Voting rights: Pennsylvania GOP advances voting restrictions designed to bypass governor

Voting rights: Pennsylvania GOP advances voting restrictions designed to bypass governor
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf addresses reporters. Official photo.

Leading Off

Pennsylvania: State House Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment out of committee and onto the full floor that would adopt several new voting restrictions. The amendment includes a voter ID requirement to be defined by later legislation. It would further ban counties from accepting private grants to remedy election administration underfunding, a restriction that Republicans have enacted in a number of states this year after nonprofits linked to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other wealthy donors gave millions to fund election administration last year.

The amendment would also turn the secretary of state from a position appointed by the governor into a partisan official elected by voters, and it would require the state auditor to conduct supposed "audits" before election results are certified. However, state law already requires counties to conduct election audits, but Republicans in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and other states have pressed for sham audits of the 2020 results that lack rigorous standards as a way to discredit Joe Biden's victory, so this amendment may just be a continuation of that effort.

Republicans are using a constitutional amendment as a way to circumvent a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has no role in the process. Instead, amendments must pass the legislature both before and after a general election takes place, after which voters have the ultimate say on the proposal via a referendum.

Redistricting

AR Redistricting: Both chambers of Arkansas' Republican-run legislature have passed the GOP's new congressional map, which splits the state's largest county three ways to dilute the strength of Black voters and Democrats, sending it to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his approval. The gerrymandered map would shore up Republican Rep. French Hill in the 2nd District, which saw competitive elections the last two cycles. Hutchinson says he'll decide whether to sign it into law next week, though a veto would be shocking.

CO Redistricting: Two Latino advocacy groups filed briefs with the state Supreme Court challenging Colorado's new congressional redistricting proposal, which they argue dilutes the voting power of minority communities in contravention of the state constitution. Democratic groups also filed their own objections, including a concern about whether the commission faithfully followed a separate directive to maximize the number of competitive districts.

Objections were due by Friday, and the justices will now hold oral arguments on Tuesday before rendering a decision by Nov. 1. If they reject the map, commissioners would get a second chance to draw another one to address the court's objections.

IA Redistricting: Republicans in the Iowa Senate on Tuesday voted down congressional and legislative maps proposed by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency over the objections of Democrats, prompting their counterparts in the state House to say they would not consider the maps at all. What happens next, however, is not clear.

In past cycles, as Bloomberg's Greg Giroux notes, lawmakers have twice rejected initial proposals from the LSA, whose work has often been upheld as a model for nonpartisan mapmaking but is only advisory in nature. On one occasion, they approved the agency's second map, while on another, they agreed to its third plan. However, if it gets as far as a third iteration, Republicans would be able to amend it freely, allowing them to gerrymander to whatever extent they desire.

That's never happened before, because in the prior four decades since the legislature passed a bill giving the LSA a central role in redistricting, control over state government has always been divided between the two parties immediately following each census. This time, however, Republicans hold the governing trifecta, which would allow them to run roughshod over the LSA's recommendations, or even repeal its role outright—precisely what Democrats most fear. The only reason the GOP might hesitate is if it fears a backlash for torching 40 years of nonpartisan redistricting, but if there's one thing we've seen time and again, few voters care about process stories.

IN Redistricting: Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed new congressional and legislative maps on Monday that were passed by fellow Republicans in the legislature late last week. The maps ensure outsize dominance for the GOP through partisan gerrymandering, as we detailed in our earlier coverage.

NJ Redistricting: New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has tapped Philip Carchman, a retired state appellate judge, as the tiebreaking member of the state's Apportionment Commission, which will handle legislative redistricting. Carchman was not on the list of tiebreakers proposed by the two parties in August, which contained no overlapping names, allowing Rabner, who was appointed to his post by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, to make his own choice.

Carchman also has his roots in Democratic politics, though he was first named to the bench in 1986 by Republican Gov. Tom Kean. According to the New Jersey Globe, Carchman made some donations to Democratic candidates in the early 1980s, but the last occasion was the year before his appointment. In 2004, he took a leave of absence to serve as the administrative director of the state's court system before returning to the courtroom in 2008 and retiring in 2012. Carchman will now be in the position of choosing between legislative maps proposed by Democrats and Republicans on the commission, which must complete its work by March 1.

In August, following a slightly different process, the state Supreme Court named former Justice John Wallace, who'd been put forth by Democrats, as the tiebreaker for New Jersey's separate congressional redistricting panel.

TX Redistricting: Texas' Republican-run legislature has advanced several redistricting plans that they'd recently proposed, all of which would lock in GOP gerrymanders. Before the full state Senate, Republican lawmakers passed a new map for the chamber's own districts and a new congressional map, both with some tweaks to prior versions. Meanwhile, in the state House, a committee signed off on a new map for the lower chamber on a party-line vote, again with some modifications.

Voting Access Expansions

Congress: On Thursday, Senate Democrats introduced their own version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (designated S. 4), which follows House Democrats passing their version of the bill in August (designated H.R. 4). As we have previously explained, the legislation named after the late Rep. and civil rights leader John Lewis aims to restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and reverse much of the damage wrought by two decades of Supreme Court decisions that limited the ability of voting rights supporters to use the VRA to combat voting restriction laws and racial gerrymandering.

The two versions of the bill are fairly similar overall, but S. 4 does contain some key differences affecting which jurisdictions would be subject to Justice Department preclearance for any voting changes and which types of voter ID laws would be subject to practice-based preclearance everywhere, with the Senate version covering only the most restrictive ID requirements.

In contrast to the House version, S. 4 also incorporates the Native American Voting Rights Act that was proposed by Sen. Ben Ray Luján to make it easier for tribes to request voting sites and mail ballot drop boxes on tribal lands and authorize tribal IDs for use under voter ID laws. It also integrates provisions of a separate proposal by Sen. Jon Ossoff intended to add new legal protections for election workers, their families, and polling place locations to prevent harassment and intimidation amid an unprecedented surge in threats against poll workers fueled by believers of Donald Trump's election conspiracy theories.

Of course, Senate Democrats still face a steep challenge in trying to get S. 4 or any other voting rights legislation passed so long as moderate Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to consider curtailing the filibuster to overcome unanimous GOP obstruction. It so far remains to be seen what if anything could get the centrist holdouts to change their minds.

California: Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill that will create a statewide standard for verifying mail ballot signatures and require officials to contact voters with signature issues to help resolve them.

Massachusetts: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill that would permanently adopt pandemic-related measures that temporarily expanded early voting and no-excuse mail voting in Massachusetts. The bill would also implement same-day voter registration and new requirements to ensure that people with disabilities and incarcerated people who have not lost their voting rights can vote.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has expressed his opposition to same-day registration despite supporting the expansion of no-excuse mail and early voting. However, every Senate Democrat supported the bill, and if House Democrats are as unified, they would easily have the votes to override a potential veto.

Voter Suppression

Arkansas: A state lower court has rejected GOP officials' attempt to dismiss a lawsuit challenging four voting restriction laws that Republicans enacted earlier this year, allowing the case to go forward on the merits. Backed by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, the plaintiffs are opposing laws that:

Kentucky: A panel of three judges on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court decision and revived a lawsuit challenging Kentucky's process for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions, which the plaintiffs argue is unconstitutionally arbitrary. Kentucky is one of just a few states where state law still permanently disenfranchises people convicted of any felony unless the governor individually restores their rights, but Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order shortly after his 2019 victory to automatically restore those rights for people who've fully served their sentences for non-violent felony convictions.

Despite Beshear's executive order, people convicted of certain violent felonies must still petition the governor to restore their rights upon completion of their sentences, a category that included three of the plaintiffs. The appellate court's ruling held that the case was not moot because those plaintiffs were unaffected by Beshear's order. The panel sent the case back to the district court so that it can rule on the merits of the plaintiffs' lawsuit.

Ballot Measures

California: Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed a bill that would have banned paying signature-gatherers for ballot measures or recall elections on a per-signature basis instead of hourly, arguing it was a flawed attempt at reducing the power of wealthy groups to bankroll elections. However, Newsom has said he will back two constitutional amendments in the wake of the failed recall campaign against him that would increase the number of signatures required for recalls and have the lieutenant governor take over if voters recall the governor instead of having a free-for-all second question on a replacement governor.

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