Mary Ellen Gurewitz helped secure the right to straight-ticket voting in Michigan.
Mary Ellen Gurewitz

Ruling means straight-ticket voting remains an option for Michiganders.

Mary Ellen Gurewitz, a lawyer at the Detroit law firm of Sachs Waldman and Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ) co-founder and steering committee member, recently won a historic case for voting rights in Michigan’s straight-ticket voting issue.

Straight-ticket voting is a tool that allows a voter to swiftly select every Democrat or every Republican on the ballot by just checking one box. Michigan voters have had the straight-ticket option for 126 years. A law passed by the Republican-led Michigan Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in January 2016 aimed to eliminate straight-ticket voting. A judicial injunction shortly after prevented the law from taking effect.

On Aug. 1, U.S. District Court Judge Gershwin Drain issued a permanent injunction, ruling that Michigan’s elimination of straight-ticket voting violated the Voting Rights Act and the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The case preserves straight-ticket voting as a civil rights issue. The judge said in his decision that the law that previously banned straight-ticket voting suppressed the constitutional rights of black citizens by making the voting process more time intensive, deterring folks from the polls.

Gurewitz, along with Mark Brewer, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been a principal attorney on the landmark court case that was brought for a number of plaintiffs, including Common Cause and the A. Philip Randolph Institute, an arm of the AFL-CIO that focuses on civil rights for African Americans.

During the case, Gurewitz established that African Americans used straight-ticket voting at a much higher rate than white voters: 80 percent compared with 50 percent.

Mary Ellen Gurewitz helped secure the right to straight-ticket voting in Michigan.
Mary Ellen Gurewitz

“African Americans mostly vote for Democrats,” she added. “Evidence showed that Republicans in the legislature and the party were pushing the elimination of straight-ticket voting in order to help Republicans win elections. The judge ruled that the law had a discriminatory intent.”

Three and a half years ago, Gurewitz, a lifelong Detroiter who lives in Palmer Woods, co-founded DJJ with Andy Levin and Rabbi Alana Alpert. She has served as president of DJJ’s fiscal sponsor Congregation T’chiyah and serves on the DJJ fundraising and steering committees. She specializes in union-side labor law and political and election law at Sachs Waldman.

“The Secretary of State has filed an appeal, but I think it’s very unlikely it will succeed,” said Gurewitz, who adds that Michigan’s November election ballot needs to get printed by Sept. 7, allowing very little time for an appeal to proceed before the deadline.

“This is going to protect voting rights for hundreds of thousands of people in Michigan,” she added. “It’s a terrific win. It’s so exciting, and it’s so important to be able to fight back against forces that suppress the vote.”

Gurewitz says her work on the case appeals to her Jewish values. “What I’m doing is advocating for the rights of minority citizens, protecting and trying to advance their opportunity to vote. To the extent that I have been able to do that, I have advanced the cause of justice, and that’s what I have wanted to do in my legal career.

“This is a case that affects so many people who have for so long been at the bottom of the economic ladder in this country,” she said. “I think it advances the cause of justice, and that’s what we should all be doing.”

Valeriya Epshteyn of Detroit Jews For Justice contributed to this story.