House votes to end straight-party voting option

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Legislature may be on the verge of major changes in election law that include the elimination of straight-party voting in Michigan and no-reason absentee voting.

In a 54-51 Wednesday night vote, the Michigan House approved a Senate-passed bill that would eliminate letting voters check a single box at the top of the ballot to vote for all Democratic or Republican candidates.

It was tie-barred to a House bill, passed 59-46 Wednesday night, that would make no-reason absentee voting available to all Michiganians. Because the bills are tie-barred, one cannot pass unless the other is approved.

House Elections Committee Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons said allowing anyone to vote absentee should ease concerns about longer lines at polling places. That’s an objection county clerks have raised during hearings on the proposed straight-party voting ban.

“Together, these bills are good policy,” the Alto Republican said.

GOP Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy, the chief sponsor, said it will lead to more responsible voting — for candidates rather than parties — and get voters to pay closer attention to races for offices at the bottom of ballots.

Republicans also argue the bill would end an antiquated practice that old-time party bosses once used to maintain power. Michigan is among nine states that still have the option.

But Democratic Rep. Sheldon Neeley of Flint, the Michigan Black Caucus vice chairman, blasted the bill as “an attack on an entire group of people at the highest levels of state government.”

“It’s no secret that turnout fluctuates between mid-term and presidential elections, and because Republicans have tried everything else to rig the vote, they are now attempting to disenfranchise the urban population,” Neeley said.

Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said Republicans “are launching a two-pronged attack on voting rights. First, they eliminate the option of straight-ticket voting, lengthening the process and adding to long lines in urban areas, then they use constitutional trickery to prevent voters from having a say.”

The link with no-reason absentee voting squeezed the bill through the House but is problematic in the Senate, where it’s under consideration next week. The Senate GOP caucus, headed by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive, remains frosty on expanded absentee voting.

Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann told reporters the majority leader would prefer to keep the bills separate.

Gideon D’Assandro, press secretary to Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant, acknowledged House members would find it difficult to approve a free-standing bill ending straight-party voting.

Absentee voting currently is limited to people who meet certain criteria. Michiganians can vote absentee if they are 60 or older, unable to vote without assistance at the polls, expecting to be out of town on Election Day, in jail awaiting arraignment or trial, unable to attend the polls for religious reasons or working as election inspectors outside their own precincts.