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Don't believe the reasons Republicans give you for ending straight-ticket voting in Michigan

Jack Lessenberry

Election night last year was not a good one for Michigan Democrats.

They lost ground in both houses of the Legislature, which the Republicans already controlled. They lost the governor’s race, despite a weak re-election campaign on the part of Rick Snyder.

But in races for education boards – the state board and the elected trustees of Michigan’s three major universities, it was a terrible night for Republicans.

Despite winning everything else in sight, Republicans lost eight of the nine board seats. That seemed baffling, until I analyzed the returns, and realized the winning Democrats had one woman to thank: Terri Lynn Land.

Land was the hapless Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Hundreds of thousands of Republicans and independents voted for Democrat Gary Peters or skipped the Senate race entirely, and that saved the Democratic board seats.

Here’s why: When people split their tickets, they frequently don’t vote at all in what are called “down-ballot” races – contests for judicial positions, education boards and the like.

Many split-ticket voters voted Republican – except for the Senate race, but they usually stopped voting after about the legislative level.

It would prevent any Michigan voter from casting a straight-ticket vote.

But in Detroit, Wayne County and other large cities, voters, especially African-American voters, tend to just “fill in the oval” and vote a straight party ticket.

Last night I was at a dinner with Casandra Ulbrich, now vice-chair of the state board of education.

She went to bed election night thinking she had lost, but the next morning she woke up a winner, saved by the late returns and the straight-ticket voting of Detroiters. Well, the state Senate passed a bill last night to make that impossible.

It would prevent any Michigan voter from casting a straight-ticket vote. Instead, if the House passes this and the governor signs it, voters would have to fill in the oval in front of every name for sometimes dozens of contests.

This would have three major effects on voting.

  1. It would mean it would take longer.
  2. It would mean fewer votes cast for races like community college and state board of education seats.
  3. And it is almost certain to hurt Democrats -- because their voters usually cast more straight-ticket votes.

Republican leaders said things they don’t really believe yesterday.

Well, I don't like calling anybody a liar, but at the very least he is a hypocrite.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said this creates "an opportunity (for) people to look at and study candidates and issues."

Well, I don’t like calling anybody a liar, but at the very least he is a hypocrite.

This is the same man who contemptuously blocked a move by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to allow everyone to have an absentee ballot so they could "study candidates and issues."

I would have more respect for Republicans if they admitted they were just trying to prevent Democrats from winning elections, but they did something underhanded as well. They attached a phony million-dollar appropriation to this bill.

That was done only to prevent voters from repealing it. Thirteen years ago, the Legislature also outlawed straight-ticket voting, but outraged citizens got this on the ballot, and 60% said they wanted to keep the right to vote a straight ticket.

Obviously, the Senate majority isn’t interested in the will of the people. For those who’ve been paying attention, that won’t come as a surprise.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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