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Editorial: Balance straight-ticket ban with easier voting

The Detroit News
People enter the voting precinct on Tuesday outside Warren Community Center in Warren.

It’s been nearly three years since Michigan lawmakers got rid of straight-ticket voting. But that law is expected to take effect in November for the first time, following a long court battle. This state can now join the more than 40 others that don’t allow the option of plunking for one party.

The secretary of state’s office will have time to make adjustments on the Nov. 6 ballot prior to its deadline to print the ballots. Ballots for absentee voters as well as those for overseas and military voters have to be ready later this month.

Earlier this summer, Detroit U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain, an appointee of President Barack Obama, blocked the law from taking effect here, saying the Legislature ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment in making it harder for African-Americans to vote, saying they are the primary users of the straight-ticket option.

The state appealed that decision last month, and on Wednesday a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals panel issued an opinion removing his injunction.

This became a politically charged battle, with a Republican-led Legislature accused of trying to hamper Democratic votes. Republicans say they wanted to encourage a more informed electorate as well as the chances of voters filling out the non-partisan section of the ballot, including proposals.

Clearly, the state GOP had hoped to gain an edge, since Democratic straight-ticket voters far outnumber Republicans who vote straight ticket. Our issue with the ban was that it overturned two ballot measures approved by voters who wanted to keep the option.

But that doesn’t make it a racist move, as Drain contended in blocking the law.

The appeals court agreed Drain got it wrong in finding the Legislature “intentionally discriminated” against black voters. And the judges said Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is leading the state’s defense of the law, is likely to prevail in upholding the straight-ticket voting ban.

Drain had argued eliminating one-bubble partisan voting would add on a few minutes to the average voting time. The appeals judges took issue with that conclusion as being unscientific, since many factors determine how long it takes to vote.

Judge Daniel Boggs, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Judge Raymond Kethledge, a President George W. Bush appointee. Kethledge, from Michigan, was on the short list of potential candidates to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

Kethledge was right in acknowledging that partisanship was probably a factor in the Legislature’s decision to ban the practice, but he said Drain wrongly equated “partisan motives with racial ones.”

Kethledge also said those who are displeased with the law can still vote, even if they have to wait longer to do so. And then they can voice their displeasure by voting in different lawmakers.

Or as has happened the two other times that the Legislature banned straight-ticket voting, citizens can seek to overturn the law through a voter referendum.

Current lawmakers would be smart to jump on other measures that would help ease voting wait times. In 37 states, voters have the option for early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. Michigan is one of only 13 states to block both options.

Given Michigan’s history with straight-ticket voting, this is by no means the end to this fight. But in the meantime, clerks now have two months to prepare for the potentially longer lines, and they should make sure they do everything they can to facilitate easy voting.