● Voter ID: We’ve always suspected it, but now new academic research confirms it: Strict voter ID laws do indeed disproportionately lower turnout among Latino, black, and Asian voters compared to whites, which of course benefits conservatives and the Republican Party. The authors of this new study found that strict ID laws—where registered voters must show a photo ID to have their vote count, and no exceptions are permitted—depressed Latino turnout rates the most, followed by black and Asian-American turnout, yet white turnout was largely unaffected.
Those findings held true even when researchers accounted for a variety of other factors, and they were even more acute in primaries. That latter point is critical because many states and cities hold elections for important races such as city council seats, judgeships, and even state constitutional amendments at times other than November general elections. It also means voter ID can make even Democratic primary electorates whiter. In sum, these effects yield electorates that are whiter and more conservative—and consequently more Republican-leaning.
The study’s authors attempted to improve upon previous research that had generally been inconclusive. Among other things, this newer study used data from as recently as 2014. That date is crucial because many states only passed strict voter ID laws after Republicans took power following the 2010 elections. In addition, states like Texas were only able to implement their strict ID laws once the Supreme Court gutted an essential provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. As more detailed 2016 data becomes available, future scholarship should be able to more definitively quantify just how racially discriminatory voter ID laws truly are.
Republicans always claim voter ID laws are meant to stamp out voter fraud, but a large body of research has already proven just how incredibly rare such fraud is. In fact, one review of votes cast in 2016 so far found only four cases of so-called “impersonation” fraud in an election in which nearly 140 million Americans cast ballots. This latest research further demonstrates just how, well, fraudulent Republican justifications for voter ID really are. In the end, they’re nothing more than an effort to suppress Latino, black, and Asian-American voters from casting ballots.
● Iowa: Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate recently revealed that he was only aware of 10 potentially improper votes out of over 1.6 million cast in Iowa in 2016, a rate that is practically negligible and, needless to say, swung exactly zero elections. Furthermore, an Associated Press analysis concluded that most of those rare instances involved simple mistakes, such as election officials failing to disqualify an ineligible registration, rather than intentional fraud.
Pate has been pushing for a voter ID bill that he says is intended to streamline election administration, and his rules wouldn’t require a photo and would also provide free IDs. But despite Pate’s evidence showing just how non-existent voter fraud is in the Hawkeye State, some Iowa Republicans are hoping to use the party’s first unified control over state government in nearly two decades to pass a stricter voter ID bill that would make a photo mandatory. As we noted in the item just above, there's really only one reason why they’d do that.
● New Hampshire: Republicans won complete control over the Granite State’s government in 2016 for the first time in more than a decade, and they swiftly began contemplating a slew of different bills to make it more difficult to vote. Now it appears that the GOP is particularly keen on repealing same-day voter registration and changing residency requirements to exclude certain voters, the latter of which might violate past legal rulings.
Donald Trump himself falsely claimed last week that he and former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte only lost New Hampshire in 2016 because thousands of Massachusetts residents came by the busload to illegally vote. This accusation drew widespread rebuke, including from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who’s served in the post for four decades, and even from former state Republican Party chair Fergus Cullen. However, it echoes b.s. claims that new GOP Gov. Chris Sununu put forth without evidence just prior to the election.
Republican legislators appear to be especially enthusiastic about changing residency requirements, which currently only require that voters live in the state. A variety of proposed bills would restrict eligibility to residents who intend to remain in New Hampshire indefinitely; have changed their car registry and driver's license to New Hampshire; reside in the state for at least 210 days a year. They’d also impose a 13-day waiting period before new residents could even register to vote. These moves are squarely aimed at cutting off college students and young adults, who tend to come from out of state or move around frequently—and vote disproportionately Democratic.
Such changes might even violate a 1979 Supreme Court ruling called Symm v. United States that held that resident college students could register at school or their previous home address. Another 1972 court ruling in New Hampshire said that citizens who planned to leave the state in the future were still entitled to vote. And the New Hampshire Supreme Court itself even struck down a previous GOP-initiated residency requirement law in 2015 and could potentially do the same with future changes.
Unfortunately, new residency requirements and other voting changes might pass judicial muster on the federal level once Trump begins appointing new Supreme Court justices who will, without doubt, be implacably opposed to voting rights. Roughly 11 percent of all voters in New Hampshire used same-day registration, and about one percent of all voters were same-day registrants who used an out-of-state ID. While that number might seem small, Trump only lost New Hampshire by 0.4 points and Ayotte by a razor-thin 0.1 percent margin. So if Republicans get their way, they could easily wind up tipping close elections like these in their favor by suppressing the vote.
● North Carolina: After Democrat Roy Cooper ousted Republican Pat McCrory from the governor’s office in 2016, lame-duck Republican legislators rushed to pass a law that no longer gives the governor’s party a one-seat majority on all 101 state and county elections boards. Their new measure created a partisan deadlock, effectively giving Republicans veto power under a veneer of bipartisanship.
This unprecedented power grab was an attempt to undermine democracy itself because the GOP had used its own majorities on these boards under McCrory’s tenure to implement voter suppression measures (such as limits on early voting) that Cooper would naturally want to reverse. Accordingly, Cooper sued to block the law, and last week the North Carolina Supreme Court reinstated a temporary stay barring the law from taking effect while the governor’s lawsuit proceeds. A trial court had originally blocked the law, but a recent appeals court decision in favor of the GOP let the law go into effect despite Cooper’s pending lawsuit. That appellate ruling has now been overturned by the state’s highest court.
As for the ultimate question of whether the law itself is unconstitutional, that will almost certainly wind up before the state Supreme Court at some point in the coming months. And that’s why it’s so critical that Democrats gained a four-to-three majority on that court in 2016’s elections.
● Virginia: In 2016, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe took executive action to begin restoring the voting rights of roughly 200,000 people with felony convictions who had already served their sentences. GOP lawmakers vociferously opposed the governor’s efforts and unsuccessfully fought him in court. So what did they do next? Last week, Republicans used their one-seat majority in the state Senate to pass a constitutional amendment on a strictly party-line vote that would significantly constrain the governor’s authority to restore voting rights.
Republicans claim that their amendment would streamline the process for those with nonviolent convictions by making it automatic rather than dependent on the governor’s actions. However, it would impose new impediments by requiring the payment of all fines, fees, or restitution, which opponents have argued would effectively constitute a poll tax—something forbidden by the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Furthermore, the amendment would force those with violent felony convictions to wait five years not just from when their sentences ended but rather from that point at which they’ve paid off all fines or fees before they could apply to regain their rights.
The felony disenfranchisement regime in Virginia prior to McAuliffe’s decisive action was of the harshest in the nation—an explicit byproduct of white supremacy during Jim Crow. Before the governor’s executive orders, the state disenfranchised one in five black citizens, a rate that was five times higher than that of whites. Indeed, African-Americans constituted almost half of those whose voting rights McAuliffe began to restore, even though they only make up one-fifth of the state’s population.
In order to actually become part of the state constitution, this amendment has several more hurdles to climb. It would need to pass the GOP-dominated state House this year (which should happen easily) and then pass again in both chambers in a legislative session after the 2017 state elections. After that, it would face a voter referendum for approval. However, with no state Senate elections in 2017, Democrats would have to flip the heavily gerrymandered state House this November to stop Republicans from putting this Trojan horse measure up to a future statewide vote.
● Mississippi: With near unanimous support, the Republican-controlled state House passed two bills that would allow limited online voter registration and set up a study committee on restoring voting rights for those with non-violent felony convictions. Mississippi disenfranchises one in 10 citizens, the second-highest rate of any state. It currently requires those seeking to regain their right to vote to attain approval from either the legislature or governor, an extremely burdensome process that leaves most people permanently disenfranchised even after parole or probation.
Unfortunately, both bills face much steeper odds in the GOP-dominated state Senate. Key senators sound hostile to reform and had killed a previously House-approved online registration bill in 2016, but proponents remain hopeful for a different outcome this year.
Electoral & campaign finance reform
● Maine: Following a 2016 voter initiative, Maine became the first state in the country to adopt instant-runoff voting for Senate, House, gubernatorial, and state legislative races in an effort to reduce the chances of candidates winning with only a plurality rather than a majority. The new system lets voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no one attains a majority in the first round, the last place candidate gets eliminated, and votes for that candidate shift to each voter’s second preference. That process repeats until one candidate achieves a majority.
Opponents of the reform have promised to challenge the law in court. They argue that the state constitution requires the candidate who wins the most votes get elected, which in their eyes means the candidate who wins a simple plurality. Following a bipartisan request from Maine’s state Senate to review the law in advance of the 2018 elections, the state Supreme Court has now set a date of April 13 for when it will begin hearing arguments about the statute’s constitutionality.
● South Dakota: Republican legislators recently invoked an official “state of emergency” to repeal a law—approved by voters at the ballot box—called Measure 22 that created an independent ethics commission, established a public campaign finance system, and set forth new restrictions on lobbying. Now some of those those same legislators want to place new constraints on ballot measure campaigns themselves by limiting campaign committees to just $100,000 in out-of-state contributions, which likely would have crippled Measure 22’s fundraising in 2016.
Such restrictions could run afoul of previous U.S. Supreme Court court rulings that deem campaign donations to be protected free speech, regardless of what state they come from, so it’s more than a little ironic that Republicans have finally found a campaign finance restriction that they can get on board with. However, with Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other top Republicans seemingly supportive of the proposals, it might soon become law, though a legal fight would be likely.
● Election Administration: Republicans on a key U.S. House committee voted to eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, which was created after the Florida recount debacle in 2000 to help states run their elections. Among other things, the commission is the only federal agency devoted to making sure a state’s aging election machines aren’t vulnerable to getting hacked or falling into disrepair. You mean to say the GOP wants to make it easier for our elections to get hacked? No way!
Republicans also moved to end the public-financing system for presidential elections, but ever since Barack Obama successfully eschewed public funding to dwarf John McCain’s fundraising in 2008 campaign spending, no major-party nominee has utilized public funding, since it effectively limits how much they can spend. It’s unclear what the full House and especially the Senate will do with these measures, but Republicans have long tried to get rid of the agency, because why should voting be run well?
● North Carolina: A federal court panel struck down many of North Carolina’s state legislative districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders last year, ordering new maps to be drawn and special elections to take place in the affected districts this November. However, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed that ruling in January pending an appeal. Since then, the court has taken no action and hasn’t even granted a petition to hear the full case.
Election law expert Rick Hasen recently stated that he thinks special elections are quite unlikely in 2017 because the court is holding off on the North Carolina appeal until it resolves other major racial gerrymandering challenges that are coming up soon. That’s bad news for Democrats, who had hoped new lines would allow them to break the Republican supermajorities this year and, as a result, be able to sustain Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. However, the case could still get resolved for the regularly scheduled 2018 elections. If new lines are in place by then, Democrats would have a good chance at unlocking the GOP’s stranglehold on the legislature.