DETROIT — The results of the 2016 election are being replayed in federal court as the state of Michigan defends a Republican-backed law that would abolish straight-party voting, an easy ballot option that’s especially popular in urban areas that go Democratic.
The law was suspended last year by a judge who said an end to straight-party ballots could cause long lines and place a disproportionate burden on black voters. Now, after months of analysis by experts, that same judge must decide whether the lawsuit should go to trial or be dismissed in favor of the state.
Straight-party voting is the act of making a single mark on a ballot to pick candidates of one party, from president to county commissioner. It’s been in practice for more than 100 years in Michigan and is widely held in urban areas; Detroit’s rate was 80 percent in 2016.
But it’s in style elsewhere, too: Nearly 50 percent of all ballots in Michigan were straight-party last year. Many were cast in Republican-friendly counties with low black populations won by President Donald Trump, such as Ottawa, Allegan, Livingston and Kent.
A ban on straight-party voting is “neutral and nondiscriminatory, and applies to every voter in Michigan without regard to race,” Assistant Attorney General Denise Barton said while defending the law in an Oct. 16 court filing.
The law, she said, “affects only how voters fill out the ballot by requiring that they actually cast a vote for their candidate of choice, rather than blindly endorsing a political party’s choices.”
Only a handful of states allow straight-party voting. Barton said it’s implausible that more than 40 states that don’t offer it have violated the U.S. Constitution “without anyone noticing.”
U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain last year blocked the straight-party ban in time for the November election. He said it’s “irrelevant” what other states do and found the ballot change by the Republican-controlled Legislature would especially affect black voters through longer lines and general confusion.
When he signed the law, Gov. Rick Snyder said it’s time for voters to choose candidates line by line instead of simply endorsing a political party. Some experts say that’s not a good reason.
“Telling people how they ought to go about their decisions is not the job of the state,” Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview. “The Legislature and the governor have the task of running free and fair elections. … Changes like the structure of the ballot now are viewed as weapons by one party against another.”
The lawsuit is being led by attorney Mark Brewer, former leader of the Michigan Democratic Party. He and co-counsel Mary Ellen Gurewitz warn that elimination of straight-party voting will result in chaos at polling places, violating the federal Voting Rights Act.
They also are making a provocative claim that Republicans had a “motivating purpose” in passing the law: to frustrate blacks and discourage them from voting.
Their experts include Kurt Metzger, a respected demographer. He crunched the 2016 election results and found the straight-party option was used on 77 percent of ballots in a dozen Michigan communities where blacks are a majority of the voting-age population.
University of North Carolina political scientist Jason Roberts said many voters who lose the straight-party option tend to skip some races on a long ballot.
“U.S. history is replete with examples of majority parties seeking to design a ballot that enhances their party’s prospects for electoral success,” he said in a court filing.
The state has turned to the opinion of Laurence Rosen, who was state government’s first demographer and is an expert in health care and population trends. He said there probably are “more and better explanations than race” for the different rates of straight-party voting around the state.
A trial, if necessary, is set for Feb. 6.
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