Judge strikes Michigan GOP's straight-ticket ban, says it discriminates against black people

click to enlarge A voter sticker from a polling precinct in Detroit. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
A voter sticker from a polling precinct in Detroit.

Once again, Michigan's Republican Party appears to have been caught crafting policy intended to strengthen its power, constitution be damned.

A federal judge appointed by former President Barack Obama put an end to Michigan's Republican-led ban on straight-ticket voting on Wednesday, ruling that the law "intentionally discriminated against African-Americans."

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain permanently barred Michigan from enforcing the ban, which was approved by the legislature in 2015 and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder the following year.

Michigan's ban prohibited voters from selecting candidates from a particular party in all races by simply marking a single box, which proponents argue speeds up the voting process. The ban joined Michigan with 40 other states that don't offer straight-ticket voting.

But Drain ruled that such a ban disproportionately harmed African-Americans, and appeared to be meant to suppress Democratic turnout. In a 103-page opinion, Drain writes:

"The Plaintiffs have demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that PA 268 unduly burdens the right to vote, reflects racial discriminatory intent harbored by the Michigan Legislature, and disparately impacts African-Americans’ opportunity to vote in concert with social and historical conditions of discrimination."

Previously, Republicans argued that the straight-ticket ban would "encourage more informed voting" and held third-party or independent candidates. Drain didn't buy it.

Cited as evidence was the fact that African-Americans were found to vote using straight-party at "vastly higher" rates than whites, and that "straight-ticket voting rates were much higher in communities where African-Americans constituted a substantial percentage of the voting age population." Drain writes:

For example, in the twelve communities where African-Americans were the majority demographic, 77.7 percent of voters used the straight-party option. 68.9 percent of voters used the straight-ticket option in the seven communities where African-Americans were 40 to 49.9 percent of the voting age population. This evidence shows that if a Michigan community has a high percentage of voting age African-Americans, that community’s voters use the straight-ticket option at a high rate.

In addition, the evidence shows that African-Americans are using straight-ticket voting in high rates for the Democratic Party. In communities where African-Americans constituted at least 40 percent of the voting age population, 94.8 percent of straight-ticket votes were submitted for the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, however, garnered 53.3 percent of straight-ticket votes in communities where African-Americans were less than 40 percent of the voting age population. 

Part of the appeal of straight-ticket voting, the court found, was literacy:

"Plaintiffs have also offered forceful evidence that African-Americans in Michigan have lower levels of literacy than whites. Plaintiffs have also shown that, as a result of these lower levels of literacy, PA 268 will disproportionately cause African-Americans to (1) take more time than whites in completing ballots; and to (2) abandon their ballots at higher rates than whites out of frustration or lack of ability."

Drain concludes:

"In evaluating how these considerations fit together, the Court holds that the Michigan Legislature intentionally discriminated against African-Americans in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, the Court finds that eliminating the Democratic Party’s success with straight-ticket voters — success especially driven by African-Americans residing in communities with high voting-age African-American populations — was a motivating consideration in the Michigan Legislature’s enactment of PA 268. The goal of ending the Democratic Party’s success with straight-ticket voters, therefore, was achieved at the expense of African-Americans’ access to the ballot. Thus, the Michigan Legislature intentionally discriminated against African-Americans."

It's the latest bruise for Michigan Republicans. Last month, emails obtained using the Freedom of Information Act by Bridge Magazine suggested that GOP lawmakers redrew Michigan's legislative districts in 2011 with the goal of suppressing Democratic turnout when they were in power.

The emails reportedly show a GOP staffer saying a gerrymandered Macomb County district is shaped like "it's giving the finger to (Democratic U.S. Rep.) Sandy Levin. I love it." Another email showed a staffer apparently bragging about cramming "Dem garbage" into four congressional districts, while another predicted the new maps would keep Republicans in power for years.

On Tuesday evening, the Michigan Supreme court ruled that a proposal to end gerrymandering in Michigan is allowed to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. The proposal, crafted by nonpartisan group Voters Not Politicians, calls for creating a 13-member commission made up of Democrats, Republicans, and independents to redraw Michigan's legislative maps. The proposal was fought in court by a group funded by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which supports many Republican causes.

Judge Drain's full opinion is available below.

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in Hour Detroit, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged...
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