Justia Election Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
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Weiser, a Republican donor and chair of the Michigan Republican Party (MRP), and the MRP alleged that an interpretative statement (recall exemption) and a declaratory ruling issued by the Michigan Secretary of State in the 1980s violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by allowing supporters of Governor Whitmer to make or receive contributions on more favorable terms than Weiser or the MRP with respect to the 2022 gubernatorial election. The Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA) limits donations to candidates. The recall exceptions clarify that the general election contribution limits do not apply to contributions made to an officeholder to defend against a recall effort. During a recall effort, the officeholder’s committee may “accept contributions in excess of section [169.252’s] contribution limitations.” Contributions made during an active recall effort must be so designated and must be deposited into the committee’s account. If a recall election never materializes, the committee must divest itself of these contributions. In 2020 and 2021, apparently in response to measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, 27 recall efforts were launched by Michigan voters. Whitmer’s committee collected and subsequently disgorged leftover recall funds, refunding $250,000 to an individual donor and about $3.5 million to the Democratic Party.The district court dismissed the action for lack of standing. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Weiser and the MRP fail to plausibly demonstrate that the recall exception prevents Weiser or the MRP from equally supporting their preferred gubernatorial candidate. View "Weiser v. Benson" on Justia Law

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In 1992, Michigan voters, wanting to amend Michigan’s Constitution to establish term limits for state legislators, state executives, and members of Congress, got a petition on the ballot; 58.8% of voters approved the measure. Term limits became part of the Michigan Constitution (six years in Michigan’s House of Representatives; eight years in the Michigan Senate). Some voters sued, arguing that the term limits violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Sixth Circuit upheld the term limits. About 20 years later, a bipartisan group of veteran legislators challenged the term-limit provision, making many of the same ballot-access and freedom-of-association claims, and citing two procedural provisions of the Michigan Constitution.The district court granted Michigan summary judgment. After determining that it had jurisdiction because the legislators raise claims under the Federal Constitution, the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Precedent bars their claims as voters. Voters have no fundamental right to “vote for a specific candidate or even a particular class of candidates.” As candidates, the legislators hold no greater protection than the voters they wish to represent. Candidates do not have a fundamental right to run for office. Michigan has several legitimate government interests in enacting term limits, including its sovereign interest in structuring its government as it sees fit. View "Kowall v. Benson" on Justia Law

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Based on activity related to former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mitch McConnell in 2014, Emmons and Lundergan (Grimes’s father) were convicted for knowingly and willfully making unlawful corporate contributions aggregating $25,000 or more, Federal Election Campaign Act, 52 U.S.C. 30109(d)(1)(A)(i), 30118, and 18 U.S.C. 2; conspiracy to defraud the United States, 18 U.S.C. 371; willfully causing the submission of materially false statements, 18 U.S.C 1001(a)(2) and 2; and the falsification of records or documents, 18 U.S.C. 1519 and 2.The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting a challenge to the constitutionality of the ban on corporate contributions as applied to intrafamilial contributions from a closely-held, family-run corporation. Such contributions present a risk of quid pro quo corruption. The district court adequately distinguished between independent expenditures and contributions in the jury instructions. The district court properly admitted evidence of Lundergan’s uncharged acts in connection with Grimes’ campaigns for Kentucky Secretary of State as res gestae evidence and under 404(b). The government presented sufficient evidence for a rational juror to find that Emmons had the requisite intent to cause unlawful corporate contributions and the Grimes campaign to submit false campaign-finance reports. View "United States v. Emmons" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs are three Ohioans who tried to get initiatives to decriminalize marijuana on local ballots. Soon after they filed their proposed initiatives for November 2020 ballots, Ohio declared a state of emergency because of COVID-19 and ordered Ohioans to stay at home. Ohio’s ballot-access laws require the submission of a petition with a minimum number of ink signatures witnessed by the petition’s circulator. Plaintiffs say the laws, as applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, made it too difficult for them to get any of their initiatives on 2020 ballots. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief but tied their requests for relief exclusively to the November 2020 election. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case. The election has come and gone and, with it, the prospect that plaintiffs can get any of the relief they asked for. The case is moot. View "Thompson v. DeWine" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court declared the issue of partisan gerrymandering a nonjusticiable political question in “Rucho,” in 2019. Michigan had already established its Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission by ballot initiative in the state’s 2018 general election. The Commission is composed of 13 registered voters: eight who affiliate with the state’s two major political parties (four per party) and five who are unaffiliated with those parties, who must satisfy various eligibility criteria designed to ensure that they lack certain political ties. Plaintiffs are Michigan citizens who allege that they are unconstitutionally excluded from serving on the Commission by its eligibility criteria, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of their complaint. Plaintiffs do not have a federal constitutional right to be considered for the Commission. While at least some of the partisan activities enumerated by the eligibility criteria involve the exercise of constitutionally protected interests, Michigan’s compelling interest in cleansing its redistricting process of partisan influence justifies the limited burden imposed by the eligibility criteria. Although claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering may be nonjusticiable, Michigan is free to employ its political process to address the issue head-on. View "Daunt v. Benson" on Justia Law

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Michigan allows independent candidates for statewide office to be placed on the general election ballot if the candidate submits a “qualifying petition,” with at least 30,000 valid signatures, submitted no later than “the one hundred-tenth day before the general election,” signed by at least 100 registered voters in each of at least half of Michigan’s 14 congressional districts. Signatures must be obtained within 180 days of the filing deadline. The filing deadline for the November 2018 election was July 19, 2018. The official process for an independent candidate trying to run for attorney general in that election began in January 2018. Major political parties do not choose attorney general candidates by primary election, but at conventions, “not less than 60 days before" the general election. The Republican and Democratic Parties held their nominating conventions in August 2018. Graveline began his attempt to qualify for the ballot in June 2018. Graveline served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney; the Hatch Act required him to resign before formally filing as a candidate for an elected office. Graveline collected 14,157 signatures, using 1,000 hours of volunteer time and spending $38,000. The state rejected his petition.The district court enjoined the enforcement of the statute as violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments and implemented an interim requirement allowing independent candidates to qualify for statewide offices by submitting a qualifying petition with 12,000 signatures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. The challenged provisions, in combination, impose a severe burden on the constitutional rights of independent candidates and their potential voter-supporters. The provisions are not narrowly drawn to advance compelling state interests. The district court did not abuse its discretion in crafting its remedy. View "Graveline v. Benson" on Justia Law

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Schwamberger, a former deputy director of the Marion County Board of Elections sued the Board and its former director, Meyer, asserting, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, that the defendants’ actions constituted First Amendment retaliation, violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Each Ohio County Board of Elections must have four members divided equally between the two major parties. The deputy director (Schwamberger) and the director (Meyer) are always members of opposite political parties, R.C. 3501.091, and deputy directors serve at the pleasure of their county boards. Schwamberger was terminated for impermissibly commenting on the election process, and therefore on policy and political issues related to her deputy-director position, after attempting to complain about errors in the 2018 election to the Board.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Schwamberger’s suit. Schwamberger’s speech proximately caused her termination but that speech implicated policy concerns; she was a policymaking employee, so her speech was unprotected. Schwamberger has not demonstrated a property interest in her position. Under Ohio law, she was an at-will employee who served at the pleasure of the Board. Even if the Board did act “arbitrarily” regarding her discharge, its actions do not create a constitutional claim. View "Schwamberger v. Marion County Board of Elections" on Justia Law

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Ohio law mandates that the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) be composed of three members from each of the top two political parties in the state, and an additional seventh member who cannot have any political affiliation, Ohio Rev. Code 3517.152(A)(1). The Libertarian Party of Ohio and its former chairman challenged the law as violating their First Amendment right to associate for political purposes.The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of the suit. The court applied the unconstitutional-conditions doctrine, which prevents the government from denying a benefit on the basis of a person’s constitutionally protected speech or associations. Under precedent involving government employment, the issue is “whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.” OEC Commissioners fall within the category of positions that are filled by balancing out political party representation, or that are filled by balancing out selections made by different governmental agents or bodies. It is “appropriate” for Ohio to consider political affiliation to serve its stated interest in maintaining partisan balance among the members of the OEC. View "Libertarian Party of Ohio v. Wilhem" on Justia Law

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Voter-advocacy organizations challenged Michigan statutes regulating absentee ballots and mandating that no one “hire a motor vehicle or other conveyance or cause the same to be done, for conveying voters, other than voters physically unable to walk, to an election." Michigan Attorney General Nessel was the named defendant; permissive intervenor status was granted to both houses of the Michigan Legislature, and the Republican Party. The court rejected challenges to the absentee-ballot statute but preliminarily enjoined enforcement of the voter-transportation law. When the intervenors sought an emergency stay of the injunction pending appeal, Nessel declined to take a position. The district court denied the intervenors’ motion.The Sixth Circuit granted an emergency stay. The legislature has standing to appeal. The state statute is likely not preempted by federal law, the Federal Election Campaign Act, 52 U.S.C. 30143. The balance of equities weighs in favor of staying the order. The harm to the legislature without a stay would be irreparable: election day will only happen once, and the legislature will lose its ability to regulate paid voter transportation for that election. The harm to the voter-advocacy organizations appears modest. There are other ways, without violating Michigan’s statute, to take voters to the polls. With the expansion of mailed ballots in Michigan, there are likely fewer voters who need to be driven to the polls. The public interest lies in elections conducted with a minimum of fraud and in free elections, in which as many eligible voters can vote as desire to. View "Priorities USA v. Nessel" on Justia Law

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Organizations involved in voter outreach in Tennessee and one individual Tennessee voter sued Tennessee government officials involved in election enforcement, challenging the Tennessee statutory scheme that governs absentee voting. On September 9, the district court granted a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the enforcement of Tenn. Code 2-2-115(b)(7), which prevents individuals who registered to vote by submitting a registration form online or by mail from voting absentee during the first election after they had registered.The Sixth Circuit denied a motion to stay that injunction. Disrupting the new rules at this point would pose a significant risk of harm to the public interest in orderly elections, while there is no substantial harm to defendants in continuing to comply with rules they are currently following. The defendants did not file their appeal of the preliminary injunction until nearly one month after it went into effect. During the period between September 9, the day of issuance of the preliminary injunction, and October 15, the day the plaintiffs’ response was filed, both absentee voting and early in-person voting had begun in Tennessee. View "Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett" on Justia Law