● North Carolina: Republican legislators in the Tar Heel State must be confusing reality for the film Groundhog Day, because they’re attempting to pass the same voter suppression measures over and over again. To refresh: Democrat Roy Cooper won the 2016 governor’s race, entitling his party to hold majorities on all state and county elections boards. In response, Republican legislators passed a law right before GOP Gov. Pat McCrory left office that created an even partisan split on the election boards, ensuring that that they’d deadlock and prevent Democrats from overturning previous Republican voter suppression measures.
Fortunately, a state court struck down that law as violating the state constitution’s separation of powers provision last month, but Republican lawmakers are back at it with a different proposal that tries to accomplish the same goal. Under North Carolina law, the governor gets to appoint all election board members, but the governor’s party is only allowed a one-seat majority over the other major party. Republicans in the legislature tried to give themselves the power to appoint half of all board members and to require that the boards have an even partisan balance, but the court deemed this as a usurpation of executive authority. The GOP’s latest bill seeks to circumvent this ruling by still letting the governor pick all members, but would require him to pick equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
The state House approved this latest scheme nearly along party lines. Thanks to gerrymanders that were ruled unconstitutional in 2016, Republicans narrowly have veto-proof legislative majorities, meaning they will likely be able to override a veto from Cooper. Democrats, in turn, will likely once again have to resort to litigation, and while Team Blue gained a critical majority on the state Supreme Court in 2016, their chances of success are not guaranteed.
On a positive note, bipartisan opposition in a state House committee sunk another GOP proposal cynically intended to give Republicans yet another electoral advantage. This bill would have extended two-year state legislative terms to four years. While four-year terms could potentially be a positive thing—some states exclusively use them—Republicans sought to have legislative elections occur only in midterms, when low turnout disproportionately favors their party, even though elections for governor and the state cabinet coincide with the presidential election cycle.
Voting Rights Cases
● Supreme Court: On Friday, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Donald Trump’s nominee Neil Gorsuch as the next U.S. Supreme Court justice, restoring the five-to-four majority that conservatives lost when Antonin Scalia died in early 2016. Gorsuch’s appointment amounts to the theft of a Supreme Court seat, following the GOP’s unprecedented violation of longstanding political norms when it refused to even hold a hearing for Barack Obama’s nominee for a full year. Republicans even eliminated the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees—deploying the so-called “nuclear option”—to confirm Trump’s pick on a 54-45 vote.
What makes the GOP’s unrivaled destruction of norms even more dangerous is the potential for Gorsuch to now side with fellow conservative ideologues to roll back voting rights. Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was nominated by George W. Bush, the court has generally taken a hostile stance toward voting rights. It even went so far as to strike down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which then allowed Republican-controlled states in the South, whose worst instincts had been curbed by the VRA, to pass a raft of discriminatory voting changes.
One such voter suppression law was passed North Carolina, where Republican legislators had ordered data on which voting methods black voters preferred so that they could eliminate them. A federal appeals court invalidated this law in 2016, ruling that it targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” However, now that Gorsuch will sit on the court in the coming term, Republicans stand an excellent chance of having such discriminatory laws reinstated on appeal. The court’s newest justice will likely similarly defend the ability of Republican legislators to engage in unparalleled gerrymandering and pass a slew of new voting restrictions around the country.
● Greensboro, NC: On Monday, a federal district court struck down a map that North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state legislature had imposed on the city of Greensboro, the state’s third-largest city. In a remarkable affront to local rule, Republican lawmakers passed a law in 2015 that replaced the city council districts that the city itself had drawn and replaced them with gerrymandered lines intended to hurt Democratic and black voters.
Democrats quickly brought a challenge to this new map, and the judges hearing the case have now put a stop to this usurpation of power. The court concluded that the legislature’s map was an impermissible racial gerrymander; that it violated the principle of “one person, one vote”; and that it unfairly singled out Greensboro. The city-drawn map had remained in place for the 2015 elections while litigation was ongoing, and it will now stay in effect for elections in the fall.
Republicans have gone to greater extremes to gerrymander in North Carolina than in practically any other state, and no city has been a victim of their abuses more than Greensboro, a heavily Democratic city of 300,000 that is majority non-white. Since gaining control over redistricting in 2010, Republican legislators have tried to gerrymander Greensboro’s districts for Congress, state legislature, county commission, county school board, and city council. There is literally no elected federal, state, or local legislative body representing Greensboro that Republican state legislators haven’t attempted to distort.
In fact, these gerrymanders are so effective that Greensboro, which typically votes for Democratic presidential candidates by a two-to-one ratio, is represented in the House by zero Democrats. And Guilford County, which is home to Greensboro and roughly half a million people, likewise supported Hillary Clinton by a 58-38 margin, but Republicans have maintained a majority on the county commission ever since 2012—when, of course, they got to draw the map for it.
Courts have, fortunately, repeatedly smacked down these efforts, invalidating GOP gerrymanders of congressional, legislative, and now council districts affecting Greensboro, as well as gerrymanders of governing bodies in other populous locales. But these persistent attacks on the principle of self-rule are par for the course for North Carolina Republicans—just see our lead item above.
● North Dakota: North Dakota’s Republican-dominated state Senate approved a bill that would impose a strict voter ID requirement when voters go to the polls. North Dakota is the lone U.S. state that doesn’t have voter registration at all, so an ID of some sort makes more sense here than in other states, but such a requirement still shouldn’t run the risk of disenfranchising eligible voters when fraud is nearly nonexistent. Under current law, those who lack the proper ID are allowed to sign a sworn affidavit to vote, but Republicans want to eliminate that option.
The state House passed a slightly different measure in February, but once the two chambers reconcile their separate proposals, GOP Gov. Doug Burgum will likely sign the final product into law. This change flies in the face of a 2016 federal court ruling that required an affidavit option because Republicans’ previous voter ID law effectively disenfranchised certain groups of voters like Native Americans, who often live on reservations without driver’s licenses, birth certificates, or even residential addresses.
One in 20 voters used the affidavit option in 2016, and preventing them from voting could help swing close elections to the GOP. Given that Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is up for re-election next year, only won office in 2012 by less than a one percent margin, it’s easy to see a race like that going the other way if Republicans get their way.
Expanding Voting Access
● Hawaii: As expected, legislators in Hawaii’s entirely Democratic state Senate have unanimously advanced a bill out of committee to switch the state to a fully vote-by-mail system by the 2020 elections. The measure recently passed the full state House, and approval from the full Senate appears likely too. However, proponents remain worried that possible differences between the Senate and House versions could sink the bill, which is what happened during the last session of the legislature. After Hawaii once again ranked dead-last in turnout in 2016, the renewed urgency of measures to boost participation might finally sway legislators to get their act together.
● Montana: In a surprise development, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock used his special “amendatory veto” to change an uncontroversial election bill in order to allow local election officials to conduct the upcoming May 25 special election for the state’s sole congressional district entirely by mail. Voting access advocates had been pushing the change as a cost-saving measure that would increase turnout, since every registered voter would be mailed a ballot rather than have to visit a polling place. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington already vote entirely by mail in this fashion, and they consistently rank well above average in terms of turnout.
The Republican-controlled state Senate had already consented to a vote-by-mail bill, but GOP legislators in the state House had blocked such a proposal from even receiving a floor vote. And we know the move was entirely cynical because the state’s Republican Party chair openly admitted that the GOP was opposed to such a measure solely because it could help Democrats!
But Bullock’s power play has put the screws to Republicans. The changes the governor made to this new election law with his amendatory veto don’t automatically become law; rather, the legislature gets the chance to vote on them. This time, though, it appears that the GOP can’t try to bottle things up with procedural moves and will have to allow a vote by the full House. Given what transpired in the Senate, there’s good reason to think Democrats could secure enough Republican support to pass the bill in the lower chamber, too, and thus complete an end-run around GOP obstructionists.