● New York: New York's Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a group of eight renegade Democratic state senators who make up the so-called "Independent Democratic Conference" recently announced a deal that calls for the IDC to abandon its alliance with Republicans and reunite with mainstream Democrats. Such an agreement would, depending on other factors, theoretically bring an end to GOP control of the Senate, which has only remained possible over the last several years thanks to the IDC.
But no issue makes it plainer how tissue-thin this supposed deal is than the Senate's repeated failure to pass measures to expand voting rights, and this new arrangement could very easily dissipate after this year's primaries.
For his entire seven years as governor, Cuomo has enabled Republican control over the state Senate in this dark-blue state by signing one of the most extreme GOP gerrymanders in the country and tacitly supporting the IDC. In turn, Republicans have repeatedly blocked proposals to allow early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, and online registration—just about every imaginable expansion of voting rights, the GOP has opposed. Indeed, the Senate Republicans predictably dropped a measure from the recently agreed-upon state budget that would have finally brought early voting to New York
Senate Democrats were entirely shut out of these budget negotiations—as they have been for many years now—which was only possible thanks to Cuomo and the IDC. Democrats would, in fact, have held a nominal one-seat majority during this year's budget negotiations if Cuomo hadn't waited to schedule two special elections Democrats are favored to win until after the budget was passed. This undemocratic ploy deprived Democrats of a shot at the majority, letting those those eight IDC members (and one additional Democrat who outright caucuses with the GOP) try to shift blame to Republicans for the failure to pass policies like early voting.
Not only is this deal itself suspect, the IDC’s motives for finally making it are, too. Most of the faction’s members face serious primary challenges this September, as does Cuomo himself, so any moves toward unification are assuredly aimed at undermining the burgeoning enthusiasm for all of their opponents. And there would be nothing stopping the IDC from once again defecting to the GOP after this year's elections, since Cuomo made similar promises in 2014 only to act as though he’d never made them after he and his allies won their primaries.
Cuomo and the IDC have been extremely cynical in pretending to lead the charge for voting rights while doing nothing to oust the Republicans who oppose these reforms from their position of power. Their latest charade demonstrates why voting rights advocates need mainstream Democrats to win back a majority in the state Senate without relying on any IDC members who could defect to once again prop up Republican control of the Senate in this heavily Democratic state.
● West Virginia: In late March, Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a law passed by the GOP-run legislature that will end the use of multi-member districts in the state House, which are currently used to elect 53 of the chamber's 100 members. This law won’t take effect until after the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census, but it will bring West Virginia into line with the vast majority of states that rely solely on single-member districts. (West Virginia's state Senate districts each have two members who serve staggered four-year terms.)
So why the change? Republicans may believe it will give them an even greater electoral advantage after 2020, when they will likely control redistricting for the first time in a century, though whether single- or multi-member districts favor one party or the other is unclear. The shift could also lead to less voter confusion.
But whatever the political effects of this move may be, it's a good bet Republicans aren't motivated chiefly by the pursuit of good governance, since they simultaneously blocked a separate measure that would have prohibited partisan gerrymandering during the redistricting process.
● Wisconsin: On Tuesday, Wisconsin progressives scored a dramatic victory when Judge Rebecca Dallet beat conservative Judge Michael Screnock by a resounding 56-44 margin to win a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court. Dallet's election means the conservative majority will shrink to just one seat on the seven-member high court, putting progressives in a position to take the majority for themselves some time over the next few years. Consequently, this race could have lasting implications for the fight against future Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts.
Starting in 2011, Republicans under Gov. Scott Walker passed extreme congressional and legislative gerrymanders that have allowed them to easily maintain their majorities—even in election years like 2012, when Democratic candidates have won more votes. Republicans have also implemented a new voter ID law, cut early voting, and made it harder to register to vote. But instead of providing voting rights supporters with a venue to try to fight these measures, the Supreme Court's conservative majority shut down an investigation into political corruption in Walker’s administration and has even let judges preside over cases that involve their own campaign donors.
Knowing the high court wouldn’t stop him, Walker has run roughshod over voting rights, but Dallet's victory puts progressives one step closer to being able to block these GOP power grabs, with gerrymandering at the top of the list. If Republicans are still in charge of state government following the 2020 census, they will almost certainly try to warp election districts to death in order to preserve their majorities. But if progressives have managed to win a majority on the high court by then, the justices might follow the lead of their peers in Pennsylvania and conclude that the state constitution prohibits partisan gerrymandering altogether.
● Maryland: Maryland became the latest state to enact automatic voter registration when Republican Gov. Larry Hogan let the bill become law without his signature after it was passed by the heavily Democratic legislature with veto-proof majorities. Notably, this law extends the new registration system beyond the state’s motor vehicles department to include other state agencies, like Maryland's Obamacare exchange. That broader scope is important for reaching eligible voters who don't drive, such as people with disabilities or those who rely on public transportation.
● New Jersey: New Jersey Democrats have now advanced a proposal to implement automatic voter registration out of committee in both the state Senate and state Assembly. Encouragingly, they amended the measure to give several other state agencies the option to implement automatic registration instead of limiting the bill’s coverage to those who obtain or renew a driver's license or state ID card. However, only the Motor Vehicle Commission would actually be required to proceed with instituting automatic registration.
Democrats also passed a bill in a state Assembly committee that would expand the right to vote in primaries to 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the time of the general election. More than a dozen states and Washington, D.C. have similar laws in effect, and broadening the franchise in this manner could make young voters more likely to cast a ballot to begin with.
● Texas: A federal judge ruled that Texas's GOP-run state government violated the National Voter Registration Act by failing to let voters register when they updated their driver's license info online. The NVRA, commonly called the Motor Voter Law, requires states under its jurisdiction to give citizens a chance to register when they apply for or renew their driver's license, but Texas only did so for those applying in person. Instead, online applicants were sent through a misleading process that may have caused thousands to think they were registered only to find out on Election Day that they were not.
The plaintiffs have asked the court to impose a a 90-day timeline for Republican lawmakers to remedy the situation, which would allow a revamped system to come online before the November general election if the court agrees. However, Republicans have promised to appeal to the conservative-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has often rejected complaints from those suing Texas Republicans over their voting restrictions.
● Nebraska: For the eighth year in a row, the Democratic minority in Nebraska's unicameral legislature has defeated a Republican-backed bill to place a constitutional amendment that would implement voter ID on the ballot. While Nebraska’s state Senate is formally nonpartisan, Republicans have dominated the body for many years. However, the Democrats' 17 seats in the 49-member chamber gives them the bare minimum needed to sustain a filibuster without any Republican votes.
● North Dakota: In a new ruling issued Wednesday, a federal district court has curtailed North Dakota’s Republican-backed voter ID law for infringing on Native American voting rights. The judge's order both blocks the state from requiring IDs that include a current residential street address and also allows certain tribal documents to serve as a valid ID. The address requirement could have disenfranchised thousands of Native American voters who live on reservations, where they often lack a street address and instead receive mail at a post office box.
This ruling is the second time this same judge, Daniel Hovland, has blocked part of this voter ID law, since he previously ruled against it in 2016. That prompted the GOP to pass a revised version in 2017, which is the subject of this current dispute. While an appeal is possible, one part of the decision did please the GOP and might dissuade Republicans from pursuing the case further. Hovland ruled that the state is no longer obligated to allow provisional voting (which five percent of voters used in 2016), which Republican Secretary of State Al Jaegar called a "significant step toward maintaining the integrity of the election process.”
North Dakota is the only state in the country that doesn't have voter registration at all— eligible voters simply need to provide proof of residency. Consequently, documentation of some sort is necessary here, but that does not excuse Republican efforts to disenfranchise eligible voters given that impersonation fraud is practically nonexistent.
● Maine: On Wednesday, a state court judge delivered a victory for election reformers when she ordered Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to continue proceeding to implement instant-runoff voting (IRV) for this June's primary elections. IRV backers had sought this order after lawyers in the attorney general's expressed their opinion last week that IRV couldn't be used in June due to a drafting error in the text of a referendum to block the legislature's repeal of IRV, a convoluted story that we have previously delved into.
While this outcome is encouraging for IRV backers, it's unlikely to bring a final resolution to the question of whether Maine will in fact use IRV this year. The Republican majority in the state Senate and a few Democratic defectors recently authorized GOP state Senate President Mike Thibodeau to petition the court to intervene on behalf of those opposing IRV, so appeals may be forthcoming. Consequently, it may take a ruling by the state Supreme Court to clarify once and for all whether IRV can be used in June.
● Florida: Republican Gov. Rick Scott's administration will appeal a federal district court ruling from last month that struck down Florida's arbitrary and onerous system for restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. The district court also denied Scott's request to stay its order to institute a new rights restoration process by April 26 while he appeals, with the judge excoriating Scott's attorneys for trying "to run out the clock" by making "astounding arguments" that are "rooted in neither common sense nor reality."
● Census: As expected, 17 Democratic state attorneys general and several major cities filed a lawsuit on Tuesday over the Trump administration's recent decision add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. The lawsuit argues that asking about citizenship would undermine the requirement found in the Constitution that the federal government count every resident of the United States by depressing participation among noncitizens and their families. The suit also alleges that the rushed inclusion of this question, which skipped the standard testing associated with any important changes to the census questionnaire, also violates other federal laws.
It's difficult to say what the chances of success are for litigation against Trump's attempt to weaponize the census for partisan gain. But Republicans would be very unlikely to support any legislative effort to reverse this move, and even if Democrats can retake Congress this fall, they’d need GOP support to override a presidential veto. Consequently, lawsuits like this one may be the best chance civil rights advocates have to ensure that the census accurately measures the American population.