Rubin: A “yes” vote for the judges on straight tickets

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The legal question came down to whether Michigan was picking on black voters.

The question for all of us should be, “Is this nonsense what we’re paying our legislature for?”

Yet another federal court shot down Michigan’s needless and hypocritical ban on straight-ticket voting Wednesday.

This time it was three judges from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati who looked at the new law and declared, to use the precise legal terminology, “Gimme a freaking break here.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette quickly said he would file an emergency appeal, because apparently it’s vital to overturn straight-ticket voting immediately even though we’ve managed to limp along with it since 1891.

In theory, the Republicans in the legislature slammed through a law against straight tickets because they wanted to create a more careful and informed electorate. Some of them even managed to say that with a straight face.

In practice, they had noticed that more Democrats than Republicans turn in straight party ballots, particularly in larger cities like Detroit and Flint.

If that were reversed, of course — if more Republicans overall chose to fill in one bubble on the ballot, rather than dozens — the legislature never would have considered it.

Suddenly, though, it became important for our House and Senate to make sure that everyone had carefully pondered their options for drain commissioner.

Nonsense, said U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain, citing a report by demographer and Pleasant Ridge Mayor Kurt Metzger: African Americans are more likely to vote Democratic than other groups, and the law would specifically place them in longer lines in already crowded polling places.

Exactly, said the appeals court panel. Drain was correct, and in response, “the state has offered only vague and largely unsupported justifications of fostering voter knowledge and engagement.”

Subverting voter will

It’s not terribly difficult to blacken more circles on a ballot, but that’s not the point.

As University of Detroit Mercy associate law professor Kyle Langvardt observes, the parties have become so polarized that “it’s pretty hard not to cast a straight-ticket vote these days” — but that’s not the point, either.

What’s important is that the alleged party of small government chose to crash its ink-smeared fist upon everyone’s ballot because it was politically helpful.

Anticipating longer lines and shorter tempers, the state associations of county and municipal clerks opposed the ban. Voter referendums had overruled the legislature and restored straight tickets twice before, in 1964 and 2001.

No matter; the Republicans passed the bill and added an appropriation to make sure the pesky voters couldn’t annoy them again.

Sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, noted that the three judges on the appeals panel were appointed by Democratic presidents and complained, “It’s absolutely, 100 percent a partisan political effort to override what the Michigan Legislature has decided.”

That’s one possibility. The other is that qualified federal judges looked at the dubious pleading from the attorney general’s office and recognized a 100-percent partisan political effort from the legislature.

Line of duty

UDM Law’s Langvardt says the straight party bill “might be somewhat more defensible” than some of the voting-related laws overturned elsewhere in the last few weeks, but that’s the faintest possible endorsement.

“If the test is to show a severe burden,” he says, the statistics in the court filing make the case.

So does his personal experience, not that the appeals court considered it.

Langvardt was a poll monitor at a precinct in the University District in 2012, and he says some voters there were in line for three hours.

Extend their time in the booth by even five minutes apiece and they might still be in line in 2020.

Some people might consider that a victory. Fortunately, the appeals court didn’t.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn