In a nutshell
- Michigan voters have been able to vote a straight-party option for 127 years
- A recent federal court decision upheld the state’s 2015 straight party voting ban; voters will not have the option at the November 2018 general election
- Proposal 3 on the ballot would restore the option, enshrining it in the Michigan Constitution
A political tradition cast to the sidelines, at least for now
Since 1891, Michigan voters have been able to cast a straight-party (or straight-ticket) vote on the partisan section of the ballot. The 127-year political tradition ended in federal court earlier this month. This means voters will not be able to make a single selection on the upcoming November ballot to vote for the entire slate of candidates from one party. Voting straight-party will require voters to go office by office on their ballot and select the candidates from their desired political party.
While the option will not be available this November, voters will have the opportunity to revive it for future elections as they weigh in on Proposal 3, a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment commonly referred to as Promote the Vote. The proposal would enshrine a number of voting rights, some new and some existing, in the 1963 Michigan Constitution. The straight-party voting right is included in the proposal that, if approved, would restore the option. The Citizens Research Council recently released its summary and analysis of Proposal 3.
Very popular option for Michigan voters
When presented with the option, voters tend to use it. Roughly one-third of voters in the U.S. use the option when it is on the ballot. Previous research by the Citizens Research Council shows that Michigan voters use straight party voting more frequently than is the case nationally. Participation in the partisan portion of the ballot increases as voters use the heuristic of party affiliation to predict which candidate they support and use the party identification as a shortcut. On the other hand, voting participation in the nonpartisan portion and ballot questions decreases because voters may not realize they have not voted this section of their ballot. Or, they think the straight-party selection covered these sections.
The mechanism reduces ticket splitting and may reduce ballot roll-off (this occurs when voters are fatigued with voting a long ballot and tend to cease voting after deciding on the high-profile, top-of-the-ticket offices). There is evidence that the option is associated with a higher incidence of voter errors. Some of this is explained by confusing ballots, complex instructions, and lack of feedback.
Straight-party voting merry-go-round
The Michigan Legislature has attempted three times to get rid of the straight-party voting option (1964, 2001 and 2015). Following the efforts to eliminate it in 1964 and 2001, public referenda successfully reinstated the option for Michigan voters.
In 2015, however, the public did not have the opportunity to override the legislature’s statutory ban. The law authorizing the ban was shielded from a referendum vote because it contained a $5 million appropriation to the Secretary of State to purchase voting equipment. Per the state constitution, any law appropriating state funds is effectively “referendum proof.” Supporters of straight-party voting were not deterred by the legislature’s procedural attempt to ban the practice and took the State of Michigan to court following enactment of the policy in early 2016.
In July 2016, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction against the ban, ruling that it violated both the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 because it disproportionately affects African Americans. Despite an effort to halt its use in 2016, the straight-party voting option was available at the November 2016 general election, awaiting a full decision from the court. In an interesting twist to the Republican-led legislature’s attempted ban of the practice, it is credited for helping Donald Trump carry Michigan in 2016.
In August 2018, the U.S. District Court in Detroit approved a permanent injunction against the state’s ban, arguing that it violated both the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the VRA. While supporters of the option celebrated the court’s decision, the State of Michigan appealed the ruling to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and requested an immediate motion to stay the lower court decision.
In early September, the Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court erred in its decision and reinstituted the 2015 ban, awaiting a full decision from the appellate court. A last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the option available to voters was denied. As a result, Michigan voters, for the first time since the presidency of Grover Cleveland, will not be able to vote a straight ticket at the November 6 election.
Last stop – voters decide
Supporters of straight-party voting in Michigan have had a bumpy ride the last three years. While a century-old voting tool died in 2016, voters will have an opportunity to revive it this fall when they consider Proposal 3. The proposal, if passed, would enshrine straight party voting, along with other voting rights, in the state constitution, effectively insulating many aspects of the voting franchise from future legislative encroachment.