Race to the Bottom: We Can’t Rely on the Top of the Ticket When It Comes to Down-Ballot Voting

When Democrats turn out – and vote the full ticket – we win. Our problem? Republicans are better at both. It’s why the GOP was able to take over our state legislature in 2010 and how we got the resulting gerrymandered maps that put us where we are today.

To restore the democratic institutions of our state and our country, we’re going to need to compete up and down the ballot. And the critical state legislative races we need to win will be far down the ballot in 2020. Now is our opportunity to talk with left-leaning voters about why these races are so important – and what is at stake – before top-of-the-ticket campaigns steal the show.

Importantly, we can’t rely on up-ballot candidates to win these races for us. Turnout for down-ballot races can help drive up-ballot voting, but it doesn’t always work in reverse.

GOP down-ballot vote suppression efforts. In 2008, the Obama campaign drove record turnout among young and minority voters. In 2012, the same year Obama won reelection, NC Republicans secured supermajorities in both chambers of the NCGA thanks to their new, heavily gerrymandered maps. The NC GOP immediately got to work on a series of voter suppression tactics targeting Democratic voters, with a particular focus on disenfranchising Black and Latinx voters and suppressing the vote among young voters.

In 2013, within two months of the Shelby decision that crippled the Voting Rights Act, the NCGA beefed up – and then rammed through with only Republican support – its “monster” voter suppression bill, which famously “target[ed] African American voters with almost surgical precision.”

Although the major provisions of the law were struck down by a federal court in 2016, one that remained in place was the elimination of straight-ticket voting, which about 300,000 more Democrats than Republicans took advantage of in 2012. In 2016, the first presidential election since the elimination of straight-ticket voting, a significant number of voters skipped down-ballot races.

Undervotes/ballot fall-off. In 2016, across the 60 contested NC House races, an average of nearly 2,000 voters in each NC House district cast a ballot without voting in the NC House race (“under votes”). To put that into context, in 2018, 18 NC House races were decided by less than 2,000 votes.

That means it’s critical to not only get voters to the polls but also to make sure they know the stakes of these down-ballot races and the importance of voting the full ticket.

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Split tickets. In 2018, with every NC House and NC Senate seat contested for the first time, we were able to compare how Democratic candidates for their respective chambers fared among the same voters. In many areas, the NC House and NC Senate candidates performed similarly (within 2%), but in several key districts more than 10% of voters split the ticket, e.g., voting for the Democrat for the NC House and the Republican for the NC Senate (or vice versa). Republican Dan Bishop would have lost his NC Senate seat before the NC-09 race if his Democratic opponent had done as well as the Democrats running for the NC House in the same precincts.

Name recognition seems to be a significant factor – another reason why it’s critical that we talk about these races now, before the spotlight is trained on the top of the ticket.

Ready to help us with these down-ballot races? Click here to get involved!