New York Democrats advance bill to ban gerrymandering by county governments — and more from your voting rights roundup

New York Democrats advance bill to ban gerrymandering by county governments — and more from your voting rights roundup
Image via Shutterstock.


Leading Off

New York: Democratic legislators have passed a bill that would apply nonpartisan redistricting criteria to local governments in 23 counties that have their own county charters, opening up those jurisdictions to lawsuits if they pass maps that don't comply with the legislation. The criteria include requirements that districts be compact and that they "shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties."

If enacted into law, the bill could have an especially large impact on several major suburban counties such as Nassau County on Long Island, where Republican gerrymanders have given the GOP control of the county legislature even though Democrats frequently win the county in statewide or countywide races (Nassau hasn't voted for a Republican for president since 1988). The bill wouldn't apply to the state's 39 non-charter counties, such as the five that make up New York City, because almost all of these jurisdictions already have strict rules governing redistricting.

Redistricting

Illinois: As expected, Republicans have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Illinois Democrats' newly enacted legislative gerrymanders because they were drawn using population estimates instead of data from the decennial census, which won't be released before August. Republicans contend that the estimates are insufficiently accurate and therefore violate the principle of "one person, one vote" established by federal court precedents. Latino voter advocates also filed a separate federal lawsuit making a similar claim.

Democrats passed these maps last month using estimated figures in order to complete legislative redistricting ahead of a state constitutionally mandated June 30 deadline. Had lawmakers failed to enact new districts by then, legislators would have had to cede control over the process to a bipartisan backup commission with a 50-50 chance of having a GOP tiebreaker who would let Republicans pass their own gerrymanders in this blue state.

Redistricting expert Michael McDonald has theorized that Illinois Democrats (and lawmakers from both parties in other states who are also contemplating using population estimates) are doing so with the expectation that even if courts later strike down those maps, legislators will still get the first crack at drawing remedial plans rather than letting a court or a backup commission take over. If so, that could give Illinois Democrats a chance to revise their gerrymanders with official census data later this year.

North Carolina: North Carolina's Republican-controlled state House has unanimously passed a bill that would let officials in dozens of municipalities choose whether to postpone district-based local elections set for this fall and extend the terms of current officeholders in order to give those localities more time to redraw their electoral districts due to delays in receiving census data. The bill would allow them to delay those elections so that they take place alongside the March 2022 state primary, but the change would not apply to future years.

The same House bill would also permanently shift local elections in the capital of Raleigh, which is the state's second-largest city, to take place in November of even-numbered years beginning in 2022 and coinciding with federal elections every two years thereafter at the request of city officials. This change could see turnout increase considerably and make the electorate more demographically representative of the eligible voter pool, and it would also save money on election administration.

The GOP-run state Senate had previously passed a version of the bill with unanimous support several days earlier, but that package didn't include the change in Raleigh. A subsequent vote on the changes made by House lawmakers will therefore be needed in the Senate before the bill can go to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Voting Access Expansions

Congress: Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin dealt a crippling blow to Democratic efforts to pass federal legislation to protect voting rights and fair elections when he said on Sunday that he will oppose the For the People Act (also known as both H.R. 1 and S. 1), which would ban congressional gerrymandering, enact the most significant voting protections since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and adopt new campaign finance and ethics regulations. This move comes even though Manchin cosponsored the bill in 2019.

Rather than specify which provisions of the bill he disliked in order to give Democrats a template for a compromise, Manchin said he opposes both making major election changes without bipartisan support and changing the filibuster rule to overcome GOP opposition. Republicans have steadfastly tried to block Democrats from passing any new voting bills, meaning 10 GOP senators were never going to support any Democratic-backed measure to overcome a filibuster.

Manchin's position is completely at odds with political reality, since it effectively hands Republicans a one-way veto over election law changes. Republican state legislators across the country have enacted a wave of new legislation restricting voting access and making it easier for GOP officials to overturn election results on pretextual grounds—without Democratic votes. Manchin is in essence telling those Republicans that there will be no pushback for party-line efforts to undermine voting access and sabotage democracy.

It's unclear now how congressional Democrats will try to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to hold a floor vote on S. 1 this summer, but it would fail to obtain majority support without Manchin, let alone overcome a GOP filibuster. Manchin has repeatedly said Democrats should instead prioritize the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court's conservative majority gutted in 2013.

However, the John Lewis bill is in no way a substitute for the For the People Act. Among other things, it would do very little to curtail partisan gerrymandering, which is the most consequential plank of H.R.1 And while restoring the VRA could help Democratic presidents block new GOP voting restrictions, it would leave them with little ability to overturn existing restrictions. Furthermore, a future Republican attorney general would undoubtedly show little interest in blocking barriers to voting passed by fellow Republicans.

Congressional redistricting is set to begin in mid-August once the census releases the necessary data, so Democrats have dwindling time left to pass reforms so that they take effect before the 2022 elections. If they fail to pass any meaningful legislation, Republicans are poised to control redistricting in two to three times as many congressional districts as Democrats, and there's a strong risk that GOP gerrymandering could cost Democrats the House in 2022 or 2024. A minority-rule Republican Congress would also create a serious risk that hardliners could try to overturn a Democratic Electoral College victory in 2024, just as a majority of Republicans tried to do after 2020.

Colorado: Democrats have passed a bill in both legislative chambers that aims to reform recall elections and expand voting access, sending it to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis for his expected signature. As we've previously explained, this bill would add new requirements to recall elections with the intention of preventing Republicans from trying to abuse them to win races with low turnout. It would also expand voter registration opportunities through state health agencies and colleges and discourage placing mail ballot drop boxes at law enforcement buildings to avoid intimidating voters.

Connecticut: Connecticut's Democratic-run legislature adjourned on Wednesday without the state House passing a major voting access bill that the Senate had previously adopted. Lawmakers are likely to return for a special session later this year, but there's no guarantee that this legislation will be considered when they do.

The bill in question would have adopted automatic voter registration at multiple state agencies, ended the disenfranchisement of people on parole for felony convictions, allowed online absentee ballot applications, and made absentee ballot drop boxes permanent. State Senate Democrats also failed to pass a House-approved bill that would have eased some statutory restrictions on absentee voting, such as ending a prohibition on people who are caregivers for sick or disabled people to vote absentee.

Maine: Democratic legislators have given preliminary approval largely along party lines to three bills in both chambers that seek to expand voting access. The first bill would see Maine finally adopt online voter registration, which only a handful of states still lack. The second would establish a permanent absentee voter list, letting voters opt into automatically receiving a mail ballot in all future elections. The final measure would allow student IDs to be used for voter registration purposes.

Maryland: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has let three bills expanding voting access that were passed by Democratic legislators become law without his signature.

One of the new laws will create a semi-permanent absentee voting list whereby voters who opt in will receive a mail ballot in all future elections without having to request one each election. However, unlike other states with similar permanent absentee ballot lists, the Maryland law will remove voters who don't vote in two consecutive election cycles from the list, requiring them to reapply if they want to get back onto the list.

A second new law will strengthen voting access on college campuses, military bases, retirement homes, and other "large residential communities." Sites like these will be able to request an in-person voting location, and colleges will be required to establish voter registration efforts on campus and give students an excused absence to vote if needed. The law will also let military service members register online using their identification smart cards issued by the Defense Department.

Finally, the third law requires absentee drop boxes inside jails and prisons for incarcerated individuals who remain eligible to vote. Additionally, it requires that prisoners be given voter registration forms upon release, since all citizens with felony convictions automatically regain their rights upon release aside from those sentenced for buying or selling votes.

Massachusetts: As part of an amended spending bill, state House Democrats have passed measures to permanently expand early voting and no-excuse mail voting. The new laws would also require the state to send applications for mail ballots to all active registered voters, as it did last year due to the pandemic. Massachusetts has had early voting and no-excuse mail voting for state-level general elections for several years though not for primaries, and mail voting was little-used before the pandemic in 2020. This bill would extend both to all state elections going forward beginning in 2022, including primaries and some local elections.

New York: Democratic legislators have passed a bill that would expand early voting hours and locations during the nine-day early voting period.

The bill sets a formula for counties to determine how many early voting locations they must have. Counties with at least 500,000 registered voters would have to have one early voting location for every 40,000 registered voters, while counties with fewer than 500,000 registered voters must have one for every 30,000 registered voters (with a maximum of 10 sites for smaller counties). Each county regardless of size would also be required to have an early voting location in its largest municipality. It would also expand early voting hours from five to eight on holidays and weekends and allow sites to stay open until 8 PM on weekends (currently they close at 6 o'clock).

In addition, Democrats have passed a bill that would allow voters to track the status of their absentee ballots online, with most Assembly Republicans supporting the bill but most state Senate Republicans opposing it. Democrats also approved a separate bill along party lines that would require election officials to begin processing absentee ballots shortly after they receive them rather than waiting several days after Election Day to begin doing so, as was the case in 2020, which led to delays in determining the winners of several key races.

Vermont: Republican Gov. Phil Scott has signed a bill passed by the Democratic-run legislature with bipartisan support to make Vermont the seventh state to adopt universal mail voting, although the new law only applies to general elections. Officials mailed every active registered voter a ballot last November due to the pandemic, but this new legislation makes that change permanent (in-person voting will remain available). The law also requires that voters be notified and given a chance to fix purported problems with their mail ballots such as a signature supposedly not matching the one on file.

Voter Suppression

Iowa: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a bill that places sharp limits on who can turn in another person's absentee ballot on their behalf and restricts the establishment of satellite early voting locations. The law's passage prompted Latino voting advocates to amend their ongoing lawsuit over a separate package of voting restrictions that Republicans enacted earlier this year to now challenge these latest provisions as violations of the state constitution's guarantee of the right to vote.

Louisiana: Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has vetoed a bill passed by Republican legislators that would ban private grants to fund election administration after nonprofits donated hundreds of millions around the country in 2020 to address the chronic underfunding of local election administration. Republicans, who hold a two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate and are just shy in the House, may be able to override Edwards' veto because Democratic Rep. Francis Thompson and independent Rep. Roy Daryl Adams both voted for the measure.

Additionally, Republican legislators have passed a bill that would require absentee voters to include their driver's license or state ID card number with their ballot and application, or include part of their Social Security number if they lack a state ID. The bill passed largely along party lines in the state House with a few Democrats voting in favor, but it unanimously passed in the state Senate, meaning Republicans could override a potential veto by Edwards if no votes shift. It's unclear why state Senate Democrats voted for the bill.

New Hampshire: Using their gerrymandered majorities, Republican legislators have passed a bill largely along party lines that includes an amendment that could pave the way for the creation of two separate systems for election administration, one for federal races and one for state and local contests. Republicans are pushing this approach as a way to resist new voting reforms if Democrats in Congress pass H.R. 1, which would enact a sweeping expansion of voting access measures, or any equivalent legislation.

As we have previously explained, Democratic-backed voting reforms rely heavily on Congress' power to regulate federal elections under the Constitution's Elections Clause, but those powers provide a much more limited basis for extending any reforms to the state and local levels. The GOP's plan would not only undermine voting rights but create new administrative problems due to the burdens of potentially maintaining separate systems for two sets of elections, including registration records, ballots, and more, and it could lead to litigation if ultimately adopted.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is likely to support the effort but stopped short of promising to sign it.

Texas: Following a firestorm of public backlash over their failed attempt to pass a sweeping voting restriction bill over the Memorial Day weekend, Texas Republicans are now dubiously claiming that they didn't intend to include a provision in the bill that would have made it easier for GOP officials to overturn election results they don't like. A chief proponent of the bill called it "horrendous policy" and said that Republicans don't plan to include that provision when they try to pass the bill again in an upcoming special session of the legislature.

Remarkably, this is now the second time this month that Republicans have tried to insist that measures that would have undermined election integrity and voting access somehow came about by accident. Previously, lawmakers insisted that they'd eliminated early voting on Sunday mornings due to a typo—which would have involved not only changing an "11" to a "1" but also the "AM" in "11 AM" to a "PM" in "1 PM."

Even though Democrats may not be able to block the final bill, the furious public response to the GOP's efforts to undermine democracy—bolstered by an extraordinary walkout of Democratic legislators that temporarily halted the legislation's progress last month—has resulted in the defeat of some of the GOP's most extreme provisions.

Separately, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bipartisan bill that will let voters track their absentee ballots online. However, the legislature's adjournment has killed a bipartisan bill that had passed the state House and would have partially reversed the GOP's ban on mobile early voting locations.

Another bill that died was a proposal Republicans had passed in the state Senate (but not the state House) to create a new statewide-elected appellate court in order strip an existing appeals court district of its purview over lawsuits that challenge state laws or are directed at state agencies. Republicans have targeted this court because Democrats had managed to win control of it in the 2018 elections; they'd previously proposed gerrymandering the appellate court districts before trying to simply create a new court.

Electoral System Reform

Colorado: Democratic legislators have given their final approval to a bill that would make it easier for local governments to adopt instant-runoff voting for local elections by providing state support for administering its use. Cities already have the option to use instant-runoff voting, but this bill would remove remaining hurdles to help facilitate the transition. The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is likely to sign it.

Wyoming: On Monday, Wyoming Republicans in a legislative committee voted to consider two bills that would alternately adopt instant-runoff voting or a top-two primary, respectively, in place of the current system of traditional party primaries. Wyoming currently requires only a plurality to win a party's primary.

Hardline Republicans are worried that having too many challengers to Rep. Liz Cheney over her vote to impeach Donald Trump will split the vote and allow her to win renomination next year with a plurality and are trying to change the electoral system. However, even if the GOP ultimately adopts any electoral reforms, it's doubtful whether there would be time to implement the change for this election cycle. (A previous plan to implement runoffs ran aground earlier this year in part for this reason.)

Furthermore, even if Republicans adopt a system like California's top-two primaries, a Cheney defeat is by no means guaranteed, since she could then try to win a general election by joining together moderate Republicans and Democrats if she were to face off against a fellow Republican.

Senate Elections

Nevada: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed a bill that will require Nevada governors to fill U.S. Senate vacancies with a replacement appointee who belongs to the same party as the previous senator. However, while most other states that have adopted a similar same-party requirement have structured it so that the governor is limited to picking an appointee from a list submitted by the departing senator's party, this new Nevada law makes no mention of such a list and appears to give the governor wide latitude over selecting an appointee.

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