Straight-ticket voting likely after court loss

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan voters would continue to have the option to cast a straight-ticket ballot this fall under a Thursday ruling from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The federal appeals court denied Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s request for an “en banc” hearing over a suspended state law that would eliminate straight-ticket voting, saying a majority of judges had not voted to reconsider a recent panel decision.

The decision was bemoaned by Republican legislators, who approved the law on the grounds it would encourage a more informed electorate, but celebrated as a voting rights victory by Democrats who predicted the straight-ticket ban would have led to longer lines on Election Day.

Detroit U.S. District Judge Gershwin A. Drain first struck down the straight-ticket ban in July, ruling it would reduce African-Americans’ opportunity to participate in the political process and put a disproportionate burden on African-Americans’ right to vote.

Leaving the straight-ticket voting option in place while the legal battle continues will not disrupt fall elections, according to a Thursday concurrence written by Appeals Court Judge Karen Nelson Moore, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton. Rather, it will “preserve the 125-year status quo,” she wrote.

It was not immediately clear if Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette would pursue further appeal, potentially to the U.S. Supreme Court. Without a reversal by next Friday, straight-ticket voting is poised to continue into the Nov. 8 general election.

Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas has called Sept. 9 a “drop-dead” deadline for finalizing the ballot. Wording for any statewide ballot proposals is due by that date, and absentee ballots must be ready to go out by Sept. 24.

Schuette’s office “was just notified that the en banc petition to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in defense of a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor was denied,” spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Thursday afternoon. “At this time, we are reviewing the court’s ruling.”

A three-judge Sixth Circuit panel last month declined to lift Drain’s injunction blocking the new law, but Johnson and Schuette requested full-court reconsideration to reinstate what they called “duly enacted, race-neutral legislation.”

Michigan was one of 10 states that still allowed straight-ticket voting before the legislation. Several others have moved to eliminate the option in recent years.

“The will of Michigan’s people, expressed through their legislature, was to have the same system as the large majority of states, containing the large majority of voters, of all types of races and parties,” Sixth Circuit Judge Danny Julian Boggs wrote Thursday in a dissent.

Boggs suggested the state’s options for further appeal before the November election are limited because the full federal appeals court did not agree to a review. Instead, the case remains before the court’s three-judge panel.

“In my view, this has the unfortunate effect that the circuit has taken no action that can be presented to the Supreme Court, such as by review of a merits decision, or of the grant of a stay,” wrote Boggs, an appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan.

House Majority Leader Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said “Michigan is being treated differently than every other state” because it has not been able to determine on its own whether to allow straight-ticket voting.

“Only Michigan is forced to keep in place a tool of party-machine politics,” Cotter said in a statement. “Only Michigan is bound by discredited case law that has already been vacated and rejected. And, unlike the 49 other states that get to decide whether to have straight ticket voting — 39 have said ‘no’ — only Michigan has been ordered by the federal court to have it or else.”

The Michigan state A. Randolph Institute, Common Cause and three Michigan voters sued the state in June, arguing the straight-ticket ban would increase Election Day wait times that are more common in minority-majority districts.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon on Thursday called on Schuette to “stop wasting taxpayer” money by pursuing further appeal.

“It’s clear that this should be the end of this case for this election,” Dillon said. “The Secretary of State has an obligation to her local clerks and the voters of this state to not pursue this any further. We are now into September and ballots have to be printed next week.”