● Redistricting Reform: Former Attorney General Eric Holder formally launched a new redistricting reform effort backed by key party leaders called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The NDRC aims to deploy an entirely new level of resources to prevent Republicans from obtaining the same systematic advantage in congressional and state legislative redistricting following the 2020 census, which the GOP used after 2010 to lock Democrats out of power in Congress and legislative chambers across the country.
Just as Daily Kos Elections itself has proposed, the NDRC plans a multi-step strategy of targeting critical gubernatorial and state legislative races in order to break Republicans’ grip on key state governments. These plans significantly include waging court challenges and using ballot initiatives to directly reform redistricting laws, both of which have often been badly underfinanced.
Combined with President Obama’s plans to reportedly make redistricting a major focus after he leaves office, and former DCCC chair Steve Israel’s recently joining the Democratic Governors Association’s “Unrig the Map” project, Holder’s leadership of the NDRC indicates that national Democrats are dead serious about helping to cure America’s GOP gerrymandering epidemic. That marks a major turnaround from the 2010s redistricting cycle, when Democrats had no national organization comparable to the GOP’s REDMAP project, which Republicans enacted with devastating effectiveness. You can find out more about how you can support the NDRC by visiting their website. They’re also on Twitter and Facebook.
Voting Rights Act
● Texas: A federal district court recently tuled that the Houston suburb of Pasadena intentionally discriminated against Latinos in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment when it turned two of its eight single-member city council seats into at-large districts in 2013, ordering the city of 154,000 to revert back to its previous districts for the 2017 elections. As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg covered in a 2015 exposé on the systematic attack on Latino voting rights in America that focused on Pasadena, at-large districts have long been an instrumental strategy for white politicians to dilute the power of minority voters.
For Pasadena, this meant replacing two council districts, one of which could have elected the candidate whom Latinos preferred, with two at-large seats, neither of which likely could. Such a move flagrantly diluted the voting strength of the city’s growing Latino population in violation of Section 2 of the VRA, which requires mapmakers to draw relatively compact districts that can elect minority voters’ candidates of choice when voting typically breaks down along racially polarized lines. White officials in Pasadena enacted their new plan precisely because they feared that Latino-favored candidates could have otherwise gained a majority in 2015.
This ruling was a resounding victory for voting rights because it marked the first time that a court had placed any jurisdiction back under “preclearance” since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013 that had required a large number of predominantly Southern states like Texas with a history of racial discrimination to clear any proposed voting changes with the Justice Department. That decision, Shelby County v. Holder, eliminated the traditional preclearance regime, prompting white Republicans in many states and cities to rush an array of restrictive voting laws into law.
But preclearance isn’t entirely dead. In Pasadena, the district court was able to use another provision of the VRA to “bail” Pasadena back into preclearance by finding officials had intentionally discriminated. These Republican officeholders will almost certainly appeal the ruling and could soon find itself before a Supreme Court with four justices implacably hostile to voting rights after Trump picks Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Nonetheless, if Justice Anthony Kennedy can be swayed to uphold this decision, the threat of imposing preclearance via this “bail-in” procedure might become a viable option for deterring some of the most flagrantly discriminatory voting laws.
Unfortunately, Republicans are about to take over the Justice Department, and Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, is an extreme enemy of voting rights, so even if Pasadena is required to clear future changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department, Sessions may just give the city a green light to do whatever it pleases. However, should Democrats regain the presidency and thus the Justice Department, they might one day follow the precedent to partly overcome congressional Republicans’ opposition to restoring the full Voting Rights Act.
● Attorney General: Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general proceeded this week as he stumbled through his confirmation hearings apparently unscathed. Many key Democratic senators announced their opposition, but since Democrats would need three Republican votes to block Sessions even if the entire party were unanimous in opposition, his chance of confirmation appeared strong after faux centrist GOP Sen. Susan Collins effusively backed him.
Sessions’ nomination as the nation’s top law enforcement officer is the surest sign possible that the incoming Trump administration will take an extremely hostile stance toward voting rights, as The Nation’s Ari Berman has detailed extensively in his coverage of the senator’s reactionary record (here and here). During his confirmation hearings, Sessions reiterated that he believes the Voting Rights Act is “intrusive” of states’ rights, claimed that voter ID laws are not discriminatory, and feigned ignorance of recent major 2016 court rulings that explicitly found that such voter ID laws were, in fact, discriminatory.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Sessions has expressed no remorse for, back in 1985, becoming the first prosecutor after the Voting Rights Act’s passage to charge civil rights activists for bogus voter fraud when they attempted to help minorities to exercise their right to vote. (Sessions at the time was a U.S. attorney.) Now Sessions’ powers will be far greater. He could use office to switch sides on major voting rights lawsuits, direct U.S. attorneys to prosecute concocted voter fraud cases, and generally turn the Justice Department from a crusader for minority voting rights, as it was under Obama, into the instrument of their demise.
● Iowa: Republicans gained complete control over Iowa’s state government last fall, and they swiftly began talking about changes to voting laws, including a new requirement for voter ID. However, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate is now publicly backpedaling, claiming his voter ID proposal didn’t aim to fight supposed fraud but rather was designed streamline election administration. He supposedly wants to require a suitable ID card from every voter but would issue a photo-less one for free to everyone who lacks the appropriate ID and allow provisional ballots from those who lack ID.
It remains to be seen whether legislators will actually implement Pate’s proposal or a stricter one. Regardless, voting rights advocates can’t rest easy given the GOP’s record of introducing voting restrictions in state after state since winning control over legislatures across the country after 2010.
Early Voting & Registration
● New York: The Empire State is one of just 13 that does not offer any form of in-person early or absentee voting without an excuse. Although it has long polling hours on Election Day and allows excused absentee ballots, this lack of options can be burdensome for many voters, and New York regularly has one of the nation’s lower turnout rates. In a surprise move, though, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo just released a sweeping proposal of reforms that would require 12 days of early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration for those who interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out.
These proposals are a welcome change from Cuomo, who in the past has done little to advance the cause of voting rights. However, they could face stiff opposition from the Republican-led coalition that controls the state Senate along with several turncoat Democrats. And a huge reason this obstacle exists is because Cuomo duplicitously signed one of the nation’s most aggressive Republican gerrymanders, which is how the GOP has retained control of the chamber in such a blue state.
Notably, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently proposed some of these reforms himself, indicating that a possible 2018 gubernatorial primary between him and Cuomo could see both Democrats campaign on voting reforms.
● Virginia: Like New York, Virginia is another state that lacks early voting. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe just unveiled a package of reforms that include allowing voters to cast absentee ballots in-person and without an excuse for three weeks before an election. The governor is also advocating for the repeal the state’s voter ID law, although Virginia’s requirement isn’t as strict as in other states. The Republican-controlled legislature almost certainly won’t let McAuliffe get anywhere, but these proposals demonstrate the Democratic Party’s commitment to voting rights ahead of this year’s crucial gubernatorial election, where a Republican victory could lead to new voting restrictions.
● Wyoming: A new Republican bill in Wyoming would streamline the process for those with non-violent felony convictions to regain their voting rights upon the completion of their sentences. Wyoming currently has one of the harshest laws on felony disenfranchisement, with five percent of the population unable to vote, including an enormous 17 percent of the state’s small African-American population. At present, those who have completed their sentences have to go through a burdensome application process to restore their right to vote. As a result, almost three quarters of the state’s disenfranchised population have fully served their sentences.
This bill would make the restoration process automatic for many of those convicted of non-violent felonies. While this reform would be far from perfect—for instance, Maine and Vermont don’t disenfranchise anyone with felony convictions—it could dramatically reduce the proportion of disenfranchised voters. Wyoming’s legislature has an overwhelming Republican majority, but a bipartisan group of legislators has sponsored the bill, meaning its hopes for passage can’t be ruled out.
Election Timing & Turnout
● Kentucky: A Republican state senator has proposed a state constitutional amendment that would move statewide elections from odd-numbered years to coincide with presidential elections starting in 2024. If such an amendment passed the legislature, it would go before voters on the 2018 ballot. Republicans gained total control over state government in 2016 for the first time in history, but it’s uncertain whether this proposal could attain broad support, particularly since Democrats might oppose it if they think it would be harder to win in an election where their party’s presidential nominee would likely lose by a landslide.
Any partisan motivations aside, consolidating elections with the presidential cycle would increase participation more than any other reform short of compulsory voting. Kentucky’s 2015 turnout rate was a paltry 30 percent of eligible voters despite featuring a heavily contested gubernatorial election, while the uncompetitive 2016 presidential election in the state saw approximately 59 percent of eligible voters participate. Only 11 other states hold their gubernatorial elections in presidential years, and doing so in Kentucky could practically double turnout in downballot races.