Mich.’s straight-ticket fight echoes national debate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan’s high-stakes battle over straight-ticket voting echoes a national fight over new laws critics argue could disenfranchise minorities and affect the outcome of the 2016 elections.

Much of the national debate centers on strict voter identification laws backed by Republicans as a means to curb election fraud. Federal courts recently struck down strict ID and other voting rules in North Carolina and Texas. An appeals court last week reinstated a Wisconsin version.

The North Carolina law “required in-person voters to show certain photo IDs, beginning in 2016, which African-Americans disproportionately lacked, and eliminated or reduced registration and voting access tools that African Americans disproportionately used,” a three-judge appeals court panel of all Democratic appointees ruled in July.

Democrats and allies have pushed legal challenges to new voting rules in several states they say could limit participation by minority voters more likely to support presidential nominee Hillary Clinton than Republican businessman Donald Trump.

Here in Michigan, a federal judge appointed by President Barack Obama last month issued preliminary injunctions blocking a new ban on straight-ticket voting, ruling it could pose an undue burden on minority voters and lead to long lines in minority precincts. Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, noting the blanket voting rule applies equally to all voters in the state, regardless of race.

Michigan is one of nine states that still allowed straight-ticket voting, which gave voters the option to select all candidates for a single party rather than fill in individual bubbles. In the Great Lakes region, Illinois abolished its law in 1997, and Wisconsin followed suit in 2012. Republican backers say Michigan’s new law will encourage a more informed electorate.

“Simply stated, the requirement that voters vote the entire ballot – and not just fill in a single oval – does not impinge the right to vote but arguably expands that right by having the voter review the entire ballot,” Schuette said in a court filing.

At least 15 states will have new restrictive voting laws in place for the November presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Social Justice at New York University Law School. The center, which does not take a position on straight-ticket voting, does not consider Michigan one of those states.

Michigan has had debates on other proposed election laws. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 vetoed GOP-backed bills that would have required Michigan voters to affirm U.S. citizenship before voting or show photo ID when picking up an absentee ballot from a local clerk, saying they could have created “confusion.”

Democrats also opposed a 1996 law upheld by the state Supreme Court and enacted in 2007 that required Michigan voters to present identification, arguing it would reduce voter participation. Voters also can cast a ballot without one if they sign an affidavit affirming their identity.

In 2008, Michigan set a record with more than 5 million residents voting and registered its highest general election turnout since 1968 with about two-thirds of registered voters casting ballots.

The law is an effective tool to deter voter fraud, said state Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas, who noted voter impersonation is a felony that carries significant prison time.

Only ¼ of 1 percent of voters use the affidavit option to vote without identification, Thomas said, and the state conducts signature checks when auditing local precincts.

“We haven’t found one yet that we would suspect as being a fraudulent voter, so I don’t really think impersonation is widespread, and this serves as a deterrent to make sure it doesn’t become widespread,” he said.

While it has faced criticism from both the political right and left, Michigan’s law could serve as a middle-ground model for other states if courts continue to strike down stricter voter ID laws, said Adam Gitlin, a University of Michigan Law School graduate who works in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“You may see in the coming years perhaps more interest in Michigan’s model,” Gitlin said. “Some might argue you could serve the interest of requiring identification in order to increase the perception of security while also minimizing disenfranchisement.”

High marks for performance

In the national debate over voter rights, advocates say Michigan is more notable for what it has not done: The state does not allow no-reason absentee voting, early in-person voting, online or automatic voter registration. The reforms could simplify the voting process and reduce Election Day wait times, they argue.

Michigan was once considered a national leader in fair and modern election laws, said Wayne State University Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson, noting Michigan’s 1975 “motor voter” law to register voters in the same offices as drivers was the first of its kind in the nation.

“Since then though, other states have far surpassed us in developing ways to modernize the election process,” said Benson, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2010.

Still, Michigan fared well in a recent performance evaluation of 2014 elections by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which ranked the state the 11th best in the nation after considering factors such as registration rates, rejected ballots, voter turnout and waiting times.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said in a statement the national recognition “shouldn’t be a reason to stop improving” Michigan elections, suggesting the Legislature consider online voter registration and a secure form of no-reason absentee voting she has backed.

In signing the straight-ticket ban in January, Snyder noted concerns the law could lead to longer lines and urged the GOP-led Legislature to send him a separate bill expanding absentee voting options, which has not happened.

The average Michigan voter waited in line just under 3 minutes in 2014, according to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections funded by Pew and conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Turnout is typically higher in presidential years like 2012 and 2008, when Michigan’s average voter wait time was more than 20 minutes, according to the Pew data.

Voting Rights Act

The recent wave of controversial new voting rules comes on the heels of a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and communities to seek advance federal approval of any new election laws to ensure they were not discriminatory. The court’s majority argued this part of the law was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

The ruling has “ushered in a renaissance of voter discrimination” laws in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia that had been subject to the federal mandate, according to The Leadership Conference, an umbrella organization for civil rights groups.

Another section of the Voting Rights Act, which bans voting laws that discriminate on the basis of race or other factors, remains in effect.

Michigan had only two small townships that fell under the federal mandate, Clyde in Allegan County and Buena Vista in Saginaw County, but was required to seek pre-clearance for any statewide laws that affected those communities, including changes like the straight-ticket ban.

The townships were subject to the act because of large Spanish-speaking populations in the early 1970s, the last time the formula was modified.

The U.S. Department of Justice has since rejected one pre-clearance request from Michigan, Thomas said, blocking a secretary of state branch office transfer out of Buena Vista that was planned as part of a larger statewide reorganization effort.

Allegan County continues to provide Clyde Township residents with Spanish-language ballots, Clerk Joyce A. Watts said. But one has not been requested since the 1990s, when a woman from the American Civil Liberties Union did so as a test of local compliance, Watts said.

“It takes up a lot of time to do this, and I’m not sure anyone’s being served,” she said.

joosting@detroitnews.com