By: Simon Zagata
For over 125 years, Michigan residents had the option of killing many birds with one stone, at least at the ballot box. This option is called straight-ticket voting, and it allows voters to fill in one bubble on a ballot for Democrats or Republicans, instead of filling in individual bubbles for every race. Proponents of straight-ticket voting claim that it makes the voting process faster, which helps eliminate long lines at the polls. In January 2016, Governor Rick Snyder signed into law a bill that eliminated Michigan’s straight-ticket voting option.
The bill passed along mostly partisan lines, with Republicans claiming that it would encourage nonpartisan voting and force voters to be informed on individual candidates, instead of voting by party. Democrats, on the other hand, saw it as a bare attack on voters in urban areas like Detroit and Flint, where long waits at polling places were already common. Straight-ticket voting has been a boon to Democrats in past elections, with more people voting for Democrats on straight tickets than Republicans. The Michigan Democratic Party was not alone in its concern with the law.
Three individual plaintiffs and the Michigan State A. Philip Randolph Institute sought a preliminary injunction to block the law’s application, citing the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. The Eastern District of Michigan granted the injunction and the Sixth Circuit upheld it, citing evidence that the elimination of straight-ticket voting disproportionately affected minority voters. The plaintiffs presented evidence that minority voters in Michigan were more likely to vote straight-ticket, more likely to vote Democrat, and more likely to be affected by long lines. The possibility of long lines having a disenfranchising effect on minority voters was particularly important for the Voting Rights Act claim, because it tied historical conditions to current effects of the law.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay in the matter, which would have allowed the law to be in effect for the 2016 election, but the Court refused to grant a stay. Interestingly, Governor Snyder tried to avoid some of the Constitutional problems with the bill when he signed it into law. At the time of signing, Governor Snyder pushed for the legislature to expand Michigan’s absentee voting program to allow for no-reason absentee voting. Expanded absentee voting in Michigan may have worked to eliminate some of the longer voting lines that many feared with the elimination of straight-ticket voting. However, the majority-Republican legislature did not take Snyder’s suggestion, leaving Michigan in an interesting situation.
Throughout the battle over straight-ticket voting, Republicans cited the fact that Michigan was one of only nine states to have straight-ticket voting. That said, other states without straight-ticket voting often have some combination of early voting, voting by mail, or no-reason absentee voting, something that Michigan does not offer. Perhaps with some of those measures in place, such as Governor Snyder’s suggestion to expand absentee voting, fears of long lines at the Michigan polls would be reduced. It is worth wondering whether reducing poll lines by expanding absentee voting would have quelled some of the Constitutional concerns over the elimination of straight-ticket voting.
With the Eastern District’s injunction in place, straight-ticket voting went ahead in the 2016 election as it had for 125 years, but long lines were still a problem. Precincts reported problems with voting machines, which required voters to either wait for someone to fix the machines or drop their ballot in a secure box to be counted manually. Turnout in the 2016 general election was down in Wayne County, with approximately 65,000 fewer people voting than in 2012. Whether it was caused by voter apathy, problems at polling places, or simply a tough day to get out of bed, one thing is for sure: it was not the elimination of straight-ticket voting.