Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Ballot Roll-Off Was High in the North Carolina Republican Primary: Here's Why it Matters

 by Christopher Cooper

We are still clearing out the dust from the 2024 primary election in North Carolina, but two stories have emerged thus far: voter turnout was down to its lowest level since 2004 and Unaffiliated voters in early voting selected the Republican ballot almost two-thirds of the time--a massive increase for the Republican Party.

While those stories are clear and backed up by turnout as it is usually calculated, those numbers actually overstate turnout because many people engage in what political scientists call ballot-roll off--the practice of filling out the top of the ticket and skipping over offices farther down. As we will see below, ballot roll-off was high in the 2024 primary election, particularly on the Republican ballot. In a few cases, the number of people who rolled-off exceeded the vote martin between the top two candidates!

 How Does Ballot Roll-Off Work?

You may have participated in ballot roll-off yourself (don't be ashamed; it's not a crime). Here's the idea: you get your ballot and immediately cast your vote for President, Governor, Congress, and the like. You know who those candidates are, you have some idea about their policy positions, and you might even know a bit about their background. 

As you move a little farther down the ballot your conclusions might turn into questions. What does the Commissioner of Insurance do again? What's the difference between the auditor and the treasurer? And so on. 

In a general election, if you're like most people, there's an easy solution to this problem--party identification. If you lean more towards the Democratic Party, you cast your vote for the Democratic candidate for Insurance commissioner. If you're a Republican, casting a ballot for Auditor in a general election just means finding the candidate with the R next to their name.

But what, then, do you do a primary when all of the candidates come from a single party? With no cheat sheet available, you might just skip over that office. That's ballot roll-off. We saw a lot of roll-off in the 2024 election, particularly on the Republican side of the ticket. In a few cases, roll-off was high enough to potentially determine the winner.

Ballot Roll-Off in the 2024 Primary by the Numbers

Not surprisingly, the election for Governor had the smallest amount of roll-off on the Republican ticket (96 percent of people who cast a vote in the Republican primary for President also cast a for for Governor). Approximately 13 percent of the people who cast a Republican vote for President skipped Lt. Governor and Agriculture. Insurance commissioner saw the next highest roll-off with 17 percent Approximately 18 percent of voters who chose the Republican ballot skipped over Superintendent of Public Instruction and approximately one in every five Republican Presidential voters did not select a candidate for Secretary of State, Auditor or Treasurer. 

Ballot roll-off patterns vary across the state. In one extreme example, more than 35 percent of voters in Tyrell County who selected the Republican ballot did not cast a vote in the primary for Secretary of Labor. That's a lot of roll-off.  

Democratic voters are not immune from ballot roll-off, although they participated in the practice much less than their Republican counterparts. Ballot roll-off in the Democratic Gubernatorial primary was 1% (compare to 4% among Republicans), Lt. Governor was 3 percent (compare to 14%), Attorney General was 3 percent (no comparison group as the Republican LG race was uncontested), Insurance was 7 percent (compare to 18%), Education was 6 percent (compare to 18%), and Treasurer was 7 percent (compare to 19%). 

On average, Republican ballot roll-off was four times greater than Democratic ballot roll-off!

In five of the nine Republican Council of State races, the ballot roll-off exceeded the margin between the top two vote-getters (or voteainers, if you prefer). Stated simply: the people who rolled off in the Republican primaries for Auditor, Labor, Education, Lt. Governor and Treasurer could have decided the election had they leaned towards one candidate or the other and chosen to cast a vote. 

To put those numbers in perspective, the roll-off in the average Republican council of state office in 2024 was four percentage points higher than in 2020 (16 % and 12 %, respectively). Democratic roll-off, on the other hand, was 8 percentage points lower in 2024 than 2020 (4% and 12%, respectively).

Ballot Roll-Off in the 2024 and 2020 NC Primaries, by Party Ballot

 

2024

Democratic Ballot

2024

Republican

Ballot

2020

Democratic Ballot

2020 Republican

Ballot

Agriculture

--

13%

12%

--

Attorney General

3%

--

--

9%

Auditor

--

20%

15%

16%

Education

6%

18%

14%

14%

Governor

1%

4%

3%

2%

Insurance

7%

18%

--

16%

Labor

--

21%

--

15%

Lt. Governor

3%

14%

13%

8%

Secretary of State

--

20%

--

14%

Treasurer

7%

19%

14%

--

Avg. Roll-Off

4%

16%

12%

12%

*Notes: Raw data from NCSBE, then calculated by Chris Cooper. Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number. Blogger handles tables oddly. Here's a cleaner version of the table in .pdf.

Why the Partisan Asymmetry?

So, roll-off was up. But why? And why was it up in the Republican primary and not the Democratic primary?

There's no way to know for sure, but my guess is that the answer lies in the first paragraph of this blog entry. Unaffiliated voters in North Carolina can choose whether to participate in the Republican or Democratic primary. In 2024 early voting, they chose the Republican Party two-thirds of the time (we still don't have individual level data from election day, although my guess is that the pattern was similar). Some of these Unaffiliated voters were stalwart Republicans who just happened to be registered Unaffiliated. But some of those Unaffiliated voters were likely drawn to the ballot to vote for (or against) Donald Trump and Mark Robinson, and weren't concerned with the rest of the ballot. And unlike their friends registered with a party, they likely didn't get as many contacts from the candidates about down-ballot elections and may not run in the kinds of partisan circles where people have opinions about auditors, treasurers, labor commissioners, and the like. 

This would also explain why the patterns were so different in 2020. In the 2020 primaries, Unaffiliated voters chose the Democratic, not the Republican primary more often. And in 2020, Democratic and Republican roll-off were about the same. 

What Does This Mean?

Thinking about ballot roll-off in the context of the 2024 election illustrates a couple of points that are, I think, important.

First, we should be careful before attributing too much intention on the part of primary voters, taken as a whole. Consider the Superintendent of Public Instruction primary where incumbent Catherine Truitt was defeated by challenger Michele Morrow by about 36,000 votes. Morrow's victory is important because she won and will now face Democratic challenger Mo Green in the General Election. Morrow won. And she won fair and square. But, 197,000 people skipped over this office--more than 5 times the difference between the two candidates. A victory, but not exactly a mandate.

This discussion is also a good reminder that how we measure turnout matters. It is true that 24 percent of registered voters voted for at least one office in the 2024 North Carolina primary elections. But many people did not complete a full ballot. 

For another way to think about turnout, if you add up the number of votes for State Treasurer on the Democratic side and Secretary of Labor on the Republican side, and divide that sum by the number of registered voters in the state, you would conclude that only 20 percent of North Carolina registered voters cast a full ballot. And even that number is a high-end estimate.

It's a long ballot in North Carolina. And we need to keep that in mind when we're interpreting the will of the people.

----

Dr. Christopher Cooper is Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University. He posts to social media at @chriscooperwcu