Straight-ticket voting, in which voters may choose a party’s entire slate with a single notation, had been available as an option in Michigan since 1891. The new law, signed in January by Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, required voters to cast votes for individual candidates — but it was blocked in July by a federal judge who ruled that the law created a burden on minority voters.
“The reason I signed it is I think it’s a good part of the process that people look at each individual office and they look at each candidate,” Mr. Snyder. “It’s not just about partisan politics.”
In July, Judge Gershwin A. Drain of Federal District Court in Detroit temporarily blocked the law, finding that it imposed “a disproportionate burden on African-Americans’ right to vote.”
The evidence submitted by groups and voters challenging the law, Judge Drain said, showed that “there are ‘extremely high’ correlations between the size of the African-American voting population within a district and the use of straight-party voting in that district.”
Judge Drain noted that ballots still identified candidates by their party affiliations, meaning that the law did not truly forbid straight-ticket voting but merely made it more cumbersome. “It seems the only purpose behind” the law “is to require voters to spend more time filling more bubbles” on ballot forms, he wrote.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit last month denied the state’s request for a stay of Judge Drain’s decision. Judge Karen Nelson Moore, writing for the appeals court, said the law would exacerbate long lines at a polling places and discourage voting.
“Because African-American majority districts in Michigan such as Detroit have also historically faced some of the longest wait times in the state,” Judge Moore wrote, “the increase in long lines occasioned by the elimination of straight-party voting will impact these voters to an even more significant degree.”
“The state has presented nothing apart from vague speculation,” she added, “that suggests that a voter will make a more informed choice in filling in each individual bubble rather than choosing to fill in one bubble for a straight party vote.”
State officials unsuccessfully asked the full Sixth Circuit to hear the case. Dissenting from that ruling, Judge Danny J. Boggs wrote that the Michigan law had no partisan tilt and merely nudged voters to think a little more carefully. “Forty states other than Michigan have voting methods that do not permit straight-ticket voting,” he wrote, “including such Democratic-leaning states as Massachusetts, California, New York and Washington State.”
Judge Boggs said the law imposed only a small burden. “Many or most ballots in Michigan may require in the vicinity of seventy marks, if the voter wishes to exercise all voting rights,” Judge Boggs wrote. “The absence of straight-ticket voting might require, depending on the county, about seventeen additional marks.”
In an emergency application filed at the Supreme Court last Friday, state officials asked the justices to intercede in time for the November election. “Michigan has joined 40 other states by requiring voters to actually vote for each candidate they intend to support — in other words, by eliminating straight-ticket voting,” the brief said. “This change is not a burden on voting — it is the very act of voting.”
The State Legislature had good reasons to enact the law, the brief said. Eliminating straight-ticket voting makes it more likely that voters will pay attention to parts of the ballot concerning nonpartisan offices and referendums, it said. “Requiring office-specific voting,” it said, “encourages a more informed electorate and therefore could improve the democratic process.”