● Voter Suppression: Right after he appeared to commit obstruction of justice by firing FBI Director James Comey to derail an investigation of collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump once again resorted to phony voter fraud claims to change the subject. On Thursday, Trump issued an executive order to create a voting integrity commission. But by having Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach chair it, the commission’s true purpose was obvious: to issue a predetermined finding that uses bogus evidence to legitimize voter suppression.
This new commission will ostensibly be tasked with investigating “confidence in the integrity of the voting processes,” but unlike past bipartisan commissions, its leaders aren’t members of both parties who are respected for their independence. Instead, it’s two partisan Republicans with a history of crusading to suppress votes. In October of 2016 when Pence was governor, Indiana state police raided the offices of a group that was trying to register black and low-income voters, confiscating tens of thousands of voter registration forms over ten suspected improper applications in a likely effort to intimidate those who might attempt voter-registration drives.
Meanwhile, Kobach’s voter suppression record in Kansas could fill a book. Convincing legislators to empower him to prosecute voter fraud, Kobach had also pushed a law that forced Kansans to provide proof-of-citizenship documentation to register to vote, documents that many can’t readily provide when canvassers conduct registration drives. This law had suspended one in seven new registrations even though Kobach himself had successfully prosecuted exactly one non-citizen voter. Courts later blocked that requirement and have repeatedly rebuked Kobach, most recently ordering him to surrender documents from his meeting with Trump last year over voter suppression measures.
This commission is unnecessary for studying the prevalence of voter fraud because the entire wealth of evidence that already exists unequivocally indicates that fraud is so extremely rare that it’s practically nonexistent, contrary to Trump’s claim that there were 3-to-5 million illegal voters. Ironically, Trump’s own lawyers argued that fraud was essentially negligible when they successfully persuaded a court to halt a post-election recount in Michigan.
Instead, this GOP-led commission will merely serve to lend credibility to a voter suppression campaign that Republicans have already planned. Indeed, a photo of Kobach’s November meeting with Trump shown at the top of this post revealed him holding a document that proposed changing the National Voter Registration Act, possibly to require proof-of-citizenship and conduct mass purges of the registries. While this commission will supposedly include Democrats, any self-respecting party member who believes in democracy should refuse to take part because participating will only add a false veneer of bipartisanship to this witch hunt.
● Nebraska: Just as they repeatedly have done in recent years, Republican legislators once again failed to advance a voter ID proposal, even though they hold just over two-thirds of the seats in the unicameral legislature. On a 25-17 vote in favor, Republicans attained just a bare majority in the 49-seat chamber, but that was far shy of both the 33 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster and even the 30 needed to actually refer their proposed constitutional amendment to the voters in 2018. Nebraska is one of the rare few red states without any voter ID law, and it will remain that way for the time being.
● Texas: Republican legislators recently used their state House majority to approve a bill on a near party-line vote that would eliminate the straight-ticket voting option. Because Texas holds partisan elections for a whole slew of non-legislative offices such as judges, many statewide executive positions, and county officials, there are often several dozen partisan races on the ballot each year. Eliminating this option, which most voters used in 2016, could lead to more voters skipping downballot races. This could also make it take much longer to vote, which could subsequently cause long lines that may deter voters from participating.
Undervoting and long voting lines are probably exactly what Republicans are counting on, since heavily Democratic demographics like Latinos and especially black voters are more likely to use straight-ticket voting than whites. If the similarly heavily Republican state Senate and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott pass this bill into law, opponents will have no recourse save litigation. They may have decent voting rights legal case after a 2016 court ruling blocked the Michigan GOP’s attempt to eliminate the straight-ticket option because its racially disparate impact violated federal law.
● Wisconsin: The major Democratic super PAC Priorities USA unveiled a new study on Tuesday from the progressive data science firm Civis Analytics on the impact of Republican-passed voter ID laws on the 2016 election. This study sparked a firestorm of debate over its bombshell finding that the Wisconsin’s GOP voter ID law suppressed roughly 200,000 disproportionately Democratic-leaning and black voters. Their postulated 6 percent drop in turnout likely would have handed the long-time blue state to Trump, who prevailed there by just 22,748 votes, or 0.8 points over Hillary Clinton.
However, several political scientists and data analysts have urged interpreting this study with caution due to qualms over its methodology. While Civis has a wealth of fine-grained information such as voter-file data, they conducted their analysis at the state and county level, making it highly difficult to control for certain confounding variables. Civis’ study still has value, but far more research on the subject is needed precisely because studying the effects of such laws is so difficult. Many scholars believe that voter ID laws can depress turnout, but the exact impact remains quite uncertain and one widely shared study from earlier in 2017 fell apart under scrutiny.
Civis finding a large 6 percent turnout drop in Wisconsin might seem too large to believe based on past research, but even a much smaller impact may have still proved decisive given Trump’s razor-thin victory margin. And of course, Republican legislators wouldn’t have passed voter ID in state after state if they didn’t believe it helped their party—indeed, many have occasionally slipped up and said so out loud. Regardless of whether these laws help elect Republicans, disenfranchising disproportionately black and Latino eligible voters to combat nearly non-existent voter fraud is itself a deep perversion of democracy.
● California: The Democratic-run California state government has recently made great strides toward making it easier to vote, including passing automatic voter registration and a dramatic expansion of vote-by-mail, where the state mails voters a ballot instead of staffing polling places. However, a recent report from the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice details how California isn’t doing enough to address a challenge that most other less-diverse states don’t face: making sure many voters whose primary language isn’t English can receive assistance when casting a ballot.
As part of the 1975 expansion of the Voting Rights Act designed largely with Latinos in mind, federal law requires states to provide multilingual voting assistance such as sample ballots and instructions in locations where language minorities form a substantial share of the population. California has its own complementary statute from the 1980s, but the report finds that it hasn’t been able to keep up with the subsequent surge of immigration that has brought a vast array of different linguistic groups to California, leaving many polling places without adequate non-English material for Asian Americans in particular, but even for many Latino voters.
This problem could become even more acute as California transitions to casting an even larger proportion of its votes by mail, a process intended to make voting more convenient and accessible. Some Democratic legislators are now sponsoring a bill that would require non-English sample ballots if voters request them and mail them relevant procedural information in their language, although it remains to be seen if legislators will pass the proposal.
● Nebraska: State senators in Nebraska’s unicameral Republican-majority legislature failed to override GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill that would end the two year waiting period for those with past felony convictions to regain their voting rights following the completion of their sentences. A bipartisan group of legislators originally passed the bill 27-13, but could only muster a 23-23 tie on override, demonstrating just how far away proponents were from securing the 30 of 49 votes needed to overcome Ricketts’ opposition.
This reform would have only restored voting rights to roughly 7,000 citizens, but it would have been a laudable step toward ending a racially discriminatory policy that disenfranchises black adults at five times the rate of whites. With Republicans likely to remain firmly in power in this dark-red state, those seeking to curtail this historically racist policy in Nebraska might have a better chance of future success by sidestepping the governor entirely via a ballot initiative, which is what activists in Florida are currently attempting.
● Alabama: The Republican-dominated state House has approved a bill to redraw its own districts following a federal court ruling earlier in 2017 that struck down a dozen legislative seats across both chambers for illegally packing black voters into too few districts to dilute their influence in surrounding seats. The House bill will now head to the similarly GOP-heavy state Senate, while the Senate had passed a new map for its own chamber’s districts a week earlier, which the House is now considering.
Republican legislators have until a May 25 court deadline to pass new maps into law, and the court will get to review the ultimate changes before 2018’s elections, when every seat will be up. Despite having little real legislative power, Democrats and black legislators argue that the new maps still do little to remedy the harm against black voters that prompted the court to invalidate the existing maps, and they will undoubtedly push for the court to step in and draw its own districts instead of just allowing Republicans to pass another gerrymander.
● Maryland: Despite being one of the few states Democrats actually got to gerrymander after 2010, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan unsurprisingly vetoed a Democratic-backed bill that would create a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Maryland. The reason: The Democratic proposal would only take effect if five nearby states also set up their own nonpartisan redistricting systems, including a handful of Republican-drawn states. Democrats passed the bill with narrowly veto-proof majorities, and they could override Hogan’s veto if they can limit any further defections.
Hogan has attacked the Democratic plan as a stalling mechanism to thwart his own proposal for Maryland to reform redistricting unilaterally, which the legislature recently rejected. However, given the severe national bias toward Republicans in congressional redistricting, Maryland Democrats have good reason not to want to enact a unilateral reform in one of the rare Democratic-drawn states while scores of GOP-controlled states don’t follow suit. Doing so would only further entrench the GOP’s unfair advantage nationwide, calling into question whether Hogan’s motivation for unilateral reform is really just a cynical partisan ploy.