● National Republican Redistricting Trust: Back in January, some of America's top Democrats unveiled a new group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee that plans to raise millions of dollars and coordinate the party’s redistricting efforts across the country ahead of the post-2020 congressional and state legislative remapping. On Thursday, the National Republican Redistricting Trust, a GOP organization backed by the Republican National Committee, emerged to oppose it. As demonstrated by the maps at the top of this post, gerrymandering can play a major role in manipulating election outcomes.
As author David Daley previously reported in his 2016 book "Ratf**ked," Republicans devoted roughly $30 million to the Republican State Legislative Committee's Redistricting Majority Project, called REDMAP, ahead of the 2010 redistricting cycle. REDMAP spent money on key races the GOP needed to win to flip legislatures and gain control over drawing the lines this decade and benefitted mightily from the 2010 midterm wave. Consequently, a national umbrella organization isn't quite as big of an innovation for the GOP in 2020 as it is for Democrats, who simply had no equivalent to REDMAP heading into 2010.
However, after years of gerrymandering’s effects locking Democrats out of power in Congress and numerous legislatures, both parties are now acutely aware of the stakes involved at the national level. The Washington Examiner reports that the GOP's newly formed NRRT is setting an initial budget of $35 million, but that number could easily rise, since super PAC-like groups like NRRT can raise large individual donations from wealthy donors. Indeed, Republican groups have previously indicated that GOP redistricting spending could top $100 million.
Democrats have their work cut out for them if they want to prevent the GOP from using this decade's ill-gotten gains to lock in their partisan advantage for another decade, which is what would happen if the current partisan control of state governments doesn't change by 2021. Even nonpartisan groups simply fighting for fairer maps via ballot initiatives and the courts will have to contend with well-funded GOP opposition and the fact that many states don't allow those measures. Consequently, Democratic legislative gains that result in more shared partisan control of state governments is good for both Democrats and democracy.
● North Carolina: Republican legislators in North Carolina could advance a ploy to gerrymander even more districts when they return to Raleigh for a special session next Wednesday. GOP lawmakers have released new district map proposals for the election of superior and district court judges and prosecutors. Republicans have already used their lopsided legislative majorities, which they owe in part to gerrymanders that were ruled unconstitutional, to pass their proposed judicial redistricting bill in an initial state House committee vote.
Republicans claim that it's necessary to redraw judicial lines that have largely been in place for six decades (districts don't have to contain an equal number of residents, unlike congressional or legislative districts). That may be true, but it in no way justifies their specific remedy. An analysis of the proposed lines reveals how they are designed to elect more Republican judges, particularly in several populous urban counties, while diminishing the clout of black voters. Republicans recently made elections for these offices partisan, which would help cement their gains under friendlier maps while injecting more partisanship into what should be apolitical offices.
GOP state Rep. Justin Burr has already claimed that his bill did not take race into account when drawing these maps, which is part of a legal strategy to inoculate them against racial gerrymandering lawsuits. Such potential lawsuits may nonetheless succeed in a state where black and white voters overwhelmingly favor different parties. Burr contended that partisanship wasn't the true motivation, either. However, GOP state Sen. Jeff Tarte previously boasted about how his own proposal to redraw the judicial lines was "straight-up political," which could undermine Burr's claims in a future lawsuit.
Meanwhile, judicial gerrymandering isn't the only redistricting game in town when it comes to North Carolina Republicans. After federal courts struck down their 2011 legislative district maps for illegal racial gerrymandering earlier this year, GOP legislators passed new partisan gerrymanders in late August. The federal district court overseeing the case still gets a final say over whether these maps pass constitutional muster before they can take effect for the 2018 elections; the court just set a hearing for Oct. 12, where plaintiffs will press their case that the replacement districts are still invalid.
But wait—there's more! Not only is there the aforementioned federal lawsuit against the racially gerrymandered 2011 legislative districts, but there's also a separate case working its way through state court. North Carolina state courts had previously upheld the GOP's maps, but Democrats have since gained a majority on the state Supreme Court in the 2016 elections. On Thursday, the state's high court remanded the case back to the trial court for reconsideration in light of this summer’s federal court rulings.
This move could ultimately see the state courts also strike down those original 2011 gerrymanders and order more changes than even the federal courts had required. Such a ruling could consequently benefit black voters and Democrats more than the outcome in the federal case, particularly if the state courts take it upon themselves to draw their own remedy districts. Nevertheless, this state-level litigation will take time to resolve. Even a favorable outcome for the plaintiffs may not force better maps than the federal lawsuit in time for the 2018 elections after the GOP exhausts its appeals.
● Indiana: Indiana GOP officials have been facing a lawsuit over restricting access to early voting in Democratic-leaning counties while expanding it in Republican-leaning ones. Indianapolis' Marion County, home to roughly 700,000 registered voters, is the poster child for this voting restriction. Republicans cut the number of early voting locations in the county from three to just one. Republicans have used their lone seat on the county elections board to veto any new expansions, thanks to a requirement that such board decisions be unanimous.
Now, newly appointed GOP board member Melissa Thompson has proposed eliminating all 600 voting precincts and replacing them with 99 vote centers where any voter could cast a ballot regardless of where they live in the county. Thompson also proposed adding one satellite voting center in each of the county's nine townships during the early voting period (Marion's nine townships are aligned in a square grid with Indianapolis’ urban core near the center).
Democrats and nonpartisan voting rights groups have rejected this latest proposal for conflating the problems with early voting with the issue of replacing traditional neighborhood precincts with voting centers. Left unstated is how establishing a vote center in each township during early voting would likely still result in the relatively more Republican areas within the county itself having a higher concentration of early voting locations, since some of the outlying townships have less population and lean more toward the GOP.
Vote centers have both pros and cons. They can save county resources by eliminating low-turnout precincts and let voters more conveniently cast a ballot near work or school rather than just their home. However, as Arizona's 2016 presidential primary demonstrated, they can also lead to disastrously long lines in high-traffic areas, particularly if there are an inadequate number of voting locations to begin with. Furthermore, because voting on Election Day itself isn't always an option for many voters, having sufficient access to early voting is a separate issue. This GOP proposal could merely attempt to solve one problem by creating another.
● Voter ID Study: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have released a new study on the impact of voter ID after state Republicans implemented an ID requirement ahead of the 2016 elections. They estimate that the requirement may have suppressed as many as 45,000 voters in a state Donald Trump won by just 23,000 votes, which would make their conclusion a bombshell in support of the notion that voter ID can swing close elections. However, several other prominent political scientists who study laws like voter ID immediately expressed skepticism over the study’s methodology, and the results should be interpreted with caution.
The researchers arrived at their conclusion by analyzing roughly 300 registered voters who didn't vote (out of 2,400 contacted) in two major Democratic counties, which is a limited sample size. They queried respondents after the fact on their motivations for not voting, which presents its own problems. People have a way of rationalizing their beliefs based on social cues. For instance, GOP primary voters had long strongly favored free trade in polls. Some may have said they voted for Trump because of his protectionist trade stance. However, they were in truth more likely to select that option because his status as the primary victor helped signal that free trade was bad, not that trade was their decisive reason for supporting Trump
Unfortunately, this isn't the first voter ID study to make waves in 2017 only to face serious questions over the soundness of its methodology. Studying the impact of any voting change is inherently difficult in a world where we can't run a controlled experiment, and Wisconsin's voter ID law coincided with cuts to early voting and other procedures instituted after the state GOP took power in 2011. This isn't to say that this latest study necessarily is wrong by overestimating how effectively these laws dampen turnout, but that more effective research is certainly needed.
Regardless, it stands to reason that voter ID laws benefit Republicans. The GOP wouldn't be pushing for these laws in state after state despite no serious evidence of widespread voter fraud if they didn't believe in their partisan impact—they have literally said so themselves. Furthermore, the notion that voter ID laws suppress votes more by confusing citizens who have ID over the laws’ requirements deserves far more attention than it has received. More research is needed, but that fact doesn't negate that these laws were passed with a nefarious partisan intent to suppress votes and should be repealed.
● Georgia: The Voting Rights Roundup hasn't previously devoted much attention to individual partisan election contests for secretary of state, but these under-noticed races for top election administration positions play a key role in the battle for voting rights. Consequently, we're going to begin covering major developments in elections for some of these critical offices, since the bulk of states where election outcomes determine which party administers elections will hold those races in 2018.
Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, has himself been a key backer of restrictive voter registration practices. He had instituted an an "exact match" requirement for voter registration applications that resulted in rejections of applicants for minute clerical errors and database inaccuracies such as a misplaced hyphen. Kemp settled a lawsuit earlier in 2017 after that system disproportionately harmed black voters. Kemp's office has also faced criticism over breaches of confidential voter data during his tenure. He is forgoing re-election next year to run for governor, giving a more voting-rights friendly candidate a chance to succeed him.
Former Democratic Rep. John Barrow recently announced that he'll run for secretary of state next year. Barrow was one of the last white moderate Democrats to get elected to Congress in the Deep South, and Republicans repeatedly tried to gerrymander him out of his seat. They finally succeeded in the 2014 midterm wave, but Barrow has long performed relatively well with conservative-leaning swing voters, meaning his surprise candidacy could give Democrats a shot at winning an office that will allow them to fight for easier access to voting in this populous state.
● Nevada: Thanks to legislative maps that weren't gerrymandered to favor either party, Republicans flipped both chambers of Nevada's legislature in the 2014 GOP wave, but lost those majorities in 2016 as Hillary Clinton was winning the Silver State. Democrats hold 11 state Senate seats—a bare majority—while one Republican-turned-independent sides with them over the 9 remaining Republicans. Thanks to their landslide success in 2014 with the same 10 Senate seats that are up for election next year, Republicans only have three Democratic seats they could target, all of which are solidly blue.
Consequently, Republicans have little realistic chance at capturing control of the Senate until 2020, and an imposing 27-to-15 Democratic majority in the Assembly would be tough to overcome in 2018 without the wind at their backs. If Democrats win next year's open gubernatorial contest, the party will gain unified control over state government for the first time in over a quarter century. Term-limited GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed an automatic registration bill earlier in 2017, but Democrats could pass laws to make voting easier if they win the race to succeed him. (Note: Automatic registration will also appear as a ballot measure in 2018.)
Rather than honor the wishes of an electorate that gave Democrats majorities without gerrymandering, Republicans are resorting to an undemocratic tactic: recall elections. Recalls should be reserved only for when legislators commit crimes or gross abuses of the public trust, not simply to advance partisan politics in an effort to nullify recent election outcomes. Indeed, Republicans openly acknowledge that these recalls are ideologically motivated.
The two Democratic targets were just elected last November and won’t face the voters again until 2020. Meanwhile, the independent who caucuses with the party isn't even running for another term next year, indicating that the GOP is worried about being able to flip her seat in a regular election when turnout would likely be much higher. Republican recall backers need to obtain signatures from 25 percent of the voters who actually cast a ballot in 2016 for the two Democratic-held seats, which is a high hurdle. They could have a much easier time getting signatures from 25 percent of the voters who showed up in 2014 for the lone independent's seat, since turnout that year was far lower and disproportionately GOP-leaning.
No Nevada legislator has ever been successfully recalled from office, and national Democrats are trying to make sure that doesn't change soon with this latest GOP effort. The DNC will reportedly send a "six-figure chunk of money" to the state party, while a DLCC-backed group received $50,000 from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. This funding will go toward informing voters of why this effort is an abuse of the recall process in an attempt to deter them from signing the recall petitions. However, the actual recall elections could become very expensive affairs if they end up taking place, which we should know by the end of November.