Jacques: A straight ticket to discrimination?

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Forty states have done away with straight-ticket voting. Michigan has tried to join them, but a lawsuit charging racial discrimination has blocked the state from putting the ban in place.

What’s Michigan getting wrong? 

This state's contentious relationship with straight-ticket voting returned to the limelight this summer, as the challenge moves through the courts. The Legislature banned the practice at the end of 2015, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed off on it in early 2016.

Michigan voters have long defended their right to fill in one bubble on the partisan ballot, choosing a slate of partisan candidates all at once. It's easy and saves a little time. Since the 1960s, the Legislature has twice previously killed straight-ticket voting, but those laws were quickly overturned by voter referendums. The most recent previous attempt was in 2001.

Yet the vast majority of states, including many liberal ones and those with high populations of black voters, have gotten along OK without the ease of one-bubble partisan voting. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the states that still allow straight-party voting, in addition to Michigan, are Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. Texas lawmakers eliminated the measure last year, but it won’t take effect until 2020.

Shortly after Michigan's 2016 law passed, a few plaintiffs, led by the Michigan State A. Philip Randolph Institute, filed a lawsuit challenging the ban in federal court. This has led to a drawn out battle, with the latest ruling coming early this month, permanently barring the state from enforcing the law.

Detroit U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain, an appointee of President Obama, said the Republican-majority Legislature “intentionally discriminated against African Americans” when it eliminated straight-ticket voting.

It's worth noting that Common Cause has joined with the plaintiffs to fight Michigan’s law. But in 2014, the Rhode Island branch of Common Cause helped defeat straight-ticket voting in that state, stating the following: “The option of casting a ballot for all partisan races with a single mark, while seemingly convenient, we suspected to result in a severe under-vote for nonpartisan races.”

So is straight-ticket voting the problem or the solution?

Apparently it depends on the perceived motivations of lawmakers.

This week, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said she would appeal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court, along with an emergency motion for a stay while the state is appealing the ruling.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Johnson, says the state is confident it will prevail in the appeal, and it’s certain there was no violation of the Fourteenth Amendment or the Voting Rights Act.

A line of mostly students wait to vote at a Texas primary election polling site on the University of Texas campus, Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Austin, Texas.

As the state argues in its latest motion for a stay: “This may well be the first time in American history that a court has invalidated a statute that gives voters the right to vote for the candidates of their choice."

The Legislature had claimed getting rid of straight-ticket voting would help lead to more informed voting, and discourage voters from ditching the nonpartisan parts of the ballot.

Drain didn’t buy that, pointing to how lawmakers worked with GOP leaders to drum up support for the legislation. And he concluded the intent of the law was to shut out African-Americans (who most often vote Democratic) or at least make it harder for them to cast their ballots.

Jeffrey Grynaviski, an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University, says what sets Michigan’s law apart from the other 40 states is how it went about passing the measure. Any law that is seen as disenfranchising voters -- especially minority voters -- is more open to challenge from the courts.

Beyond the straight-ticket option, however, Grynaviski says the percentage of voters who divide ballots has reached record lows. 

“People are voting in increasingly partisan ways,” he says.

The Legislature could have deflected some criticism by expanding absentee voting in the state. Snyder rightly encouraged lawmakers to follow what 37 states have done to allow for early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Michigan remains one of 13 states that don’t allow either.

That doesn’t look good, combined with ending the straight-ticket option.

Regardless of what happens with the 2015 law, state lawmakers should look for ways to ease the voting process — and appease claims of discrimination.