● Nevada: Automatic registration is headed for the ballot in the Silver State. Voters will officially get to decide in 2018 whether any eligible voter who goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles will be automatically registered to vote unless that person opts out. Six states and D.C. have enacted some form of automatic registration since 2015. In Oregon, which uses this system, 43 percent of people who were automatically registered voted in 2016, so if this passes, it could result in a considerable number of new voters.
Reformers had filed enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, but Nevada law gives the state legislature a chance to pass such proposals first and avoid a statewide vote. The Democratic-controlled legislature obliged, advancing automatic registration on a party-line vote, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the measure on Tuesday, and Democrats lacked the votes to override him.
Nevada could subsequently become the second state to pass this effort by initiative, after Alaska overwhelmingly voted to become the first state to do so in 2016. As Daily Kos Elections has previously demonstrated, another 19 states could attempt to pass automatic registration by initiative, which is a crucial option when Democrats only fully control six state governments and Republicans consistently oppose reforms to make voting easier.
● Arkansas: As expected, Arkansas’ Republican-dominated state legislature has approved a new voter ID law, which GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson will almost certainly soon sign. Republicans had passed a similar measure in 2013, but the state Supreme Court struck it down in 2014 for violating the state constitution, in part because the law was not passed with a two-thirds majority. However, now that Republicans have legislative supermajorities, they believe their latest version will survive judicial review.
● Georgia: The Republican-dominated state Senate approved a bill that would reject voter registration applications unless the information provided strictly matches state or federal records, such as those tied to the person’s driver’s license or Social Security number. If the information isn’t an exact match, they could only cast a provisional ballot, and their application could be denied if they don’t clear up any discrepancy.
Republicans claim that this provision is necessary to combat fraud, but the information from these federal and state databases is often notoriously unreliable and prone to data-entry errors. That’s particularly so for groups like black voters, who are more likely to have symbols like hyphens in their names.
Voting rights advocates had sued Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp for violating federal law over using a strict-matching system when conducting purges of registration rolls in 2016. Kemp had agreed to a settlement in February that seemingly prevented Republicans from using an exact-matching system, but this bill appears to directly undermine that agreement. Since Republicans wield unified control over state government, opponents will likely have to resort to another lawsuit to try to stop it.
● Iowa: With little surprise, Iowa Republicans have used the state Senate majority they gained last year to pass a new voter ID bill, sending it back to the state House after they passed slight amendments. With the Republican-led House likely to approve the bill once again, and GOP Gov. Terry Branstad in support, it’s likely just a matter of time before this bill becomes law. In addition to requiring voters to show either a valid photo ID or their state issued voter verification card, the bill abolishes the straight-ticket voting option.
Republicans have pushed that latter change in several states in part because it increases the time it takes for each voter to cast a ballot, which can lead to longer lines. While Iowa is an overwhelmingly white state, longer lines could disproportionately affect black and Latino voters, since those demographics are more likely to vote a straight ticket. Removing the option could also lead to more voters undervoting in downballot races.
● New Hampshire: Republican state senators advanced a bill out of committee that could prevent Democratic-leaning demographics like college students from voting. Current law allows any eligible voter living in the state to vote as long as they don’t do so in another state, too. However, the latest GOP proposal would tighten residency requirements for voting by mandating voters provide more proof documenting that they intend to live in the state long-term.
After an outcry that it could lead to voter intimidation, the bill’s sponsor removed a provision that would have allowed election supervisors to send the police to a voter’s home to verify their residency, but the proposal would still allow election officials to check on voters themselves. Republicans hold the governor’s office and modest majorities in both legislative chambers, meaning there is likely little Democrats can do to stop this bill.
● North Carolina: After Democrat Roy Cooper ousted then-GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, North Carolina’s Republican legislature used their illegally gerrymandered majority to engage in a flagrantly undemocratic power grab in a lame-duck session right before McCrory left office. Among their many changes, they removed the governor’s authority to name all members on every state and county elections board to prevent Democrats from gaining control of them. Late last week, a state court panel ruled that this change violated the state constitution’s separation of powers, dealing a major victory for voting rights.
Under McCrory, Republicans had used their majorities on the state and county boards to ram through a slew of voter suppression efforts in tandem with a voting law so restrictive that a court said it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” These boards cut early voting hours and limited the locations where it would be offered. They also redrew precinct boundaries and moved polling places away from locations such as college campuses and predominantly black communities. These changes were all part of an attempt to make it more difficult or time-consuming for Democratic-leaning demographics to cast a ballot.
The governor appoints all members of each board under the current law, while their party is limited to a one-seat majority. Republicans had attempted to create even-numbered boards where the legislature would pick half the members and the parties would be evenly divided. Their change also required a supermajority to take action, while they gave Republicans the chairmanships during state and federal election years. Doing so would have allowed Republicans to veto any of Gov. Cooper’s efforts to have the boards undo any of McCrory’s voter suppression efforts, but new Democratic majorities hopefully will now be able to do so soon.
Another major prong of the Republican attack on the rule of law was to dramatically reduce the number of executive branch appointees who serve at the pleasure of the governor, effectively preventing Cooper from firing hundreds of political staffers McCrory had appointed to state agencies. The court once again deemed this unconstitutional, giving the governor more control over the executive branch.
The court’s ruling wasn’t a complete victory for Cooper, however. They upheld the legislature’s unprecedented switch to requiring state Senate approval for cabinet appointees. Although this provision had never been implemented before, this ruling was more to be expected, since the state constitution more explicitly indicated that the legislature had that authority. Finally, a separate lawsuit is still in progress against Republicans’ effort to remove the governor’s control over state Board of Education and University of North Carolina system appointments.
Republicans could attempt to pass a new law that would cut early voting via statute instead of relying on the state board of elections. However, that could run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, and Republicans are currently dealing with the fallout of trying to appeal 2016’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down their sweeping 2013 voter suppression law.
Republican legislators will undoubtedly appeal Friday’s ruling all the way to the North Carolina state Supreme Court. However, after Democrats gained a 4 to 3 majority in a crucial 2016 judicial race, Cooper’s chance of success appears strong. Furthermore, the section of the lower court’s ruling dealing with the elections boards was itself unanimous and bipartisan, meaning there’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court’s three Republican members will even side with the legislature.
● Florida: Sunshine State voters approved two state constitutional amendment ballot initiatives in 2010 that imposed limits on partisan gerrymandering, but Republican legislators promptly ignored them and passed maps to favor themselves ahead of the 2012 elections. That led to successful but drawn out litigation that finally resulted in the state Supreme Court requiring new maps in 2016, which led to Republicans losing multiple congressional seats that they might otherwise have won.
As payback, on Tuesday Republicans used their state Senate majority to pass a bill on a party-line vote that attempts to place restrictions on how judges can deal with redistricting-related lawsuits. One provision would require that, once the early spring filing deadline passes, a map can’t be thrown out until the next election cycle if a lawsuit arises. Another measure would force courts to hold public hearings and accept public submissions before imposing any new map.
Redistricting litigation often moves very slowly, and it oftentimes isn’t feasible to challenge a map the instant a legislature passes it. Additionally, it’s sometimes impractical for a court to hold public hearings over a remedy if there’s an election swiftly approaching. Both of these provisions are thus nothing more than an attempt to allow Republicans to get away with illegal gerrymanders for at least one or more election cycles per decade like they did after 2010, demonstrating why Florida reformers need to use initiatives to create an independent redistricting commission once and for all.
● Georgia: Early in March and without warning, Georgia’s heavily Republican state House rammed through a bill to re-gerrymander several of their own vulnerable districts. Redistricting normally only takes place once each decade immediately after the census, and this egregiously undemocratic action drew sharp outcry from Democrats and voting rights groups, who threatened lawsuits against the new map’s apparent use of the same sort of racial gerrymandering that federal courts have invalidated in several major rulings in recent years.
Republican legislators have now backed down somewhat from their earlier bill by dropping proposed changes to four of the districts that seemed most likely to invite legal challenges over race. However, the state Senate nonetheless passed a revised bill out of committee on a party-line vote that redraws the lines in five Republican-held House seats in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, which is a historically GOP region that swung hard against Trump in 2016. While this amended bill isn’t quite as extreme, it’s still little more than an attempt by Republican legislators to nullify elections when the results displease them.
● Maryland: Maryland’s staunchly Democratic state legislature killed a redistricting reform proposal from Republican Gov. Hogan, which would have created a commission to handle the process rather than leave it up to the partisan majority in the legislature. Maryland is one of the very few states that Democrats gerrymandered after the 2010 census, and Republicans will undoubtedly try to point to this development as a “gotcha” moment of hypocrisy by Democrats. However, Maryland Democrats expressly offered a different way forward on reform that would be far fairer.
In the 2010s round of redistricting, Republicans drew more than five times as many congressional districts nationally as Democrats, and this disparity consequently helped the GOP win a House majority despite losing the popular vote in 2012. While nonpartisan redistricting would make Maryland’s maps fairer—and Maryland’s gerrymander isn’t anywhere near as partisan as many Republican ones to begin with—it would exacerbate the Republican bias nationally when scores of GOP-drawn states like Texas don’t follow suit.
Recognizing this disparate impact, Maryland’s Democratic state legislative leadership threw their support behind a plan that would agree to pass redistricting reform in Maryland only if a handful of other states in the Mid-Atlantic region do so as well, including a few Republican-drawn ones. If Republicans like Hogan are serious about fighting to make elections fairer overall rather than simply using piecemeal reform as an excuse to further disadvantage Democrats, they should get behind a regional attempt at nonpartisan redistricting.
● Arizona: After progressives scored key recent ballot initiative wins like raising the minimum wage to $12-an-hour by 2020, Arizona Republicans have plotted several proposed changes to make it far more difficult to put measures on the ballot in the first place. On Thursday, GOP Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that would ban paying initiative petition-circulators on a per-signature basis, forcing campaigns to pay by the hour or rely on volunteers. This would likely make signature-gathering significantly harder because it would kill the monetary incentive for circulators to obtain as many signatures as possible.
In a grating display of cynicism, Republicans claimed that this change was needed to prevent fraud and “out-of-state” influence, but they expressly didn’t want to ban paying per signature when candidates themselves sought to qualify for the ballot, demonstrating how nonsensical their justification was. Republicans are still debating three other restrictions on the initiative process, but those proposals would all require subsequent voter approval, unlike this change. Those who support the initiative process might once again have to use a ballot referendum itself to fight this latest law.
● North Carolina: Republican legislators have gone to extremes to undermine newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s powers (see our North Carolina item above), so it’s no surprise that they have used their supermajorities to override his first veto to change election laws. Their new measure reintroduces partisan affiliation for local trial court judicial races, which legislators had previously made nonpartisan in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Republicans hope that making these elections partisan will help them oust Democratic and moderate judges in Republican-leaning and conservative areas.
Injecting partisanship into judicial races is far from the worst thing North Carolina Republicans have done—there are, after all, decent arguments for giving voters more information about candidates, of which partisan affiliation is a key piece—but what’s more concerning is how and why they are doing this. Their majorities are only narrowly veto-proof thanks to gerrymanders that were ruled unconstitutional in mid-2016. Rather than require new districts last year, the federal courts might not force maps until 2018, leaving illegally elected Republicans free to override the fairly elected Democratic governor’s vetoes.
Furthermore, Republicans seem to believe that partisan affiliation is useful solely because it will help them win elections, following several high-profile defeats in nonpartisan state Supreme Court races, which they recently made partisan again following 2016. Of course, that could easily backfire in Democratic-favoring election years or districts, which is why one Republican state senator wants to split up countywide judicial districts in populous Democratic-leaning counties, allowing Republicans to gerrymander them and keep several of their judges there.
The judicial gerrymandering bill’s sponsor even acknowledged that “it’s straight-up political,” likely in an attempt to avoid a lawsuit over racial discrimination. However, that brazen display of anti-democratic sentiment could still open up the proposal to legal challenge, since a 2016 federal court ruling against Republicans’ broad voter suppression law essentially held that harming black voters solely because doing so had a partisan advantage was racially discriminatory even without racial animus. Furthermore, if the Supreme Court imposes new limits on partisan gerrymandering, Republicans just left a smoking gun.
Voting Access and Registration
● Delaware: Delaware Democrats recently retained complete control over the state government in a key February state Senate election, and some legislators now want the party to finally use their majorities to improve the blue state’s surprisingly restrictive voting laws. One bill would establish 10 days of early voting, while another would automatically register eligible voters who do business with the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they opt out. A third bill would consolidate state primaries with the presidential ones instead of holding them separately, which could lead to much higher downballot participation in presidential years.
Delaware is one of just 13 states that offers neither in-person early voting nor excuse-free absentee ballots. Additionally, it doesn’t allow same-day registration like a few of the other 13 states do. Easing access to registration and allowing voters to cast a ballot before election day could consequently make it much easier to vote for particular demographics like working-class or young people, meaning these reforms could both increase turnout and cut down on waiting times for those who do vote.
● Hawaii: Hawaii frequently ranks dead last in terms of eligible voter turnout, and some lawmakers in America’s bluest state want to change that. The state House approved a bill in early March that would switch the state entirely to vote-by-mail by 2020, which is how nearly every voter casts a ballot in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, states that have some of the highest turnout rates. There are literally no Republicans in the state Senate, so it’s just a matter of Democrats getting their act together to pass this bill into law. If they do, Hawaii would send every registered voter a ballot via the postal system.