Down-Ballot Roll-Off

The hidden voter problem that is Democrats’ biggest barrier – and biggest opportunity – to taking control of state legislatures.

What is ballot roll-off and why is it so bad for Democrats?

“Roll-off” is the term used to describe what happens when a voter ticks the top, but not the bottom, of their ballot. We’ve been studying downballot roll-off in depth for some time, and we have determined and reported that down-ballot Democrats experience ballot roll-off much more frequently than down-ballot Republicans

The difference in roll-off between the two parties is stark: across 10 battleground states over 8 years, contested down-ballot Democrats experienced ballot roll-off 80% of the time, compared to only 37% for their Republican counterparts.

Could decreasing roll-off actually change the balance of power in state legislatures?

Yes. State legislative races and chambers hinge on razor-thin margins. In prior work, we found that Democrats would have gained control of 14 more chambers in 9 states in 2020 if they had only been able to increase their down-ballot votes by 2% or less. And, those votes could have come from people who were already voting for Democrats at the top of the ticket.

  • 2020: In the Arizona House, it would have taken only 4,451 votes for Dems to win the 2 seats needed to flip the chamber. In that election, 584,000 people voted for Biden but did not vote all the way down the ticket. If just 0.8% of them had voted for their Democratic state legislative candidate too, Democrats would have won the chamber.
  • 2021: Democrats lost the Virginia House majority by ~750 votes across 3 districts. Meanwhile, 64,000 more votes were cast for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe than for state legislative Democrats. If just 1% of them had voted for their Democratic state legislative candidate too, Democrats would have kept the House majority.

The latest research on ballot roll-off

For the past several years, Sister District’s Research Team has been investigating the issue of downballot roll-off.

The opportunity is clear: if Democrats could just convince people who are already voting for Democrats to keep voting all the way down the ticket, Dems could gain majorities of state legislative chambers all over the country. First, we need to understand who rolls off their ballots, and then we can identify strategies that could get them to vote all the way down their ballot. 

National Battleground Survey: who rolls off and why? 

In late 2023, Sister District worked with Data for Progress to conduct five focus groups with voters, and then we jointly fielded a survey to 5,101 likely voters in the critical battleground states of Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

This is the first national survey looking at ballot roll-off that we know of. The results are fascinating, giving us deep insights into which voters do and don’t vote down-ballot—including important subgroups such as women, voters of color, young voters, and voters by ideology (liberal vs. conservative).

Read the toplines memo about our ballot roll-off survey.

Message testing and deployment for the 2024 general election

Now that we have a clearer picture of who rolls off their ballots and why, Sister District is moving into the next phase of this project.

In 2024, we are developing and testing messages and content that will move liberal voters to tick all the boxes on their ballots. Once we have specific, actionable content that we are confident will change our voters’ minds, we’ll work in coalition with our friends and allies to put these messages into practice during the 2024 general elections. 

More resources on downballot roll-off:

On April 22, 2024 Sister District held a virtual briefing about our exciting new research on downballot roll-off in partnership with Data for Progress, led by Sister District Co-Founder Gaby Goldstein and Head of Research Jillian Evans, alongside Isa Alomran, Lead Analyst at Data for Progress.

Watch the recording below and download the slides here!