Voting rights roundup: North Carolina GOP unveils new stealth gerrymanders to replace illegal ones

Voting rights roundup: North Carolina GOP unveils new stealth gerrymanders to replace illegal ones
Voting booth attendants show Tech. Sgt. Rebekah Virtue voting literature at the Spouses' Club Spring Bazaar March 27, 2010, Eielson Air Force Base. The booth attendants were available to get people registered to vote and answer any questions they might have. Sergeant Virtue is a 354th Medical Group Family Practice NCO in charge.(U.S. Air Force photo by/Airman 1st Class Janine Thibault).

LEADING OFF


• North Carolina: Following a court ruling striking down North Carolina's legislative districts last week for violating the state constitution, Republican legislators have now unveiled their first-draft proposals of new maps for the state Senate and state House. Republicans passed later versions out of committee mid-Friday, which you can find here for the Senate and House plans.

Meanwhile, the court granted the plaintiffs' request and appointed Stanford professor Nathaniel Persily as a nonpartisan expert who will assist the judges in drawing their own maps if they wind up rejecting the GOP's new lines. Persily previously redrew several districts in 2018 in a federal lawsuit over racial gerrymandering, and there's a good chance he will end up redrawing more districts this year given that the GOP's proposed maps still show hallmarks of gerrymandering.

The GOP’s initial state Senate map (click here for a larger version) altered the 21 districts that were invalidated (out of 50 total) as a result of the court's ruling. Republicans contend they randomly selected the new map from a set of computer-generated proposals used as evidence at trial, but as we'll explain below, the proposed map was not truly chosen at random, and Republicans are likely only taking this approach to give themselves political cover.

The court's criteria mandate that any new maps make a "reasonable" effort to draw lines that "improve the compactness" of the legislature’s districts and split fewer precincts compared to the illegal versions. Mapmakers are allowed to consider preserving the integrity of municipalities and avoid pairing incumbents in the same districts, but they are prohibited from relying on election data or factoring partisan considerations into account—the very things a political gerrymander relies on.

Republicans therefore have produced no demographic or electoral statistics describing their new map, which is why we’ve calculated them ourselves. This spreadsheet includes demographic data drawn from the 2010 census, which is the legal basis for any redistricting plan, and the results of every partisan statewide election from 2008 to 2016 for every district—the map the GOP passed out of committee made a few changes from the initial version we analyzed, but its partisan composition is overall the same.

Under this analysis, the GOP’s Senate proposal discriminates against Democratic voters less than the map that was struck down, but it still discriminates against them. One straightforward way to assess how much this legislative map does (or doesn't) favor one party is to sort each seat in each chamber by Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton and see how the seat in the middle—known as the median seat—voted.

Because the state Senate has an even number of seats, we average the two middle seats to come up with the median point in the chamber. That median seat voted for Trump by a 54-44 margin, 6 points to the right of his 50-47 win statewide. In other words, to capture a bare majority in the Senate, Democrats would have to win seats that Trump carried by 10 points (at least), even though swingy North Carolina only voted for Trump by 4 (when rounded).

What’s more, the process by which this map was selected presents its own problems, which could lead to the court stepping in and drawing its own maps. Because this is now the third time courts have struck down legislative districts that Republicans drew this decade, the court's order mandated strict rules about where and how the remapping could be conducted. Specifically, the judges told Republicans that they were required to “conduct the entire remedial process in full public view” and make “any relevant computer screen visible to legislators and public observers.”

But the computer-generated maps from which the GOP cobbled together their proposal were not drawn “in full public view.” To the contrary: They were drawn by University of Michigan professor Jowei Chen, who simulated 2,000 district maps based on criteria similar to the court's own, half of which sought to protect incumbents and half of which didn't.

As an expert witness for the plaintiffs, Chen's maps and analysis were furnished as evidence of the GOP's extreme gerrymandering (and accepted as such by the court). They were not generated with the intent that legislators or the court would adopt one of them, especially since they didn’t take into account more subjective redistricting criteria, such as the preservation of communities of interest.

Furthermore, Republicans may very well be relying on Chen's maps to launder their partisan intent. That's because the GOP's legal team had access to the partisan statistics accompanying Chen's maps—the exact type of data the court forbade Republicans from using.

While none of Chen’s plans leaned as far toward the GOP as the party’s illegal gerrymanders did, some could provide Republicans with a significant unfair edge. Signs of the GOP's hidden intent became clearer on Monday, when attorneys representing Republican legislative leaders accidentally sent the forbidden partisan data to legislators, potentially tainting the entire process in the eyes of the court.

In addition, the computer-generated map selected on Tuesday used incumbency protection as one of its criteria, which could be problematic if the court ultimately determined this criterion was merely a pretext to grant the GOP undue partisan advantage. Notably, Senate Republicans’ counterparts in the state House have said they won’t use Chen's maps that took incumbency into account, but Republicans in both chambers nevertheless made amendments to both maps to protect incumbents.

The Republican plans are still not final, and Daily Kos Elections will continue to monitor and analyze their proposals as soon as the data is available. But the GOP's actions have created a real possibility that the court will step in and redraw some or all of the illegal districts itself.

VOTER REGISTRATION AND VOTING ACCESS

• Arizona: Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has reached a settlement with the Navajo Nation in a lawsuit over absentee mail ballots that will require officials to contact voters who forget to sign their ballots, or whose signatures are said not to match those on file, and give them five business days after Election Day to fix any problems. Local election administrators across the state implemented similar policies in 2018, and lawmakers passed a law earlier this year to make the system permanent, but the Navajo plaintiffs had argued the new procedures were being applied inconsistently in ways that left some voters unable to have their ballots counted.

• California: Democrats and a few Republicans in California's legislature have passed a bill to allow voter registration at polling places on Election Day; currently, same-day registration is only permitted at county election offices. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is likely to sign the bill into law.

• New Hampshire: Unsurprisingly, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vetoed a Democratic-backed bill to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Democrats lacked veto-proof majorities when they passed the bill earlier this year, so it's unlikely they will be able to override Sununu's rejection.

• Pennsylvania: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration announced on Monday that voters in Pennsylvania will be able to apply online for absentee ballots instead of having to submit a paper request, making the process much more convenient. However, an approved excuse is still required to vote absentee.

• Texas: In a boon to voting access, a majority of Texans will likely be able to vote at any polling place within their county on Election Day in 2020 after state officials approved requests by county officials in BexarDallasHarris, and Tarrant Counties to adopt "vote centers" in place of traditional local polling sites. Those four counties are respectively home to the cities of San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and Ft. Worth, along with roughly two-fifths of Texas. Officials from both parties have previously adopted vote centers in many other smaller counties, and with the addition of these four large counties, roughly three-fourths of Texas' 18 million eligible voters will be covered.

ELECTORAL REFORM

• Maine: Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will let a bill become law without her signature that will make Maine the first state in the country to implement instant-runoff voting for presidential elections. Starting in 2020, general election voters will be able to rank their choices to allow an instant runoff if there's another repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton won the state with a 48-45 plurality.

However, because Mills refused to sign the bill, it won't pass into law until January, meaning it won't enter into effect in time for the state's presidential primaries in March. Mills claimed she was concerned about the costs of expanding the new voting system ahead of the primaries, even though it's been in place for congressional elections and state-level primaries since last year.

VOTER SUPPRESSION

• Tennessee: On Thursday, a federal district court temporarily blocked a new law from going into effect that Tennessee Republicans had passed earlier this year to add criminal and civil penalties to certain parts of voter registration drives. As a result, the law will remain on hold pending an upcoming trial.

This law came about after organizers registered tens of thousands of new black voters in 2018, since black voters are more likely to be registered through such drives. Republicans defending their new law argued that these drives strained local election officials' resources, but Judge Aleta Trauger rejected that argument in harsh terms. "Restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve election commission resources," she wrote, "is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest."

For those who register 100 or more voters, the law makes it a crime to do so without completing a state training course. It also makes it a crime to fail to submit completed forms within 10 days. At the same time, groups that submit 100 or more incomplete or inaccurate registration forms would face civil fines, which could reach a steep $10,000 per county (Tennessee has 99 counties) if more than 500 such forms are found to have been submitted in a given county. Furthermore, it bans people from out-of-state from serving as poll watchers.

Finally, the law includes a measure to make registration drives less effective by making it a crime to pay workers based on the number of registrations they gather. Instead, organizers would have to pay hourly or rely on volunteers, which would eliminate the financial incentive for registration drive workers to register as many voters as they can during their shifts.

In blocking the law, Trauger ruled that these provisions risked serious harm to voters' constitutional rights, adding that the law was "troubling" and "vague." Republicans have not yet indicated whether they will appeal Trauger's preliminary injunction.

FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT

• Florida: A federal court has rejected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent request for a stay of proceedings in the lawsuit challenging the GOP's modern-day poll tax on citizens who have served their felony sentences. DeSantis had asked for a stay while the conservative-dominated Florida Supreme Court decides on a non-binding advisory opinion that DeSantis had previously requested, a move that is likely a ploy to gain political cover.

BALLOT MEASURES

• Florida: A campaign seeking to put an initiative on the 2020 ballot to raise the threshold of voter support needed to pass future initiatives has gathered enough signatures to qualify for review by the state Supreme Court. If the court, which is dominated by conservatives, approves the measure, supporters would then have to gather roughly 766,000 signatures by February to qualify for the ballot.

If this measure passes, it would increase the current requirement that three-fifths of voters approve future measures to two-thirds of voters, which would be the highest initiative threshold of any state in the country. This attempt comes after voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 to end lifetime disenfranchisement of potential voters with felony convictions, which Republicans have tried to block by effectively passing a new poll tax.

Had the two-thirds threshold been in place last year, the voting rights restoration measure's 65% support would have been insufficient for it to pass. This latest measure is likely to gain Republican support as a way to thwart future progressive initiatives, making it part of a trend of Republicans undermining the initiative process in several other states.

The organization supporting the measure, called Keep Our Constitution Clean, has been highly secretive about its financial backers, though the Tampa Bay Times reports it they may have ties to the utility industry, which is fighting a proposed amendment to end its state-sanctioned monopolies.

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