Judge rejects proposed earlier vote on Conyers’ seat

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A federal judge has rejected a legal challenge to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to wait until November to hold a special election to replace U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit.

In his Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith said the law “accords considerable deference” to a governor in setting the election date to fill vacancies in Congress, dismissing the plaintiffs’ argument that Snyder’s decision to delay the special election by 11 months was discriminatory.

“(T)his court finds no evidence supporting plaintiffs’ theory that Governor Snyder was racially motivated or otherwise violated equal protection guarantees when he established dates that coincide with the regularly scheduled election dates in August and November of this year,” wrote Goldsmith, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

“Therefore, those dates will remain in effect.”

A lawsuit filed in December by Detroit activist and attorney Michael Gilmore on behalf of five Detroit voters argued that Snyder was denying voters in the 13th Congressional District their constitutional right to vote and be represented in Congress by not holding a special election sooner than November 2018.

“This is textbook voter disenfranchisement. Gov. Snyder continues to treat residents of urban areas across the state as second-class citizens and is violating a laundry list of constitutional laws in doing so,” Gilmore said in a statement after the ruling.

“Here, he is once again balancing the state's budget on the backs of black people, in the name of ‘cost savings.’”

Conyers, 88, resigned his seat Dec. 5, citing health concerns amid a string of sexual harassment allegations by former female staffers. Gilmore is among those running in the Democratic primary to succeed Conyers.

The largely Democratic district includes parts of Detroit and suburban Wayne County.

The plaintiffs argued that the 11-month delay between Conyers’ resignation and the special general election in a district that is predominantly African-American violates the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses, as well as relevant provisions of the state constitution.

They contrasted the 11-month delay with the four-month delay before a special election in 2012 when Republican U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter of Livonia resigned his seat in the 11th District, which is mostly white.

Gilmore asked the court to order a special primary election be held within 50 days of when the court issued its ruling, and that the special general election be held Aug. 7.

Lawyers for the governor argued that this proposed schedule would be difficult to accomplish without violating state or federal statutory election deadlines, and would likely result in voter confusion at the polls.

A witness for the state testified that, for example, it would be impossible to meet the 45-day deadline for issuing ballots to overseas voters, as required by the Uniformed and Overseas Civilian Absentee Voting Act.

The witness, Melissa Malerman of the Michigan’s Secretary of State’s Office, estimated that a stand-alone special primary election on a day other than a regular election date in the 13th District would cost $840,000.

Snyder had said he selected the special election dates in part to allow candidates time to raise money and collect signatures, and to minimize the cost to local taxpayers in conducting special elections.

Snyder’s office has said he consulted and listened to the advice from 13th District Chairman Jonathan Kinlock, as well as Detroit and Wayne County officials when he selected the dates.

Goldsmith said the plaintiffs’ argument of circumstantial discrimination based on how Snyder handled the 11th District vacancy in 2012 was “not compelling.”

He noted the 2012 vacancy occurred in July of an election year, while Conyers’ vacancy was in December of a non-election year.

“While plaintiffs note the difference in the time that Governor Snyder allowed each seat to remain vacant, this is by virtue of Governor Snyder’s clear preference to hold special elections in conjunction with previously-scheduled elections,” Goldsmith wrote, citing seven examples.

He also concluded that because the delay serves “legitimate purposes,” Snyder has not burdened the plaintiffs’ fundamental right to vote.

“While Governor Snyder could have theoretically scheduled one or two standalone elections immediately after Congressman Conyers resigned in December, he was entitled to consider, and reject, the burdens that such a decision would impose on the localities and candidates,” Goldsmith wrote.

“His decision to hold the special elections in conjunction with previously-scheduled elections is constitutionally permissible.”