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Eliminating straight ticket voting was a bad idea

Jack Lessenberry

I have voted in virtually every election since I was old enough. In all that time, I have never cast a straight ticket, where you fill in a single oval to choose every candidate of one political party.

However, I think everyone should have the right to do so.

After all, political parties are supposed to stand for something, and if you feel that Democratic or Republican or Green Party principles are more important than individual candidates, you might  vote that way. In every presidential election, hundreds of thousands of people have chosen to do exactly that.

But not in Michigan, not anymore.

Late last year, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill outlawing straight ticket voting. The governor and various Republican lawmakers made noises about how this will encourage voters to make more informed choices.

That was all horse exhaust.

The whole reason for doing this was to protect Republicans and hurt Democrats, especially in so-called “down ballot” races, like state board of education seats. Most people who split their tickets don’t bother to vote in these races, and sometimes don’t even vote for candidates for the legislature.

However, in Detroit, many black voters just fill in the single-party oval. That’s why, two years ago, Democrats won eight out of nine education seats despite it being a big Republican year. Most independents and some Republicans split their tickets because the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate was so weak.
Voters who did that mainly ignored the down ballot races. State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich told me she went to bed on election night convinced she’d lost, but woke up to find out that Detroit had saved her.

That angered Republicans, who control all branches of state government, and they speedily outlawed the practice.

They knew voters wouldn’t like this. They had, after all, repealed straight ticket voting before, but voters promptly put an initiative on the ballot and restored their option to do this.

So in an especially underhanded move, Republicans this time attached a phony small appropriation to the bill, which has the legal effect of making it impossible to repeal by referendum.

Well, last week, someone finally got around to doing the only thing they could about this. Democrats and their allies filed a federal lawsuit contending denying people the straight ticket option violates the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The best thing U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain could do is immediately suspend the new law until he rules on this case. As it now stands, Election Day is certain to be a mess.

Eliminating the straight ticket option will mean horrendous lines at the polls, since the legislature refused to make absentee ballots more widely available. Since they left the little party symbols at the top of the ballot, some voters may think by circling them they can cast a straight ticket vote anyway, and will invalidate their entire ballot.   

Democracy is a fragile thing, and too few people vote as it is. Our legislature and governor moved last year to take one of our options away.

Now, we have to depend on the judicial branch of government to restore our rights.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's senior news 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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