U.S. Supreme Court Allows Straight-Party Voting in Michigan But Doesn't End State's Battle

by | September 9, 2016

By Paul Egan and Todd Spangler

The straight-party voting option will still be available in Michigan in the Nov. 8 general election after the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a last-ditch appeal on the issue from Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The court, which currently has eight members, rejected Schuette's request for a stay of a preliminary injunction issued against a recent Michigan law banning straight-party voting. Two justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, would have granted the application, the court said.

The 6-2 Friday ruling ends a legal merry-go-round and uncertainty among state and local officials who had said they wanted to finalize the ballot today. But beyond the November election, a court fight will continue over whether a state law banning straight-party voting is constitutional.

"Michigan voters will have their historic option to vote straight party in November," said Mark Brewer, one of the attorneys fighting to keep the straight-party option.

Schuette issued a statement that said: "It is my duty to defend Michigan's laws, in this case a law that stands in 40 other states," but "now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken and I will respect that decision."

Schuette, acting on behalf of Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, took his case against straight-party voting to the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 2. Schuette filed an emergency application asking the High Court to lift a preliminary injunction that a federal judge in Detroit issued in July against a new Michigan law banning straight-party voting.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain's order, in response to a lawsuit filed by nonprofit groups and individuals, temporarily halted enforcement of the law until a trial can be held on the merits of the case. In issuing the order, Drain said those who oppose the law are likely to win their lawsuit because banning straight-party voting would create longer waiting times and lines to vote. He said that would hurt all voters, but especially black voters, because data shows the heaviest use of the straight-party option is in Michigan cities such as Detroit and Flint, which have large black populations.

State and local officials said they needed to finalize the ballots by today so they can be printed in time for absentee voting. Schuette had asked for an answer by Thursday, but it came one day later.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a former Democratic state representative, said she was "upset that this ruling had to come so close to the deadline for clerks in Michigan to finalize ballots."

"We have a strict timeline for ballot production and my ballots were going to print on Monday no matter what," Byrum said in a news release. "I will not play a role in disenfranchising voters."

On Sept. 1, the full U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said it wouldn't hear Schuette's appeal of Drain's order.

Instead, the appellate court sent the case back to the same three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit that earlier refused to stay Drain's order while Schuette appealed it.

The law banning straight-party voting was passed by the Republican-led Legislature late last year and signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in January.

Clerks say banning straight-ticket voting will cause delays, especially if the change isn't coupled with any-reason absentee voting, which the Michigan Legislature considered, but did not approve.

Schuette and other Republicans say straight-party voting, which is banned in 40 states, represents poor civic engagement and that voters should consider each race and its candidates individually.

On Tuesday, state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, and Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, who sponsored the law in question, filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing Drain's ruling was based on "junk science" testimony from an expert who was "cherry-picking data from only a few Michigan counties and cities" to inaccurately show a disparate impact on black voters.

In a court filing Wednesday, Brewer and Mary Ellen Gurewitz, who represent the A. Philip Randolph Institute and other groups and individuals fighting the law, said the case is not about a constitutional right to vote a straight-party ticket, but "about the unconstitutional consequences for millions of voters of eliminating this option in the unique context of Michigan elections -- massive confusion and even longer lines at polling places deterring voters, especially African-American voters, from voting."

Schuette, in an op-ed piece published Thursday in The Detroit News, said it's his duty to defend bills passed by the Legislature and signed into law.

"Critics of Michigan's law have urged me, acting on behalf of the state, to roll over and walk away," Schuette said in the opinion piece. "But that would be a dereliction of duty."

Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said he was pleased with the ruling but cautioned that the broader legal fight over the state law banning straight-party voting will continue until the entire case is resolved, not just the status of the preliminary injunction.

"We are pleased with the Supreme Court's decision to reject Bill Schuette's Hail Mary attempt to have straight-ticket voting banned in Michigan in time for this year's election," Dillon said in a news release.

(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press