● American Civil Liberties Union: The American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps best known for its storied efforts at litigation to protect the rights of Americans to free speech and other guarantees in the Constitution, no matter how popular those crucial rights may be. However, Donald Trump's victory has helped the ACLU to quadruple its membership and raise a staggering $83 million online since last year’s election compared to a more typical $3 million to $5 million. The advocacy group is now looking to flex its newfound muscles by expanding the scope of its fight to advance voting rights.
With recalcitrant Republicans firmly in control of Congress, the ACLU plans on launching a new effort in October called "Let People Vote" that will take a 50-state approach toward preserving and expanding the right to vote at the state level. Not only will they still back litigation against repressive voting laws, but they plan on funding and organizing for reforms tailor-made for each state. Those measures include establishing independent redistricting commissions, restoring voting rights for citizens with past felony convictions, repealing voter ID laws, and allowing voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day.
This latest news follows on the heels of the ACLU's announcement in August that it is putting at least $5 million toward a 2018 ballot initiative campaign to restore the voting rights of those with past felony convictions in Florida. If this measure makes it onto the ballot and passes (the yes side would need to take at least 60 percent of the vote to prevail), it could have a major impact, since Florida's lifetime ban means it disenfranchises more of its citizens than any other state. These planned reform efforts won't just target states where largely Republican legislators have actively tried to suppress voters, but also Democratic-run states where legislators simply aren't doing nearly enough to expand access to the franchise.
Ballot measures can be particularly costly to fund for nonpartisan advocacy groups with more limited budgets and donor bases than political parties have access to. However, by avoiding some of the polarization that comes along with partisan election contests, campaign spending on ballot initiatives can be particularly potent for persuading voters. The ACLU taking a more active role in advocating for ballot measures and reform legislation to end partisan gerrymandering and increase access to the ballot could go a long way toward making it easier for Americans to vote and have their vote count equally.
● Colorado: Back in late June, Trump's voter suppression commission, led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, ominously asked every state to send it detailed voter registration statistics on every voter. Several states saw a spike in voters voluntarily canceling their registrations, purportedly over privacy concerns. Colorado in particular saw a surge in cancellation requests, and a new report by Corey Hutchins at the Colorado Independent puts that sharp uptick in context to support the conclusion that Kobach's request likely was responsible.
Hutchins reports that over 6,600 Coloradans cancelled their registration over the last three months, while only just over 500 re-registered since Kobach's request was met with a wave of resistance by state officials from both parties. The vast bulk of those cancellations came about immediately after Kobach's request made national headlines, and Hutchins' graphs illustrate how it was simply unparalleled compared to previous and subsequent months, when only a few hundred voters may have unregistered.
Of those who unregistered, 46 percent were Democrats and just 15 percent were Republicans, meaning Kobach's commission is already having some of its desired effect. Many of those who unregistered likely would not have voted anyway, and 6,600 voters represent just a fraction of one percent of the total registered voter pool. But just because the numbers are modest doesn't excuse the Kobach commission's behavior, since no American should have to fear for their privacy to exercise their legal right to vote.
● Florida: Next Tuesday, Florida voters in the 40th State Senate District in Miami-Dade County will go to the polls in a heavily contested special election to replace a Republican senator who resigned following a tirade of racial slurs against his fellow lawmakers earlier in 2017. However, this part of Florida was particularly battered by the recent Hurricane Irma. Many voters will understandably be less likely to participate while they continue to recover from the storm's devastation.
Florida Politics' Peter Schorsch recently reported that Richmond Heights, a heavily black and consequently Democratic-leaning neighborhood in the 40th District, still suffers from major power outages that could significantly hamper turnout, which could spell trouble for Democratic candidate Annette Taddeo on Tuesday. Accordingly, Florida Democrats and nonpartisan voting rights groups had called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to delay the special election a few weeks to give residents more time to recover from the hurricane, but the governor has refused.
Scott's move appears to have put partisan politics ahead of protecting the right to vote without major impediments for many voters. This district backed Hillary Clinton by 58-40 last year, but has historically been much more open toward supporting GOP candidates further down the ballot. Consequently, deterring even a modest number of Democratic-leaning voters from voting on Election Day could make all the difference in this hard-fought race.
● U.S. Territories: The 1986 Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act guides federal law on how American citizens can vote absentee in federal elections when living outside of the 50 states and D.C., but one particular provision has come under fire. Citizens who move from the 50 states (or D.C.) to another country are guaranteed the right to vote absentee for federal races in their prior state, but it applies differently in the five U.S. territories. Those who move to the Northern Mariana Islands retain this right, but not those who move to American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, depriving them of a vote for president and a voting member of Congress.
The federal government is unfortunately well within its power to deny equal voting rights for the presidency and a full Congress member to citizens who are originally from the territories and still live there. However, an ongoing lawsuit by territorial residents who formerly lived in Illinois argues that the federal government's disparate treatment of former mainlanders based on which particular territory they move to violates the Constitution. A district court upheld the challenged provision of the law in 2016, but plaintiffs have appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In an infuriating move, the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions' leadership is arguing that the proper remedy for this disparate treatment isn't to enfranchise former state residents who move to the other four territories, but to disenfranchise those who move to the Northern Mariana Islands. Neil Weare, who leads the We the People Project that brought this lawsuit and fights for voting rights for every territorial citizen, argues that "no court has ever taken away voting rights to remedy an equal protection violation."
Every American citizen who is governed by federal law, including those born in the territories themselves, deserves the right to vote for the president and Congress who make those laws. The Trump administration arguing to limit voting rights among Americans who moved to one territory simply because those who moved to the other four territories lack the same protections has it exactly backward.
● North Carolina: North Carolina Republican legislators recently passed new legislative district maps in response to federal court orders to redraw 28 of 170 state Senate and state House districts, which the courts struck down for unconstitutional racial gerrymandering earlier in 2017. The federal district court overseeing this case still gets a final say over whether these new districts no longer impermissibly infringe on black voters' right to elect their candidates of choice, and the plaintiffs in the case have now filed their response to the legislature's new maps.
The plaintiffs contend that Republicans have maintained illegal racial gerrymanders in urban counties with large black populations such as Guilford and Cumberland, which are home to the large and diverse cities of Greensboro and Fayetteville, respectively. Intriguingly, the plaintiffs also brought a new complaint that Republicans violated the state constitution because they took the opportunity of the forced redraw to shore up increasingly vulnerable incumbents in certain urban counties, even though those districts didn't have to be redrawn to eliminate racial gerrymandering.
North Carolina's constitution bans the redrawing of legislative districts except immediately after the census each decade. The plaintiffs' argument reasons that only a federal court order to redraw certain districts can override that state legal provision, meaning the GOP didn't have the constitutional authority to redraw districts that weren't necessary to eliminate racial gerrymandering.
The plaintiffs have urged the court to step in and draw the lines itself given the North Carolina GOP's long and persistent history of taking extreme measures to undermine black voting rights and lock Democrats out of power in violation of the U.S. and state constitutions. While court-drawn districts, at least for part of the maps, would be the best outcome for the plaintiffs and voting rights, this long-running saga still has a ways to go until it reaches its conclusion. Any district court ruling will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, leaving the district lines still unsettled for the 2018 elections.
● New York: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. No, we're not talking about a sketchy bar on a backwater desert world filled with menacing alien creatures, but the state legislature in Albany, which has given New York its well-deserved reputation as one of the most corrupt states in the union. In addition to laws that prohibit early voting and put up barriers to registration, one way that political machines maintain their grip on power in New York is by tightly controlling the party nominating process.
When a legislative vacancy occurs in New York, the state holds a special election to replace the former member, but tiny committees of local party members usually get to pick their party's nominee depending on when the vacancy arose. In a recent New York Times article, Shane Goldmacher reports a stunning finding from the good-government group Citizens Union: Roughly 30 percent of all current New York legislators first won their seats in a special election this way, being the handpicked choice of just a few party insiders.
This system has led to rampant quid pro quo in exchange for appointments, nepotism, and a lack of voter input in districts that heavily favor one party, making an appointment last for years or even decades due to the power of incumbency. It doesn't have to be this way, though, and some legislators have introduced reforms to require special election primaries. However, those very same legislators who benefit from this system have so far thwarted any efforts at reform.
Nevertheless, there are downsides to holding special elections to begin with, since frequently abysmal turnout puts the decision in the hands of relatively few voters and can cause seats to change parties because of it. Many states avoid them entirely by filling vacancies via appointment of someone from the same party as the departing member, which is preferable due to the partisan flaws of low-turnout special elections. But those states may have more than just a tiny local party committee making the decision; for instance, some states allow the parties to submit a list of names to the governor, who gets to pick one of them.
America's system of mass-participation primaries to determine party nominations is relatively unique among our peer democracies, and it can often lead to parties nominating unqualified extremists like Donald Trump himself. However, America's ironclad two-party system is also relatively unique, and it's simply unfair to voters to give them no real choice in deciding who represents them other than to defect to the opposite party, whose policies they steadfastly oppose.
Since the two-party system isn't going anywhere without far more radical reforms, New York can help fight opportunities for corruption and strengthen democracy by taking more steps to ensure voters get more say over whom their own party nominates.
● Utah: The Beehive State has long had an almost unparalleled way for deciding party nominations, but a bipartisan reform group called Count My Vote wants to change that. Utah formally used party conventions to determine which candidates could make it to the primary, or if there would even be a primary at all. That old system allowed candidates to win the nomination if they attained over 60 percent support at a convention of party activists; otherwise, a primary would only take place between the top two convention finishers. This system shut out regular voters from deciding party nominations in many cases, and allowed party insiders and ideological zealots to have a much greater sway over whom their party nominated.
Utah's Republican-dominated legislature reached a 2014 compromise with Count My Vote. That new law allowed candidates to decide whether to participate in the convention, where they faced the prospect of not advancing to the primary if they didn't win the party's endorsement, or to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot and entirely forego the convention process. The party convention still carries tremendous influence, often giving the endorsed candidate a leg up over primary foes. That's one reason why the reform group now wants to do away with it entirely in favor of a traditional primary like those used in other states.
With the support of former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat, Count My Vote says it has already secured $1 million in fundraising commitments and now plans on going ahead with a ballot initiative to fully switch to primaries. That funding would go a long way toward securing the necessary petition signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for president in 2016 in 26 of 29 state Senate districts. The proposed initiative would require signatures equivalent to just 1.5 percent of registered voters to make it onto the primary ballot. It would also institute a vote-by-mail runoff among the top two finishers if no candidate tops 35 percent in the primary.
If this initiative passes, it could have the effect of boosting more moderate candidates whose views align with the broader electorate. Indeed, even the 2014 compromise measure achieved that very thing in the recent 3rd Congressional District special election. In that race, ultra-conservative former state Rep. Chris Herrod won the GOP convention over several notable foes. However, the more moderate Provo Mayor John Curtis skipped the convention and easily dispatched Herrod in the primary, even though Curtis had opposed Trump last year in this traditionally Republican state.
● Seattle, WA: A new reform effort in the city of Seattle, Washington, recently received initial approval to begin gathering signatures for a 2019 ballot initiative that would switch the state's largest city to instant-runoff voting for municipal races. Washington state law requires a top-two primary where all candidates run on the same primary ballot and the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general, regardless of party. This provision applies to nonpartisan municipal races as well. Consequently, this proposal would only institute instant-runoff voting for the primary, leaving the top-two general election unchanged.
Over a dozen cities across America use instant-runoff voting for municipal races, with the biggest being San Francisco, California. A few other large cities, including Oakland, California and Minneapolis, Minnesota, use instant-runoff as well. Seattle just recently saw a deeply fragmented primary for its open mayoral election in 2017, with the top candidate earning just 28 percent while the second-place finisher snagged the other general election spot with only 18 percent over the third-place candidate’s 17 percent. Instant-runoff voting could dramatically shake up future races if this initiative makes it onto the ballot and passes.