● Wisconsin: On Friday, outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a power grab that strips powers from the Democrat who beat him last month, Gov.-elect Tony Evers. Using their gerrymandered majorities in a lame-duck session, Wisconsin Republicans pursued a direct assault on one of the most fundamental principles of democracy: the peaceful transfer of power following electoral defeat. And since those very same gerrymanders helped Republicans maintain a solid grip on the legislature in 2018, Democrats can't just repeal these measures next year.
The GOP's scheme includes taking away key powers from Evers and Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul and slashing the availability of in-person early voting from six weeks in some places to just two weeks statewide, although they did drop a proposal to tamper with the date of the 2020 presidential primary in an effort to boost their chances of preserving their state Supreme Court majority. A federal court struck down the GOP's previous attempt to cut early voting and restrict it to just one location per jurisdiction, but an appeal in that case is still pending.
Specifically, Republicans have stripped Evers of the power to appoint members to important boards and state agencies, stopped him from increasing accountability over the way the state doles out tax breaks and incentives to businesses, and prevented him from banning guns in the state capitol.
Furthermore, they've empowered the GOP legislative majority to intervene in lawsuits now that Evers and Kaul are unlikely to defend the state when other GOP power grabs, like gerrymandering or voter suppression, are challenged. That would ensure they have standing to sue or appeal in any case they don’t like—and make the taxpayers pay their legal bills. Relatedly, they also aim to curtail Kaul’s discretion over how to spend money from court settlements.
This power grab is the final act in Walker's years-long quest to undermine democracy in Wisconsin, leaving a legacy that includes extreme gerrymandering, voter ID and other voter suppression measures, and the dismantling of nonpartisan election administration agency and campaign finance restrictions. Wisconsin Republicans have joined their brethren in North Carolina in showing total disdain for the will of the majority that showed up at the ballot box to oppose them, and naturally, they only passed these last measures after losing an election. Had Walker won, needless to say, none of these bills would have ever seen the light of day.
Democrats are already planning to sue, making two upcoming elections for the state Supreme Court even more critical. If progressives hold the seat of a retiring liberal justice in April 2019 and defeat one of Walker's appointees the following year, they would gain a four-to-three majority on the court. The courts sharply curbed the North Carolina GOP's lame-duck power grabs after Democrat Roy Cooper won the 2016 governor's race in the Tar Heel State, so progressives could see a similar outcome if they can alter the makeup of Wisconsin's Supreme Court.
Republican Power Grabs
● Michigan: Just like their counterparts in Wisconsin, the Michigan GOP is also plotting several lame-duck power grabs before incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer will gain veto power over the gerrymandered legislature. The moves come after voters gave wide approval to ballot initiatives to end gerrymandering and expand voting rights. Nevertheless, Republican legislators have advanced bills to undermine these reforms and even make the initiative process itself harder.
One GOP proposal would impose a 14-day voter registration deadline despite the new constitutional amendment's intent to establish same-day registration. Republicans claim they're merely implementing the amendment, not unconstitutionally altering it, but this effort seems all but guaranteed to draw a legal challenge if it becomes law.
For good measure, the GOP has also introduced a bill to make such ballot initiatives harder in the future by imposing a cap of 10 percent on the maximum share of signatures that could come from any particular congressional district. That would make it harder to put progressive measures on the ballot because organizers would be forced to gather a greater share of signatures from more conservative rural areas, where voters are further apart and harder to reach—and where, of course, there are fewer Democrats. This proposal may also face a lawsuit.
Republicans are also debating bills to usurp powers from the state's newly elected Democratic executive officers. These bills would let the legislature intervene in litigation instead of just the governor or attorney general; strip campaign finance regulation powers from the secretary of state and give them to a gridlocked commission that will let Republicans veto enforcement decisions; curtail the attorney general's authority to oversee charities; and take over key powers from the Democratic-majority state Board of Education and give them to a commission stacked with Republicans.
One unknown factor is whether Republican Gov. Rick Snyder will sign some or all of these measures if they should finally pass the GOP-dominated legislature. The Detroit News reports that vetoes aren't out of the question. However, they would be surprising, given Snyder's extensive experience in undermining Michigan democracy by signing extreme gerrymanders, passing an "emergency manager" law that usurped control over local governments in heavily black and Democratic cities, then re-passing a nearly identical law in a 2012 lame-duck session right after voters vetoed it at the ballot box.
● Maine: On Thursday, a federal judge rejected Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin's challenge to Maine's new instant-runoff voting system, which the congressman had contended violated the Constitution. U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker had previously denied Poliquin’s request that state officials be barred from conducting the runoff, which he lost to Democrat Jared Golden last month, so his latest ruling did not come as a surprise.
Walker concluded that Poliquin’s complaints about instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting, or RCV) amounted to nothing more than “policy considerations,” explaining, “Whether RCV is a better method for holding elections is not a question for which the Constitution holds the answer.” Rather, said Walker, the “proper question for the Court is whether RCV voting is incompatible” with the Constitution. His answer was a firm “no.”
The dispute isn’t over just yet, though. An attorney for Poliquin initially said he’d appeal, but on Friday, Poliquin would only say he plans to "evaluate" his options.
Secretary of State Elections
● Georgia: In early December, former Democratic Rep. John Barrow lost by a modest 52-48 against Republican Brad Raffensperger in Georgia’s runoff for secretary of state. Raffensperger won just a 49.1-48.6 plurality on Election Day in November, with Libertarian J. Smythe DuVal, who later endorsed Barrow, taking the rest.
Barrow's defeat is a blow to the fight to protect voting rights and the integrity of the election system itself, since Raffensperger will likely maintain the policies of Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp. Both before and during his campaign for governor, Kemp gained national notoriety over his pervasive voter suppression measures in his own election and failure to protect Georgia's voting equipment and registration database from security threats like hackers.
● New Hampshire: In a setback for voting rights, the newly-elected Democratic majorities in New Hampshire's state Senate and state House failed to oust longtime Democratic Secretary of State Bill Gardner from office, who won another term over mainstream Democrat Colin Van Ostern with the support of Republicans and a minority of Democrats in a second round of balloting. The final ballot was 209 for Gardner and 205 for Van Ostern.
In office since 1976, Gardner's previous record of nonpartisanship had veered off course in recent years. Gardner eagerly served on Donald Trump's bogus voter fraud commission and has backed multiple voter suppression laws targeting college students that Republican legislators passed after they took control of state government following the 2016 elections.
New Hampshire Democrats now have a 14-10 edge in the Senate and 234 out of 400 seats in the House—the second-largest majority they’ve ever held since the foundation of the Republican Party in the 1850s. However, Gardner was able to secure enough support from dissident Democrats and the Republican minority to overcome the opposition of the majority of Democratic legislators.
This setback is particularly disappointing because Van Ostern is a strong advocate for policies to make voting easier and more accessible in an effort to boost turnout. He supports automatic voter registration, a bipartisan independent redistricting commission, a ban on corporate donations to state campaigns, and rolling back Republicans' suppression of student voters. By contrast, Gardner fought to implement a GOP-backed anti student voter law even in defiance of a court order this fall, and his continued role as secretary of state will deprive New Hampshire voters of the firm advocacy they deserve to protect their right to vote.
● Florida: In an ominous development for the fate of Florida's newly approved ballot measure to restore voting rights to those who've completed felony sentences, Republican Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis recently signaled he won't faithfully comply with the spirit of the amendment. DeSantis claims the law won’t go into effect until after the GOP-run legislature passes "implementing language" in the legislative session coming up in March.
However, as the ACLU and other supporters have argued, the amendment's language should be self-executing on Jan. 8 and automatically restore voting rights to 1.4 million citizens who have served their sentences for felonies (excluding murder and sex crimes). Delaying the automatic restoration of rights until some time later this year could unconstitutionally disenfranchise voters in upcoming local elections like the race for Tampa mayor in March.
Furthermore, "implementing" legislation could give Republican opponents of the amendment—including DeSantis himself, as well as state Senate leader Bill Galvano—an excuse to undermine the law’s intent by adding further restrictions, like requiring the repayment of all court-related fines and fees. Such a requirement would effectively function as a poll tax that would continue to deprive many of their voting rights long after they served out their sentences.
The ACLU's response to the news strongly suggests the organization will sue to force DeSantis and Florida officials to stop stalling and automatically restore voting rights. However, they may not get a welcome reception if their case ultimately makes it to Florida's Supreme Court, which seems a probable endgame. That's because DeSantis will get to appoint replacements for three liberal-leaning justices who face mandatory retirement just hours after he's sworn in as governor, which will flip the court to a six-to-one conservative majority. That's no guarantee a lawsuit will fail, but things remain very much in limbo.
● New York City: The City Council in New York's largest city almost unanimously passed a bill to require inmates released from city jails be informed of their voting rights and receive a voter registration form. New York disenfranchises those convicted of felonies who are incarcerated, though most parolees are now able to vote. However, many eligible voters aren't aware of what their rights are upon release, which is why this bill is necessary.
● Nevada: The office of Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has drafted a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would end odd-year elections for local offices and move them to even-numbered years to align them with state and federal elections. If Nevada's heavily Democratic state legislature and Democratic Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak pass the law, it could increase turnout more than just about any other realistic reform and would also save money, since cities that currently hold off-year races would no longer need to pay for separate elections.
● Virginia: Last week, UC Irvine Professor Bernard Grofman, who is serving as a court-appointed redistricting expert, released multiple plans suggesting ways federal judges could redraw Virginia's state House map, which was struck down because the GOP's gerrymandered lines were struck down for discriminating against black voters. Since many seats surrounding the invalid districts would also have to be redrawn to fix the map, Grofman's various versions alter up to 26 districts, largely in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions.
The court will review the proposals ahead of a Jan. 10 hearing. The judges also denied a GOP request to stay its ruling until the Supreme Court can hear their appeal. On Thursday, Republicans responded by asking the high court to grant an emergency stay of the lower court's effort to implement a new map by March while their appeal is pending.
● North Carolina: It's been a full two years since North Carolina Republicans first tried to use their illegally gerrymandered majorities to undermine Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's authority in a lame-duck session after he defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, but one of those power grabs has finally failed for good. On Wednesday, a bipartisan supermajority of legislators passed a bill that would finally let Cooper appoint Democratic majorities on the state and county elections boards.
With three laws that were struck down as unconstitutional and a constitutional amendment rejected by the voters, the GOP had tried to block those majorities from reversing measures they'd enacted under McCrory. These voter suppression efforts included cuts to early voting and the removal of polling places from Democratic-leaning areas like college campuses and heavily black neighborhoods. Republicans have now finally been forced to let Democrats take charge and reverse those measures.
The state board is also currently playing a key role in the investigation into alleged election fraud committed by a GOP operative in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District to help elect Republican Mark Harris. The current board, where an unaffiliated tie-breaker holds the balance between the two parties, just set its next hearing for Jan. 11, but it will be dissolved by court order on Dec. 28. However, the current chair has asked that the court leave the existing board in place until they complete their investigation.
But whether the current board or its next iteration acts, Republicans appear increasingly resigned to the likelihood that it will void the fraud-tainted results in the 9th District and order a new election, which is why they included a provision in their new legislation that would also require a new primary if there's a do-over. Under existing law, the state board could only order a new general election with the same candidates because it certified the primary results long ago. (Harris allegedly benefited from similar fraud in his narrow primary win over incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, but despite complaints from Pittenger’s staff, the state GOP and NRCC reportedly sat on them.)
Harris' denials of knowledge of the alleged election fraud also grew less credible after a photo surfaced showing him posing with McCrae Dowless, the operative who allegedly orchestrated the absentee ballot tampering scheme. Following that, the Washington Post reported that Harris himself had sought out Dowless' services after narrowly losing a 2016 congressional bid. Undoubtedly, Republicans don't want to be saddled with Harris if a new election takes place.
Meanwhile, GOP legislators, mainly along party lines, passed their new voter ID law, which we have previously explained in detail, setting up a chance for them to override Cooper's veto before Republicans lose their veto-proof majorities in January. They have also signaled they want to restrict voting eligibility for a new election to those who were registered by the time of this year's regular election, thus barring newly registered voters and those who just turned 18 from participating. However, federal law forbids registration deadlines more than 30 days ahead of any federal election, including primaries.