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Attorney General Schuette continues fight to end straight-ticket voting in Michigan

There is a saying in politics that three-quarters of what you do in a campaign doesn’t matter -- you just don’t know which three quarters until after the campaign is over.

That’s because there are so many variables that can make a difference once the voting starts, so candidates, campaigns, and political parties do all they can to gain every marginal advantage.

Which brings us to straight-ticket voting. That’s where voters use just a single mark on the ballot to support a political party’s entire slate of candidates without having to go down the entire ballot.  

Now, we don’t know for certain how much of a difference straight-ticket voting makes, but we’re pretty sure it makes a difference. Just look back two years when Democrats largely swept low-on-the-ballot state university board and board of education races during a Republican wave.

The reason? It’s very likely straight-ticket voters whose votes stuck after ticket-splitters had abandoned the ballot made a critical difference. And, more often than not, it’s to the benefit of Democrats.

That’s why Republicans have long wanted to scrap straight-ticket voting. They argue that people should be voting for candidates and not political parties, and that most other states don’t allow it.  

In Michigan it’s a tradition that dates back to 1891 and about half the voters in the state take advantage of it. And voters have twice already rejected the idea of getting rid of straight-ticket voting, so folks in Michigan seem to like the option.

But with some competitive congressional races looming, control of the state House of Representatives at stake, and the prospect of Donald Trump dragging down the entire ticket, GOP majorities in the state House and Senate sent Governor Rick Snyder a bill to once again outlaw straight-ticket voting, and he signed it.

And to make sure that it’s not overturned by voters a third time, Republicans put in a $5 million spending provision. That makes it an appropriations bill and, therefore, immune from a voter referendum to overturn it.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Unions and civil rights groups (who like the marginal advantage for the Democratic ticket) sued, and got an injunction that put the ban on hold.

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette then took the case to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he lost before a three-judge panel. Now, he’s asking for what’s called an “en banc” review of the decision by the entire court.

If the court says no, we could see an emergency appeal to the United States Supreme Court before it’s all over.

This drama needs to play out in the next two or three weeks if Michigan clerks are going to meet the legal deadline to get absentee ballots printed and mailed to military personnel and other overseas voters.

And it now appears Republicans were right to be worried when they pushed through the straight-ticket voting ban in late December and early January before it was certain who the GOP nominee would be and how that candidate would play to a general election audience.

Polls show Hillary Clinton with comfortable leads in Michigan. And pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group says not only that, but Republicans are suffering from an “enthusiasm gap.”

His firm’s 1-10 ranking of voter enthusiasm shows it’s depressed among Republicans and Democrats, but more so among GOP voters.

“Strong Democrats are at 6.9, but strong Republicans are down at 6.4,” Czuba said on the Michigan Public Television show “Off The Record” over the weekend. “Typically they are even in a presidential year and what we are seeing is a half-point gap, which, statistically, is major.”

That means Republicans could be facing a tougher time getting their voters to the polls, and getting their voters to go all the way down the ballot. This court battle to ban straight-ticket voting in November is part of their firewall strategy.

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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