Judge hears lawsuit to stop state’s straight-ticket ban

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — A judge is weighing a lawsuit seeking to prohibit the state from enforcing a new law that prohibits straight-ticket voting, allowing a party-line option on ballots this fall.

A ruling on a preliminary injunction challenging Michigan’s law will be released in a week or less, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain said after a hearing Thursday.

Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature approved the elimination of straight-ticket voting in December, with supporters arguing it would encourage a more informed electorate and end a policy holdover from the days of big party bosses.

But the effort seeking an injunction against it, argued orally Thursday by Mary Ellen Gurewitz and Mark Brewer for the plaintiff, the Michigan chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, asserts the state’s ban on straight-ticket voting would have disproportionate harm on minority voters in “an election of great consequence” in November.

Straight-ticket voting, they said, is a 125-year tradition in Michigan, and its elimination, just months before a presidential election likely to see high turnout, would create confusion educational efforts couldn’t make up for and create a hardship for voters.

If each voter is filling out 18 or 30 bubbles rather than just one, the argument went, each voter will take longer to vote, which would have a ripple effect resulting in longer lines and, for impatient voters or those without the time, possible disenfranchisement.

“Black voters would have less opportunity to vote,” said Brewer, an attorney at Goodman Acker, citing a study by demographer Kurt Metzger that reports about 75 percent of voters in minority-majority communities, such as Detroit, Romulus and Inkster, vote straight-ticket.

At least 50 percent of voters statewide utilize straight-ticket voting, said Gurewitz, an attorney at Sachs Waldman.

“I was surprised by that number being so high,” Drain said.

Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill, representing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson as the defendant in the matter, argued the elimination of straight-ticket voting wouldn’t actually prevent anyone from voting down the party line — they’d just have to fill in more bubbles.

“Voters are absolutely able to vote for whichever party they choose to, be it Democratic, Republican, Socialist or Communist,” Grill said.

There is no equal protection concern, he added, because the law, Public Act 268 of 2015, plays no favorites.

“Do we want to be in the business of people thinking on a party-line basis?” Grill said.

Grill also asked, “Is there a fundamental right to fill in one oval rather than 18?”

He said in Ottawa County, which is 93 percent white, about 60 percent of voters vote straight-ticket. Grill also criticized what he called Metzger’s “cherry-picked” study for focusing on nine out of Michigan’s 83 counties. Ottawa County was not one of them.

“If they’re being affected, too, it’s not disparate impact, just impact,” he said.