Voting Rights Roundup: Court ruling means Oregon may finally adopt limits on campaign donations
● Oregon: The Oregon Supreme Court has unanimously overturned a 1997 precedent that the state constitution bars all limits on state and local campaign contributions. It also declined to overturn limits on donations in county races that voters in populous Multnomah County (home of Portland) passed in 2016. The justices sent the case back to a lower court to litigate the issue of whether the county's $500 per donor maximum conflicts with federal law, but this ruling paves the way for the state to finally enact caps on donations for state and local offices statewide.
Oregon is one of just a handful of states nationwide that still have no limits on campaign contributions except at the federal level, and it's one of only two such states, alongside Virginia, where Democrats hold full control of state government. Democratic lawmakers had already put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to enable lawmakers to set campaign finance limits, an effort that, for the moment, might be superfluous. However, passing the amendment into law could prevent a future state Supreme Court majority from overturning this latest ruling—much as the current court just did with the original 1997 decision invalidating all limits.
Implementing limits on donations directly to candidates could have a major impact on state politics. In 2018, Nike co-founder Phil Knight set a state record when he gave $2.5 million directly to Republican gubernatorial nominee Knute Buehler. The lack of limits has also allowed big corporations to donate directly to candidates, a practice that has been tied to Oregon's relatively lax climate and pollution regulations for a blue state.
Further action will be needed before any limits take effect, though. Following the Supreme Court's ruling, Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno announced that she wouldn't enforce a 2006 ballot initiative that set donation caps for statewide campaigns at $1,000 and for legislative candidates at $100. Similarly, a state court has refused to retroactively enforce a 2018 measure that Portland voters passed setting contribution limits for city races ahead of the city's May 19 mayoral primary.
However, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case (who previously authored the 2006 initiative) said he might ask the justices to clarify that their new ruling must go into effect immediately.
● Arizona: A panel of three judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that declined to block a law Arizona Republicans passed in 2014 to make it harder to put initiatives on the ballot, and the plaintiffs announced they would drop their case in response. The law allows those opposing a particular ballot measure to subpoena registered circulators seeking voter petition signatures. If a circulator doesn't show up in person to comply with the subpoena (even if they've moved out of the state), then every signature that circulator has gathered can be thrown out—even if they're valid.
Combined with a recent federal court ruling preventing electronic signature collection in a separate lawsuit, the outcome of this case could help doom several initiatives attempting to get onto the ballot this November, including one to enact automatic and same-day voter registration. However, the plaintiffs seeking to allow electronic signature gathering are currently appealing to the 9th Circuit, and a separate lawsuit is also pending before the state Supreme Court.
● Massachusetts: Massachusetts' Democratic-run state legislature has declined to act on a measure to implement instant-runoff voting for congressional and state offices, meaning organizers will need to collect additional signatures to place the proposal on the November ballot as an initiative. Supporters had already turned in more than the 80,000 voter signatures needed to advance the proposal to the legislature, and with a recent agreement to let campaigns gather signatures electronically, they should have little trouble obtaining the roughly 13,000 additional signatures needed to put the proposal before voters.
● Missouri: State House Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment in committee to gut the redistricting reform amendment that voters approved in 2018 to make legislative redistricting more fair. Republicans have already passed their amendment in the state Senate, and the House is likely to follow suit, meaning the measure should appear on the ballot this November.
As we've previously detailed, the GOP's amendment would eliminate the post of "nonpartisan demographer," who is tasked with drawing new maps and proposing them to a bipartisan commission appointed by legislative leaders. Instead, it would restore the commission's power to draft maps itself. The amendment also neuters the requirement of partisan fairness in all but name and prioritizes compactness instead.
The amendment also removes a requirement to use the total population for redistricting—the norm in practically every state—and it instead loosens the language to allow for unspecified "data being used." That change opens the door to using the whiter adult citizen population for the purposes of drawing new lines, something that Donald Trump and Republicans pushed heavily for last year as part of a plot to undermine Democratic and Latino representation in redistricting. Although Trump failed in his drive to add a question on citizenship to the census, he's still trying to produce citizenship data by other means for states like Missouri to use.
VOTER REGISTRATION AND VOTING ACCESS
● Arkansas: Officials in Arkansas' Republican-dominated state government have reached an agreement with the Justice Department to begin automatically updating voters' registrations when they update their address with the state's driver's licensing agency, unless they opt out. The Justice Department had notified Arkansas late last year that its failure to automatically update these voters' registrations when they moved was a violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, commonly called the "motor voter" law, and the state agreed to make the change in lieu of fighting it in court.
The following states have recently moved their primaries:
- Delaware: from June 2 to July 7 (presidential) and June 16 to July 21 (school board)
You can stay on top of all changes to statewide primary dates by bookmarking our 2020 calendar.
● Alabama: Civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, have filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to waive the requirement that absentee voters have their ballots notarized or signed by two witnesses, both for Alabama's July 14 primary runoffs and the November general election. The suit also asks that limitations on curbside voting be lifted.
● Arizona: Officials in Maricopa County, which is home to the Phoenix metro area and three-fifths of Arizona's population, are considering a plan to eschew traditional polling sites for the state's August primary and instead set up 75 to 100 "vote centers," where any voter in the county can cast their ballot. The plan would include keeping the vote centers open for 10 to 14 days before Election Day, including on the weekends. Officials also say they plan to contact voters who haven't already signed up to vote by mail and ask if they want to do so.
● California: Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an order directing that all California voters be sent a mail-in ballot for the November general election, though in-person voting will still remain an option. Leaders in the Democratic-run legislature plan to pass a bill that would do the same thing, but they had asked Newsom to issue this order so that election officials could begin making the necessary preparations immediately.
● Connecticut: Democratic Secretary of State Denise Merrill has announced that she will send absentee ballot applications to all active voters for Connecticut's Aug. 11 primaries and the November general election, part of a comprehensive plan to ensure the state's elections can proceed safely this year. Merrill's office will also prepay postage for voters returning both applications and ballots.
In addition, the secretary of state will pay for any additional costs that Connecticut's 169 towns incur in order to safely run polling locations, as well as for extra staffers town clerks might need to handle the anticipated increase in absentee voting. However, Connecticut still requires an excuse to vote absentee, a requirement that Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has yet to waive.
● Delaware: Democratic Gov. John Carney has issued an executive order to send absentee ballots applications to all registered Democrats and Republicans who have not yet requested one for the postponed presidential primary in July.
● Florida: The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, along with two other organizations and several voters, has filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to relax a number of Florida laws related to absentee voting for the state's Aug. 18 primaries and the November general election. In particular, the plaintiffs want absentee ballots to count so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received within 10 days; currently, ballots must be received by 7 PM local time on Election Day. They're also asking that the state pay the postage on return envelopes for mail-in ballots, and that Florida's ban on paid organizers assisting with ballot collection be lifted.
Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners has unanimously approved a plan to send an absentee ballot application to every household where a voter hasn't already requested one ahead of Florida's Aug. 18 primary, some 520,000 in total. The mailing will not go out to every individual voter, but the applications will also include instructions for applying online. Voters can also select a box to request ballots for every election through the next two general elections.
With 2.7 million people, Miami-Dade is the largest county in the state. Two other nearby counties in South Florida, Broward and Palm Beach (the second- and third-largest), are also considering similar plans.
● Louisiana: Voting rights advocates, including the NAACP, have filed a federal lawsuit asking that Louisiana's requirement that voters present an excuse in order to vote absentee be waived for all elections that take place during the coronavirus pandemic. The suit also seeks to waive the requirement that absentee voters obtain a witness' signature for their ballots. In addition, plaintiffs want the early voting period extended from seven days to 14.
● Massachusetts: Democratic Secretary of State Bill Galvin has introduced a proposal to allow voters to vote by mail in Massachusetts' Sept. 1 primary; currently, the state does not allow mail voting without an excuse in downballot primaries. The plan would also establish a week of in-person early voting before the primary and increase early voting before the November general election from 12 days to 18. In addition, the state would allow voters to request absentee ballots online and would also set up drop-boxes at which ballots could be returned.
For Galvin's proposal to take effect, the legislature would have to pass it into law, though several other competing bills are pending before lawmakers. One would automatically send ballots to all voters, something Galvin has opposed.
● Michigan: Soon after voting rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit to expand access for blind voters, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office announced a settlement to let blind voters use the same type of absentee mail ballot usually limited to military and overseas civilian voters. Blind voters can complete their absentee ballots using special software and then print them out and mail them in.
Normally, blind voters would have access to voting machines that can be used by people with visual impairments and other disabilities, but those machines are typically only available at polling places and therefore inaccessible under the current circumstances.
● Minnesota: Democrats in the Minnesota House have given up on a plan to conduct the state's elections by mail after the Republican-run state Senate refused to consider it. Instead, both chambers passed a compromise bill that appropriates federal funds to promote absentee voting, help process an expected surge of mail ballots, and open more polling places to reduce crowding.
● Nevada: Supporters of a ballot initiative to amend Nevada's constitution and create a bipartisan redistricting commission have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to be able to collect signatures electronically and have more time to do it in order to qualify for November's ballot. Reformers have until June 24 under existing law to submit roughly 98,000 signatures (with nearly 25,000 coming from each Nevada's four congressional districts), a deadline they claim is impossible to meet if the court does not act.
Meanwhile, Nevada Democrats and their national counterparts have withdrawn their legal challenge seeking a number of changes to the state's June 2 primary after officials in Clark County acceded to two of their biggest demands. According to a court filing, plaintiffs say that Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria has agreed to mail ballots to all voters, not just those listed as "active," and will add two in-person voting sites, for a total of three.
Officials in other parts of the state have made more limited concessions, per the filing, but Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, is home to 71% of Nevada voters and 81% of all "inactive" voters in the state. Democrats also say they plan to continue pressing their claims for the general election.
● New York: A federal judge has reinstated New York's June 23 presidential primary, which is the same day as the state's primaries for other races, following a lawsuit by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres concluded that, while the nomination is no longer being contested, withdrawn candidates would lose the opportunity to send delegates to the Democratic National Convention who would support their views and wield influence over the party's platform. The New York state Board of Elections says it will appeal the ruling.
● North Carolina: Several North Carolina voters, backed by voting rights organizations, have brought a lawsuit asking a state court to relax a number of laws related to absentee voting for the November general election. In particular, the plaintiffs want absentee ballots to count so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received within nine days, which is the same deadline for military voters; currently, ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received within just three days.
They're also asking for an expanded definition of the term "postmark" to include modern imprints like barcodes, and in the event a postmark does not include a date, they want officials "to presume that the ballot was mailed on or before Election Day unless the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates it was mailed after Election Day."
In addition, plaintiffs want the state to pay for postage for both absentee ballot applications and ballots, and they want the court to waive the requirement that absentee voters have their ballots either notarized or signed by two witnesses. Finally, plaintiffs are requesting that voters be given the opportunity to correct any issues if their signatures allegedly do not match those on file.
● North Dakota: Supporters of a ballot measure to reform legislative redistricting and elections in North Dakota have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to allow them to gather voter signatures electronically in order to get onto the November ballot. Reformers need to gather nearly 27,000 signatures by July 6 to qualify, something that may be impossible if the court doesn't rule in their favor.
As we've previously explained, this initiative would amend North Dakota's constitution to transfer control over redistricting from the Republican-dominated legislature to the state's bipartisan-appointed Ethics Commission. It would also replace the existing electoral system with a primary where the top-four finishers advance to an instant-runoff general election.
Separately, the Campaign Legal Center and the League of Women Voters have filed a federal lawsuit over signature-verification procedures for absentee mail ballots, arguing that the state's current process wrongly disenfranchises voters. The plaintiffs note that the state doesn't notify voters if officials, who lack expert training in handwriting analysis, reject their ballot for a signature that supposedly doesn't match the one on file. They want the court to require the state to notify such voters and give them a chance to correct such problems.
● Oklahoma: Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has signed a law reinstating a requirement that Oklahoma voters have their absentee ballots notarized, just days after the state Supreme Court struck down the requirement just days before. The new law temporarily waives the notarization requirement during a public health emergency, but in doing so it instead requires voters to present a copy of their photo ID, something that isn’t easily obtained either for voters who don’t have a home printer or access to transportation.
The court had ruled that the notarization requirement did not apply to absentee ballots under existing state law, but Oklahoma's Republican-run legislature responded by quickly passing legislation to make the requirement explicit and add the photo ID requirement during emergencies, which hadn’t applied even before this litigation. Oklahoma is one of just three states, along with Mississippi and Missouri, that require absentee ballots to be notarized (several others let voters obtain a witness signature if they can’t get a notary’s signature).
● South Carolina: Several Democratic Party organizations and voters have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to ease a number of restrictions on absentee voting in South Carolina. In particular, plaintiffs argue that the state's policy of allowing citizens 65 and older to vote absentee without an excuse while requiring one from any voter below that age violates the Constitution. They also want the court to order the state to pay for postage on ballot return envelopes and to waive the requirement that absentee ballots be witnessed by another person.
In addition, the suit asks that absentee ballots be accepted so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received within a minimum of 10 days; currently, South Carolina requires that ballots be received by 7 PM local time on Election day. In support of their argument, plaintiffs cite the Supreme Court's ruling in litigation last month over Wisconsin's elections.
While that 5-4 decision was handed down by the court's conservative majority and appeared to undermine voting access, Democrats argue that it in fact enshrined the principle that ballots should be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day rather than received by Election Day. Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias, one of the attorneys behind this latest lawsuit, has now relied on it in a number of cases seeking to extend ballot receipt deadlines.
Two related lawsuits are currently pending, one in federal court and one in state court.
● Tennessee: Voting rights organizations, including the NAACP, have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have Tennessee's excuse requirement to vote absentee waived both for the state's Aug. 6 primary and the November general election. The suit also asks that voters be given the opportunity to correct any issues with their signatures allegedly not matching those on file. In addition, plaintiffs want third-party organizations such as themselves to be allowed to distribute absentee ballot applications—an act that can be charged as a crime under state law.
● Texas: Democrats have asked a state appeals court to clarify that an injunction issued last month by a trial court allowing all Texas voters to request an absentee ballot remains in force, despite a claim by Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton that it does not.
Paxton had said in a recent letter that the injunction was automatically stayed as a result of his appeal of the lower court's decision, but Democrats argue that it's still in effect because Paxton failed to specifically request a stay. In the event Paxton does belatedly seek a stay, Democrats are asking the appeals court to enforce the injunction.
● Vermont: Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he has "concerns" about Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos' plans to send mail-in ballots both for Vermont's Aug. 11 primary and the November general election, a proposal that would require the governor to sign off.
Scott specifically says he's concerned about the state's ability to print general election ballots quickly enough after the primaries and says he hopes they "can be addressed." Condos, however, says he's already sent a memo to Scott about his concerns, though a spokesperson for the governor "declined to say whether the memo had persuaded" him, according to VTDigger.
● Virginia: A federal court has approved a partial settlement in an ACLU-backed lawsuit under which Virginia will waive its requirement that mail ballots have a witness signature for voters who don't think they can safely obtain such a signature. The agreement applies only to the state's June 23 primary, so the case remains ongoing for the November general election. In late April, the court allowed the state Republican Party, which opposes easing voting restrictions, to intervene as a defendant alongside Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring.
● Wisconsin: Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has now signed legislation that will send absentee ballot applications and postage-paid return envelopes to all roughly 300,000 voters in the city for the November general election. Officials in Racine, a city of 77,000 just to the south of Milwaukee, are also considering a similar plan.