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House panel to study straight-ticket voting bill over the weekend

December 8, 2015

Article courtesy of MIRS News

A bill to end Michigan’s straight-ticket voting option inspired more than two hours of debate Thursday, but a House committee wasn’t ready to follow the Senate’s support for the change.

At about 5:30 p.m., the House Elections Committee adjourned without taking a vote on SB 0013, the Senate-approved bill to do away with the automatic straight-ticket voting option on ballots. 

Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto), the chair of the committee, said afterward that members were going to take additional time to consider what they heard during testimony. 

What they heard was 11 people testify in opposition to the bill and two testify for it. Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) was one of the supporters, as was Eric Doster, an attorney who was testifying about his own opinion, but who does legal work for the Michigan Republican Party. 

While supporters argued that the bill would lead to a more informed electorate, opponents slammed it as an attempt to help Republicans. They also said the proposal would lead to longer lines at voting places around the state because it would make it take longer for many people to vote, especially those in urban areas, which traditionally vote more Democratic. 

The Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, the Michigan Association of County Clerks and the Michigan Townships Association are all against the bill. 

Sarah Bydalek, the clerk of Walker, even said at one point that it would lead to “chaos” at the polls. 

Asked afterward if she thought Bydalek was exaggerating, Lyons, who many believe will eventually run for Kent County clerk, responded, “Absent hard data I can’t say it’s an exaggeration. But I can’t say that it’s not.” 

“Forty other states do this,” Lyons said. “I also recognize the vast majority of those states that have straight-ticket elimination also have some reason no-reason absentee voting.” 

Lyons would prefer to join SB 0013 with her bill, HB 4724, which would allow for a form of no-reason absentee voting in Michigan. That bill advanced out of committee on Wednesday. 

Clerks also like the idea because they believe that no-reason absentee would help relieve some of the pressure that would be put on polling places by getting rid of straight-ticket voting. 

However, Senate Republicans aren’t supportive of no-reason absentee voting. 

Lyons said she and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) continue to have conversations about the bills. 

Five of the eight members of the House Elections Committee would have to vote for SB 0013 to get it to the floor or the full House would have to discharge it there without a committee vote — something that would be highly unusual. 

Three of the eight committee members are Democrats, so all five Republicans would have to vote for SB 0013 to advance it. 

After today’s meeting, Rep. Eric Leutheuser (R-Hillsdale), one of the five Republicans, said he was still studying the bill. 

Leutheuser noted that Michigan is one of only 10 states that still have straight-ticket voting and more and more are moving away from it. But he also mentioned that his local clerks are nervous about the change. 

“I want to do due diligence,” he said. “I’m studying the issue.” 

As for Knollenberg, he said if it takes people a little bit longer to read the names of people they’re voting for on ballots, that’s a good thing. 

“We’re behind the times in this regard,” he said of ending straight-ticket voting. “It shouldn’t be about the political parties. It should be about the candidates.” 

Doster, a GOP election attorney, added that the straight-ticket voting option allows voters to choose candidates without any knowledge of who they are or what they stand for. 

In response to Doster’s testimony, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) questioned him, “When you see people in the city of Detroit leaving the line to vote, what does that make you think? Does that make you think, ‘We’re going to win today?'” 

“This is all about gaining additional advantage for one political party by making it difficult for people to vote in urban areas,” Irwin continued. “That’s the practical effect of this.” 

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a former House member, also spoke out against the bill. Michigan already has one of the longest ballots in the country, she said. 

Other clerks cited a study on the 2012 election that said it took about 22 minutes to vote on average in Michigan. 

“Longer lines and voter confusion is what this legislation is going to result in,” Byrum said. 

Throughout the day, Rep. Klint Kesto (R-Commerce Twp.) pushed back on the idea that the length of the ballot or the amount of time it takes to fill out a ballot were not the reasons for long lines in some Michigan cities. 

Kesto said not equipping polling locations properly, not training poll workers properly and not planning for last-minute adjustments were more responsible for long lines. 

The House Elections Committee began considering the bill at 10:30 a.m. today before going at ease for House session at noon. Then, the committee returned for additional testimony for about an hour at 4:30 p.m. 

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