● Texas: Last Friday, a federal district court delivered a major victory for voting rights when it finally issued its long-awaited ruling in the lawsuit over the Republican-drawn Texas congressional map (see above; larger version here). The court struck down three districts for violating the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protections Clause, holding that they were intentionally racially discriminatory. This ruling could result in a new map being used in the 2018 elections, with more districts where Latino voters could elect the candidate of their preference (most likely Democrats).
In the three districts struck down by the court, Republicans had either diluted Latino voting strength (so that district would be more likely to elect an Anglo representative), or they had packed Latino voters in (to prevent them from electing their candidate choice in neighboring seats). The invalidated 23rd District spans from El Paso to San Antonio, the 27th covers Corpus Christi and Victoria, and the 35th stretches from Austin to San Antonio. A redrawn map could consequently see considerable changes to these districts and their neighbors. A Latino Democrat could replace Republican incumbents in the 23rd and either the 27th or the Austin-based 10th.
The judges additionally faulted Republicans for abusing race when drawing districts in the greater Dallas area, but did not specifically indicate that they would require Republican legislators to draw a new district to elect a Latino candidate. Plaintiffs will undoubtedly press the court to impose such a requirement when they argue for the appropriate remedy. Indeed, Daily Kos Elections itself has previously demonstrated how Republicans could have drawn another seat that would elect Latino voters’ candidate choice in Dallas at the expense of an Anglo Republican, in addition to making the aforementioned GOP-held 23rd and 27th heavily Latino.
Crucially, the court's finding that Republicans intentionally discriminated could be grounds for placing Texas back under Justice Department “preclearance” for voting law changes under the Voting Rights Act. Several predominantly Southern states with a history of discriminatory voting laws previously had to preclear any such changes until the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013. While a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department is unlikely to block new oppressive voting laws, a future Democratic administration could.
Absurdly, this case has been ongoing ever since 2011, and litigants completed their arguments all the way back in 2014. Plaintiffs had rightly been outraged that the court was dragging its feet on issuing its ruling. Republicans have gotten away with an illegal racial gerrymander for a majority of this decade, demonstrating how it pays to illegally gerrymander, since the court of course can’t invalidate the last three election results held under the existing map.
Republican legislators will assuredly appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. However, given a string of recent victories against Republican racial gerrymandering, there is a strong likelihood that the court will uphold part or even all of this decision, meaning Texas could indeed have a new, more Democrat-friendly congressional map for 2018.
● Nebraska: Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts announced his support for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would require a photo ID for voters to cast a ballot. Republicans have previously failed to pass similar bills, but the party nominally has more than enough seats in the unicameral legislature to amass the three-fifths vote needed to refer the amendment to the voters for their approval. If state Senate Republicans can hold together, a voter ID referendum could be tough to stop.
● Texas: Texas is one of just a handful of states left that allows voters to check a single box to vote a straight ticket in partisan races, but a committee in the GOP-led state House voted along party lines for a bill to eliminate the option. Texas voters often have several dozen partisan offices on their ballot, such as legislators, a slew of statewide executive officers, state and local judges, and county officials. Eliminating the straight-ticket option could lead to longer voting lines and more voters skipping downballot races.
Longer lines could disproportionately hurt groups like African Americans, who tend to vote straight tickets at higher rates than whites. Michigan Republicans ran into legal trouble over trying to end straight-ticket voting for that very reason, when a court blocked their attempt in 2016 because its disparate impact on black voters violated the Voting Rights Act. While Democratic legislators are powerless to prevent the Republican majority from passing this bill, it could face a similar lawsuit.
On the subject of lawsuits, a federal court had curtailed Texas’ strict voter ID law in 2016 by requiring the state to temporarily allow voters who were unable to readily obtain the appropriate ID to cast a ballot if they signed a sworn statement attesting to their identity. A state Senate committee has now unanimously approved a bill that would make that change permanent, while also imposing stiffer penalties for those who violate the law.
● Voter ID Study: In February, an academic study garnered headlines for claiming to have found that strict voter ID laws had the sharp and disproportionate impact of lowering turnout among Latino, black, and Asian-American voters compared to whites, benefiting Republicans electorally. However, a follow-up study contends that the original work had major methodological flaws that discredit its conclusions.
The new authors argue that the surveys of voters the original research depended upon are unreliable for calculating turnout rates, and the original authors failed to control for key variables and included various miscalculations in their work. Unfortunately, conclusive research on voter ID’s impact is hard to come by. Past efforts suggest the disparate racial impact might not be much at all, but we simply need more need more data to know for sure.
This isn’t to say that voter ID doesn’t disproportionately hurt non-white voters—it very well could. Republican legislators obviously believe it has that effect, since every so often one of them will let the mask slip and acknowledge that the purpose is to suppress those Democratic-leaning demographics. Even if the net racial or partisan impact is small, these laws are still morally odious in that they really do disenfranchise certain registered voters who can’t easily obtain the adequate ID, all in the name of supposedly fighting fraud that is nearly nonexistent.
Early Voting and Registration
● Idaho: Republicans dominate Idaho’s state government, but a bill to restrict early voting availability died in committee in the state Senate following its recent passage in the state House. Idaho currently allows counties to choose to begin early voting on or before the third week prior to Election Day, but the proposal would have limited its availability to a window of just one to three weeks before Election Day.
● Illinois: Democrats used their state legislative majorities to pass an automatic voter registration bill in 2016, but they failed to muster enough votes to override Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto. A state Senate committee passed a new proposal on Wednesday, but it’s unclear whether Rauner or the Republican legislators who would be necessary to override another veto would support it this time.
Although the modified measure would still automatically register eligible voters who do business with particular state agencies, it’s more restrictive than the 2016 version. This bill would have voters confirm their eligibility themselves, instead of automatically sending their information on and having election officials do so. It would also ask registrants upfront if they wish to opt out, rather than afterward. Still, even this latest proposal could add well over 1 million new voters to the rolls.
● Nevada: As expected, Nevada’s Democratic-controlled legislature has approved a measure that would automatically register voters who interact with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, sending it to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval for his signature. The provision passed strictly along party lines, so a veto from Sandoval would not be surprising. However, if he blocks the law, it would still go directly to voters for their approval in November 2018, since proponents had gathered enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.
● Turnout: A new report from the U.S. Elections Project and Nonprofit VOTE details 2016 eligible voter turnout rates for D.C. and all 50 states. America’s overall turnout rate of 60.3 percent was a up slightly from 2012’s level of 58.6 percent, but it still fell shy of 2008’s 62.2 percent. The data shows encouraging signs for how laws expanding access to voting could be boosting turnout.
Minnesota once again led the pack with a turnout rate of nearly 75 percent. Other states that allow voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day also saw above-average turnout rates, as did the swing states and those that vote by mail. Oregon established automatic voter registration ahead of 2016, and its 4-point increase in turnout was the largest nationally, even though it wasn’t a swing state.
The report points out that lowering registration barriers, making it more convenient to cast a ballot, and switching to the national popular vote are among several important policy changes that could boost voter participation.