● Pennsylvania: On Monday, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court dealt Republican gerrymandering a crippling blow when it struck down the GOP’s congressional map for illegally discriminating against Democratic voters. The court has ordered the GOP-controlled legislature to draw and pass a new map by Feb. 15, in time for the 2018 elections, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto any new gerrymander if Republicans attempt one. If that were to happen, the court itself would draw new nonpartisan districts, and it has already appointed Stanford professor Nathaniel Persily as its nonpartisan expert to draw a map in anticipation of a legislative deadlock. New districts could lead to major Democratic gains this fall—anywhere from one to as many as six seats. And even better, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely have little leeway to overrule this decision.
As shown in the first map at the top of this post (see here for a larger version), Republicans passed an extreme gerrymander following the 2010 census that enabled them to obtain a 13-to-five majority in the state’s congressional delegation, even though Pennsylvania is an evenly divided swing state. That lopsided distribution of seats held up in 2012 even as Obama won the Keystone State—and Democratic House candidates won more votes than Republicans statewide—and again in 2016, when Donald Trump barely carried it. As we have previously detailed, the second map shown above illustrates what a hypothetical nonpartisan map might look like, which would not only make for a more equitable partisan balance but could also increase black representation.
In an important backdrop to this decision, Democrats won a pivotal majority on the state Supreme Court in the 2015 elections, giving the plaintiffs a fair shot at invalidating the GOP’s map. And crucially, this legal challenge relied solely on the state constitution’s guarantees of free speech and equal protection rights. Thus, as long as any new maps comply with federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court would have very little ability to override the state court’s interpretation of Pennsylvania’s own constitution. Democrats therefore aren’t likely to face the same kind of disappointment they recently did in North Carolina. Nevertheless, Republicans have forged ahead with a long-shot appeal.
At the same time, because it’s based on state law, this ruling doesn’t set a legal precedent for other states. However, the standard the judges have established could influence federal courts that are hearing challenges to other partisan gerrymanders; plaintiffs in major cases in Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are all attempting to invalidate similar gerrymanders in their states under the U.S. Constitution. This ruling could also encourage reformers to challenge maps elsewhere under their own state constitutions.
Ultimately, this ruling is a monumental victory against one of the worst Republican gerrymanders in the country, and it’s a massive game-changer for Democratic chances of gaining a House majority in November.
● North Carolina: On Jan. 19 , a federal district court panel imposed new legislative districts drawn by a court-appointed nonpartisan expert to replace a handful of districts that had recently been redrawn by the GOP but nevertheless still contained constitutional violations. Back in 2017, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature to redraw the state's legislative boundaries due to illegal racial discrimination. Republicans passed new districts last year, but these maps also faced continued opposition from plaintiffs for discriminating against black voters, and the court agreed. Republicans have asked the Supreme Court to stay this latest order pending appeal, and the plaintiffs have until Feb. 2. to respond.
These court-ordered districts won't entirely eliminate the effects of the GOP's gerrymanders, since they're largely limited to a few sizable counties. However, Democrats already have a good shot at breaking the GOP’s narrow supermajorities this year thanks to the political environment, which would allow them to uphold Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, and new maps would only be likely to improve their prospects.
And despite the Republican appeal, there’s a fairly good chance that the Supreme Court won’t block this ruling from taking effect, even though it did recently stay a decision by another federal court that struck down the state’s congressional lines for relying excessively on partisan considerations. That’s because the jurisprudence limiting racial gerrymandering is both longer-standing and firmer than jurisprudence around partisan gerrymandering, where the Supreme Court has had a much harder time resolving the issue of its legality.
● Washington: After regaining the majority in 2017, Democrats in Washington's state Senate have passed a bill called the Washington Voting Rights Act, which the Democratic-run state House and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee will likely soon approve, too. This bill would encourage local governments in Washington to switch from at-large elections to electing candidates via individual districts. This change would make it easier for Latinos in particular to win more elections for local office in places where they represent a significant minority of the population but struggle to defeat candidates supported by white majorities in citywide races.
● Indiana: Indiana Republicans have been facing lawsuits over their efforts to restrict the number of early voting sites in heavily populated Democratic strongholds like Marion County (home of Indianapolis), and now the county's elections board has approved a plan to address some of the criticism. The board voted to switch the entire county from traditional precincts to so-called “vote centers,” where any registered voter within the county can cast a ballot on Election Day. However, voting rights advocates have warned that this change still doesn’t address the problem of the county having too few early voting locations, and it could even cause more problems with long lines on Election Day if poorly rolled out.
A spokesperson for the board said the decision "will definitely lend to an increase in the number of early voting sites in Marion County," but that isn't necessarily part of the initial plan. And to make matters worse, this change doesn't take place until 2019. Conveniently for Republicans, that date only comes after this November's Senate election, in which Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly faces a tough re-election battle. Consequently, the plaintiffs in the lawsuits may continue suing to force the adoption of more than one early voting location in this county of roughly 700,000 registered voters.
● U.S. Territories: In mid-January, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to a law that guides how American citizens may vote absentee in federal elections when living outside of the 50 states and D.C. Citizens who move from the states to a foreign country can vote in federal races in the state they previously lived in, but this rule 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 voting members of Congress.
Plaintiffs had argued that citizens who move to the other territories should retain their voting rights under the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, but the appellate court ruled that they lacked standing and said the district court should have dismissed their case. The plaintiffs have not yet decided whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, but their odds of success appear low. This ruling only affects a small number of Americans, but it's an unfortunate reminder that not all American citizens have the right to vote, and that millions who were born in U.S. territories are also denied the right to elect voting members to the Congress of the country that governs them.
● Wisconsin: Republicans in Wisconsin have gone to great extremes to undermine democracy via gerrymandering and voter suppression, but their latest move is little different. On Tuesday, GOP state senators voted along party lines to remove Wisconsin's chief election administrator, Michael Haas, from his post, despite bipartisan support on the state's elections commission for his continued leadership. This move comes just weeks before the Feb. 20 primary, where Republicans are defending the seat of a conservative state Supreme Court justice who isn't seeking re-election.
Back in 2015, Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker dismantled the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board that had run Wisconsin elections and ethics investigations for several years. They created new commissions that were widely seen as an attempt to inject partisanship into the process and undermine GAB investigations into Walker’s administration. But in 2016, election commissioners unanimously chose Haas to lead them, even though he’d previously worked for the GAB, which Republicans despised. However, Haas had only been serving on an interim basis, allowing Republican senators to claim they were merely denying him their consent that he serve permanently, not removing him from the post, which the law reserves as a power for the commission.
Consequently, this fight will likely spill into the courtroom. The elections commission, which has three Democrats and three Republicans, subsequently voted four-to-two to keep Haas on the job through April 30 to oversee the spring primary elections. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called that vote illegal, and the GOP has resolved to replace Haas with a figure who may end up being more partisan.
● Kentucky: Earlier in January, Kentucky's Republican-dominated state Senate approved a state constitutional amendment on a party-line vote that would move Kentucky's elections for governor and other statewide executive offices from odd-numbered years to presidential years. The GOP-controlled state House has yet to vote on the measure, but Republicans hold enough seats to send it to the voters in November for their approval without any Democratic support. If this amendment becomes law, the governor and other officials elected in 2019 would serve special five-year terms, with those races coinciding with the presidential election from 2024 onward (legislators are already elected in even-numbered years).
As we previously explained, Republicans are likely pushing this change simply to help them win elections, but for once it's a rare instance where the GOP is doing so via a measure that improves democracy instead of undermining it. Consolidating these elections will increase turnout in those down-ballot races far more than any other realistic reform, and it will make the electorate more demographically representative of the population, as well as save money.
● Phoenix, AZ: While Kentucky is a rare state for electing its governor in odd-numbered years, it's the norm in America for local governments to hold elections at times that don't coincide with the federal election cycle. However, Phoenix, Arizona, could become one of the largest cities to consolidate its federal and local election calendars after its city council voted six to three in favor of studying the idea.
This change would likely increase local election turnout significantly, but there's still a long way to go to convince the council to send the proposal to voters for their approval in a binding referendum. And it's possible the switch would only move mayoral elections from odd-numbered years to federal midterms, when turnout is still much lower than it is in presidential years. But either change would dramatically boost voter participating while saving the city money.
● Oregon: Members of Oregon's majority-Democratic legislature have introduced a bill that would ask voters whether the state should join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The compact would assign Oregon's Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but only if enough other states representing a majority of electoral votes have also signed onto the agreement.
After both Donald Trump and George W. Bush won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, this movement to reform this undemocratic institution has unfortunately run into widespread Republican opposition. However, Oregon is one of three states where Democrats have unified control over state government but that still hasn't yet joined the compact. (The others are Connecticut and Delaware.) Democratic state Sen. Peter Courtney had blocked past efforts, but he recently said he'd vote in favor of a proposal like this latest one because it gives the voters themselves a chance to weigh in.
So far, states with only 165 of the necessary 270 electoral votes have joined the compact, and Oregon would only add seven more to the tally. However, this is one of the best opportunities reformers have for getting closer to the needed majority in the Electoral College.
● Michigan: Michigan is one of just 13 states that doesn't allow early voting and also requires an excuse to cast an absentee ballot, but that could change in 2018. The ACLU and NAACP are supporting a new effort to put an initiative on the ballot that would end the excuse requirement for absentee balloting and create an early voting period. The current absentee rules aren’t the most restrictive among the states that require an excuse, but that's in large part because Republicans exempted anyone over the age of 60—a demographic that leans heavily Republican. Initiative organizers first needs to win approval for their ballot language, then gather 380,000 signatures in 180 days to make it onto the November ballot.
The proposed initiative would also constitutionally guarantee the right to vote using the straight-ticket option. Republican legislators have repeatedly tried to end straight-ticket voting only to have the voters veto their change at the ballot box. They’ve also met with failure in the courts: Earlier this month, a federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit that argues GOP legislators intentionally discriminated against black voters when they tried to eliminate the straight-ticket option back in 2015. A court had already suspended that law in 2016 for violating the Voting Rights Act, since black voters disproportionately used the straight-ticket option and, without it, faced the prospect of longer lines at the polls on Election Day. The case will now proceed to trial this spring.
● Florida: On Tuesday, Florida election officials certified that a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would restore the right to vote to those who have served out their sentences will appear on the ballot this November. This ballot vote thus gives Floridians a chance to reform a Jim Crow-era policy that disenfranchises 1.5 million fellow citizens. To pass and become law, the amendment must win 60 percent of the vote.
As many states did in the wake of the Civil War, Florida banned those with felony convictions from voting as an explicitly racist measure to prevent black citizens from voting, with one prominent supporter boasting in 1868 that the policy had “kept Florida from becoming ‘niggerized.’” According to the Sentencing Project, this lifetime ban has disenfranchised one in 10 Floridians, the highest proportion of any state in the country. And because of the measure’s discriminatory impact, Florida bars one in five black adults from voting, which is five times the rate of the rest of the population.
Republicans have vigorously fought efforts to loosen this restriction, and GOP Gov. Rick Scott even made felony disenfranchisement more draconian when he took office in 2011. Scott almost entirely ended the practice of granting clemency to restore voting rights for specific individuals and instituted a five-year waiting period before citizens could even apply for clemency.
This ballot measure would sidestep the opposition of GOP elected officials, but many Republicans will undoubtedly oppose it at the ballot box for a nakedly partisan reason: Florida’s disenfranchised population would lean disproportionately Democratic thanks to its racial and economic demographics. However, at least one notable Republican, Miami-area Rep. Carlos Curbelo, has endorsed the rights restoration initiative.
But regardless of any partisan considerations, ending this voting restriction is long overdue, and no democracy should deny the right to vote to a tenth of its citizens. There are certain categories of citizens whose voting rights would not be restored by the amendment, including those in prison or on parole or probation, and those who have committed murder or sexual offenses. But it will strike a major blow against a Jim Crow policy that has prevented 1.5 million Americans from exercising one of their most sacred constitutional rights.
● New Mexico: State Rep. Debbie Rodella may nominally be a member of the Democratic Party, but she’s played an instrumental role in preventing New Mexico from expanding voting rights. Thanks to that sorry record, she drew a high-profile primary challenge on Wednesday from a fellow Democrat, Susan Herrera. Herrera is the former CEO of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and a former director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She kicked off her campaign by arguing that the heavily Democratic 41st State House District, which backed Hillary Clinton by a 64-24 margin, can and should elect someone more progressive than the reactionary Rodella.
Even though Democrats won back control over New Mexico's state legislature in the 2016 elections, Rodella has used her perch on a key committee to block two critical voting rights bills: one that would have implemented automatic voter registration and another that would have allowed voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day during the state’s early voting period. And Rodella isn't just awful when it comes to voting rights: In 2013, she voted against a law legalizing same-sex marriage and has supported bills favoring predatory payday lenders.
Rodella first won her seat in 1992 and hasn't faced a primary challenge since 2006, so it’s unclear whether Democratic voters have finally grown tired of her. But her continued pattern of siding with Republicans to thwart bills that would expand access to voting make this a key contest for supporters of voting rights. What’s more, Democrats are favored to retake the governor's mansion in November, which would give them unified control over state government for the first time in eight years. The last thing progressives would want to see in that scenario is Rodella standing in the way of reform, so unseating her is imperative.
● Secretaries of State: A group called iVote says it will spend $5 million to help elect Democratic secretaries of state in several key swing states in 2018. These states include Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio, all of which currently have Republican incumbents except for New Mexico.
Democratic candidates in these elections support reforms such as automatic registration, while Republicans like Iowa incumbent Paul Pate and Ohio's outgoing Secretary of State Jon Husted have pushed for voter ID laws and conducted voter registration purges, respectively. These elections are consequently critical for promoting voting rights, and some offices play a key role in redistricting. All are essential for well-functioning election administration, the cornerstone of democracy.
● Wisconsin: Wisconsin Democrats flipped a heavily Republican state legislative district in a special election earlier in January, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker is putting his thumb on the scale to make sure that doesn't happen again. Walker is refusing to call special elections for two other Republican-held seats that Democrats have a chance to capture, depriving those voters of representation for the better part of a year even as the legislature still conducts its business. Walker’s actions could end up sparking lawsuits over the matter, but it’s unclear how successful those might be.
We have long maintained that special elections can be problematic because they often feature much lower turnout than a regularly scheduled general election. But this concern must be weighted against the harm to voters in vacant districts from going for long periods without any representation at all. Leaving seats vacant for months on end solely because your political opponents might win those elections deeply undermines the principle of republican government.