Politics & Prejudices: Fighting to make it hard to vote

You really have to admire the utter devotion Republicans have to making it as hard as possible to vote — especially for poor working people, minorities, and just about anybody else who they fear might vote Democratic. They've been working harder at this than almost anything else. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof sneeringly killed an effort to allow anyone to get an absentee ballot.

This year, however, their efforts have been focused on outlawing "straight-ticket" voting, where someone can automatically choose every one of a party's candidates by filling in one oval.

That's an option, they know, that is most often used by black folks in cities like Detroit and Flint. For one thing, most people of color believe, not without reason, that the Republicans offer them absolutely nothing. For another, their time is very limited. Two years ago, Sharon Dolente of the Michigan Election Coalition showed me photos of huge lines in inner-city Detroit, where there are frequently too few voting stations to serve the public.

Some of these folks are single parents who work multiple jobs. Since Michigan has no early voting the way Indiana, Ohio, and most other states do, and we make it virtually impossible to get absentee ballots, they have to find a time to stand in line, maybe by giving up a hurried breakfast or lunch.

Too often, when the line is too long, they don't vote at all. Republicans know that if every voter has to vote separately in every race, the lines will be even longer. Fewer will get to vote.

Even better, many won't finish their ballots. Republicans have been badly losing races lower on the ballot, such as for the state board of education, for years. People who split their tickets often don't even bother to vote in those contests.

Two years ago, even though Rick Snyder was re-elected, Democrats won eight out of nine education contests because of loyal Detroiters filling in that one little oval.

So last year, Republicans moved to outlaw straight-ticket voting. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, knowing what a backup this would produce at the polls and what a nightmare it would be for elections clerks, did try to get the legislature to at least approve no-reason absentee voting, but Meekhof slammed her down.

Republicans knew they faced a problem, however. Not in getting "Rubber-stamp Rick" Snyder to sign whatever they put in his desk, but from the voters. Most people want to keep the straight-ticket option. Twice before, the legislature has outlawed it — and both times, the people reinstated it via a referendum.

So last year, Republicans turned to their favorite new dirty trick and attached a small appropriation to the bill, which legally prevents the voters from trying to repeal it.

Unfortunately, they miscalculated. Mark Brewer, the former Democratic state chair and one of the best elections lawyers in the country, took them to federal court.

In July, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain threw out the new law as unconstitutional, noting, correctly, that it put an unfair burden on African-Americans' right to vote. That was the signal for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to fly into action.

The last year or so has been rough for Big Bill; he hasn't had a good chance to limit anyone's rights since his humiliating failure to stop same-sex marriage, or even adoption.

Schuette soon filed an appeal with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the nation's more conservative courts.

However, the three-judge panel assigned to the case refused to lift the stay Drain issued to prevent straight-ticket voting from being repealed. With the clock ticking down the time to when this year's ballots must be printed, Schuette upped the ante.

He asked that all 15 judges on the 6th Circuit listen to his emergency appeal to reinstate the law banning straight-ticket voting.

When they didn't immediately reply, he nagged them again.

Finally, the judges — a majority of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, did respond, and essentially told Schuette to stuff it and wait for the original three-judge panel to consider the merits of the case. Having lost in federal court three times, you might expect Schuette to gracefully accept that straight-ticket voting would be with us for another election, as it has been since the 19th century.

But that's only if you don't know the rich kid from Midland. He immediately wasted more of the state's money instead by filing a fruitless emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court asking them to overturn the other federal judges and reinstate the straight-ticket ban.

He must have known this wasn't going to happen. What we don't know is whether Schuette did this because he actually thinks it's morally right to make it hard for some people to vote.

My guess is he is really trying hard to ingratiate himself with people like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, people who can cough up lots of cash when Schuette tries to run for governor in 2018.

Going hard right and separating himself from the hapless Snyder is certainly the only way he has a chance to win the nomination, before somehow worrying about the general election.

Republicans, however, might have won on this if they hadn't been so pigheaded and greedy. Imagine if they had they been willing, while banning straight-ticket voting, to at the same time allow anyone to have an absentee ballot who wanted one.

That might have strongly strengthened their claim that this was really about intelligent voter choices, not about trying to suppress the vote. Let's say they had done that — and for once refrained from cheating the voters out of their right to a referendum.

My guess is that they would have had a much stronger case in federal court, at least at the appellate level. They might well have succeeded in keeping a straight-ticket ban for this election.

And nobody thinks they would have lost very many votes at all. Poor, harried, black voters don't think in terms of absentee ballots.

So if on the night of Nov. 8, if Republicans once again see themselves losing every education seat, and perhaps the state House of Representatives, they shouldn't blame the federal judges who followed the rules and upheld their colleagues and the Constitution.

No, they should blame Arlan Meekhof and his even less Einstein-like elections committee chair, state Sen. Dave Robertson. They staged a nasty, underhanded little power-and-voter suppression grab, and were too thuggish to compromise.

And now, they are paying for it.

New attitude among city workers?

Many of us who have dealt with Detroit city workers over the years have become resigned to sullen, surly, and generally unhelpful bureaucrats. But, for the hell of it, I wrote a letter complaining when I got a $45 parking ticket eight minutes after paying at the meter for an hour-and-a-half.

I've had such letters ignored in the past. But this time, to my astonishment, I got both a phone call and an email within a few days by an extremely courteous administrative assistant, Satina Maddox.

Ms. Maddox said they had investigated and I had punched in an extra number, and were dismissing the ticket.

Not only that — she suggested I sign up for the ParkDetroit app on my phone so I could pay for parking without ever having to go near the meter again — and walked me through how to do this.

I was blown away by her helpfulness — and for the city's sake, I hope she is part of a new trend.

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