Michigan Moves To Eliminate Straight-Ticket Voting Amid Partisan Disagreement

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Michigan is the latest state to move toward eliminating straight-ticket voting, but the decision to do so – and the means by which it would be accomplished – is generating partisan heat in Lansing. MLive.com has more:

Michigan voters would lose the ability to cast a straight-ticket ballot for candidates of a single political party under fast-tracked legislation approved Tuesday evening in the state Senate.

The Republican-backed bill advanced through committee earlier the same day before reaching the floor, where it was amended to include a $1 million appropriation that would make it immune to referendum …

[S]upporters say Senate Bill 13 would reduce partisanship in the elections process and encourage voters to conduct more research before heading to the polls. But critics say it could decrease convenience and lead to longer lines on Election Day.

All sides seem to agree the change would have the largest effect in down-ticket elections on the partisan section of the ballot, such as university regent or school board races, which tend to feature lesser-known candidates.

Sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, noted that Michigan is one of only 10 states that currently allows straight-ticket voting, which he called a holdover from the days of political machines and party bosses.

“Voting is one of our most fundamental rights, and the issue of choosing men and women who lead our local, state and federal government should never be taken for granted,” Knollenberg said.

“It is time that Michigan’s election process become more about the people, less about political parties, and even less about how long it takes to exercise one of our most fundamental rights.”

City and township clerks who administer elections are opposed to the bill because they say that straight-ticket voting helps keep down wait times. Even if it only takes each voter 30 additional seconds to fill out a full ballot, that extra time could add up to create bottlenecks, they said in committee. [Somewhere, Charles Stewart nods knowingly – ed.]

There is, not surprisingly, a sharp partisan divide on the issue linked to perceptions that the practice benefits Democrats:

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, criticized Republicans for even taking up the bill, arguing it does not address real and pressing needs of Michigan families.

“You’re serving your own self-interest by making it harder to vote,” Ananich said.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections does not keep statewide statistics on straight-ticket voting, but county-level data suggests the practice has benefited Democratic candidates in some parts of the state, especially in presidential years.

Last year in Oakland County, for instance, 109,711 voters cast a straight-ticket ballot for Democrats, compared to 108,211 for Republicans. The gap was much wider in 2012, with 171,526 straight-ticket ballots for Democrats and 145,375 for Republicans.

“The only reason to do this is a perceived partisan advantage,” said Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren. “You could put this under the category of how to steal an election, but I don’t want to go that far.”

Democrats proposed a series of amendments to the bill that they suggested could alleviate the concern over long lines, including no-reason absentee or early voting, but Republicans shot down the proposals.

The Senate eventually approved the bill in a 23-13 vote. Two Republicans — Sen. Joe Hune, of Hamburg, and Tory Rocca, of Sterling Heights — joined all 11 Democrats in voting “no.”

One part of the bill that’s raising partisan temperatures is the inclusion of a $1 million appropriation, which GOP supporters say is necessary and Democrats say is purely designed to prevent a referendum on the issue:

Michigan voters overturned a similar law in 2002 after Democrats forced a ballot referendum via petition drive.

The new bill would provide funding to the Michigan Secretary of State to assess the impact of eliminating straight-ticket voting, assist in ongoing fraud prevention and “provide equipment to facilitate the integrity of the election process,” among other things.

Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, called the appropriation “entirely legitimate,” but critics pointed out that most state spending decisions are made during the budget process, not within policy bills.

“Let’s not lie to each other, and let’s not lie to voters of this state. This appropriation is a $1 million insurance policy against the will of the people,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township.

The bill now heads to the State House, where its future is unclear. The fight over the future of straight-ticket voting – which is obviously (and explicitly) a partisan issue but also one which involves more modern considerations like line lengths and voter convenience – is definitely worth watching. This is especially true if the two sides in Lansing continue to dig in further to their current positions.

Stay tuned …

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