Senate votes to end straight-party voting

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate voted along party lines Tuesday in favor of eliminating the straight-party voting option on the state’s general election ballots — a move that would tend to hurt Democrats.

Senate Republicans added a $1 million appropriation to the bill for implementing the change in general election ballots — a maneuver that makes the legislation immune to any attempts by voters to overturn it at the ballot box.

“This appropriation is a $1 million insurance policy against the will of the people,” said state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing.

Grand Blanc GOP Sen. Dave Robertson, chairman of the Senate elections committee, said the appropriation was “entirely legitimate” to give the Secretary of State’s office funding to assess the implementation of the change and audit election results next year.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, defended the appropriation after the Senate adjourned Tuesday evening.

Election clerks indicated they need money to “educate voters, may need some more work stations, things like that for the voting,” Meekhof said. “And that’s what it's there for.”

State Sen. Marty Knollenberg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 13, said ending the option for voters to check a box won’t impede voters’ ability to vote for candidates from a single political party.

“People can still vote for all Democrats or all Republicans when a straight party voting option isn’t available,” said Knollenberg, R-Troy. “It should be about the candidate, not about pulling a lever for a political party.”

Senate Republicans raced the legislation through the chamber Tuesday, holding a committee hearing and vote in the morning and sending the bill to the House around 6 p.m.

Republican Sens. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights and Joe Hune of Hamburg Township joined 11 Democrats in voting no on the legislation. Sens. Tom Casperson of Escanaba and Mike Nofs of Battle Creek were absent.

On the Senate floor Tuesday evening, Democrats pushed Republicans to justify why they were inserting the $1 million appropriation into the bill instead of going through the normal appropriations process.

“I guess folks are scared to stand up and explain,” said Sen. Morris Hood III, D-Detroit.

During the committee hearing earlier Tuesday, Hood and Knollenberg sparred over the bill.

Hood said eliminating straight party voting would make it more difficult to vote and add confusion and wait times at the polls in November general elections.

“What you’re actually doing with this legislation is taking options away from the voters,” Hood told Knollenberg.

“I’m taking the option away from the political parties,” Knollenberg responded.

Michigan is one of 10 states that allow straight ticket voting for a single political party.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was noncommittal about the movement of the legislation.

“It’s something that they’re moving relatively quickly, and I appreciate they’re deciding their priorities,” he said after signing a road funding package. “And I’ll look at it as it goes through the legislative process.”

The Legislature tried eliminating straight-party voting in 2001. But the following year, voters overturned the decision in a ballot initiative.

Straight-party voting is generally seen as an electoral advantage for Democrats.

But the Secretary of State’s Office does not track statewide straight party voting, state elections director Chris Thomas said. Straight-party voting data is collected at the municipal and county level.

In the 2014 gubernatorial election, 80 percent of Democrat Mark Schauer’s 323,762 votes in Wayne County came from straight-party Democratic voters.

Snyder got 38 percent of his 129,111 votes in Wayne County from straight-party GOP voters, election data shows.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, said ending straight-party voting could help break up partisan divides.

“I think it’s a great way for voters to actually look at the individual and not the label,” Colbeck said.

Representatives from the NAACP, the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and the Michigan Township Association testified in opposition to the bill in committee.

Lansing Clerk Chris Swope said eliminating the straight-party option on ballots could lead to longer lines and confusion at the polls next November.

“The transition will be difficult,” Swope told the committee. “It will cause, I believe, increased waits for voters.”

“Even if it takes an individual voter an extra 30 seconds, if there’s a line of voters, that 30 seconds stacks up.”

Eric Doster, an Okemos-based election law attorney, said he’s worked on numerous election recounts and doubts voters will be troubled by filling out their entire ballot, race by race.

“Sometimes they’ll do both — they’ll vote the straight party option and then they’ll vote line-by-line,” said Doster, who also is general counsel of the Michigan Republican Party. “This bill will enhance our democracy.”

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Staff Writer Gary Heinlein contributed.