Appeals Court Upholds Temporary Injunction against Michigan Ban on Straight Party Voting

A federal appeals court has denied a request from Michigan officials to enforce the state’s ban on straight party voting until the constitutionality of the issue is settled in federal court, making it almost certain that voters in the state will have straight party voting options this November.  In July, a federal district judge ruled that the Republican driven ban on straight party voting was unconstitutional, and this week’s ruling from the court of appeals ensures that the July injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law will remain in effect through November’s election cycle.

Michigan Lawmakers Ban Straight Party Voting

Michigan Republican lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 that banned straight party voting, which is the practice of allowing voters to vote for all the candidates of a particular party by simply checking one box on the ballot sheet.  The ban on straight party voting, signed into effect in January of this year, was passed to encourage voters to consider individual candidates rather than picking one party over the other without a second thought for who they were voting for.  Currently, 40 states have eliminated straight ticket voting, but the ban rankled Democrats who argued the legislation had a sinister motive to discourage minority voters.

Straight ticket balloting is the result of efforts to speed up voting and reduce wait times, which is particularly relevant to communities in densely populated urban areas whose voters may be discouraged by long lines and go home before casting a ballot.  Straight ticket voting is an efficient means to an end that many voters arrive at anyway, and it allows the process to move more quickly, and at a lower cost, than voting which requires each individual box be checked.  Democrats, who typically pull a high percentage of the minority vote, have argued that straight ticket voting allows urban minority populations to exercise their right to vote by eliminating barriers to the process.

After Michigan passed its ban on straight party voting, opponents issued an immediate challenge in federal court, arguing that the law unconstitutionally violates rights of African American and other minority citizens who benefit from the practice. 

Federal Judge Rules against Michigan Ban on Straight Party Voting

In July, US District Court Judge Gershwin A. Drain issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of Michigan’s ban on straight party voting, finding that the state had not done enough to prove the law would not present an unconstitutional ban on the voting rights of minority citizens.  Judge Drain argued that that law would have a disproportionately negative effect on African American citizens by making it harder for them to vote.  Drain cited reports from voting experts which found that African American communities tend to take advantage of straight party ballots more than whites, which supported his argument that a ban on the practice would have a stronger impact among minority voters.

Drain went on to point out that the negative circumstances which straight party voting tends to alleviate – primarily longer wait times and confusion about the candidates – are more likely to affect black voters because of systemic discrimination which has plagued minority communities with lower education, higher population density, and greater feelings of mistrust of the political process.  Drain ruled that the effects of discrimination “hinder African-Americans’ ability to participate effectively in the political process,” and ruled that a ban on straight party voting was unconstitutional because the law would make it even harder for black voters to participate.

Republican lawmakers and state officials have denied racial animus as a driving factor, and submitted an immediate appeal of Judge Drain’s ruling.  As part of the appeal, Michigan officials requested that Judge Drain’s injunction order be removed until a higher level federal court had the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s ban on straight ticket voting.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Enforces Injunction against Michigan Ban on Straight Party Voting

This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Michigan’s request to stay Judge Drain’s order while a final decision on the constitutionality of its straight ticket voting law worked its way through federal courts.  The three-judge panel issued a unanimous opinion which found that the state had failed to present sufficient evidence that Judge Drain had erred by finding the law against straight party voting to be unconstitutional.  According to the 6th Circuit, Jude Drain had relied on un-rebutted expert opinion that Michigan’s ban on straight ticket voting would disproportionately effect minority citizens, and the state had presented very little evidence to disprove that conclusion.

While the 6th Circuit’s ruling affirms Judge Drain’s temporary injunction, the Court did not issue an opinion on the underlying constitutional concerns about Michigan’s straight party voting ban.  The 6th Circuit’s opinion does mean that while the legal battle over the substantive question about the law’s validity works its way through federal court, Michigan voters will have the option for straight party voting this coming November.

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