Docs: Top GOP officials lobbied for straight-ticket ban

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Top ranking Michigan Republican Party officials lobbied lawmakers to ban straight-ticket voting in late 2015 despite concerns from a key GOP lawmaker that the change could increase Election Day wait times, according to new court filings from attorneys seeking to overturn the statute.

Evidence and depositions the state is attempting to exclude from trial in a federal lawsuit over the ban offer a rare glimpse into the legislative process and show the extent to which party officials interact with the state’s GOP-led Legislature.

Former Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who now heads the Republican National Committee, and current state Chairman Ron Weiser were “heavily involved throughout the legislative process so as to secure the passage of the bill,” wrote attorneys Mary Ellen Gurewitz and Mark Brewer, former chairman of the state Democratic party.

The party officials intervened “in order to achieve partisan advantage and enhance their election outcomes,” wrote the attorneys, representing Democrat and minority voters in the case.

The court filings document text messages between McDaniel, Weiser and lawmakers, discussing vote counts and attempts to secure support from Gov. Rick Snyder.

It also cites an email from GOP donor Betsy DeVos — a former state party leader and now head of the U.S. Department of Education — thanking and congratulating Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive for his “leadership and perseverance on the elimination of straight-ticket voting!”

“While only time will bear out the importance of this for those running for office ‘down ticket,’ the implications are significant,” DeVos wrote in the Dec. 21 email.

The Michigan Republican Party has not seen the depositions or “evidence” outlined in the filing, spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said Friday afternoon. She called straight-ticket voting an “antiquated idea, put in place by party bosses back in the days when parties supplied the ballot instead of the government.”

Michigan is one of only nine states that still allows straight-ticket voting, she said.

“Brewer and his Democrat partners are fighting to keep this because they want to ‘enhance their election outcomes,’” Anderson said.

The straight-ticket voting ban never took effect because a federal judge suspended it prior to the 2016 general election, ruling that eliminating the longstanding voting option could disproportionally burden African-American voters and limit their opportunity to participate in the state’s political process.

The case is set to head to trial this spring. Judge Gershwin Drain is scheduled to hold a hearing over the state’s evidence objections Thursday in Detroit federal court.

The Republican-led Senate approved the straight-ticket ban 24-13 on Dec. 16, 2015, after dropping a companion bill that would have also expanded absentee voting options. The GOP-led House then narrowly approved the standalone measure 54-52 in a late-night vote.

Former state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, in a Nov. 12 text message to her father Richard Posthumus, then serving as the legislative director to Snyder, noted that elections clerks across the state were asking for no-reason absentee voting “to mitigate the longer lines straight party elimination causes.”

Lyons, who was chair of the House Elections Committee and now works as Kent County Clerk, sent a text message to a lobbyist on Nov. 13, 2015, asking him to make sure county and municipal election clerks were telling legislators that “that straight ticket elimination is a nightmare without secure no reason absentee voting,” according to the court documents.

She texted her father again on Dec. 9, 2015, telling him the House had enough votes to approved the no-reason absentee bill and were working on “the last two” votes to eliminate straight-ticket voting.

“I finally had to have (then-House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant) call Ronna and tell her all her calls to members trashing no-reason was killing straight ticket elimination,” texted Lyons, according to the court filing.

Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, which is representing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson in the case, on Monday asked Drain to exclude from trial recent sworn testimony from lawmakers deposed in the case, calling their comments irrelevant to the late 2015 vote.

“The individual statements made by individual legislators are not relevant because they cannot be attributed to the motivations of the Legislature as a whole,” argued assistant attorney general Denise Barton.

She said the Supreme Court has held that individual statements can be relevant to determining legislative intent, but only in the context of legislative history and official record.

“Here, plaintiffs attempt to utilize texts or emails — not any official record — and even here, no evidence of discriminatory intent toward any race is evident,” Barton wrote.

Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub in January ordered several Republican lawmakers to sit for sworn depositions in the case. She agreed to shield communications between legislators during the deliberation process but not discussions with outside officials or groups.

But Brewer and another plaintiff attorney in the case argue the depositions and other evidence should be allowed at trial. The evidence shows show legislators and party officials knew that eliminating straight-ticket voting could cause longer lines, and that allowing no-reason absentee voting could have helped to minimize that impact, they wrote.

McDaniel testified in a deposition that she actively supported the legislation to ban straight-ticket voting, which she thought would help her party win elections, according to the filing. She also told legislators the party was not in favor of tying the straight-ticket bill to the no-reasons absentee measure.

Current Michigan law limits absentee voting by mail to those who are older than 60 or provide another valid excuse, such as plans to be out of town on Election Day.

The straight-ticket option allows voters to choose all candidates from a single political party rather than selecting individual candidates up and down the ballot.

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