● Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court recently dealt Republican gerrymandering a major setback when it agreed to take jurisdiction over a lawsuit that argues that the state's congressional map is a partisan gerrymander in violation of the state constitution. With Democrats holding a majority on the court, there is a strong chance Pennsylvania could have new congressional districts in time for the 2018 midterms. However, Republicans aren't giving up without a fight.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, engaged in a desperate attempt to drag things out further by trying to get the case moved to federal court on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ demands would supposedly interfere with the 18th Congressional District special election taking place on March 13. That plan quickly fell apart and rightly so, since the plaintiffs' entire case rests exclusively upon state constitutional grounds and would not impose new districts until the November 2018 elections.
Moving the case to federal court likely would have delayed its resolution until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the landmark Whitford v. Gill case over partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, which may not happen until June. That would have left Pennsylvania with too little time to produce a new map for 2018. But with the matter back in state court, an appellate-level court will conduct a trial starting Dec. 11 and has until no later than Dec. 31 to report its findings and conclusions to the state Supreme Court, which is seeking to expedite the case so that it can conclude in time for the midterm elections.
Although this state-level lawsuit stands by far the best chance of success, it isn't the only one targeting the Pennsylvania GOP's congressional map. There are now two federal lawsuits challenging the GOP's district lines, though they're each making different arguments. The first case was filed in early October, and in an unusual move, plaintiffs there have argued that the map's partisanship violates the Constitution's Elections Clause, something the Supreme Court has never before ruled on. That case is nonetheless slated to proceed to trial on Dec. 5.
The second federal lawsuit was just filed on Nov. 9 and relies more on a Whitford-style claim that excessive partisanship violates the First and 14th Amendments. Although this reasoning has yet to persuade swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, it's on much firmer ground given past precedent and Kennedy's own opinions. Nevertheless, both of these federal cases could end up becoming moot, since the state-level case will likely reach a resolution much sooner. On the whole, Pennsylvania stands a good chance of having fairer districts in 2018.
● Terrebonne Parish, LA: Back in August, a federal district court ruled that Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, violated both the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution by electing all five of its local judges at-large, depriving black voters in the the parish of an equal opportunity to elect judges of their choice. On Tuesday, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court rejected an appeal by Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards that tried to block the ruling before the court can order a remedy.
The Fifth Circuit's decision means the district court can continue to devise a remedy, which would likely entail ordering the state to switch the parish to a district-based electoral system before the next regularly scheduled elections take place in 2020. Although Terrebonne has just 114,000 residents, this case could have implications for a more recent lawsuit over Alabama's state Supreme Court and other appellate courts that elect judges statewide instead of by districts. Victory in the Alabama case could subsequently see black judges return to the state’s highest courts, from which they’ve long been absent.
● North Carolina: Court-appointed expert Nathaniel Persily has released his initial draft of proposed redraws of several North Carolina state legislative districts in the ongoing litigation against Republican gerrymandering, which we’ve previously examined in depth. These proposals are not final, but the judges overseeing this case will likely produce maps that look very much like these after the Dec. 1 deadline passes for Persily to complete his work.
The district court has not yet technically blocked any of the new lines that Republican legislators drew earlier in 2017 following a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a slew of districts for illegally diluting the strength of black voters. However, the court’s appointment of Persily as its nonpartisan redistricting expert is a strong signal that it will impose its own districts to remedy federal and state constitutional violations that are still present under the GOP's new maps.
Persily's proposals largely affect counties containing the major cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Fayetteville. If they end up becoming law, Democrats could gain two state Senate seats and a handful of state House seats in 2018 as a direct consequence. Although these proposed districts still leave in place considerable parts of the GOP’s own gerrymanders, the new maps would leave Democrats well-positioned to finally break the GOP's supermajorities next year and ultimately uphold Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes.
Elsewhere in the world of North Carolina redistricting, prominent attorney Anita Earls has announced that she will challenge Republican state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson as a Democrat in the 2018 general election. Earls has successfully argued major voting rights lawsuits against the North Carolina GOP's voter ID laws and racial gerrymandering.
With Jackson looking vulnerable as 2018 shapes up to be a favorable year for Democrats, state Republicans have been plotting to change the way judges are elected. Democrats currently hold a four-to-three majority on the state’s high court, but Republican efforts to preserve their three seats and reclaim the majority will be particularly critical for redistricting after the 2020 census, since the Democratic majority would likely be inclined to block the most extreme elements of future Republican gerrymanders.
● Washington: Democrats regained power in the state Senate in a pivotal special election this month, giving them unified control over both legislative chambers and the governor's office for the first time in several years. With that control comes the prospect for passing key progressive election reforms. Some Democrats have raised the possibility of passing automatic voter registration, but the likeliest new law is the Washington Voting Rights Act, which would make it easier for cities and counties to switch from at-large local elections to those using districts.
Cities across the U.S. have increasingly made this change in recent years. However, it often only comes after lengthy legal battles like the one that forced Yakima, Washington to draw districts for Latino voters, who previously could not elect their preferred candidates thanks to opposition from the city’s white majority. The state’s proposed new law would provide a way for localities to adopt fairer voting systems while avoiding costly court battles, and its passage would likely lead to the election of more Latino officials in heavily agricultural Eastern Washington in particular.
● Maine: The campaign to save instant-runoff voting is off to a good start after organizers of a veto referendum to preserve the voter-approved law have already collected 32,000 signatures since Nov. 6 to put the matter before voters in June (61,000 total are needed by early February). As we have previously explained, reformers are attempting to veto the legislature's new law that would delay and then almost certainly automatically repeal the new electoral system in 2021.
● Arizona: An alliance of voting rights organizations has filed a complaint against Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan contending that Arizona is in violation of the National Voter Registration Act and threatening a lawsuit if the state doesn't remedy the problem within 90 days. The groups argue that Arizona is failing to provide services to register to vote for people who move within the state, and they also say that public assistance offices are failing to offer voter registration applications to those applying for aid, as they’re required to do.
Although the NVRA, better known as the Motor Voter Law, was passed all the way back in 1993, some states are still recalcitrant about enforcing it. If Arizona is indeed failing to comply with the law in these specific ways, it could effectively be making it more difficult for many Democratic-leaning voters to register, such as low-income voters and renters who move more frequently. This burden would fall particularly on black and Latino voters, which could further bolster a potential lawsuit.
● New York City, NY: America's most populous city could soon allow any eligible voter to register online after the city council passed a bill creating such a system on Thursday, which Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign. Current law requires online registrants to have a driver's license or a non-driver ID card, but high-density New York is famous for its large population of non-drivers who rely on public transportation, many of whom may lack licenses. This bill would do away with this ID requirement to make registration as easy as possible and promote turnout.
● Virginia: Virginia's 2017 elections aren’t over yet: The races for three Republican-held state House seats are close enough that one or more are likely headed toward recounts. Republican candidates currently hold slim leads in each race, and if they hold, that would give the GOP a 51-49 majority in the House, but Democrats have raised concerns about how ballots are being tallied even before a any recounts take place.
One of these races is the 28th State House District, located around Fredericksburg. Republican candidate Bob Thomas holds an 82-vote lead over Democrat Joshua Cole, but the Stafford County Board of Elections has refused to count 55 absentee ballots that the board received after the deadline on Election Day. Democrats argued that those ballots were mailed in time to count, and that it was either the postal service or election registrar's fault for not getting them in time. However, both a state and federal court have rejected lawsuits to force the board to count the ballots, and there’s no word about any possible appeals.
Far more troubling is an issue Democrats raised about 688 voters who potentially received ballots for the wrong state House race in Fredericksburg itself, which if true would have almost certainly deprived Cole of victory given the area's Democratic lean. Virginia's state code, which describes the exact contours of every legislative district as they were crafted in 2011, lists only one of the city's precincts as being split between the 28th District and the neighboring 88th District, but the actual election results somehow show three precincts getting split between the two districts.
Election expert Michael McDonald argues that the most likely explanation is that the precincts were redrawn at the local level at some point since 2011, which wouldn't affect the borders of any House districts. However, he points out that the city of Fredericksburg's own code doesn't clarify the issue, meaning one of two things: either officials made an undocumented precinct boundary change or voters were indeed given the wrong ballots. While the redrawing of precincts could be the cause of this apparent discrepancy, the matter deserves further investigation given the serious stakes if it turns out voters were given the wrong ballots, and Democrats have sent a letter to the state board of elections asking it to clarify and resolve these issues before certifying the results.