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Lansing — A Republican-majority House panel voted along partisan lines Tuesday to advance legislation doing away with the straight-party voting option in Michigan general elections — 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 before passing and sending it to the House last week. It would make the legislation immune to any attempts by voters to overturn it at the ballot box.

Bruce Timmons of Okemos, a former legislative staffer, objected to the appropriation as “specious” and “cynical politics.”

“Those outside the Legislature who press for these controversial measures ... care only about political powers,” said Timmons, who is retired from 30 years with the House GOP staff and 45 years as an employee of the Legislature.

The House Elections Committee added provisions boosting the appropriation another $5 million and tie-barring it to a House bill that would allow a no-reason absentee voting option for all Michiganians.

The tie bar, possibly designed to gain votes from Democrats who favor expanded absentee voting, means one bill cannot pass unless the other also does.

Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, said the added $5 million would finance new voting equipment for county clerks to accommodate the elimination of straight-party votes. County clerks have objected to the proposed change, saying it would increase lines and waiting time at polling places.

The bill is among several contentious elections law changes under consideration as lawmakers hurry through legislation they want to finish before the annual recess in a little more than a week.

Controversial legislation allowing a business or association to have independent committees that could, in turn, contribute to other independent committees, ballot question committees or candidates passed a Senate committee Tuesday.

The independent expenditure committees also could receive contributions from any person, including candidates, under the bill, whose chief sponsor is Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, the Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee chairman.

Robertson’s committee quickly sent it to the full Senate, where it’s ready for a vote. Robertson and other supporters say Senate Bill 638 codifies the Citizens United case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment protects a corporation’s and union’s right to contribute to independent political spending.

Nonpartisan Common Cause Michigan slammed the bill, saying it leads to less campaign spending transparency at a time when Michigan is faulted for having weak anti-corruption laws.

“Rather than making our state government more accountable and transparent, politicians in the State Senate are ramming through legislation that will pump more secret, unlimited, dark money into our system,” said Melanie McElroy, executive director of Common Cause Michigan.

Before sending the straight-ticket elimination bill to the full House on a 5-3 vote, the House Elections Committee defeated a series of proposed amendments from Democratic Reps. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo and Gretchen Driskell of Saline.

They included proposals that would have allowed electronic voter registration, held off the straight-party change until after the 2016 presidential election and removed the appropriations from the bill.

In a meeting that grew contentious at times, Irwin said waiting until after the 2016 election would do a lot to remove Democrats’ suspicion the bill “is being used as a tool of one party.”

Irwin charged the bill would “lengthen lines at already-crowded polling places” in urban areas. “Urban people of color are going to have to wait longer to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” he said.

Lyons said she’s interested “in the best policy for the people of Michigan. This puts a good discussion on the table.”

While those testifying said roughly half the voters in each party tend to vote straight-party, it’s a heavily used option in Democrat-dominated urban areas in presidential elections. Forty other states don’t allow straight-party voting.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com

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