High court won’t hear appeal on straight-ticket voting

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a request to hear an emergency appeal over Michigan’s new law that bans straight-ticket voting, allowing the straight-ticket option to appear on ballots in the Nov. 8 election.

Democratic opponents of the new law asked the justices to reject Attorney General Bill Schuette’s emergency appeal, predicting “massive” confusion and long lines at polling places that would disproportionately affect black voters if the law were enforced. Schuette’s office said the change was not discriminatory, applying to all voters regardless of race.

“It is my duty to defend Michigan’s laws, in this case a law that stands in 40 other states,” Schuette said in a Friday statement. “Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken, and I will respect that decision.”

The attorneys challenging the straight-ticket ban include Mark Brewer, a Southfield attorney who is a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman. Brewer argued in part that the state made no effort to educate voters that straight-party voting would not be available this fall.

“This is a victory for Michigan voters. It would have been chaos eight weeks from now at the polls if straight-party voting was eliminated,” Brewer said Friday.

The straight-ticket option lets voters make one mark to select all Democratic or all Republican candidates on a ballot, rather than selecting individual candidates for each office.

Without comment, the High Court issued an order Friday denying the state’s application for a stay. Two of the court’s conservatives, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, would have granted Schuette’s application, but four justices must agree to grant a hearing.

The nation’s highest court has one vacancy since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February. Controversial issues have resulted in tied 4-4 decisions on the court that now consists of four Democratic appointees and four Republican appointees.

After the court’s order, Michigan’s Secretary of State Office spokesman Fred Woodhams confirmed the straight-ticket option would be available on Election Day. The Election Bureau department may now certify the ballot, and local clerks may finalize and print ballots.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin A. Drain, a Democratic appointee of President Barack Obama, rejected the state’s straight-ticket ban in July, finding that the change could create longer lines on Election Day that would disproportionately affect black voters and limit their ability to participate in the political process.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request by Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson for an “en banc” hearing on a stay request of Drain’s preliminary injunctions against the straight ticket-voting ban, approved by the Republican-led Legislature in December.

Schuette wanted the Supreme Court to stay Drain’s preliminary injunction pending a federal appeals court decision on the full merits of the case.

Brewer said long lines at the polls would violate the rights of disabled voters, as well as African-American voters, who historically have a higher rate of using the straight-ticket option.

“For whatever reason, and there may be historic reasons, African-Americans use the option more,” Brewer said. “And the case law is very clear — if you take away the voting rights of a minority, the Voting Rights Act is violated.”

The case will continue in the lower courts, with a trial before Drain expected next year.

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, a Republican, shared the some of the same concerns as Democrats. Schuette’s appeals forced his office to wait on finalizing ballots, which was “frustrating” so close to the deadline, he said.

From a purely “administrative standpoint,” optional straight-ticket voting made sense for the Nov. 8 election, Roebuck said.

“At the end of the day I’m more concerned with a fair and free elections process than I am the partisanship,” he said.

Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the justices made the right decision to avoid “mass voter confusion” and longer lines on Election Day.

The order “shows that now judges — both Republican and Democratic appointees — have disagreed with Attorney General Bill Schuette, and the voters were handed a big victory for this November,” Dillon said.

“Bill Schuette should actually ask for an apology from the taxpayers for continuing to waste their money when he knew that he had virtually no chance of prevailing in this case.”

Staff Writers Chad Livengood and Michael Gerstein contributed.