Federal judge blocks Michigan ban on straight-party voting

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DETROIT (AP) – A judge on Thursday blocked Michigan’s new ban on straight-party voting, saying it’s a direct strike on the rights of blacks in big cities who tend to vote for Democrats with a single mark on the ballot.

U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain signed an injunction, a week after hearing arguments. He says the law would place a “disproportionate burden” on blacks in the fall election, the first election that would be affected.

The law was passed by Republicans and signed by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder. Straight-party voting, in which all candidates of a single party are picked with just a single mark, is very popular in Michigan cities with large black populations, especially Flint and Detroit. It’s been on the books for more than 100 years and has been a common choice in some counties that are steadfastly loyal to Republicans, such as Ottawa.

But a ban on straight-party voting would depress turnout and cause long lines at polling places, said Mark Brewer, a lawyer in the case and the former head of the state Democratic Party.

“The real question that the court must answer is whether the burdens caused by P.A. 268 are in part caused by or linked to social and historical conditions that have produced or currently produced discrimination against African-Americans,” Drain wrote. “This question is unavoidably answered in the affirmative.

“African-Americans are much more likely to vote Democrat than other ethnic groups, and many feel this is largely due to racially charged political stances taken by Republicans on the local, state and national level since the post-World War II era,” the judge said.

The state attorney general’s office, which is defending the law in court, said there’s nothing illegal because no one would be denied access to voting. Michigan joined 40 other states with bans.

“The behaviors of other states are irrelevant to the question of constitutionality,” Drain said.

There was no immediate comment from the attorney general’s office about an appeal. Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill told the judge that no court in the U.S. had stopped prohibitions on straight-party voting.

Sarah Bydalek, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said an appeal “would just be chaos,” especially when the November ballot – with or without the straight-party option – must be ready by mid-August. Bydalek, who is the Walker city clerk, had opposed the new law unless the Legislature also loosened rules on absentee voting to reduce lines. That didn’t happen.

When he signed the law in January, the governor said it was time for voters to “choose people over politics.” The law included $5 million for additional voting booths and other polling place improvements, although Drain said the amount was “woefully insufficient.”

“There is evidence that it would actually take $30 million, six times the amount appropriated, to adequately combat the long lines,” the judge said.

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