Voting Rights Roundup: Trove of secret files from leading drawer of GOP gerrymanders now made public

Voting Rights Roundup: Trove of secret files from leading drawer of GOP gerrymanders now made public
An elderly African American man holds his “I voted” sticker after he cast his ballot in Washington, DC.

Leading Off

 Redistricting: Making good on her promise, Stephanie Hofeller has uploaded over ten thousand files online that came from the personal hard drives of her deceased father, Thomas Hofeller, who was one of the most consequential Republican strategists involved in gerrymandering across the country for decades.


These files contain electoral and demographic data on a variety of states, the elder Hofeller's redistricting data and work, and possibly more documents that will shed further light on the GOP's efforts to undermine free and fair elections across America.

And shed light on Republican power grabs is just what they've already done: Previously released files from this cache included smoking-gun evidence that the GOP's failed effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was motivated not by their stated desire to enforce the Voting Rights Act but instead to undermine it.

Indeed, Hofeller wrote an analysis shared with key administration officials that found that using the citizenship data to draw districts based on adult citizens instead of the traditional total population base would be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites," offering a way to turbocharge GOP gerrymandering. That damning evidence, along with the Trump administration's inability to lie about its motives in a competent-enough manner for Chief Justice John Roberts, led to the Supreme Court dooming Trump's push for his citizenship question last June.

The fallout from the Hofeller files continued to affect other court cases. The files indicated he had partisan intent in mind when drawing state legislative districts in North Carolina in 2017, which was critical in helping a state court to strike them down as illegal gerrymanders under the state constitution.

Ironically, Thomas Hofeller, who'd been paid millions of dollars by the Republican National Committee over his career, had long warned his fellow travelers to exercise the utmost caution in putting anything into writing or saving sensitive documents, lest they find their way into the media or court. One 2011 training session he authored included a slide saying, "Treat every statement and document as if it was going to appear on the FRONT PAGE of your local newspaper"—sound advice that Hofeller himself seemed to ignore.

Stephanie Hofeller had been estranged from her father for years before his death, but she was able to obtain the hard drives from her mother after her father died. She was therefore lawfully able to share them with reformers challenging her father's democracy-distorting work in court. Her own politics, unlike her father's, lean in a more progressive direction, which in part spurred her to make his files public.

By a stroke of luck, the discovery and release of these files has helped change the course of American democracy by revealing new depths to the GOP's far-reaching efforts to sabotage free and fair elections. Now that anyone can download this trove, there may be much more to come.

Voter Suppression

 Arizona: Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has settled a lawsuit that will make it much easier for Arizonans to keep their registration up-to-date. The agreement provides that the state Department of Transportation will automatically update a voter's registration when they update their address during driver's license transactions. Voting advocates had previously filed a lawsuit arguing that Hobbs' GOP predecessor was violating federal law by refusing to update these registrations, but Hobbs' 2018 election win paved the way for this settlement.

 Florida: A Republican state senator in Florida has introduced a new voter ID bill that would require the address on a voter's ID to exactly match the address where they're registered.

This requirement appears targeted at college student voters who want to vote at school, since they would be more likely to have a valid driver's license listing their home address instead, along with low-income voters, who are more likely to be renters and thus more frequently move than higher-income voters do. Both students and low-income voters lean Democratic, so this restriction risks suppressing their votes, which is likely the goal of this legislation.

 Kentucky: Fresh off their narrow loss in November's election for governor, Republicans have introduced a bill that would make Kentucky's existing voter ID law much more restrictive in a manner that could suppress student voters in particular.

Currently, non-photo IDs are accepted under the law, but the new bill would instead require certain photo IDs with an expiration date. Although it doesn't ban IDs from state colleges and universities outright, it effectively does so via the expiration date requirement, which student IDs from major schools currently lack.

Voters who lack ID can still vote a provisional ballot, but they must present a valid ID to election officials no later than the Friday after Election Day for it to count. If they still lack ID, they can sign a sworn statement, but simply having to take these additional steps creates an additional burden for voters that could deter them from voting.

Undermining the GOP's entire argument in favor of this bill, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said he couldn't think of a single case of voter impersonation fraud in Kentucky over the last 10 years, and numerous studies have shown such fraud is practically nonexistent nationwide.

Although Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear victory last year broke the GOP's control over state government, Kentucky is one of six states that requires only a simple majority to override most or all vetoes. Consequently, there's a significant chance that Republican legislators will pass this bill into law thanks to their majorities in both chambers.

 North Carolina: Republican legislative leaders have asked the federal court that recently blocked their voter ID law to stay its decision pending appeal. However, these GOP leaders aren't defendants in this case, and Democratic state Attorney General Josh Stein has said over Republican opposition that he would delay appealing until after the March 3 primary to avoid confusion. But because the GOP is appealing the court's previous ruling that rejected their petition to intervene as defendants, Republicans are now arguing for a stay on the grounds that their appeal to intervene is still pending.

 Texas: National and state Democrats have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block Texas' process for rejecting signatures on voter registration applications.

Texas does not permit voters to register online, but the website Vote.org allows applicants to fill out a registration form and then (on its end) automatically prints it and mails it to local election officials. However, the GOP-run secretary of state's office rejected thousands of such applications shortly before the registration deadline in 2018 on the grounds that the signatures were transmitted electronically rather than signed with pen on paper.

Democrats are arguing that these rejections violate both state and federal law. They noted that the secretary of state already allows electronic signatures if they're part of applications when voters register in-person through the state's driver's licensing agency. Texas Republicans have long resisted enacting online registration, making the Lone Star State just one of a handful that don't offer the option. However, if Democrats prevail in this lawsuit, de facto online registration could become an option for thousands of voters through third-party services like Vote.org.

 Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has for now declined to intervene in a lawsuit that seeks to require the state to purge roughly 200,000 voter registrations. A lower court recently ordered the state's bipartisan Elections Commission to quickly proceed with the purge despite the commissioners' desire to wait until after the November elections, and the commission had asked the appeals court to stay the lower court's ruling.

Meanwhile, the right-wing group bringing this lawsuit has asked the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court to take up the case, which it hasn't yet decided to do. Democratic state Attorney General Josh Kaul has asked the high court to either compel the appeals court to act on the defendants' request for a stay or to issue one of its own while the case remains ongoing.

Redistricting

 Nevada: A state court has ruled that a proposed redistricting reform ballot initiative contained "materially misleading statements" in its ballot summary, but the court let supporters begin gathering signatures after organizers revised and resubmitted the summary language. The court blocked language describing the commission as "independent" and resulting in "fair and competitive electoral districts" as an inaccurate summary of its provisions

As we have previously explained, this initiative would create a bipartisan commission appointed by legislative leaders and contains no provision compelling the legislature to fund it, which undermined supporters' argument that it would in fact be independent. Rev. Leonard Jackson, a politically active Las Vegas pastor who had filed the lawsuit trying to block organizers from gathering signatures, indicated he has not yet decided whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, supporters are proceeding to collect the nearly 100,000 signatures needed to make the ballot, which they must obtain by June 16. If the proposed amendment makes the ballot and passes, it would need to make the ballot and pass again in 2022 before the commission could redraw districts in 2023, which would mean replacing the maps drawn (likely by Democrats) immediately after the 2020 census.

 New Jersey: Democrats have passed a bill out of a committee in the Assembly that would end "prison gerrymandering" by counting incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of where they are imprisoned (and can't vote). State Senate Democrats approved this proposal last year, and if the full Assembly follows suit, the bill would go to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign it if it reaches his desk. If the measure becomes law, it could remove outsized representation from whiter communities with prisons and shift it toward urban communities of color.

Voter Registration and Voting Access

 New Jersey: A committee in New Jersey's Democratic-run Assembly has passed a bill to enable online voter registration. The state Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats, had previously passed the measure, and if the full Assembly follows suit, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy will likely sign it into law.

Meanwhile, Democrats have approved a bill in a Senate committee to fix the problems with the state's permanent vote-by-mail system. Democrats had previously passed a law that would permanently send mail ballots for all future elections to any voter who cast an absentee mail ballot in recent election years unless they opted out.

However, the state's Council on Local Mandates blocked the law shortly after Election Day last year on the grounds that it did not provide funding to local governments to implement the measure. The new bill would remedy that problem by appropriating the necessary funds.

 New York: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill along party lines to enact automatic voter registration, just as they did in 2019. Although last year's effort failed to win passage in the Assembly due to an alleged drafting error, modified legislation stands a good chance of passing in the lower chamber as soon as next week. If it becomes law, automatic registration in New York would enlist agencies beyond just the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is critical for the state with the country's lowest proportion of drivers per capita.

Senate Democrats also passed a raft of other bills that would expand early voting locations and voting access, require polling places on college campuses, and mandate early voting locations in each county's most populous municipality as well as early voting sites in medium-sized localities. Another measure gives local governments the option to operate mobile early voting locations for part of the early voting period instead of its entirety.

Democrats hold an even larger majority in the state Assembly, and if the lower chamber passes these bills, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo would likely sign them into law.

Ballot Measures

 Alaska: Supporters have turned in more than 41,000 signatures, 28,501 of which must be valid, for a ballot initiative that would change Alaska's electoral system for congressional and state offices and impose new campaign finance regulations. Although we had previously described this proposal as adopting "open primaries" based on media reports, that terminology isn't quite accurate.

Rather than simply let voters choose which party's primary to vote in regardless of which party they're registered with—as they're permitted to do in open primary states—this reform would abolish traditional primaries and have all candidates run on a single primary ballot regardless of party. The top four finishers would advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation, and the general election would then use instant-runoff voting to select the winner.

This system is somewhat similar to the "top-two" primary in California and Washington, a system we have frequently criticized for its propensity to yield undemocratic outcomes. One major problem with top-two is that, if the minority party only runs two candidates with relatively equal support and the majority party's votes are fractured among several candidates, the party that wins fewer votes in the primary can take both slots in the general election. This has in fact happened multiple times, even in races where the minority party would have lost in a one-on-one matchup with the majority party.

The risk of one party getting shut out of a winnable general election is notably lower with four candidates advancing to the general election rather than with just two, though it's not zero. The adoption of instant-runoff voting, meanwhile, could have a profound impact on elections in Alaska, where nine of its 16 elections for governor since statehood in 1959 have seen a candidate prevail with only a simple plurality, as have its last five U.S. Senate elections. The initiative would also require "dark money" campaign organizations to disclose the sources of their contributions.

The measure's path to the ballot is not yet clear, however. Republican state officials are trying to block it in court by arguing it violates the ban on initiatives addressing more than a single subject, and litigation remains ongoing.

 Florida: A group trying to place a measure to legalize marijuana on the 2020 ballot in Florida has filed a lawsuit in state court arguing that new restrictions on initiatives that Republicans passed last year violate the state constitution by effectively stifling efforts such as theirs.

Republican lawmakers approved these restrictions in the wake of a successful 2018 ballot initiative to end the lifetime ban on voting for up to 1.4 million citizens who had served their felony sentences. The restrictions include a requirement that paid signature-gatherers register with the state; that signature-gatherers must be paid hourly instead of based on how many signatures they collect; that campaigns disclose whether they hire out-of-state workers; and that ballot language disclose the initiative's sponsor and the proportion of its funding that comes from out-of-state.

The plaintiffs contend that the state's new online portal for registering paid petition-gatherers was plagued with errors for months, creating a barrier to gathering signatures. They also argue that a provision saying election officials must verify signatures within 30 days of receiving them has created a "stealth deadline" of Jan. 2 rather than the official deadline of Feb. 1. Consequently, they are asking the court to give them more time to gather signatures. Initiative backers currently have obtained just 28% of the 766,000 valid signatures needed to make it on to November's ballot.

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