Mich. lawmakers vote to end straight-party voting

Chad Livengood, and Gary Heinlein
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Lansing — The Michigan Legislature on Wednesday sent Gov. Rick Snyder a bill ending straight-party voting and included a $5 million appropriation that would shield the legislation from a possible voter referendum to overturn it.

Voters twice in the past have used referendums to overturn legislative attempts to end the straight-party option. It allows voters, by checking a box at the top of a ballot, to choose all of the candidates from one or the other party.

Democrats railed against the $5 million appropriation Republicans stuck in the bill and the tactics used to pass it. The Republican-controlled House gave the bill final approval on a narrow 54-52 vote.

An angry Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, called the vote “one of the ugliest episodes of a majority trampling on the rights of voters in the years that I’ve been in the Legislature.”

Democrats said the GOP majority wants to help Republicans retain their majority in the House and on the Supreme Court in case billionaire Donald Trump is the GOP presidential nominee next year.

Bieda said the legislation should be “otherwise known as the Donald-Trump-is-going-to-be-your-nominee-and-you’re-terrified bill.”

“You have to ask yourself, do you believe in free elections or do you want to game the system?” Bieda said.

Democrats objected to actions by Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, to vote on a series of proposed Democratic amendments as a single block, which sped up the process and curtailed debate.

“I guess you guys get a straight ticket. So that’s fun,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “Merry Christmas to the rest of us in the state.”

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

In the 2014 gubernatorial election, 80 percent of Democrat Mark Schauer’s 323,762 votes in Wayne County came from straight-party Democratic voters. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder got 38 percent of his 129,111 votes in Wayne County from straight-party GOP voters.

Hertel said use of the appropriation was cynical and partisan. The money could have been spent on prescription drugs for low-income seniors, tuition for college students or other government programs, he said.

“Many of you would rather spend $5 million to purchase an insurance policy against the will of the people,” Hertel said.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, has said the money was to help local elections clerks buy equipment to accommodate the change. Knollenberg and other Republicans did not stand on the Senate and House floor Wednesday night to defend the bill.

The Legislature had been deadlocked all day over bills ending the straight party voting option and making other changes to state election laws. The House last week attached the bill ending straight party voting to another bill expanding absentee voting that their Senate counterparts have opposed.

But on 20-17 vote Wednesday, the Senate broke a tie-bar to a House bill allowing any voter to cast an absentee ballot in person at local clerk’s offices 45 days before an election.

“Without the tie-bar, this makes a bad bill worse,” said Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint.

Neeley said ending the straight party voting option would be the “first cousin to ... poll taxes, literacy tests, old Jim Crow laws.”

The daylong stalemate on the election bills followed a flurry of late night legislating Tuesday when the House and Senate sent Snyder a tax break plan to lure a Nevada data server firm to the Grand Rapids area.

The two bills would let the Switch corporation purchase equipment for a $5 billion computer server facility sales and use tax-free.

Based on a Senate Fiscal Agency estimate, the company and its clients would get tax exemptions worth as much as $150 to $200 million a year.

The GOP House majority gained Democratic cooperation by amending the bills to end the exemptions if the tax breaks have not created 400 data center jobs throughout Michigan by 2022 and 1,000 by 2026.

Switch is planning to develop a 2 million-square-foot data server campus around an empty pyramid-shaped building that once housed a Steelcase Corp. innovation center in Gaines Township, a suburb of Grand Rapids.

Snyder has expressed concerns about the impact of the tax breaks and has not said whether he will sign the legislation.

Any bills that don’t pass this week remain live in the new year.

The Legislature plans to take a nearly four-week recess for the holidays before reconvening on Jan. 13.


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