Michigan's Mazi Smith pleads guilty to misdemeanor gun charge

Straight-ticket voting fight heads to trial

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when a trial is scheduled to begin.

Lansing — A fight over the Michigan Republican-led Legislature’s attempted ban on straight-ticket voting can head to trial this spring, a federal judge ruled Friday, rejecting Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s request for dismissal.

In a 42-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain denied Johnson’s request to toss a lawsuit alleging a 2015 law to eliminate straight-ticket voting would diminish the voice of African American voters.

Drain did not rule on the merits of the case but said “a reasonable person” could conclude the law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Democratic plaintiffs also allege a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that reflects intentional discrimination by the Legislature.

GOP lawmakers have denied any racial motivation for eliminating the straight-ticket option, which allows voters to quickly cast a ballot for all members of a political party rather than select individual candidates. The ban was suspended ahead of the 2016 election and has not yet been implemented.

In approving the law, legislators said it would encourage voters to pay more attention to the candidates they back. State attorneys attempting to dismiss the lawsuit have argued the law applies neutrally to all voters.

Michigan voters have had the straight-ticket option for 126 years and twice repealed laws that attempted to eliminate it. Expert testimony said banning straight-ticket voting could increase wait times on Election Day, noted Drain, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

“Evidence in the record indicates that African-Americans will be disparately impacted by the longer voting lines caused by” the ban, he wrote, describing a historical link between discrimination in education, lower literacy rates and the potential for “confusion that causes longer waiting lines and more spoiled ballots.”

Friday’s opinion and order means the case will now head to trial, where state attorneys will argue the case against a legal team led by former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who represents plaintiffs in the suit.

The trial is scheduled to begin this spring, with both parties making opening statements prior to a March 15 deadline for plaintiffs to file written submissions, which Drain will generally allow instead of in-person witness testimony. The actual date for opening statements is expected to be set at a final pre-trial conference Feb. 22 in Detroit.

“We look forward to presenting our case, and we expect to prevail on the merits,” said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

A federal magistrate earlier this month ordered Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive and other Republican legislators to sit for depositions in the case and disclose “non-privileged” communications with outside sources about the law. It’s not clear whether the lawmakers will appeal the order.