Voting rights: Redistricting heats up as four states pass new maps for House and legislature

Voting rights: Redistricting heats up as four states pass new maps for House and legislature
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Leading Off

Redistricting: The decade's long-delayed redistricting process finally got into swing last week, as several states adopted final maps for both Congress and their legislatures, while others passed key hurdles or introduced major proposals. We've rounded up all the highlights below, though you can find more details by clicking the links to each state's name.

Oregon, where Democrats control the governing trifecta, was the first state to enact a congressional map (along with new legislative maps) after a threatened GOP walkout failed to materialize. The new House lines amounted to a modest gerrymander that would create two safely blue districts, one safe Republican seat, and three districts that lean toward Democrats to varying degrees, including the brand-new 6th. The maps for the legislature would likewise assure Democrats of staying in power, though they probably won't be able to win the two-thirds supermajorities needed to prevent future Republican boycotts.

Maine was the runner-up, adopting bipartisan compromises that made only a minimal tweak to the state's congressional map and likely won't change much on the legislative front, either. (Under state law, any new districting plants must pass with two-thirds support.) However, even if Democrats retain their majorities, the state House and Senate maps favor the GOP because the median district in both chambers is several points to the right of the state as a whole.

Nebraska was the third state to finish redistricting after the two parties reached a compromise on a congressional map following an earlier Democratic-led filibuster of the GOP's initial plan. However, the map perpetuates and exacerbates the existing Republican-drawn gerrymander of the 2nd Congressional District, the state's lone competitive seat, though it will remain a Democratic target. Republican dominance in the legislature remains undisturbed.

Indiana wrapped up a busy week, with Republicans quickly passing new congressional and legislative maps, though Gov. Eric Holcomb had yet to sign the new plans at press time. While some Democrats were relieved that the congressional map maintains the status quo (a delegation of seven Republicans and two Democrats), it only does so by gerrymandering the previously competitive 5th Congressional District, trading bluer suburbs for red rural turf. The maps for the state Senate and House will lock in outsize Republican majorities in the capitol.

Texas Republicans unveiled new proposals for Congress and the state House, to go along with their Senate map released a week earlier. All three plans seek to shield the GOP from increasing diversification and growing hostility from suburban voters at the expense of voters of color. Despite the fact that 95% of the state's growth over the previous decade came from communities of color, the new maps either weaken districts with Black or Latino majorities, or eliminate them outright. So far, the legislature has yet to vote on any new plans, but there's little stopping Republicans from gerrymandering as hard as they wish.

Colorado's new independent redistricting commission settled on a new congressional map, which now goes to the state Supreme Court for its approval. Although Democrats have dominated statewide in Colorado for many years, the map would likely create four Democratic districts, three Republican seats, and one tossup district, the brand-new 8th in the Denver suburbs. Latino advocates have pressed for greater representation in the state's delegation, but the map likely falls short in that regard, though it's not clear whether the high court will find such arguments persuasive.

In addition to the legislative advancement of redistricting maps in several states, there was also news on the litigation front:

Alabama: Two Democratic state senators and several voters have filed a federal lawsuit urging the court to compel the drawing of two congressional districts that would allow Black voters to elect their preferred candidates.

Under the current Republican gerrymander, only one of Alabama's seven districts elects a Black Democrat, even though Black voters proportionally make up two-sevenths of the population. However, it's readily possible to draw a second district that would empower Black voters, as a separate lawsuit unsuccessfully tried to argue late last decade before running out of time before the new round of redistricting. Accordingly, these latest plaintiffs have proposed their own map that attempts to achieve that same end.

While existing jurisprudence should in theory give plaintiffs a decent chance to prevail, their odds of success appear dim thanks to the conservative majority on the Supreme Court's repeated attacks on the Voting Rights Act. Instead, Republican lawmakers are all but certain to draw another gerrymander that preserves the status quo for the next 10 years.

Ohio: Ohio's Supreme Court has set a Dec. 8 date for oral arguments in a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU and voting rights advocates challenging the GOP's newly adopted legislative gerrymanders. Two more lawsuits (here and here) have been filed with the state Supreme Court in recent days by Democrats and progressive groups. Plaintiffs argue that Republicans' new districts violate a new provision in the Ohio constitution prohibiting maps that unfairly favor one party over the other and should therefore be redrawn.

Republican Justice Pat DeWine announced this week that he won't recuse himself from upcoming redistricting cases even though his father, Gov. Mike DeWine, signed off on the new maps in the governor's role on the redistricting commission and even admitted that they may be constitutionally invalid. Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court that is reliant on Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, who has been a swing vote on certain issues.

Voting Access Expansions

California: Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill passed by California's Democratic-run legislature that makes universal mail voting permanent after it was temporarily implemented for elections in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. California has long been transitioning toward an ever-greater usage of mail voting, and its adoption of the new law means one fifth of Americans, and 83% of those in the western U.S., now live in vote-by-mail states.

Massachusetts: State Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would permanently adopt pandemic-related measures that temporarily expanded early voting and no-excuse mail voting in Massachusetts. The legislation, which is scheduled for a vote this coming week, 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.

Senate Democrats passed a previous version of this legislation in committee earlier this year, and Senate President Karen Spilka said she hoped to pass the latest bill before the temporary pandemic measures expire in mid-December. While Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has supported the expansion of early and no-excuse mail voting, he has expressed opposition to adopting same-day registration, but Democrats could override a potential veto if they are sufficiently unified.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: A state lower court has struck down many parts of Republicans' budget adopted earlier this year on the grounds that they violated the state constitution's requirement that provisions must be described in the bill title and limited to a single subject. Among the various invalidated provisions are two voting restrictions that banned private grants to fund election administration and stripped Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs of her power to defend or settle voting and election lawsuits, which only applied until Hobbs' term ends following next year's elections. Republicans have promised to appeal.

In related news, voting advocates failed to gather enough voter signatures for veto referendums that would have suspended both of the above voting measures and a third that ended the permanence of Arizona's vote-by-mail list until voters would have had a chance to weigh in next year. Opponents of the GOP's voting restrictions have vowed to keep challenging the new laws, but they won't be able to stop them from taking effect barring a court ruling. A separate federal lawsuit filed in August over the mail voting law remains ongoing.

Oregon: Conservative activists have failed to obtain enough signatures before a key deadline to place veto referendums on the ballot next year to block two laws passed by the Democratic-run legislature, meaning the new laws will go into effect.

Democrats passed the first law over GOP opposition to count mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but not received until up to a week afterward. The second measure was passed with bipartisan support to ensure that voters who haven't moved or died are not moved to "inactive" status if they hadn't voted in recent elections. This ensures that living eligible voters are automatically mailed a ballot in every election in this vote-by-mail state.

Texas: Latino voter advocates have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging parts of the GOP's new voting restrictions law, making it the sixth overall and the fifth at the federal level (we previously covered the other five here). The latest suit argues that the new law violates the Voting Rights Act and the First and 14th Amendments and asks the court to block provisions that: ban drive-thru and mobile early voting locations; bar officials from mailing unrequested absentee ballot applications to voters; add restrictions on voter assistance; require more voter purges; and enable partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and election workers.

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