Ten days after the Supreme Court rejected North Carolina’s request to enforce the state’s new voter identification requirement for the November presidential elections, today the Justices also declined to step into a battle between Michigan and a group of non-profits and individuals challenging the state’s elimination of “straight-ticket voting” – which allows voters to cast a vote for all of the candidates from a particular political party simply by filling in one bubble, rather than having to designate a selection for each office. Today’s order means that straight-ticket voting, which has been an option in Michigan for well over a century, will continue to be available when the state’s voters go to the polls this year.
In December 2015, the Michigan legislature passed a law that would end straight-ticket voting. But in July of this year, the district court issued a temporary order that barred the state from abolishing straight-ticket voting. It reasoned that eliminating the practice would violate both the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act because it would disproportionately affect African Americans, who are “more likely to use straight-party voting than white voters”: Sixty-five to seventy-five percent of all African-American voters avail themselves of the option. The Sixth Circuit refused to block the lower court’s ruling, so the state went to the Supreme Court, asking the Justices to halt the district court’s order (and therefore allow Michigan to go ahead with eliminating straight-ticket voting).
In its plea to the Supreme Court, Michigan emphasized that its elimination of straight-ticket voting was hardly uncommon. Rather, the state noted, it had merely “joined 40 other states by requiring voters to actually vote for each candidate they intend to support.” The law, it suggested, was neutral, not discriminatory, because “it applies to all voters, regardless of race.” And it touted the benefits of the new law – for example, increasing the chances that voters would actually cast votes on the candidates and issues not covered by straight-ticket voting, and encouraging “a more informed electorate.”
The challengers countered that having the straight-ticket voting option is “essential” in Michigan because – unlike other states – the state does not offer either early in-person voting or voting by mail, and allows absentee voting only with an excuse. Thus, they explained, “the straight party option helps Michigan voters, particularly African-American voters, cope with one of the longest ballots and longest waiting times to vote” in the country. Eliminating straight-ticket voting now, the challengers contended, would create “massive confusion and even longer lines at polling places deterring voters, especially African-American voters, from voting.”
Michigan had told the Court that it needed the Justices to act by September 8 – that is, yesterday – so that election officials could meet the September 24 deadline for making absentee ballots available. There was no explanation for the Court’s decision (or for the apparent delay in issuing the ruling), although Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito did indicate that they would have granted the state’s request. The case will now go back to the lower courts, but it could return to the Supreme Court after the lower courts have had a chance to weigh in on the merits of both sides’ arguments.