Michigan Republicans push laundry list of election law changes to their advantage

It’s almost as if tweaking election laws carries electoral advantage for the party doing the tweaking.

Michigan Republicans passed a series of changes to the state’s election laws yesterday, all of which will make it easier for their candidates to win elections. Most notably, the legislature passed a measure that would take away the option for voters to cast a straight-ticket ballot. In justifying the bill, state Representative Al Pscholka said that “Straight ticket voting remains as a way for parties and party bosses to generate votes for their candidates. But one by one, states are abandoning this antiquated practice…It does require this: it requires voters to think about each candidate. And I think that’s okay.”

Which is fine to a point, but seems cheap when the bill eliminating straight-ticket voting is designed so as to prevent Michigan voters from being able to think about whether they like it. As the Detroit Free Press reports, by adding a $5 million appropriation to the legislation, the measure is immune from being placed on the ballot for potential repeal via referendum. So while Pscholka can state the noblest of intentions, it’s clear that it isn’t being passed with the wishes of the voters in mind. Instead, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to reduce down-ticket turnout, in keeping with Michigan Senate Elections and Government Reform Committee chair Dave Robertson’s mantra that “voting should not be effortless.”As the Free Press adds, “Democrats…offered more than 20 amendments on a variety of ways to make voting easier, but all were gaveled down.”

That sentiment is only reinforced by the rest of the election law changes Michigan Republicans are looking to pass. One bill provides for no-excuse absentee voting, but does so while eliminating the ability for citizens to request an absentee ballot by mail. Instead, anyone who wants or needs to vote absentee will have to go to their local clerk’s office to request a ballot. If that sounds like a complete rejection of the very premise of absentee voting to you, well, you’re right.

Additionally, Michigan’s House elections committee approved a bill, previously passed by the Senate and sponsored by Dave “voting should not be effortless” Robertson, moves the race for Oakland County Executive from presidential election years to gubernatorial years. As FiveThirtyEight has documented before, moving elections from high-turnout years to low-turnout years is a de-facto form of voter suppression, as it sets the date of the election for a time in which turnout is all but guaranteed to be lower. As the Free Press notes, Oakland County trends blue, and has been the target of GOP attempts to change the law in order to redden its representation before:

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

It’s not the first time Republicans have changed the rules after the fact to hang on to power in Oakland County.

In 2011, the Legislature passed a bill to reduce the number of Oakland County commissioners and allow Republicans to redraw the county’s district lines.

Maps for political districts from county commissioner to Congress are changed every 10 years to reflect population changes in the U.S. Census. Before the new law, Oakland County used the same system as the rest of Michigan’s 82 counties since the 1960s to draw the maps: a five-member reapportionment commission composed of the county clerk, prosecutor and treasurer and the heads of the county Republican and Democratic parties.

This time, however, Democrats had a 3-2 majority on the reapportionment commission for the first time and approved a map that Oakland County Republicans didn’t like and appealed. That map was upheld by the Court of Appeals, so Republicans pushed for legislation that would allow Oakland County to start over, reduce the number of commissioners and have the county commission — which at the time had a 16-9 Republican majority on the board — redraw the map. The law was ruled unconstitutional by the circuit and appeals court, but upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court.

As a result of the GOP-drawn map, Republicans hold a 14-7 majority on the county Board of Commissioners.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s Senate passed a bill that would, per the Free Press, “enshrine the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens’ United case into state law. That bill would open up Michigan to even more super PACs, fueled by unlimited contributions from corporations and unions.”

As I’ve written before, legal election rigging has become a stated goal of American conservatism — a plank on the Republican Party’s state-level platform. To see Michigan Republicans go so far in on making it harder to vote, without even making that convincing of an effort to disguise their election law changes as being in the interest of better small-d Democratic outcomes, is as distressing as it is becoming common.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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