Michigan takes a second look at single-party voting

By Sarah Sidlow

Pass the popcorn. With Ohio just weeks away from early voting, the battleground Buckeyes are glued to their northerly neighbors and the debate over straight-ticket voting.

Missed the headlines? Here’s a recap:

Straight-ticket voting, also called straight-party voting, is an option that allows a voter to select one political party’s complete slate of candidates for every office with a single pen stroke. It’s like easy checkout at the ballot box, and it’s a popular option for a lot of voters in at least 10 states, where the option exists.

But earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed into law SB 0013, which eliminated the straight-ticket option on Michigan election ballots. The ban on straight-ticket voting means voters must select an individual for each elective office, rather than simply selecting a party.

Snyder’s argument in favor of joining the other 40 states (like Ohio) that do not support straight-party voting is that it will result in more informed voters. That is, instead of picking one bubble at the top, voters will be forced to think about every position and every candidate—and may have to do a little more reading in order to feel comfortable with their final answers.

Other supporters feel the same, adding there’s nothing to stop voters from continuing to vote down party lines—they’ll just have to fill out a few more bubbles to do so. And paying a little more attention to the local elections present on those ballots might not be a bad thing for all the residents affected by the outcomes of those smaller elections.

But others are not convinced the ban is a good thing, or that it’s been imposed for the right reasons.

Some local election officials and, primarily, state Democrats oppose the new law, arguing that the longer lines and wait times would disenfranchise voters and possibly force them to leave before even casting a vote at all.

Opponents argue this may be particularly true for African-American voters, whose districts are already some of the busiest. In fact, one report found that Michigan communities with a 75 percent or higher rate of straight-party voting had a majority of African-American residents—leading some to argue a ban on straight-ticket voting violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

Ron Bieber, chair of the Michigan chapter of the AFL-CIO, suggests that instead of focusing on the bubbles, the legislature should be working to expand access to voting through things like expanded early voting and no-excuse absentee voting—something the state of Michigan currently lacks.

In July, federal Judge Gershwin Drain issued a series of preliminary injunctions that effectively blocked state officials from enforcing Snyder’s straight-ticket ban.

Later that month, efforts to appeal the decision were denied by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, effectively upholding, at least temporarily, Drain’s July ruling that single-ticket voting should remain an option for voters. At this time, it seems likely that Michigan voters will have the one-bubble-fits-all option, at least through this fall’s election.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

The one-armed ballot

By Ben Tomkins

Under no circumstances should there ever exist such a thing as straight-party voting. The day that voters are enabled to be so uninformed that they no longer have to acknowledge a candidate exists even if only on paper to vote for them is the day we have officially given up on the theory of democracy. Even if you can’t read, every voter should have to take partial responsibility for personally identifying, in some manner, the thing they are subjecting everyone else in this country to.

I will admit that I am not a spectacular down-ballot voter, particularly in presidential years. If I choose to vote for someone I know very little about, then what I do know meets some threshold in my brain that will allow me to sleep at night knowing I didn’t willfully abandon all civic responsibility in the voting booth. Lots and lots of people vote for whomever their particular party’s candidates are without knowing anything, and while I think it’s irresponsible, at least having to individually mark each box requires that a person be something less than the universally preferred condition of completely lazy. Marking a giant “D” or “R” at the top of a ballot is a guarantee that candidates nobody even knew were running will be elected, and our election system—such as it is—will become nothing more than a list of virtual presidential appointments when voters select the letter rather than the candidates.

In fact, how we vote for the president and vice president today is already a form of block voting that doesn’t align in any way with the process as laid down in the Constitution.

The 12th Amendment passed in 1804 in response to the 1796 election, which, through the finagling of the electors, produced a president (John Adams, Federalist) and vice president (Jefferson, Democratic Republican) from opposite parties, because the two offices were awarded to the candidates with the first and second greatest number of votes respectively.

The 12tth Amendment fixed this problem, making it the law of the land that candidates must be declared to be running either for the presidency or vice presidency, and the electors—to this day—still cast one ballot for president and one for vice president. The problem on the public ballots is obvious. Candidates from parties are listed as a pair, and as such it looks like we are forced to vote for both or neither. In fact, this is not the case. If you look at your November ballot carefully, you will notice that you are voting for a party’s offering, not the candidates themselves.

The concept of a running mate was only partially serious until Lincoln and Johnson overtly ran as a North-South team to aid Reconstruction, and ever since, combined candidacies have been the norm. The irony is that this is precisely what the 12th Amendment intended to avoid—people from opposing parties becoming president and vice president—because of the problems it causes for the executive branch’s balance of power (See: Lincoln’s assassination followed by Johnson’s impeachment).

The 12th Amendment also allows for scenarios where multiple candidates can have the same running mate for vice president. John C. Calhoun was the running mate of both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson in 1824. Adams lost the popular vote but the House of Representatives handed him the presidency. Calhoun himself actually resigned as vice president in 1832 to run for the Senate where he thought he could be more effective as a pro-slavery advocate.

Even more obscure than that is the election in 1836 when Martin Van Buren won the presidency, but his vice president, Richard M. Johnson, failed to secure enough electoral college votes to win the job. It is the one and only time when the Senate was called upon to select a vice president. He won, and Calhoun was one of the voters.

Why does this matter? Despite the fact that electors can do whatever they want regardless of our vote, we should at least have ballots allowing us to express our opinion to them within the system we’ve agreed upon. Straight-party voting is not an opinion so much as a lack thereof. I often wonder how many people would have voted for McCain and written in someone other than Palin. Alternatively, it is not inconceivable a write-in could win during our current Clinton/Trump run. Who would be the vice president then?

If the selection process dragged on, a straight-party voting system would have the potential to populate the Senate with unfamiliar and unknown candidates, possibly shifting the balance of power. It could produce a profound and dangerous outcome for our country, and considering that the day after leaving the EU the most googled questions in the United Kingdom had to do with what the hell the EU was, it is well worth noting that extremely unlikely or unthinkable things can and will occasionally manifest the more mindless the democratic process is allowed to become.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit hillofathens.com. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Take the higher, Republican road

By David H. Landon

It seems our friends to the north in Michigan are embroiled in a fight about whether changing their current style of ballot in Michigan would adversely affect minority voters. Michigan uses an optical scan type of ballot where the voter fills in a bubble beside the name of the candidate for whom he or she wishes to vote. Currently, a Michigan voter can make short work of the ballot by filling in a bubble which indicates the voter wishes to vote a straight-party ticket.  By filling in the bubble one could vote for all Democratic candidates or all Republican candidates. Arguably, the voter could vote for a straight Green party ticket or any party whose candidates appear on the ballot.

Last January, the Republican legislature passed a law changing the Michigan ballot, eliminating the option of voting for a straight-party ticket, and Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed the bill into law. Soon, the matter was in federal court before an Obama-appointed judge. U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain ruled that changing the law to eliminate the straight-party voting option adversely affected minority voters in violation of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. The judge reasoned that eliminating the shortcut would cause long lines in those precincts largely made up of African-American and other minorities, leading to voters to abandon the polling location without casting their vote. The court also pointed out that each voter still had the option to forego filling in the straight party bubble and to vote in each individual race.

The Michigan Attorney General appealed the decision by Judge Drain to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. There a three-judge panel upheld the lower Court’s decision. The three judges – all appointed by either Obama or Clinton – wrote, “In the face of this burden (overcoming the presumptions in the 14th Amendment), the state has offered only vague and largely unsupported justifications of fostering voter knowledge and engagement.”

The dance between the Republicans and the Democrats on this issue is predictable, as it is resurrected every election cycle. For Democrats it’s how to protect the monolithic voting block that minority voters have become, and for Republicans it’s how to crack into that voting block. Michigan is one of only 10 states that allows for voting a straight ticket by simply filling in one bubble. In cities with large minority populations, there are precincts and wards that return incredibly high voter percentages for the Democratic candidates. There are some cities in Michigan where 75 percent of the vote is conducted by straight-party balloting. That is why the Democratic Party went to court. It was simply to protect its base of voter support.

I’m inclined to let them have their straight-party voting ballot. And I say that as a life-long Republican who wants to see my side prevail. I say this for two reasons.

First, I believe that eventually minority voters will tire of being treated as if they aren’t bright enough to read through an entire ballot and pick out the candidates they want to support. Let’s not fool ourselves. This has nothing to do with long lines causing disenfranchisement. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, among other requirements, established minimal election administration standards. If election officials are following the law, there must be sufficient voting machines at each voting location to allow for the population of the precinct and the complexity of the ballot. Millions of state and federal tax dollars have been allocated to make certain that long lines are kept to a minimum. The reason for keeping the straight-party ballot in Michigan has more to do with keeping the minority voting bloc intact, rather than any legitimate concern about long voting lines in minority neighborhoods scaring away voters. One lesson from the 2016 election is that voters reject the paternalistic approach by any party establishment to dictate for whom the party rank and file should vote.

Second, I believe Republicans should attempt to win over minority voters not by clever legislation, such as was attempted in Michigan, but rather by the wisdom of our ideas and by the strength of our arguments. It won’t be easy. There have now been several generations of African-Americans who are un-wavering Democratic voters. They buy the Democratic mantra that only Democratic elected officials have their best interests at heart. It will take a sincere effort to take the case to the minority voter that smaller government policies, espoused by the Republican Party, do not equate to less caring about the fate of all Americans. Republican policies will get government out of the way, thereby unleashing the great engine of capitalism which will give all Americans a chance for the American dream.

So, leave the Michigan-style straight-party ballot as it is. An election victory, despite the advantage that the current balloting system gives to Democrats, could be the beginning of changing hearts and minds.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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