Lansing – Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and other Republican legislators must testify about their ban on straight-ticket voting and disclose communications with outside sources as part of a lawsuit challenging the controversial law, a federal magistrate judge ruled last week.
Judge Mona Majzoub on Thursday ordered Sens. Meekhof, Marty Knollenberg of Troy, David Robertson of Grand Blanc, Rep. Mike McCready of Birmingham and former Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons of Alto to sit for depositions. The Democratic plaintiffs allege GOP legislators attempted to discriminate against African Americans by diluting their voting strength through the straight-ticket ban.
The lawmakers dispute those claims and say the 2015 law – which was suspended ahead of the 2016 election and not yet implemented – will apply to all voters uniformly. They had moved to quash subpoenas seeking under-oath testimony and documents, arguing “legislative privilege” under the state and federal constitutions.
Majzoub granted the lawmaker requests in part, agreeing to shield discussions between legislators – but not any communications they or their staff had with any groups or individuals outside the state Legislature.
“We’re very pleased,” said attorney Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party who is now representing plaintiffs in the federal complaint.
While lawmakers could appeal Thursday’s ruling, Brewer said that Majzoub’s order means they should disclose any discussions they had on the straight-ticket voting ban with outside sources like Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser or his predecessor Ronna Romney McDaniel, who now chairs the Republican National Committee.
“Whoever they communicated with about the bill, they’re now required to share those documents,” Brewer said, suggesting the potential communications could prove there was a political or racial motivation for the law.
Attorney John Pirich, who is representing Meekhof in the case, declined comment and said he has not yet discussed a possible appeal with his client. A spokeswoman for Meekhof said he will meet with legal counsel this week to discuss the magistrate’s order.
The legal drama comes nearly a year-and-half after a federal judge first suspended the straight-ticket ban in the run-up to the 2016 election, ruling that eliminating the longstanding voting option could disproportionally burden African-American voters and limit their opportunity to participate in the state’s political process.
Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the named defendant in the case, is fighting to implement the ban ahead of the 2018 election cycle. Lawyers from Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office argue the law would neutrally apply to voters of all races. A hearing on Johnson’s motion to dismiss the case is set for Jan. 16 before Judge Gershwin Drain.
Lawmakers, who have denied any racial motivation for the law, had sought to remove themselves from the case. They claimed legislative privilege under the Speech or Debate clauses of the federal and state constitutionals. They also argued the subpoenas were overly broad and sought irrelevant information that would be both burdensome and expensive to produce.
Majzoub ruled that communications between lawmakers and outside sources are not protected by legislative privilege.
“Thus, to the extent that the state legislators in this matter have shared any of the documents or information sought by Plaintiffs with third parties that would otherwise have been protected by the legislative privilege, the privilege has been waived, and the legislators must produce those documents along with any non-privileged information responsive to the subpoenas that is within their possession, custody, or control,” she wrote.
Michigan lawmakers voted to eliminate the straight-ticket voting option in late 2015 and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the measure in early 2016, championing it as a way to “put people before politics” by requiring voters to choose individual candidates rather than simply selecting their party.
Straight-ticket voting allows voters to select all candidates from one political party by checking a single box. Because the ban was suspended pending the outcome of the legal challenge, voters continued to have the straight-ticket option during the 2016 election.
Ironically, some Republicans argue straight-ticket voting benefited the GOP in 2016 by allowing down-ticket candidates to capitalize on the unexpected strength of President Donald Trump, who was the first GOP presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988.