● New Hampshire: The fight for voting rights received a major boost in New Hampshire after Democratic state legislative leaders committed to supporting 2016 gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern for the appointed position of secretary of state if they regain control of the legislature in 2018. That puts Van Ostern on a collision course with Democratic incumbent Bill Gardner, whose initial selection in 1976 and continued reappointment to the post by Republicans has made him the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation.
Yet despite his nominal party affiliation, Gardner has long given Republicans cover for their restrictive voting policies and fought efforts to modernize election administration and voting access in the Granite State. Gardner even supported a GOP-backed law in 2017 that imposes tighter residency restrictions in an effort to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning college students. But the straw that broke the camel's back was almost certainly Gardner's decision to faithfully serve on Trump's now-defunct voter suppression commission, lending that partisan witch hunt a false veneer of bipartisanship.
Van Ostern has pledged to fight for reforms that include automatic voter registration, a bipartisan independent redistricting commission, a ban on corporate and business donations to state campaigns, and rolling back the GOP's suppression of student voters. That stands in stark contrast to Gardner's intransigence over policies that would make voting easier, and his tacit support for Republican voter suppression schemes that are predicated on the entirely made-up claim that thousands of out-of-state residents were bused in to illegally vote in New Hampshire in 2016.
New Hampshire selects its secretary of state by having both chambers of the legislature vote in a joint sitting. Because the 400-member state House dwarfs the 24-member state Senate, Democrats would likely need to flip only the lower chamber to be able to appoint Van Ostern and finally oust Gardner. Although Republicans have gerrymandered both chambers, New Hampshire's House is notorious for being particularly prone to wild swings in partisan composition from year to year. In a midterm political environment that so far appears to strongly favor Democrats, the party stands a good chance of at least capturing the House and being able to elect a new secretary of state who will fight to secure voting rights.
● Iowa: Iowa's Republican-majority state House recently passed a bill under the guise of nonpartisan reform that’s actually intended to elect more Republicans to local government in large Democratic counties. This bill would require counties with more than 60,000 people to use district-based elections, instead of at-large elections, for county supervisor elections. That would effectively force the state’s 10 largest counties to use districts, six of which currently have Democratic majorities on their boards of supervisors.
Requiring counties to use nonpartisan redistricting would be a good thing in isolation, but this bill is crafted to exempt the scores of smaller GOP-dominated counties that elect all their members at-large from having to make the switch. Enforcing this provision in smaller counties would likely lead to more Democrats getting elected there, so the law's asymmetric application of this provision consequently makes this a transparent ploy by the GOP to put their thumbs on the scale in Democratic counties.
● Ohio: Ohio legislators from both parties recently referred a state constitutional amendment to the ballot to change Ohio's congressional redistricting procedures, but as we previously explained, this supposed reform is practically toothless and will still enable Republicans to aggressively gerrymander the districts if they maintain their legislative majorities after 2020. Now, cleveland.com's Rich Exner has illustrated why everyone should be skeptical of this reform by drawing hypothetical districts that comply with the new restrictions.
Exner finds that, if implemented in an impartial manner, these new rules could lead to a much fairer map after the 2020 census. However, he also created a hypothetical GOP gerrymander that complies with the new law but that would be almost as effective as what Republicans could draw if the status quo of unfettered legislative control over the process persisted. This gerrymandered map would have four safely Democratic districts, nine heavily Republican ones, and two more potentially competitive districts that would likely lead to a 10-to-five GOP majority. While reformers undoubtedly hope these rules will force legislators to compromise, Exner’s maps demonstrate that Republicans would have little to lose by drawing the lines to suit themselves.
● South Dakota: Proponents of a ballot initiative to establish an independent redistricting commission in Republican-dominated South Dakota have fallen just short of the necessary signatures needed to make it onto the 2018 ballot. Organizers submitted submitted roughly 34,000 signatures, but only about 25,300 were valid, which was roughly 90 percent of the approximately 28,000 need to send the measure before the voters.
This marks the second straight election cycle in a row where redistricting reformers will have met failure in South Dakota: Voters rejected a similar measure by 57-43 in 2016. However, that result came amid Donald Trump's 62-32 landslide in the Mount Rushmore State, demonstrating that the idea still had significant bipartisan appeal. Given that the 2018 election cycle is shaping up to be far less favorable to Republicans, and that redistricting reform appears to have been gathering steam in recent years, this second attempt might have succeeded if it made it onto the ballot.
Nevertheless, South Dakota only has a single congressional district, and its legislature would likely retain its veto-proof GOP majorities even with nonpartisan redistricting, thanks to the state's deep red hue. Consequently, the political impact of this second ballot measure's failure will likely be very limited in South Dakota. Had it succeded, though, it could have helped encourage reformers to use initiatives to fight gerrymandering in other, more populous states.
● Congress: The Republican-controlled U.S. House has approved a bill to reauthorize the Department of Homeland Security, and one provision in the bill is raising alarms for voting rights. This measure would let the Trump administration dispatch Secret Service agents to patrol polling places, which would do little more than serve to intimidate voters. With more than 100,000 polling places across the country and fewer than 5,000 agents and uniformed officers in the entire Secret Service, there should be no illusion that this provision is about improving security against some nonexistent threat. All it would do is equip Trump with the power to send armed federal agents to precincts with large populations of voters of color, where voters lean strongly Democratic.
Fortunately, a Senate committee didn't include this provision when it approved its version of the bill. However, both chambers will have to reconcile any differences, meaning there's still a chance the House's version could make it into the final bill.
● Georgia: Overturning a district court decision that dismissed the case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has revived Common Cause's lawsuit alleging that Georgia Republicans' purge of voter registration rolls violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (commonly called the "Motor Voter" law). The appellate court told the district court to reconsider its decision and to specifically "conduct a more detailed analysis of the First Amendment question" at stake in the lawsuit.
● Kentucky: A state House committee in Kentucky has defeated a bill that would have required voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to vote. While plenty of bills fail each legislative session in states across the country, this bill's defeat is notable because Republicans won unified control over Kentucky's state government in 2016 for the first time in history. That makes Kentucky stand out as the only one of four states (alongside Iowa, Missouri, and New Hampshire) where the GOP gained full control in 2016 that has yet to pass into law or implement a new voting restriction.
● North Carolina: As expected, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has filed a lawsuit against state legislative Republicans' third effort to remove Democratic majorities from the state Board of Elections, which we previously explained comes after the first two iterations of this law were thrown out in state court. However, Cooper only won a partial victory against the second version of this power-grab after the state Supreme Court recently refused to throw out two deeply problematic provisions. One gives the GOP the board chair in federal and state election years, relegating Democrats to odd-numbered years, while the other forces counties to revert to just one early voting site each if board members can't agree on an early voting plan, which is what Republicans are intending.
Separately, Cooper will now finally appoint members to the new board, which will have four Democrats and four Republicans who are then supposed to appoint a tiebreaking member who doesn't come from either major party, effectively giving Republicans a veto over board decisions. Nevertheless, he is still suing to have this third version of the law thrown out so that Democrats can hold a majority on the board, which would enable them to reverse past GOP voter suppression efforts and ensure populous counties don't end up with just a single early voting site.
Republicans cynically attached unrelated education provisions that Democrats supported to this third law in an attempt to force Cooper to choose between public schools and voting rights. However, longtime North Carolina election lawyer Gerry Cohen, a top expert in the state, says that such entirely unrelated provisions would likely survive even if the court strikes down the parts of the law related to the elections board.
● Nevada: In a major victory against partisan abuse of the recall election process, a state judge has upheld a state law that allows those who sign petitions to recall elected officials to revoke their signatures after they were submitted. As we previously explained, Nevada Republicans have been using the recall process for explicitly partisan reasons to try to oust three members of the state Senate Democratic caucus because the GOP otherwise has little hope of regaining a majority in the regularly scheduled 2018 elections, even though Republicans have alleged no criminal activity or ethical misconduct on the part of the three targeted incumbents—the kind of behavior that would, in other words, actually warrant a recall.
Republicans have already failed in their effort to recall Democratic-aligned independent state Sen. Patricia Farley because they didn’t submit enough signatures, and this latest decision makes it much likelier they will face the same fate in their attempts to recall Democratic state Sens. Joyce Woodhouse and Nicole Cannizzaro. Thousands of voters have submitted requests to withdraw their signatures after Democrats organized a campaign to counter Republican misinformation about what signing the recall petition would actually accomplish—a larger number, it appears, than the cushion of valid signatures the GOP has in both cases. The judge has set an April 4 deadline for a hearing where he will determine the validity of both outstanding recall efforts, meaning we should know soon enough whether these recalls will go forward.
● Oklahoma: The Sooner State's GOP-dominated state Senate almost unanimously passed two bills that would make the state's very limited in-person early voting period somewhat less restrictive. Currently, voters can only cast an early ballot in-person on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday preceding each Tuesday Election Day for federal and state elections. The first bill would prohibit employers from penalizing employees who leave work to vote early, something that is currently only protected on Election Day itself. Meanwhile, the state’s Saturday early voting hours currently last from just 9 AM to 2 PM, but the second bill would extend the deadline to get in line to 5 PM. Both bills would still leave Oklahoma with one of the country's shortest early voting periods, but they're a step in the right direction.
● Maryland: Maryland’s heavily Democratic state Senate has passed a bill that would automatically register eligible voters who do business with various state agencies, and it will likely soon pass the similarly Democratic-dominated state House, since a majority of members have already signed on as co-sponsors. This marks a major turnaround from 2016, when enough Senate Democrats sided with the GOP minority to defeat a similar bill outright. This time, Senate Democrats passed this bill with a veto-proof majority, and if they can similarly limit their defections in the House, they could overcome any potential opposition from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
● Michigan: Michigan's heavily Republican state Senate has almost unanimously approved a bill to allow online voter registration for eligible voters with a valid Michigan driver's license or non-driver state ID card. A state House committee also recently sent a similar bill to the full chamber, where its chance of passage appears strong.
● Georgia: After recently sailing through the Republican-run state Senate with nearly unanimous support, a bill to replace Georgia's paperless electronic voting machines with an optical scan system glided through a state House committee on a voice vote, making it well-positioned to easily pass the full chamber, which is also controlled by Republicans. This system would have voters fill out paper ballots then feed them into a machine that reads them, leaving a verifiable paper trail that would enable post-election audits and is more secure from potential threats like hacking.
● Virginia: Virginia's state board of elections has moved to adopt new ballot guidelines for voters in an effort to avoid confusion and ballots getting thrown out for improper marks. This decision comes after Republicans won a drawing of lots to keep their one-seat state House majority in 2017 when a pivotal race ended in a tie because a state court panel decided to award the GOP what should have been a spoiled vote where a voter filled in bubbles for both the Democratic and Republican candidates, then ambiguously drew a line through the Democratic bubble.
The new ballot design would place instructions on the same page as the races with candidates to illustrate what a proper candidate selection or write-in choice would look like. It would also warn voters that making any marks besides filling in the oval next to each choice could result in the ballot not counting. It also directs voters to simply ask poll workers for another ballot if they make any sort of mistake or wish to change their vote.