Court rejects motion, keeps straight-party voting
A federal appeals court panel on Wednesday denied Michigan’s emergency request to implement its new straight-ticket voting ban for the November election, but Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette vowed another last-minute appeal to the full court.
The state did not make a compelling argument to overturn a lower court injunction blocking the straight-ticket ban, according to the three-judge panel for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. They sided with plaintiffs who claim the new law violates the Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Detroit U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain ruled last month that the law was likely to place an undue burden on African-American voters, increasing the time it will take them to vote in districts where lines may already be long.
“In the face of this burden, the state has offered only vague and largely unsupported justifications of fostering voter knowledge and engagement,” appeals court Judges Karen Moore, Ronald Lee Gilman and Jane Branstetter Stranch wrote in their ruling.
The judges, each appointed by either Democratic President Barack Obama or former President Bill Clinton, said Drain’s injunction blocking the ban will not disrupt complicated election administration procedures in the run-up to November.
Rather, “denying (Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s) request for a stay here will merely require Michigan to use the same straight-party procedure that it has used since 1891,” they wrote.
Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature voted in December to eliminate straight-ticket voting, joining 40 other states that no longer offer the option, including several that banned the option in recent years.
Michigan is “no different” than those other states, Schuette said in a statement with about three weeks to go before ballots need to be finalized. “We will continue to defend the laws of the State of Michigan and plan to file an emergency appeal to the Sixth Circuit for an en banc review by the full court.”
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive, House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant and sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy this week filed a court brief seeking to “vindicate” the law they helped enact.
Eliminating straight-ticket voting will decrease the likelihood voters overlook the non-partisan portion of their ballot, encourage more informed voting and increase the possibility that a third-party or independent candidate could win election, they argued.
Knollenberg, noting that former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer is an attorney for the plaintiffs, criticized Wednesday’s ruling by Democrat-appointed judges.
“It’s absolutely, 100 percent a partisan political effort to override what the Michigan Legislature has decided,” Knollenberg said. “No question.”
Brewer filed the lawsuit in May on behalf of three Michigan voters and the state chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
Current Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called the latest straight-ticket ruling “a big deal for democracy and justice.”
He called on Schuette and Johnson to halt their appeals and allow straight ticket voting on the Nov. 8 ballot while the lawsuit over the law goes to trial.
“It is futile to continue this appeal at this point late in the game,” Dillon told The Detroit News. “The clerks need certainty. This has now been decided by two separate courts.”
“Any further attempt to appeal this is only going to disadvantage clerks and cause confusion. It’s time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars,” he added.
Schuette asked for a ruling by Wednesday, citing the need to ensure absentee ballots are ready for mailing by Sept. 24, as required by law. Because of printing and other factors, Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas has said Sept. 9 is the “drop dead” deadline for finalizing the ballot.
Last month’s lower court ruling had relied, in part, on an analysis by longtime demographer and current Pleasant Ridge Mayor Kurt Metzger, 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.
Appeals court Judge Gilman, in his own concurring opinion, stressed that the ruling to keep straight-ticket voting in place is not the end of the case. The state will still have a chance to present arguments beyond the current election cycle.
Potential voter confusion could have been reduced by removing party “vignettes” from Michigan ballots, Gilman wrote, saying voters accustomed to voting straight-ticket could have inadvertently circled the logos rather than filling individual bubbles.
“The continued presence of the vignettes on the ballots certainly appears to be a legislative oversight — perhaps one precipitated by the Michigan Legislature’s haste to create a purportedly better-informed electorate,” wrote Gilman.
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat who said clerks had raised the vignette issue with the Bureau of Elections, blasted Schuette for continuing to defend the straight-ticket ban.
“In Michigan, we should be focused on making voting easier,” Byrum said.