● Missouri: A good-government reform group called Clean Missouri has submitted more than 346,000 signatures to place an initiative on this November's ballot that contains a wide range of ethics and government reforms, including changes to Missouri's existing bipartisan legislative redistricting commission.
The proposed reforms would have the state auditor draw up a pool of applicants from which a nonpartisan demographer would be selected. That person would then be tasked with drawing new legislative maps, subject to the commission's approval. The demographer would be explicitly directed to use a statistical model known as the “efficiency gap” that’s designed to gauge partisan fairness, which we have previously explained in detail.
While the maps would not be designed to yield outcomes perfectly proportional to the popular vote, they would aim to treat both parties equally so that the party winning the most votes statewide also wins the most seats. Even though the current maps were drawn by a bipartisan commission, and even though Republicans consistently win more votes across the state than Democrats, these maps still give Republicans a significant advantage beyond what they’d be expected to receive.
The secretary of state's office will declare on Aug. 14 whether the initiative has qualified for the ballot. Organizers need to submit valid signatures equal to eight percent of the 2016 gubernatorial vote in six of Missouri's eight congressional districts, which adds up to about 160,000 in total.
Note that this initiative doesn't address congressional redistricting because of laws that limit the scope of any single ballot measure. Consequently, even if this proposal passes, the GOP would likely retain the power to gerrymander the state’s congressional map again after 2020 if the status quo continues.
● Arizona: Back in February, Arizona Republicans plotted to pass a state constitutional amendment that would have gutted the state's independent redistricting commission and effectively given GOP legislators the power to gerrymander once again. After that effort fell apart, they’ve since replaced that proposal with a less overt plan to make the maps more GOP-leaning after the 2020 census.
Arizona currently has a five-member commission with two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent tiebreaker. The GOP's latest proposal would expand the commission to include three Democrats, three Republicans, and three independents, which sounds reasonable enough.
Only those three independents wouldn’t all be independent. Democratic and Republican legislative leaders would each get to choose one of those supposed independents, so only the ninth member, who’d be selected by the other eight or by lot if there’s no agreement, would truly be independent.
Perhaps more troubling, Republicans also included another provision that is more blatantly partisan and possibly discriminates against Latino and Native American voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has generally allowed state legislative districts to vary in population by as much as 10 percent, but the GOP's proposal would reduce that range to two percent. Doing so could consequently make it more difficult to draw districts Latino or Native American voters could elect their preferred candidates by allowing those districts to occupy the lower end of what’s permissible population-wise.
State House Republicans have already approved this amendment on a party-line vote, while the state Senate's GOP majority appears poised to follow suit. If Republicans pass the measure, voters would still have to approve it in a November referendum.
● Michigan: A conservative organization with links to Michigan's Chamber of Commerce has filed a legal challenge attempting to block a proposed redistricting reform initiative from going before voters this fall. Initiative supporters previously filed more than 425,000 signatures to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to create an independent redistricting commission. Election officials have yet to certify that the minimum necessary 316,000 are valid, but proponents will likely have enough to make the ballot.
Republicans aren’t challenging these signatures, though. Rather, they contend that the proposal can't be passed by ballot initiative at all, claiming it represents a "general revision" to the state constitution rather than an amendment. Indeed, state courts rejected an earlier redistricting-related ballot initiative during the 2008 election cycle on similar grounds, but that proposal contained many other provisions that included shrinking the legislature and changing campaign finance laws.
With those lessons in mind, reformers this year have taken a narrower approach and only addressed the single subject of redistricting. The proposal therefore stands a better chance of getting construed by the courts as an amendment, rather than a wholesale revision to the constitution.
● Arkansas: Republicans have appealed a recent state court ruling that struck down their 2017 voter ID law, and now the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court has temporarily blocked that ruling pending appeal. This outcome was expected, since the court’s changes in membership in recent years have moved it sharply to the right compared to its makeup when it struck down a very similar voter ID law in 2014. But even if the court surprises observers and upholds the ruling, Republicans have already placed a constitutional amendment to implement voter ID on November's ballot.
● New Hampshire: As expected, Republicans in New Hampshire’s state Senate have now passed a bill that would tighten residency requirements for voters. As we have previously detailed, this measure is a thinly veiled effort to suppress the votes of out-of-state college students by effectively forcing them to pay a poll tax in the form of registering their car in-state and getting a state driver's license or ID. The two chambers will have to reconcile different versions of the bill after state House Republicans previously passed it earlier this year.
● Texas: In an unsurprising move, a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a challenge to Texas' voter ID law, which Republicans passed in 2017 after a previous voter ID measure was struck down in 2016. A district court had ruled last year that even this replacement voter ID law still intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters, but the appeals court had already stayed that ruling pending appeal.
The plaintiffs could still seek a further review of the case by asking all of the judges on the Fifth Circuit hear the case together, known as an "en banc" session. However, given the circuit’s deep conservative lean, they'd be unlikely to succeed, and an appeal to the Supreme Court doesn't look promising for similar reasons.
● Voter Suppression: J. Christian Adams, an infamous crusader for voter suppression and former member of Trump's bogus voter fraud commission, will appeal a recent federal district court ruling that rejected his ham-fisted plot to get populous Broward County, Florida, to aggressively prune its voter rolls. As we have previously explained, this recent defeat in court was the culmination of Adams’ years-long effort to bully local governments into purging eligible voters. Adams had largely been successful because he’d mostly targeted poor, rural counties with predominantly black populations that had little choice but to settle out of court, but populous Broward was able to fight back—and win.
Voter Registration and Early Voting
● Delaware: Democratic legislators in Delaware have recently introduced bills to establish early voting and allow voters to register on the same day they cast a ballot ahead of the 2020 elections. Democrats hold unified control over state government, so they could pass both measures without Republican support. The state House previously passed same-day registration in 2014, but the Senate didn't follow suit.
Yet despite the fact that Democrats are in charge of the governorship and both houses of the legislature, Delaware has some of America's worst voting laws of any blue state. It has no automatic registration, same-day voter registration, early voting, or excuse-free absentee voting. Delaware also hasn't joined the Electoral College popular vote compact, and its felony disenfranchisement regime places it among the 10 most restrictive states. These latest proposals would go a long way toward making voting much easier in the First State if they ultimately become law.
● Hawaii: For the fourth straight year, Hawaii's Democratic-controlled legislature has failed to pass a bill intended to switch the state to voting almost entirely by mail by the 2020 elections. The bill lawmakers ultimately passed was significantly watered down and would instead create a 2020 vote-by-mail pilot program only on the sparsely populated island of Kauai. Hawaii ranked dead last in turnout in the last two presidential elections, but Democrats have sadly shown little appetite for comprehensive voting reforms in this dark-blue state.
● Washington: Washington is one of three states that vote almost entirely by mail, and a bipartisan group of legislators has now introduced a bill that would require the state to pay for the postage. This proposed change could make it easier for voters to cast a ballot by saving them time and a trip to the post office, meaning it could consequently increase turnout. Under current law, counties are required to accept ballots mailed without postage, but local governments don't widely publicize this fact because they get stuck with the bill, rather than the state.
Democrats gained unified control of state government ahead of this year's legislative session, but a similar bill died in committee earlier this year. However, proponents have said they plan to push the bill in the 2019 legislative session to better prepare the state budget to allocate the necessary funds.
Nevertheless, King County, which is the state's most populous county and a Democratic stronghold, is considering moving ahead with its own pre-paid postage plan. Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman has urged the county not to, but she’s said she will seek emergency state funding to help the other counties pay for postage if King County acts unilaterally. Don’t mistake that for generosity on her part: Wyman simply wants to ensure that other, redder counties don’t get left behind.
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Programming Note: The Voting Rights Roundup will be on hiatus the week of May 11. We’ll return the following week.