By Paul Egan
In a ruling with strong implications for the Nov. 8 presidential election in Michigan, a federal judge on Thursday blocked Michigan's recent ban on straight-party voting, saying the change would result in longer lines and wait times at polling places and that it would disadvantage black voters the most.
"The court finds (the law) presents a disproportionate burden on African Americans' right to vote," partly because, in Michigan's most populous counties, there is a strong correlation between the size of the black voting population and the use of straight-ticket voting, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain, who issued a preliminary injunction against the state law, said in a written opinion.
Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson will appeal Drain's order, likely on Monday or Tuesday, Schuette spokesman John Sellek said late Thursday.
Drain said "time is of the essence" because the election is less than four months away, and "election officials need to have adequate time to prepare."
Under the judge's order, the case would still go to trial to decide the merits. Drain said he issued the injunction because the plaintiffs have a good chance of winning, and he intends for straight-ticket voting to be in place for the November election, barring a successful appeal.
The Aug. 2 primary election is not affected because in a primary voters choose among candidates in either the Republican column or the Democratic column and can't cross over.
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The Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks issued a statement soon after the ruling, before Schuette announced the appeal, urging the state not to do so.
The law was passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in January.
"This is a great victory for the voters," said Southfield attorney Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, who represents the Michigan State A. Philip Randolph Institute and several individual plaintiffs in the case.
"As bad as this would be for everybody in the state, it would be worse for African Americans," Brewer told the Free Press.
But House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, blasted the "bizarre ruling," saying "Michigan voters want to vote for people, not parties."
"The court's opinion did not focus enough on the needs of voters, instead fighting odd rhetorical battles over which party deserves to win the trust of certain voters," Cotter said in a statement.
"The people of Michigan deserve better, and I hope they will receive it after an appeal."
Straight-party voting, in which all candidates of a single party are picked with just a single mark, is popular in Michigan cities with large black populations, especially Flint and Detroit, election data show.
Lawyers say more than 70% of ballots in Detroit and Flint have been cast as straight-party votes.
"The real question that the court must answer is whether the burdens caused by P.A. 268 are in part caused by or linked to social and historical conditions that have produced or currently produce discrimination against African Americans," wrote Drain, a former Wayne County Circuit Court judge appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2012. "This question is unavoidably answered in the affirmative.
"African Americans are much more likely to vote Democrat than other ethnic groups, and many feel this is largely due to racially charged political stances taken by Republicans on the local, state and national level since the post-World War II era," the judge said.
The State Attorney General's office, which is defending the law in court, said there's nothing illegal because no one would be denied access to voting.
"Michigan joins 40 other states that require voters to select an individual for each elective office, rather than simply selecting a political party," Snyder wrote in a letter explaining why he signed the bill. "As governor, I have strived to put people before politics and strongly encourage voters to do the same."
In his opinion, Drain said: "The behaviors of other states are irrelevant to the question of constitutionality."
Drain also described as "woefully insufficient" a $5-million appropriation the Legislature attached to the straight-ticket bill, "presumably to be spent on more voting booths and staff."
"There is evidence that it would actually take $30 million, six times the amount appropriated, to adequately combat the long lines," the judge said.
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said he and his caucus are glad the judge agreed "with what we've said all along: This law will put roadblocks between voters and the voting booth."
Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, head of the House Detroit caucus, said "the judge's ruling today sends the clear signal that playing games with the electoral process and trying to keep African-American citizens from exercising their right to vote will not be tolerated."
Snyder signed the bill, but urged the Legislature to pair it with a bill to allow people to vote by absentee ballot without having to give a reason -- a measure expected to reduce lines at polling places. The House passed such a bill, but the Senate has not and is not expected to take it up.
Speaking in Cleveland Thursday before Drain issued his ruling, Snyder said "the reason I signed it is I think it's a good part of the process for people to look at each individual office and each candidate."
"It's not just about partisan politics," he said. "And you have to go through that process when you don't have straight-ticket voting. It's the way I've always voted."
In a statement, the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks said it did not support the change in state law eliminating straight-ticket voting, but was committed to implementing it.
"Now that Judge Drain has issued a preliminary injunction suspending the law for the November election, we must express our strong recommendation that the Secretary of State and Attorney General refrain from appealing the judge's ruling until after the November elections," said Sarah Bydalek, Walker City Clerk and association president.
"An appeal prior to the November election would leave too much uncertainty for our hardworking clerks and elections workers and undoubtedly cause confusion with voters that could affect the integrity of this important election.," she said.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said "We need to be focused on making it easier for everyone to vote, and today's ruling helps protect that right."
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said "It's a shame that Michigan's Republican-led Legislature enacted these burdensome restrictions that were found to adversely affect African Americans' ability to vote."
State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto, who chairs the House Elections Committee and wanted straight-ticket voting banned only if it were coupled with "secure, no-reason absentee voting," said in a news release that "Whether or not the state appeals today's ruling, I again call upon the Senate to pass my ... absentee voting legislation and enact good, pro-voter policy."
Staff writer Kathleen Gray and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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