● North Carolina: On Monday, a federal district court declined to order special elections this year for a slew of North Carolina legislative districts that will have to be redrawn after the Supreme Court struck down the Republican-drawn maps as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in June. This ruling is unwelcome news for voting rights advocates and Democrats, who had sought to hold new elections before next year’s legislative session, especially since these illegal maps have been in place for most of this decade.
However, the judges did order an expedited timetable for re-redistricting that will still ensure new maps are in place in advance of the regularly scheduled elections in November of 2018, rejecting Republicans’ preferred deadline of Nov. 15 of this year. The court directed the GOP-dominated legislature to produce new maps by Sept. 1, although the judges also held out the possibility of a Sept. 15 deadline if Republicans act in good faith to seek out public input. Either way, completing redistricting as soon as possible will give candidates more time to decide if they want to run in 2018 before the filing deadline late this year.
Following the court’s ruling, GOP legislators returned for a special session this week and held a public hearing on new maps Friday. Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. David Lewis, who is spearheading the GOP’s redistricting efforts, indicated his committee would adopt criteria for new maps on Aug. 10 and could vote on the new districts on Aug. 24 or 25.
Of course, despite the court’s hopes, Republican legislators will undoubtedly ignore public comments and proceed to draw a replacement gerrymander that they’ll claim relies strictly on partisanship, not race. We know this because Lewis explicitly made this exact claim when the GOP had to redraw North Carolina’s congressional map in 2016 thanks to similar illegal racial gerrymandering. Republicans have even hired the same consultant for the upcoming legislative redistricting, Thomas Hofeller, who drew their now-invalidated congressional and legislative maps in 2011.
Still, the court will have the final say over whether these replacement districts survive legal scrutiny, reserving the power to reject the GOP’s maps and draw their own remedial lines, which would be the best outcome for Democrats and black voters. However, Republicans could appeal such a rejection to the Supreme Court again, taking up even more valuable time.
And because this is North Carolina, this isn’t the only case still in play. A separate racial gerrymandering lawsuit targeting the state’s legislative districts is still proceeding after the U.S. Supreme Court sent it back to the state Supreme Court for reconsideration earlier this year. The state’s high court upheld the GOP’s legislative districts on a party-line vote in 2015, but Democrats have since gained a majority on the bench. This altered court will now rehear the case on Aug. 28, and it’s possible they could decide to redraw the districts themselves, which would of course be subject to another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s still a long way to go until North Carolina’s protracted redistricting saga comes to a close. Nevertheless, 2018 could at long last see new maps produce modest gains for Democrats, allowing them to break the GOP’s slim supermajority in one or both chambers and finally be able to sustain Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
● Ohio: In 2015, Ohio’s GOP-majority state legislature referred a constitutional amendment to the ballot to reform the Buckeye State’s bipartisan commission on legislative redistricting, which voters passed overwhelmingly. While those reforms have substantial flaws compared to commissions in other states that are truly independent of the influence of elected officials, it may nonetheless prove to be an improvement over the status quo, which allowed unimpeded partisan gerrymandering by the majority party. However, these reforms still left control over congressional redistricting in the hands of the legislature, thanks to opposition from key Republicans.
This year, a new coalition backed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause is working to put a measure on the 2018 ballot that would finally add congressional redistricting to the purview of the redistricting commission. The group recently announced that it had already gathered over 100,000 signatures, giving it a healthy start on its way to obtaining the necessary 306,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot by mid-2018.
Unfortunately, this effort lacks one key ingredient: funding. The coalition has raised a mere $54,000 so far and is completely reliant on volunteers to gather petitions instead of paid circulators. A successful ballot initiative in a big state like Ohio will likely cost millions, and an underfunded 2012 effort crashed and burned amid GOP opposition. If this effort ends up on the 2018 ballot, proponents will need to raise a whole lot more money to stand up to the near-certain barrage of hostile ads from Republicans, who benefit from the status quo of one of America’s most aggressive partisan congressional gerrymanders.
● South Dakota: Republican gerrymandering in South Dakota gets overlooked because the state has just a single congressional district, but activists did try to take away lawmakers’ power to draw their own legislative districts in 2016. That ballot initiative failed 57-43, but that margin was considerably closer than Trump’s 62-32 landslide, demonstrating that the idea attained a decent amount of bipartisan support even in the face of GOP opposition.
Now reformers want to try again next year and have begun taking formal steps to get the state’s go-ahead to start circulating petitions for signatures to get on the ballot in 2018. However, they’ll have to gather the necessary signatures in just three months, which would be a tall order, and they’ll also have to convince some of those voters who opposed the reform last year to change their minds.
● Georgia: Republican-run Georgia recently purged nearly 600,000 registered voters from the rolls for alleged inactivity, meaning they hadn’t voted, updated their information, or responded to mailing for the past three years. While voter registries undoubtedly need to be kept updated as voters move or pass away, this sweep was very large, accounting for roughly one in 12 voters in the Peach State.
Such mass purges can ensnare many eligible voters simply for not voting in every election, something that runs afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (known as the “Motor Voter” law). Given Georgia Republicans’ recent history of trying to enact voter-registration restrictions that are likely to ensnare black and Latino voters, any mass cancellation of registrations runs the risk of wrongly terminating many voters’ records.
● Massachusetts: In late July, a state court struck down Massachusetts’ 20-day registration deadline as a violation of the state constitution, finding that it unnecessarily prevented thousands of citizens from casting ballots. If this ruling stands, then Massachusetts could find itself adopting same-day registration (SDR), at least during the state’s early voting period if not on Election Day itself. The Boston Globe subsequently published a review of the research on SDR showing that it likely boosts turnout substantially and might even make the voting process more secure because new registrants are verified in person rather than by mail or online.
Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin was the top defendant in this case and says he’ll appeal this ruling. However, Galvin, a Democrat, also sounds open to reaching a compromise and says he doesn’t oppose SDR on principle but rather wants to avoid “chaos” if election administration activities aren’t properly funded and staffed to handle the new policy. Hopefully, this court ruling will spur the Bay State’s Democratic-dominated legislature to finally craft a law to allow same-day registration while addressing the concerns of election officials who have scarce resources at their disposal.
● New York: On Monday, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring that every state agency provide voter registration forms to all citizens they interact with in an effort to increase access to registration. Sixteen different state agencies already offer registration forms, though, and New York allows online registration, so it’s unclear if this change will have a significant impact. More importantly, New York still doesn’t have same-day registration or automatic voter registration, and Cuomo’s support for the Republican-run state Senate ensures that neither of these reforms will pass, so this may well just be a fig leaf for Cuomo to cover up his flagging progressive bona fides.
● Oregon: A new report from public policy analyst Sean McElwee and political scientists Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes looked at Oregon’s new automatic voter registration system, and they conclude that this reform did indeed boost turnout, particularly among groups who are most underrepresented in the electorate. In 2015, Oregon became the first state to enact automatic voter registration by signing up any eligible voter who interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they later opt out. While several states have followed suit, Oregon was the only one whose law went into effect before the 2016 elections, making it a valuable test case.
According to the report, 44 percent of those who were automatically registered voted in 2016, and 95 percent of those were first-time voters. Automatic registrants were disproportionately likely to be black or Latino, young, and lower-income—all demographics that typically register and turn out at lower rates than whites, older voters, and high-income voters.
Of course, some of these first-time voters likely would have cast a ballot anyway, since many automatic registrants include people who have only recently reached voting age. Automatic registration also might not produce as big of an impact in other states since, with few exceptions, they don’t vote by mail, as Oregon does. Be that as it may, the authors of this report conclude that automatic registration may have increased turnout by 2 to 3 percentage points, similar to an earlier analysis from the progressive Center for American Progress, which reached similar conclusions.
More research is needed as more elections unfold following the adoption of automatic registration in other states. However, the data available so far shows that automatic voter registration makes voting easier, boosts turnout, and can help make the electorate more closely resemble the demographics of the eligible voter population. If enacted nationally, as some congressional Democrats have proposed, automatic registration could add more than 40 million new voters to the rolls, expanding access to voting and likely increasing participation by millions.
● Alabama: In June, Alabama’s staunchly Republican state government surprisingly passed a new law easing the Yellowhammer State’s strict felony disenfranchisement regime. Alabama had previously rescinded the voting rights all of those convicted of felonies of “moral turpitude,” but that term was left intentionally vague enough to allow selective enforcement targeting African Americans during the Jim Crow era. The new reforms passed this year finally lay out which exact felonies constitute crimes of moral turpitude, which could lead to the re-enfranchisement of thousands of people in a state that had barred 8 percent of its citizens from voting.
Unfortunately, there were reasons to be skeptical of this reform’s impact right from the start. In a recent lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that Republican officials do not have to automatically register those who regained their voting rights, nor do they even have to take steps to educate those whom the new law affects. Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican who is Alabama’s chief elections official and a strong proponent of its strict voter ID laws, has also confirmed that he will do as little as possible to inform the newly enfranchised that they can now register to vote.
As of 2016, Alabama had disenfranchised roughly 300,000 adults and precluded African Americans from voting at a rate that was three times higher than whites. And even these new reforms conspicuously left many white-collar crimes out of its definition of moral turpitude—crimes that are more likely to be committed by whites than those it did include. Furthermore, the new law requires those who’ve completed their sentences to repay all their court fines and fees before getting to vote again, which effectively amounts to a poll tax. Combined, these restrictions and state Republicans’ refusal to educate those who have completed their sentences about the changes in the law could leave hundreds of thousands still disenfranchised.
● Florida: No state disenfranchises a greater proportion of its citizens than Florida, which bars almost everyone convicted of a felony from ever voting again, but a proposed 2018 ballot initiative is trying to change that. Organizers are currently gathering signatures to automatically restore voting rights to those who have completed their sentences for most felonies, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of Florida’s disenfranchised population, according to the Sentencing Project. In a key development, the ACLU has pledged at least $5 million toward this initiative, which could prove critical to helping it get on the ballot and pay for advertising in this expensive state.
Enacted to further white supremacy during Jim Crow, felony disenfranchisement prevents one in 11 Florida adults from voting despite having fully completed their sentences. That proportion includes a staggering one in six African-Americans who can’t vote, again even though they’ve served their time. Consequently, this ballot measure could restore voting rights for well over 1 million disproportionately black and Latino Floridians, which is why Republicans will almost certainly oppose it vigorously at the ballot box. The ACLU’s $5 million is a necessary ingredient for success, but proponents will likely need a whole lot more money if they are to prevail.