AG files emergency motion over straight-ticket voting

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed an emergency motion Wednesday with the U.S. Appeals Court in Cincinnati asking it to stay or vacate a court order by a Detroit judge that blocks the state’s ban on straight-ticket voting.

In the motion, filed on behalf of Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Schuette is asking for action by the appeals court by Aug. 17, which, he says, would be “in time for the Nov. 8 election.”

Schuette already filed an appeal with the appeals court and has asked U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain to issue a stay of his own July 21 court order that blocks the new law that was approved by Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature in December.

In his order, Drain, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, said the new law will reduce African Americans’ opportunity to participate in the state’s political process and will put a disproportionate burden on their right to vote.

In the new motion, Schuette said he requested an emergency briefing schedule when he filed a motion with Drain on July 29 —the district court set an Aug. 8 deadline and a Friday deadline for reply briefs.

“Immediate relief is necessary because the district court is treating defendant’s emergency motion for stay as a non-emergency,” Schuette wrote in the motion. “This leaves a limited amount of time (approximately two weeks) in which defendant can exercise her (Johnson’s) right to seek any meaningful appellate review with this court.

“Accordingly, this court should stay the district court’s preliminary injunction for the upcoming November 8, 2016 general election. If this panel denies the emergency motion for stay, then the timing of the election timetable is such that defendant will not have a realistic opportunity to seek en banc review.”

Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas said Sept. 9 is the “drop dead” deadline for finalizing the election ballot in Michigan.

“That’s the statutory deadline, 60 days before the election. That gives the clerks a mere 15 days to get absentee ballots printed and ready to go, not only for overseas voter but all voters,” Thomas said.

Absentee ballots are required to be sent out on Sept. 24.

Mark Brewer, an attorney who represents three Michigan voters and and the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which sued Johnson over the law on May 24, said Wednesday he intends to respond after reviewing it.

“I’m sure it’s as meritless as the request they made to Judge Drain,” he said.

On Monday, attorney Mary Ellen Gurewitz, a second attorney who represents the plaintiffs, filed a response in federal court to Schuette’s motion to issue a stay.

Gurewitz said the denial of a stay in the case will not harm the state because the new law, known as PA 268, does not take effect until the November election.

“The denial of a stay will have no impact whatsoever on the defendant and will certainly not cause irreparable injury — it will simply continue without interruption the 125 year old voting practice of straight party voting in Michigan,” she wrote.

In his 37-page opinion, Drain cited a report by Kurt Metzger, a demographer hired by Brewer, who found a direct correlation between the use of straight-party voting within a community and the black 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.

Supporters of the straight-ticket ban argued it would encourage a more informed electorate by requiring voters to decide on each individual race and end a policy holdover from the days of big party bosses.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.

JChambers@detroitnews.com