Voting Rights Roundup: Trump's order to remove noncitizens from key census data sparks lawsuits
● 2020 Census: Donald Trump signed a new executive order on Tuesday directing the census to exclude undocumented immigrants from the data that determines how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state will get following the 2020 census.
Within days, civil rights advocates and Democratic officials filed separate federal lawsuits arguing both that Trump's order violates the Constitution because the 14th Amendment mandates counting the "whole number of persons" for reapportionment and that it intentionally discriminates against Latinos.
This order comes after Trump's failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the census last year, a move that documents showed was motivated because GOP operatives believed it would be "advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites" in redistricting.
While that effort imploded, Republicans still aim to let states such as Texas draw districts based strictly on the adult citizen population instead of the more diverse traditional total population, which would shift representation away from Democrats and Latinos in states with large immigrant populations. To that end, Trump issued a separate executive order last year directing the Census Bureau to match existing administrative records with 2020 census responses in order to determine citizenship status, a step that prompted litigation of its own.
But while the Supreme Court could ultimately allow the use of citizenship data for redistricting, it's unlikely to do so for reapportionment: A unanimous 2016 ruling saw even arch-conservative Justice Samuel Alito acknowledge that the 14th Amendment required using the total population for reapportionment purposes. But even if the justices did overturn hundreds of years of precedent, excluding undocumented immigrants from reapportionment would likely have a far smaller partisan impact nationally than citizen-based redistricting would within states such as Texas.
However, Trump's continued push for this change shows that the GOP will not give up in its fight to exclude noncitizens from redistricting and representation, and further litigation is certain. Additionally, Trump asked Congress for $1 billion in the next pandemic spending bill to ensure a "timely census," which suggests Trump is backing away from a potential delay in the deadlines by which the administration must deliver apportionment and redistricting data to the states.
The Census Bureau has previously said it didn't expect to be able to meet its year-end deadline to give the White House its reapportionment data, or the March 31, 2021 deadline for sending redistricting data to the states. Any such delays mean that Joe Biden could block the release of citizenship data if he defeats Trump and takes office on Jan. 20. However, if the first batch of census data is released on time, that would mean Trump would still be in office, meaning opponents would have to rely on court challenges to block him.
VOTER REGISTRATION AND VOTING ACCESS
● Deaths: Following the death of Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the nation's most prominent supporters of voting rights both during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and his long career in Congress, Senate Democrats introduced a bill named in Lewis' honor to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013, a bill that House Democrats already passed last year.
Should the bill become law, it would be a fitting way to enshrine Lewis' legacy in public life. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer aptly called Lewis “an American Founder” for his role in creating the modern American republic, which was no less than radically transformed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. These two landmark pieces of legislation ended the authoritarian one-party oligarchy that existed in the South under Jim Crow and finally established America as a liberal democracy nationwide—almost 200 years after the country's founding.
Lewis was one the leading figures in the civil rights movement for Black Americans from an early age. When he was just 23, he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech. Two years later, he marched for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965. There, law enforcement reacted to the peaceful protest by brutally attacking the marchers and beat Lewis nearly to death, fracturing his skull. But even real and repeatedly threatened violence did not deter his activism.
The events in Selma became known as Bloody Sunday, and TV news audiences around the country were so shocked by images of police brutality against the marchers that it galvanized the ultimately successful effort to pass the Voting Rights Act, which became law on Aug. 6, 1965. Civil rights leaders like Lewis and King deemed the Voting Rights Act the most important achievement of their movement because it protected the right that helped secure all the others that they were fighting for.
Lewis' career of activism for the cause of civil rights did not end with the 1960s, nor did his role as a protest figure end with his election to Congress in the 1980s: Even in his final decade, he led a sit-in on the House floor to protest the GOP's refusal to pass gun safety measures after a horrific mass shooting in Orlando left 49 dead and 53 wounded in 2016. Lewis would steadfastly make the case that the struggle for civil rights was an unending one, and his leadership inspired countless people who came after him. You can read more about Lewis' lifetime of activism in The New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution.
● New York: Both chambers of New York's Democratic-run legislature have passed a bill to enact automatic voter registration, sending the measure to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his likely signature. Senate Democrats had approved similar measures both this year and last, but Assembly Democrats refused to sign off until changes were made.
Part of the compromise between the chambers means the law wouldn't go into effect until 2023. However, automatic registration would involve a number of state agencies beyond just the DMV, which is critical since New York has one of the lowest proportions of residents who drive of any state.
Separately, Senate Democrats also passed a constitutional amendment that would let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election, a policy that many other states have already adopted. The amendment would have to pass both chambers before and after the 2020 elections before needing the approval of voters in a referendum.
● District of Columbia: Mayor Muriel Bowser has signed a bill into law that immediately restores voting rights for several thousand citizens and will require officials to provide incarcerated citizens with registration forms and absentee ballots starting next year. However, because the bill was passed as emergency legislation, it must be reauthorized after 90 days, though Council members plan to make it permanent soon.
With this law's passage, D.C. becomes only the third jurisdiction in the country after Maine and Vermont to maintain the right to vote for incarcerated citizens. It is also the first place to do so with a large community of color: The District is 46% African American, and more than 90% of D.C. residents currently disenfranchised are Black.
● Alabama: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled 2-1 to uphold a lower court ruling dismissing the NAACP's challenge to Alabama Republicans' voter ID law. The two judges in the majority, who were both appointed by Republicans, ruled that "no reasonable factfinder could find that Alabama’s voter ID law is unconstitutionally discriminatory," even though Judge Darrin Gayles, an Obama appointee, noted in dissent that one white GOP lawmaker who supported passing the law said that the lack of an ID requirement was "very beneficial to the Black power structure and the rest of the Democrats."
Republicans passed this law in 2011 to require a photo voter ID in nearly all circumstances, with the only exception being if two election officials sign an affidavit that they know the voter. However, the law didn't go into effect until 2014, after the Supreme Court's conservative majority gutted a key protection of the Voting Rights Act that had required states such as Alabama with a history of discriminatory voting laws to "pre-clear" all changes to voting laws and procedures with the Justice Department before implementing them.
The plaintiffs sued in 2015 by arguing that the law violated the Voting Rights Act and Constitution and presented evidence that Black voters were less likely to possess acceptable forms of ID than white voters. That year, Republicans sparked a backlash by trying to close 31 of the state's 75 driver's licensing offices, which subsequent reporting revealed was an effort by GOP Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned in disgrace, to pressure his legislative opponents, but Republicans ultimately reversed course amid litigation.
Election expert Rick Hasen called this latest decision "very troubling" because it ruled unequivocally for GOP officials without letting the case proceed to trial, despite the plaintiffs' evidence of both the intent and effect of racial discrimination against Black voters. The plaintiffs could seek to request that all judges on the 11th Circuit reconsider the ruling, or they could appeal directly to the Supreme Court. However, with Republican appointees holding majorities on both courts, their chance of success appears small.
● Michigan: A panel of three judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled 2-1 along ideological lines to uphold Republican-backed voting restrictions that Democrats were challenging. The ruling maintains a limitation on what counts as proof of residency for voter registration. It also rejects Democrats' demand that the state start automatically pre-registering all citizens under age 18 who conduct business with the state's driver's licensing agency so that they will be automatically added to the rolls when they turn 18. Currently, only citizens aged 17-and-a-half or older are automatically registered.
Democrats have not yet indicated whether they will appeal to Michigan's Supreme Court. The high court has a 4-3 Republican majority, though one of the GOP justices has been a swing vote when similar issues have come before the court.
● Tennessee: Voting rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in state court to require Tennessee officials to comply with a 1981 law that restores voting rights to people convicted of a felony in another state if they have had their rights restored in that state. The plaintiffs argue that the state's Republican-run government has failed to educate affected voters of the ability to regain their rights. They also charge that the state is requiring the payment of any legal fines or fees, even though such repayment isn't required under the law.
● Texas: A federal district court has rejected a Republican motion to dismiss a Democratic-backed lawsuit seeking to require that Texas allow voters to register online via a third-party website. The case concerns the website Vote.org, which 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 argue that these rejections violate both state and federal law. They note 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 online registration, making it one of just a handful of states that doesn't offer it to most voters. As a result, the Lone Star State is home to a majority of the Americans who live in states without full online registration.
● Massachusetts: Massachusetts officials have approved an initiative for the November ballot that would enact a statute implementing instant-runoff voting in elections for Congress and state office. It would also apply to a limited number of local contests such as countywide posts for district attorney and sheriff, but not those at the municipal level, which is the primary unit of local government in New England. If adopted, the new system would come into effect in time for the 2022 elections and would make Massachusetts the second state after Maine to adopt this reform.
● New York: Democratic legislators in New York swiftly passed a constitutional amendment with little debate that would increase the likelihood that they could exercise full control over redistricting after 2020 and gerrymander the state's congressional and legislative maps. However, the amendment's provisions are more complicated than an attempt to just seek partisan advantage, and it still has a ways to go before becoming law.
New York has a bipartisan redistricting commission that proposes maps to legislators for their approval. Legislative leaders from both parties choose the members, and the 2014 amendment that enshrined it in the state constitution requires two-thirds supermajorities for legislators to disregard the commission's proposals and enact their own if one party controls both legislative chambers, as Democrats currently do. The biggest partisan impact this new amendment would have involves lowering that threshold to three-fifths.
Democrats hold a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly but currently lack that in the state Senate. However, they exceed three-fifths in the upper chamber, meaning they would gain control over redistricting if the amendment were law today. However, there's a good chance the lowered threshold would be irrelevant for the next round of redistricting.
That's because Democrats have a strong opportunity to gain a Senate supermajority in November, thanks to a large number of Republican retirements in swing districts and an overall political climate that favors Democrats. Still, lowering the supermajority requirement to three-fifths could still prove decisive in the future, especially if Democrats fall short of their hopes this fall, so it's therefore fair to describe the move as an attempt by Democrats to gain greater control over redistricting.
Nevertheless, several other provisions in this amendment promote nonpartisan goals that would strengthen redistricting protections regardless of who draws the lines, complicating the case for whether or not New York would be better off in the short term if the amendment were to become law. Most importantly, the amendment would let New York conduct its own census for redistricting purposes if the federal census does not count undocumented immigrants, as Trump has ordered.
It also enshrines an existing statute that bans prison gerrymandering by counting incarcerated people for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of in prisons that are largely located in whiter rural upstate communities, restoring representation to urban communities of color. In addition, it freezes the number of senators at the current 63; in the past, lawmakers have expanded the size of the body in an attempt to gain a partisan advantage. Finally, it sharply limits the splitting of cities between Senate districts, something the GOP used extensively in their successful bid to win power (supported by several renegade Democrats) after the last round of redistricting.
Democrats would need to pass this same amendment again in 2021 before putting it on the ballot as a referendum that year, meaning it could pass without GOP support, but it would still require voter approval. If enacted, it would immediately take effect.
● North Carolina: Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill passed almost unanimously by North Carolina's Republican legislature to undo one of the GOP's many gerrymandering schemes, specifically one involving gerrymandering along racial lines in district court elections in Mecklenburg County. The GOP's about-face came as Republicans were facing a near-certain loss in state court for infringing on Black voters' rights in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Mecklenburg County is a Democratic stronghold that's home to Charlotte and more than one million residents. In 2018, Republican lawmakers changed Mecklenburg's procedures for judicial elections from a countywide system to one in which the county is split into separate judicial districts, even though all of the elected judges still retain countywide jurisdiction. The GOP's 2018 law gerrymandered the districts in an attempt to elect more white Republicans in place of multiple Black Democratic incumbents—precisely what came to pass that November.
Republicans had already agreed to revert back to countywide elections for 2020 while their case proceeded, but the lawsuit is moot now that Republicans have repealed the law in question. This GOP defeat means Republican legislators this past decade have lost lawsuits over their gerrymandering once or even multiple times at virtually every level of government in North Carolina, including for Congress, state legislature, county commission, city council, local school board, and, as here, judicial districts.
● West Virginia: A federal district court has denied the GOP's motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit in which Democrats are challenging a law that gives the party that won the last presidential election in the state—which has voted Republican in every race since 2000—the top spot on the ballot in every partisan contest. Barring a settlement, the case will now proceed to trial, which was previously set for July 27.
The plaintiffs argue that this system violates the First and 14th Amendments because candidates listed first can enjoy a boost in support that can prove decisive in close elections, particularly in downballot races where voters have much less information about the candidates than they do for the top of the ticket.
● Maine: Maine Republicans have filed yet another lawsuit in federal court arguing that instant-runoff voting violates the U.S. Constitution and should be blocked in November, when it will be used in all federal races. Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap recently determined that Republicans were roughly 2,000 voter signatures shy of the 63,000 signatures needed to put a veto referendum on the ballot in November that would suspend the use of IRV for the Electoral College until voters weigh in, but the GOP will separately challenge his decision in state court.
The federal suit is just the latest in the GOP's long running campaign against IRV after voters approved it in a 2016 ballot initiative for state and congressional races (a state court later blocked it for state-level general elections). However, they may not have much more success than former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin did when he argued that IRV was unconstitutional after he lost the 2018 election to Democratic Rep. Jared Golden once all instant-runoff calculations were completed. In that case, a federal court thoroughly rejected Poliquin's arguments that IRV violated voters' First and 14th Amendment rights.
Please bookmark our litigation tracker for a complete summary of the latest developments in every lawsuit regarding changes to elections and voting procedures as a result of the coronavirus.
● Arkansas: A panel of three GOP-appointed judges on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously overturned a district court ruling that made it easier for redistricting reformers to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The lower court's ruling, which the 8th Circuit had already temporarily blocked while the appeal proceeded, had suspended a requirement that voter petition signatures be witnessed in-person, enabling supporters to sign the forms at home and mail them in.
Republican Secretary of State John Thurston had recently thrown out all signatures gathered for the redistricting reform initiative and a separate initiative to adopt a variant of instant-runoff voting, and initiative supporters are separately challenging that decision in state court. Organizers have not announced whether they will appeal this latest federal court ruling.
● New Hampshire: Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has signed a law passed by New Hampshire's Democratic-run legislature that will allow voters to use a single application to receive absentee ballots for both the Sept. 8 state primary and Nov. 3 general election.
● North Carolina: North Carolina's Board of Elections has issued a rule that every county this fall must have at least one early voting location for every 20,000 registered voters and that smaller counties only operating one location must provide for a backup location and extra staff as a precaution.
● Oregon: A panel of three judges on the 9th Circuit Circuit Court of appeals has ruled 2-1 against Democratic officials' request to block a lower court ruling that resulted in officials having to lower the number of signatures and extend the deadline to collect them for a ballot initiative to establish an independent redistricting commission. It's possible that the Supreme Court could block the district court's ruling if Oregon Democrats appeal, but they have yet to indicate whether they will do so.
● Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to effectively short-circuit a federal lawsuit that the Trump campaign and several GOP Congress members recently filed to restrict voting access, which the federal district court recently agreed to expedite.
Democrats are asking the appellate-level Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to guarantee that counties can set up drop boxes for returning mail ballots; count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward; give voters a chance to fix problems with mail ballot signatures; count mail ballots lacking an inner secrecy envelope; and prohibit voters from serving as poll watchers in a county where they aren't a resident. The GOP's federal lawsuit is trying to block drop boxes and allow out-of-county poll watchers, which is likely intended to facilitate voter intimidation.
● Rhode Island: Voting rights groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Rhode Island's requirement that mail voters have their ballots signed by two witnesses or a notary, something that very few other states require. The plaintiffs argue that this requirement violates the Constitution during the pandemic, and they're asking the court to waive it for the Sept. 1 primary and November general election.
● Tennessee: A federal district court judge has sided against civil right groups seeking to ease access to absentee voting ahead of the state's Aug. 6 primary, ruling that the plaintiffs waited too long to bring their challenge, but the court allowed the case to proceed for November. The plaintiffs wanted the court to require that voters be notified and given a chance to correct any problems with their mail ballots and also allow third-party groups to collect and submit absentee ballots on behalf of voters.
● Texas: The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed with state Democrats' request to expedite consideration of the GOP's appeal of a lower court ruling that had ordered that all voters be allowed to vote absentee without needing an excuse instead of only voters aged 65 and up. The expedited timeline means there's a chance of a resolution in time for November.