vote for a race individually if they vote straight-party Republican. He said he’s trying to inform as many people as he can to vote for him.
Myers acknowledges the straight-party voting could be in her favor.
“The more I’ve learned about voting, especially in Hancock County, the more I realize people do straight-ticket vote,” Myers said. “I knew it existed, but I didn’t know it was so widespread in Hancock County.”
Straight-party voting could impact other races locally. There are three at-large spots open on the Hancock County Council. Earl Smith is the only Democrat in the race, facing Republicans Kent Fisk, Debbie Bledsoe and Marc Huber.
“People are going to vote their conscience no matter what,” Smith said. “I think this year there will probably be more people who will split their tickets. But whether they’re voting for me or not, I don’t know.”
Smith said he would rather people individually consider each candidate and research the best candidates for the job.
“People have got the right to vote for who they want to,” Smith said. “The only thing I can say is, I wish they would eliminate straight-ticket voting in the fall, and that way, if you wanted to vote a straight ticket you’d have to go through and check the boxes.”
The chairs of both Republican and Democratic parties in Hancock County say they never vote straight-party.
“It’s just something I’ve always done,” Silvey said about voting for each office individually. “I guess if I’m going to go in and vote, I’m going to do each individually. I have always researched candidates. A lot of times, being from Hancock County, you know them and stuff. But if I don’t, I read up on them and make sure I believe in what they believe.”
Silvey is also a candidate this year, running uncontested for Hancock County treasurer.
Adkins said straight-party voting is undoubtedly a key to Republican success, but he likes to look at each race.
“I think you’ve got to vote for the best person,” Adkins said. “That’s not always the Republican, and it’s not always the Democrat. I’m a loyal Democrat, but if there’s a better person in my mind that’s on the other ticket, I’m going to vote for that person.”