Voting Rights Roundup: Democratic legislative wins pave the way for voting reforms in Virginia
● Virginia: Democrats flipped both chambers of Virginia's state legislature on Tuesday, a victory made possible in part because Republicans' state House gerrymander was struck down for discriminating against black voters and replaced with a fairer map earlier this year. Because Democrats already held the governor's office, they've now won full control over state government for the first time in a quarter century which opens the door to a wave of reforms that would make voting easier and protect the right to vote.
When lawmakers convene in early January, these are just some of the issues they could be poised to tackle:
- Automatic voter registration
- Same-day voter registration
- True early voting (instead of just one week of in-person absentee voting)
- Removing the excuse requirement to vote absentee by mail
- Extending Election Day polling hours
- Curtailing the disenfranchisement of voters who have felony convictions
Beyond this list, there are still many more reforms that Virginia Democrats can consider If these top priorities were to become law, though, Virginia would go from being one of the worst states for voting access to one of the best.
Democratic control over state government also means control over redistricting after the 2020 census. When Republicans still held narrow majorities in the legislature earlier this year, they and legislative Democrats almost unanimously passed a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission, which we have previously explained in detail.
However, the new Democratic majority would have to pass that same amendment in 2020 with no alterations for it to appear on next November's ballot and take effect in time for the 2021 round of redistricting. It remains to be seen whether Democrats will maintain their support for this reform, though it would only take a few Democratic defectors to block any gerrymanders the party might propose.
● Albuquerque, NM: In a setback for campaign finance reformers, voters in Albuquerque rejected by a slim 51-49 margin a ballot initiative that would have reformed the city's current public finance system and given every eligible voter "democracy dollar" vouchers in increments of $25 that they could have donated to candidates in city elections. However, voters did approve a measure city lawmakers had put on the ballot to increase the funding that their existing system provides for participating candidates.
● Georgia: Georgia's local elections have raised doubts about the viability of the new voting machines Republican lawmakers are set to implement for 2020 after a pilot run in six counties yielded major problems. In nearly all of the counties, technical problems slowed down the process of casting ballots for so long enough that some precincts had to extend their polling hours so that voters who were deterred by waits of up to 45 minutes could return and vote.
Making the tests more concerning, none of these counties are in major urban or suburban centers, where 2020 Election Day turnout is expected to be very high. Similar issues could present major problems if these machines are used in the March 2020 primary as planned. However, ongoing litigation seeks to block these new machines and replace them with paper ballots.
● Kansas: Kansas voters approved a constitutional amendment by a 60-40 margin, originally passed almost unanimously by the GOP-run legislature, to change to the state's redistricting process ahead of the 2020 census. The amendment will end Kansas' practice of excluding people who are either deployed on active duty in the military or students living out of state from being counted for the purposes of redistricting. Furthermore, Kansas will no longer reassign active duty military and student residents to their permanent address instead of where they live day-to-day.
● KY-Gov: Democrat Andy Beshear currently leads GOP Gov. Matt Bevin by more than 5,000 votes, and assuming he is sworn-in as scheduled on Dec. 10, he'll be able to keep his campaign promise to restore voting rights to roughly 140,000 citizens who have completed their sentences for nonviolent felonies. However, he would lack the power to block GOP gerrymanders after the 2020 census if Republicans hold their legislative majorities next year, since it only takes a simple majority to override vetoes.
● KY-SoS: Republicans have flipped the secretary of state's office after Michael Adams defeated Democrat Heather French Henry by a relatively close 52-48 margin. Meanwhile, term-limited Democratic incumbent Alison Lundergan Grimes won a victory in her lawsuit over the GOP's new law that removed some of her key powers over the bipartisan state Board of Elections, with the court ruling that the two appointed county clerks must be non-voting members. That leaves only four voting members, namely the four members chosen by the governor from lists submitted by the two major parties.
● Maine: Mainers backed a constitutional amendment that the Democratic-controlled legislature placed on the ballot with bipartisan support to enable voters with disabilities who can't physically sign ballot initiative petitions to use an alternate method to sign petitions. It passed 76-24.
● Mississippi: Former Democratic state Sen. Joseph Thomas won Mississippi's 22nd State Senate District by a narrow 52-48 margin, defeating Republican Hayes Dent and flipping the seat from red to blue. The district was struck down for diluting black voting power in violation of the Voting Rights Act and was redrawn earlier this year. As a result, the district's increased black majority was finally able to elect its preferred candidate—in this case, a black Democrat like Thomas. However, Republicans are continuing to appeal the ruling.
● New York City, NY: Voters in New York City approved a ballot measure by a 74-26 landslide to adopt instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting) for all primaries and special elections for city offices. The move makes New York by far the largest jurisdiction in the country to adopt this electoral reform.
● San Juan County, UT: Voters in Utah's lone predominantly Navajo county have rejected by a 52-48 margin a ballot initiative that could have led to expanding the size of the County Commission and potentially removing the first-ever Navajo majority that voters elected in 2018.
● Missouri: In 2018, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the position of nonpartisan state demographer to draw state legislative districts, and applications for the job are now available online, with a Dec. 4 deadline to apply. Once selected by the state auditor's office, the demographer will draw maps using nonpartisan criteria and a metric to ensure partisan fairness. After those maps are drawn, a commission with an even bipartisan split chosen by lawmakers would get final say over the maps. However, it would take a bipartisan supermajority to amend the lines, and any amendments would have to adhere to the same criteria followed by the demographer
● Nevada: On Monday, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters filed a proposed ballot initiative that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission in the state of Nevada, but it has a ways to go before it could take effect.
Importantly, there's no way it could prevent Nevada Democrats from passing gerrymandered maps ahead of the 2022 elections if they so choose. That's because Nevada requires initiatives to pass in two consecutive elections before they can amend the constitution, so this proposal couldn't enact new districts until the 2024 elections if it becomes law.
The proposal bills itself as establishing an independent commission, but in reality it would set up a bipartisan panel with members chosen by political officeholders. Each of the four majority and minority leaders in the state Senate and state House would appoint one member, and those four members would appoint the final three members, who would belong to neither party. For four years prior to service, commissioners could not have been a lobbyist, a candidate for partisan office or a partisan elected official, a party committee member or operative, a state employee for a number of different positions, or a close relative of someone who is ineligible.
The proposal ranks redistricting criteria in order of importance, prioritizing compliance with federal law; prohibiting discrimination against racial or language minorities; barring an undue advantage for either party; keeping local government units united; avoiding the division of communities of interest; compactness; and competition.
However, this initiative has serious flaws compared to other successful reform efforts that passed elsewhere this decade. First, it still leaves appointees of legislative leaders in charge of the process, creating an obvious conflict of interest compared to commissions where ordinary citizens serve without being handpicked by politicians. The criteria also don't ban the protection of incumbents, further exacerbating this conflict of interest, and the only enforcement mechanism is unspecified "judicial review."
Second, the amendment's text is insufficiently detailed at less than two full pages long, and that vagueness could present serious problems for implementation and guaranteeing that the maps produced are fair. Although it would take a supermajority of five of seven commissioners to pass a map, including at least one member from each party grouping, there is no provision describing what happens if they fail to pass any map.
The amendment is vague in other ways as well.. There is no provision for the replacement of any commissioner if necessary; there is nothing more than just a general requirement for public hearings; the commission is left to set its own administrative rules; and there's no mention of any funding mechanism independent of the legislature's budgetary discretion.
Redistricting reformers have no need to make concessions to hostile lawmakers since they can circumvent them with a ballot initiative, making Nevada is a prime state for a truly independent redistricting commission backed up by a clear and strong set of procedures.. This initiative's supporters should reconsider their current proposal before trying to pass a reform that could end up unable to stop unfair maps and risks giving way to bipartisan gerrymandering to favor incumbents of both parties.
● North Carolina: With virtually no public notice, North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature held committee meetings this week to begin redrawing the state's congressional maps, and they could be passed into law as soon as the end of next week.
The circumstances of this redistricting are unusual: Last month a state court blocked officials using the current map as the Dec. 2 candidate filing deadline approaches for the March 2020 primary elections, but the court has not yet struck down the map because the case must still proceed to final adjudication. . As a consequence, the court did not order legislators to redraw the map but instead strongly suggested they undertake redistricting voluntarily, though it did not set any guidelines or criteria to govern the process.
Republicans heeded this advice quickly and have been drawing draft maps on state computers that are being broadcast online for public viewing, but they are not engaging in a good-faith effort to draw fair districts for the first time this decade. Key GOP lawmakers have been repeatedly leaving the committee room and coming back several minutes later only to draw very specific changes to the maps, almost certainly because they are consulting with an unknown person behind the scenes who has analyzed the lines for partisan advantage.
Although the court hasn't issued any criteria, when this same lower court panel struck down the GOP's legislative gerrymanders and ordered them to be redrawn in September, it barred legislators from considering any partisan data for drawing new maps. The GOP's antics could therefore be fodder for the plaintiffs challenging the congressional map..
Daily Kos Elections has also analyzed some of the maps Republicans have drafted and calculated their partisans characteristics to determine if they give the GOP an undue advantage. We've concluded that GOP's draft maps maintain distinct elements of the gerrymandered districts that got blocked last month.
Republicans are likely to pass sometime next week, and doing so could render the current lawsuit moot. However, the plaintiffs could still file new litigation over any replacement map, though the key question remaining is whether this legal battle will conclude in time for a new map to be implemented next year.
Separately, a state judge has unsealed tens of thousands of documents from the GOP's national gerrymandering mastermind, the late Thomas Hofeller, meaning they are no longer barred from public disclosure. These files, which opponents of Republican gerrymandering obtained from Hofeller's daughter, Stephanie Hofeller, after his death, contain a mountain of evidence of the GOP's efforts to subvert fair elections across the country.
These files played a key role both in North Carolina's 2019 redistricting cases and the successful effort to block Trump's census citizenship question. Once they fully become public, they're likely to shed light on GOP gerrymandering efforts in other states and possibly lead to additional successful lawsuits.
VOTER REGISTRATION AND VOTING ACCESS
● North Carolina: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has signed a bill that the Republican-run legislature passed almost unanimously to restore the last Saturday of early voting. The legislation also changes absentee ballot procedures following last year's Republican election fraud scandal in the 9th Congressional District, which we have previously explained.
● Georgia: On Wednesday, Democrats filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block Georgia from rejecting absentee ballots without notifying voters and giving them a chance to correct any problems, such as their signature supposedly not matching the one on file. Absentee ballot procedures vary by county, which led to some counties having much higher rejection rates than others in 2018, when 3% of all absentee votes were rejected.
Current law does require officials to "promptly notify" voters of potential signature problems, but that failed to happen for some 2018 voters who cast ballots close to Election Day. The plaintiffs are asking that officials be required to notify voters of signatures problem within one day of receiving their ballots. That will ensure that those who cast them close to Election Day will be notified of the problem in a timely manner before the deadline to fix them, which is three days after Election Day.
● New Hampshire: State court Judge David Anderson has ruled that part of a lawsuit backed by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters challenging Republicans' 2017 voter residency restriction law may proceed to trial in December. Republicans passed this law to require voters who register within 30 days of an election to show additional documentation that they live day-to-day at the residence they claim as their “domicile" and intend to do so long-term.
Voters who lack suitable documentation will be able to cast provisional ballots, but they’d still have to provide documents proving their residency meets the state’s new requirements at a later date. If they don’t, this new law empowers state election officials to visit their homes and refer them to the secretary of state’s office for potential investigation, which many voters might find intimidating.
Anderson dismissed some of the plaintiffs' claims, specifically their argument that the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated the state constitution's use of "domicile" for voting eligibility. However, he kept alive other claims arguing that the law violates the state constitution's equal protections and right-to-vote provisions.
Republicans passed to this law to make it more difficult for Democratic-leaning demographics to exercise their right to cast a ballot, like college students and young adults who are more likely to move frequently. A separate law passed in 2018 targets out-of-state college students with poll tax by requiring them to obtain official residency in the state, which requires paying for things like a state driver's license and car registration. A federal lawsuit over that piece of legislation is scheduled for trial in January.
● North Carolina: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill Republicans passed to use jury duty excuse records to remove supposed noncitizens from the voter registration rolls. Previous reporting from local NBC affiliate WRAL indicates that such a program could have risked removing eligible voters thanks to widespread false matches. Since almost no Democrats voted for the bill, Republicans lack the votes to override Cooper's veto.
● Ohio: A federal court has granted a temporary restraining blocking an Ohio law that imposes a tighter emergency absentee ballot deadline on prison inmates who are awaiting trial—and therefore still have the right to vote— compared to voters who are hospitalized. The ruling means that inmates will have until 3 PM on Election Day to turn over their ballots rather than the prior Saturday. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose's office said it has not decided whether it will appeal.