Appeal vowed on straight-party voting ruling

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

State election officials plan to appeal a court order striking down Michigan’s new law banning straight-ticket voting, potentially creating complications for the November election.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson will file an appeal on Monday or Tuesday on U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin A. Drain’s decision to issue four preliminary injunctions against state election officials, Schuette spokesman John Sellek said Thursday.

“We have no further comment at this time other than to confirm that we will appeal in defense of this state law as passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor,” Selleck said.

In a passionate 37-page opinion announced Thursday, Drain said the new law will reduce African-Americans’ opportunity to participate in the state’s political process and puts a disproportionate burden on African-Americans’ right to vote.

Sarah Bydalek, Walker city clerk and president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said the deadline in Michigan for final ballot language for the Nov. 8 election is Aug. 16 and all ballots must be ready by Sept. 24 to send overseas to members of the U.S. armed forces.

“We are under tight times constraints, and I would hope they would not appeal this and it can be looked into after November. Our general election is going to be 90 percent turnout, it’s a big ballot with two pages, front and back in some counties, and already long wait times,” Bydalek said.

Drain said the real question the court must answer is whether the burden caused by the law is “in part caused by or linked to ‘social and historical conditions that have produced or currently produce discrimination against African-Americans.’

“This question is unavoidably answered in the affirmative. African-Americans are much more likely to vote Democrat than other ethnic groups, and many feel this is largely due to racially charged political stances taken by Republicans on the local, state and national level since the post-World War II era,” Drain wrote.

Drain, a President Barack Obama appointee, cited a report by Kurt Metzger, a regional information specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau in Detroit, who found a direct correlation between the use of straight-party voting within a community and the African-American population within that community.

Metzger found 15 Michigan cities with a straight-party voting rate of 65 percent or higher. Of those, two were majority white. The five cities with rates greater than 75 percent were all majority African-American.

“It’s no secret that racial discrimination in the state of Michigan has had traumatic effects on education, employment and health in the African-American community,” Drain wrote.

“It is not difficult to imagine how these effects, particularly in the employment setting, have made it more difficult for African-Americans to participate in the political process. ... The Court finds that the effects of discrimination hinder African-Americans’ ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

Aug. 2 primary unaffected

Drain’s injunctions are an early win for the three Michigan residents and the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute who sued Johnson over the law on May 24.

The case continues on Aug. 1 when both sides are expected to meet in Detroit before Drain for a scheduling conference to discuss future deadlines and hearings in the case.

The order does not affect the Aug. 2 primary, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams.

Gov. Rick Snyder defended the elimination of straight-party voting in a Thursday interview at a Cleveland event he hosted for Michigan Republicans attending the GOP national convention.

“The reason I signed it is I think it’s a good part of the process that people look at each individual office and they look at each candidate,” Snyder said. “It’s not just about partisan politics, but they review the people in that particular and make a decision as who the best one is.”

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 last week 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.

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.

Brewer, the former Michigan Democratic Party chairman, welcomed the judge’s decision.

“It’s a great victory for the voters of this state,” he said. “They’ve had the right to vote straight-party for 125 years, and they’ve twice, in referendum, overwhelmingly said they want to keep it. And that’s what this is.”

House speaker weighs in

But House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, called the judge’s ruling “bizarre” because residents vote for individual candidates, not necessarily parties.

“The court’s opinion did not focus enough on the needs of voters, instead fighting odd rhetorical battles over which party deserves to win the trust of certain voters,” Cotter said in a statement. “An objective evaluation of the constitutionality of the more modern ballot, already adopted by 40 other states, would have resulted in a very different outcome.”

In their argument, state election officials said measures were taken to combat long wait times by adding a $5 million appropriation.

In his opinion, Drain said the appropriation presumably was to be spent on more voting booths and staff, but the state had not provided that information on a county-by-county basis.

“There is evidence that it would actually take $30 million, six times the amount appropriated, to adequately combat long lines,” he wrote.

Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill, representing Johnson, argued last week the elimination of straight-ticket voting wouldn’t 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.

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.

Drain noted in his decision, which came a week after hearing oral arguments, that the matter had been pending for seven weeks and “time is of the essence.”

“The election is less than four months away, and election officials need to have adequate opportunity to prepare,” Drain wrote.

Staff Writers James Dickson, Jim Lynch and Chad Livengood contributed