Back in November, I wrote about the Michigan Senate’s passage of a bill eliminating straight-ticket voting. Yesterday, the state House endorsed the ban – but tied it to establishment of no-excuse absentee voting, making its future unclear. MLive.com has more:
The straight-ticket ban, modified and advanced in a 54-51 vote at around 10 p.m., faced criticism from Democrats, who called it a political proposal that would have the practical effect of creating longer voting lines.
“The reason we’re doing this is because Republicans have not been able to win education board seats,” said Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing. “…So they decided to change the rules.”
Michigan law currently allows voters to check a box to pick all candidates from one party on the partisan portion of their ballot, an option that Senate Bill 13 would eliminate.
State Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, called straight-ticket voting a holdover from the days of party bosses, who wouldn’t just tell people how to vote, they’d make the selections for them.
Michigan is one of only 10 states that still allows straight-party voting, he noted, arguing the importance of voters taking the time to research each candidate on the ballot.
“We have troops fighting and dying all over the world tonight, and here we are, worried about filling in more than one bubble because it might be inconvenient for us,” Pscholka said. “Democracy, my friends, depends on an informed electorate.”
Just as they did in the Senate, local election officials objected to the ban, concerned about its effect on Election Day, especially in more populated areas:
Local elections clerks testified against the straight-ticket ban in committee, telling lawmakers that removing the speedier voting option would have a cumulative effect and produce longer lines on election days.
Democrats echoed those concerns on the House floor, arguing that wait times would be especially problematic in urban districts already faced with crowded precincts.
Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, called the bill a form of “voter suppression,”
“This is nothing more than an effort, by law and lawmakers, to form another impediment to African American voters,” he said. “This law would disenfranchise many voters in the African American Community, and it was done with bad intent to do just that.”
House passage came with a twist, however, as the elections committee chair “tie-barred” the straight-ticket ban to another bill establishing no-excuse absentee voting:
State Rep. Lisa Lyons, who chairs the House Elections Committee, acknowledged the wait-time concerns raised by clerks, saying they do have some validity.
That’s why the bill includes a $5 million appropriation for the Secretary of State to purchase new voting equipment, she said, and it’s why she moved to tie-bar the measure to her own bill that would expand absentee voting opportunities.
Michigan law currently allows voters to request absentee ballots by mail for specific reasons, including age, disability, religious conflicts or plans to be out of town on election day.
House Bill 4724, approved in a 59-46 vote, would allow anyone to request an absentee ballot by visiting their local clerk’s office in person and presenting their driver’s license or state identification card.
“It’s not pro-Republican or pro-Democrat,” said Lyons, R-Alto. “It’s pro-voter.”
Just as it was in the Senate, the appropriation is drawing criticism because it would shield the legislation from a referendum:
Straight-ticket voting is not a new fight in Michigan. The Legislature banned the practice as recently as 2001 only to see voters repeal that law via referendum in 2002. Voters would not have that option this time around because of the voting machine appropriation, which makes the bill immune from a ballot challenge.
State Rep. Martin Howrylak, one of five Republicans to vote against the straight-ticket voting ban, said he did so because of the appropriation, arguing it should have never been added in the first place.
“We should not be afraid to pass bills that are subject to the possibility of referendum,” Howrylak, R-Troy, said in a statement.
“Indeed, we are tasked with representing the people of the State of Michigan. As such, our legislation should be able to stand on its own merits. It should reflect the will of the electorate and should not block the people’s constitutional right of referendum simply by including a perfunctory appropriation.”
The formal linkage of the two bills appears that it will slow (if not prevent) final enactment of either:
The fate of the elections package, tie-barred together so that one bill cannot pass without the other, remains an open question. While the Senate approved an earlier version of the straight-ticket voting ban, Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is no fan of expanded absentee voting.
“Those are two issues that I can say the Majority Leader would rather not see tie-barred together,” spokeswoman Amber McCann said earlier Wednesday. “I don’t know that’s how they will ultimately come out of the House.”
If enacted, these two bills represent considerable changes to state election law. Local election officials who oppose the straight-ticket ban might be happy that its pace has slowed because of the link to no-excuse absentee, but I bet they’re also nervous about the prospect of both requirements taking effect – even with the promise of an additional $5 million – just as they ramp up their preparations for a presidential election year.