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Election Coverage

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Hoosiers resist straight-party voting

Democrats win 2 key races but often face impossible odds

– With Mitt Romney sweeping up Indiana’s 11 electoral college votes Tuesday, it could be easy to see the Hoosier State as one full of straight-party ticket voters.

But experts on state politics said that while straight-party ballot voting is growing nationwide, Hoosiers have shown in the past two elections a willingness to cross party lines when voting.

On Tuesday, Republicans nearly swept elections statewide – from the White House to the statehouse. But in two races of note, Democrats pulled out the wins.

Newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, garnered nearly 1.3 million votes to defeat incumbent Republican Tony Bennett, who gathered 1.1 million, according to unofficial results.

Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd, won the U.S. Senate seat, defeating State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, with nearly 1.2 million votes to the Republican’s nearly 1.1 million.

“In the end, what I think brings about ticket-splitting is the nature of the candidates,” said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics and an association professor at IPFW.

Ritz and Donnelly were the kind of Democrats that Indiana Republicans felt comfortable picking, Downs said.

While the county voting totals show how many individuals chose a straight party ballot – whether Republican, Democratic or Libertarian – they do not accurately reveal how many voters did not venture off the party path when making their decisions, Downs said.

Some voters insist on pressing the individual buttons, or filling out the individual bubble, for each candidate, even if they know they are only voting along party lines, Downs said.

For them, voting via one button doesn’t count.

Party-line voting can be seen, though, in northeast Indiana counties where ultimate victors Ritz and Donnelly failed to capture individual counties.

For example, Mourdock won Allen County – with 71,510 votes to Donnelly’s 64,866. He crushed Donnelly in Kosciusko County, with 67 percent of the vote to Donnelly’s 28 percent, according to unofficial results.

In some counties, such as Huntington, one party is so entrenched, it can be nearly impossible to steal a victory, even against a vulnerable opponent.

With a criminal indictment for misdemeanor battery hanging over his head, Huntington County 1st District Commissioner Tom Wall, a Republican, easily defeated Democratic challenger Ken Zuk.

Wall, a local businessman, is accused of inappropriately touching two women who worked for him. It seemed to make little difference with Huntington County voters, as he was able to get 9,157 votes to Zuk’s 5,824. Wall’s percentage of victory was less than some of the other Republican candidates in contested races.

Zuk, a Democrat and former chairman of Huntington County’s Democratic party, said Democrats believed Wall was vulnerable.

“We thought we had an opening,” Zuk said.

Running as a Democrat in Huntington County is like trying to win as a Republican in Lake County, Zuk joked.

He’s not wrong.

“When you are that far in the minority, and you lack the resources to educate the public and to deliver the message that you are an acceptable alternative, you are not necessarily going to win,” Downs said. “You probably will lose.”

Zuk said Huntington County’s Democrats tried to wage a good fight, putting up good candidates. But they don’t spend a lot of money on the races because they know the straight-party voters present a hurdle nearly impossible to clear, he said.

Even though Indiana tends to vote one way, Hoosiers do, on occasion, surprise. Michael Wolf, associate professor of political science at IPFW, said Indiana voters will give a good candidate a chance, regardless of party, unlike those in many other states.

“People were taking a look at their ballot,” he said. “working their ballot.”

rgreen@jg.net

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