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Republican Legislature looks to wrap up 2015 with a political gift to GOP candidates

There are just two more weeks before the Legislature’s done for the year and House and Senate Republicans are spending them setting things up for election season 2016.

There’s a very partisan debate underway at the state Capitol about eliminating the straight-ticket voting option on the ballot. Straight-ticket voting is what allows voters to make just one mark on the ballot to cast all their votes for candidates of one party or the other.

Straight-ticket voting is considered one reason why Democrats in 2014 were able to nearly sweep the down-ballot education board races while Republicans did better up higher on the ballot. Straight ticket voters tend to break toward the Democrats.

But that’s not why Republicans are pushing to end it. Of course not. This is all about educating voters.

Right, state Representative Klint Kesto?  “Is there something wrong with encouraging the general populace and the voters to say, ‘hey, educate yourself about the candidates beforehand?’” Kesto recently asked.

Right, so, it’s all about ensuring voters educate themselves about the candidates. (In which case, why not get rid of party designations altogether?) We should not view with the slightest sense of suspicion or cynicism the fact that this bill has an (cue Dr. Evil…) appropriation of one million dollars.

We could tell you what it’s for, but it doesn’t matter. Because what that appropriation does is referendum-proof this bill if it becomes a law. The last time Republicans tried to get rid of straight-ticket voting, Democrats launched a petition drive and voters said they wanted to keep straight-ticket voting.

But the Michigan Constitution protects the full faith and credit of the state by inoculating appropriations from referendum challenges. So, whenever the Legislature wants to short-circuit a ballot challenge, they toss in a little money as a little insurance against a referendum.

And, interestingly, those appropriations are rarely used.  Just last week, the Lansing-based political newsletter MIRSNews.com looked into this, and found that appropriations tucked into controversial laws -- among them the statutes making Michigan a right-to-work state, repealing individual item pricing, and banning college athletes forming unions -- were actually returned to the state’s General Fund with little or none of it spent, or stashed away in special accounts to be used for something in the future.

Meanwhile, in the state Senate, there is a Republican-sponsored elections bill that would essentially ban weekend voting if a clerk decides to open on Saturdays or Sundays to issue and accept absentee ballots.

The sponsor, Republican Senator and Elections Committee chair Dave Robertson, says he’s concerned about equal treatment, that some clerks will open on weekends, but some won’t. Which, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that higher turnout typically benefits Democrats.

But, if Robertson is concerned about that, he could add an appropriation, say a million dollars, to help clerks stay open longer.

Just an idea.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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