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The return of straight-ticket voting

Jul 22, 2016

Something happened in a courtroom in Detroit Thursday that may have more impact on the November elections in Michigan than anything at the Republican convention.

Earlier this year, Republicans in the legislature outlawed straight-ticket voting in all elections in Michigan. They gave a lot of phony excuses for why they did this, but the real reason is clear. Straight-ticket voting tends to help Democrats, especially for offices that are less high-profile, like board of education seats.

That’s largely because most African-American voters are staunch Democrats who would never dream of splitting their tickets.

Those voters who do split their tickets – voting Republican for President and Democratic for Congress, for example, often don’t completely fill out their ballot, ignoring, for example, education board races, sometimes even contests for the legislature.

Two years, ago, Democrats won nearly all the education seats despite losing the governor’s race, in large part because many independents split their tickets.

Republicans were determined to put a stop to that, so when the legislature reconvened, it quickly outlawed straight-ticket voting. The only problem is that voters want the straight-ticket option. Republicans have tried this twice before, and people put this on the ballot and restored their right through a statewide referendum.

But recently, Republicans have discovered a new political trick. When they don’t want people to be able to vote on something, they attach a small, token financial appropriation to the bill, which under the Michigan Constitution, means it can’t be repealed with a statewide vote.

They might have gotten away with it, but they got too transparent and greedy. Outlawing straight-ticket voting is also likely to keep some people from voting at all, since lines will be longer and there are often disproportionately few voting places in inner-city areas.

Michigan already makes it harder to vote than most states.

We have no early voting, and we make absentee ballots hard to get. A few principled Republicans, including Representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons, thought this was unfair.

They attempted to get the legislature to at least allow anyone who wanted an absentee ballot to get one. But that was contemptuously rejected by Republican leaders in the state senate.

Well, yesterday they got their comeuppance. U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain ruled that outlawing straight-ticket voting was unconstitutional, because it places an unfair burden on African-American voters. The judge was surprisingly blunt:

“African-Americans are much more likely to vote (straight) Democrat than other ethnic groups, and many feel this is due to racially charged political stances taken by Republicans on the local, state and national level,”

he wrote. Outraged Republicans vowed to appeal.

But it is not only clear whether any appeal in federal appeals court would be successful; it seemed doubtful the law could be reinstated in time for this year’s election.

There is one major non-partisan group whose members don’t want to get rid of straight-ticket voting:

Municipal clerks and other election officials. They’ve been looking ahead with dread to long lines and general chaos they feel losing the straight ticket option would cause.

To me, there’s something disgraceful about making it harder for people to vote, or trying and prevent them from voting the way they want to. Judge Drain issued a ruling in favor of democracy yesterday. I think that’s a very good thing.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.