October 14, 2016

A political science term for when people cast a ballot in some races – such as president -- but don’t bother voting in others.

Questions about the amount of roll-off at the polls are surfacing as experts try to assess how many Donald Trump supporters will turn out to back him, but choose not to express a preference for some or all other candidates or issues.

Political scientists consider ballot roll-off an under-recognized but serious problem. Christopher Mann, a political scientist at New York’s Skidmore College who studies the issue, said that depending on the type of election – presidential, non-presidential or state and local races – roll-off rates can range anywhere from 5 percent to 20 or 25 percent.

“Down-ballot roll-off is a hidden participation crisis in American representative democracy,” Mann said. “It generates surprisingly little attention, and I think that’s true because it’s difficult to research.”

The studies that have been done have assumed roll-off is deliberate and most likely can be explained by a lack of voter information. Mann also said voters who are faced with long ballots containing numerous ballot measures – such as in California -- are more likely to roll off.

Alienation from the electoral process is, of course, the other big reason. Some of Trump supporters’ deep anger “raises the prospect that some of these Trump voters will show up on Election Day, vote Trump, and spite some or all down-ballot Republican candidates by skipping these contests,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. “This would magnify the normal roll-off effect.”

Schaller said it’s also possible that reliably Republican voters who dislike Trump might do the opposite – skip the presidential ballot, but vote for some or all other races. That would mean “lost votes for Trump at the presidential level and lost votes at the sub-presidential level for all other Republicans,” he said. “That is the disaster scenario for the GOP.”

Mann said the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, compared to past candidates, as well as Trump could lead more voters than usual to leave the presidential line blank.

The roll-off issue is drawing attention in the key swing state of North Carolina, where a federal appeals court recently struck down a controversial 2013 voter ID law.

The ruling did leave intact a provision that eliminates straight-ticket voting – something that had been permitted since 1909. More than 40 percent of voters voted straight-ticket in 2010 and nearly 58 percent followed suit in 2012.

“We’re gonna see a lot more ballot roll-off this year, because of the lack of a straight-ticket option,” predicted Chris Cooper, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University.

A separate, but related phenomenon is “drop-off,” or the decline in turnout between presidential elections and other electoral contests, such as congressional midterm elections, state and local elections for governor and other races.

Schaller said that drop-off can occur even during presidential years in states that hold post-November run-off elections, citing the 2008 race in which Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss failed to get the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a run-off, but then easily won in December because turnout was far lower.

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