● Massachusetts: In a stunning development, Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim secured the state Democratic Party's endorsement for secretary of state over longtime incumbent William Galvin, winning 55 percent of the vote from convention delegates last weekend. Zakim has been a strong proponent of expanding voting rights and making it easier to vote, and he struck a chord with delegates thanks to Galvin's weak advocacy for such reforms. The two will face each other again—before a much larger group of voters—in the September primary.
Chief among Zakim's priorities has been passing automatic and same-day voter registration, which the Democratic-dominated legislature has been slow to enact, though a bill has been under consideration this year. Zakim has also proposed moving Election Day to the weekend, expanding early voting, removing the requirement that those wishing to vote absentee provide an excuse, and modernizing the state's records to make them more openly available.
By contrast, Galvin only recently came around to supporting automatic registration and same-day registration, even though he’s been in office since 1995. And though he’s now proposed legislation to implement same-day registration, he has continued to fight a state court ruling that struck down the state's registration deadline and could pave the way for same-day registration if it's upheld on appeal, without the need to make it through the legislation process.
Zakim's victory at the state party convention is of course no guarantee that he'll prevail in the primary. However, as the Boston Globe noted, it's the first time a Democratic statewide official has lost the party's endorsement since 1982, when former Gov. Michael Dukakis defeated then-Gov. Edward King at the convention, then went on to beat him in the primary. With endorsements both from the state party and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Zakim's campaign for improving Massachusetts' voting system appears to have momentum.
● Georgia: In a setback in the fight against gerrymandering, a federal district court panel recently declined to temporarily block Georgia from using several state House districts that Republicans redrew in 2015. Plaintiffs have argued that Republicans violated the rights of black voters when they engaged in this mid-decade redistricting effort to shore up vulnerable white incumbents, and the judges even called their evidence “compelling.”
However, the court said, the evidence wasn't sufficient to determine whether the GOP acted with discriminatory intent in violation of the 14th Amendment. Without such a finding, the court said it was inappropriate to issue a preliminary injunction against the revamped districts, meaning they’ll remain in place for 2018. The case remains in progress, though, and if plaintiffs ultimately succeed, Georgia could have to redraw its map before the 2020 elections.
● Michigan: In a victory for opponents of partisan gerrymandering, Michigan's Court of Appeals has turned aside a Republican-backed challenge that seeks to block a redistricting reform initiative from appearing on this fall's ballot. This amendment would create an independent commission tasked with drawing intentionally fair districts, but Republicans claimed it violated the rules for acceptable amendments by proposing to alter too many segments of Michigan's constitution, but the court rejected that argument.
The plaintiffs say they will appeal this ruling to Michigan's state Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a five-to-two majority. However, the lower court's ruling was unanimous, so the GOP may have no have better luck on appeal.
● North Carolina: With practically no deliberation, North Carolina's Republican-dominated state legislature has passed a bill to gerrymander the districts used to elect the state's district court judges, specifically targeting the Democratic strongholds of Mecklenburg and Wake Counties. These two counties are home to more than one-fifth of the state's population and include its two largest cities, Charlotte and the state capital of Raleigh. They also—and this is no accident—contain a disproportionately large share of North Carolina's black and Latino residents.
Currently, all such judicial districts are made up of one or more undivided counties. Mecklenburg and Wake both comprise single-county districts, meaning judgeships there are elected on a countywide basis. Republicans would instead break those districts up and create new ones at the sub-county level, saying the move is necessary because of population growth in the two counties, which now have more than 1 million residents apiece. All judges would, however, still retain countywide jurisdiction.
But a statistical analysis from cartographer Blake Esselstyn shows those claims are a bogus rationalization, because these maps bear all the hallmarks of a partisan gerrymander, especially after the GOP passed legislation last year transforming these once nonpartisan contests into partisan affairs. This plan will therefore make it possible for Republicans to elect conservative judges with countywide jurisdiction in counties where they could never win a countywide election. What’s more, opponents say that the bill could result in many of the black judges in these two counties losing their posts.
It’s a cornerstone belief of ours that judicial elections are bad for democracy, but if America is going to hold them, voters need to be treated equally, and the electoral system should be as impartial as possible. This plan serves no purpose other than to give white Republican minorities more power in these heavily Democratic counties, and Republicans will only be able to pass it over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's expected veto because of legislative gerrymanders that have already been struck down as unconstitutional and redrawn for this year's elections.
● North Carolina: On Thursday, North Carolina Republicans introduced a proposal that would ask voters this November if they want to amend the state constitution to require citizens to present ID when they vote. This move comes just two years after a federal court struck the a voter ID statute the GOP passed in 2013 that was just one part of one of the most sweeping voter suppression laws ever enacted since the end of Jim Crow.
In crafting this package, Republican legislators ordered an analysis of which voting methods black voters used more than whites, then eliminated those very methods. They also included an ID requirement after finding black voters were more likely to lack an ID than whites. In striking down the law, the court said Republicans had "target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision."
Thanks to gerrymanders that have since been ruled unconstitutional and redrawn, Republicans hold the three-fifths supermajorities needed to put amendments on the ballot without any Democratic votes, and they plan to do so by the end of June. GOP leaders may believe that putting the matter to a vote could insulate this second attempt from judicial review.
However, if North Carolinians pass this proposed amendment this fall, litigation is all but guaranteed. With study after study finding voter fraud to be practically nonexistent, North Carolina Republicans themselves have once again shown that their efforts to require voter ID are simply an attempt to keep black voters from exercising their rights—just as the federal court that rejected their first try said.
● Congress: Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle and his brother, Pennsylvania state Rep. Kevin Boyle, have introduced companion bills in Congress and the Pennsylvania House to move Election Day from Tuesdays to Saturdays and Sundays. These bills would make voting much easier and more accessible for the millions of Americans who find it difficult to take off from work to vote on a workday, and it's a common-sense reform that would likely increase turnout, especially in states that don't allow early voting.
Unfortunately, the Republican majorities in Congress and Pennsylvania's state legislature are very unlikely to pass these bills. The Boyles, however, are helping to make this proposed reform a part of the broader conversation on expanding access to voting, and it could become a progressive priority if Democrats win back majorities in the coming years.
● Census: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its inclusion of a question about citizenship status on the 2020 census. The ACLU alleges that this effort, which aims to turn the census into a tool for political suppression, violates the Constitution and is intentionally discriminatory against people of color. The ACLU joins a long list of groups challenging the policy in court that includes numerous Democratic state attorneys general and civil rights organizations.
● Arizona: Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan has settled a lawsuit challenging Arizona policies that both made it harder for voters to register and disenfranchised those without certain documentation. Arizona law requires proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, but the federal National Voter Registration Act (also known as the Motor Voter law) bars states from doing so in federal elections, where registrants only have to swear they are citizens under penalty of perjury.
To comply with federal law, Republican officials had been offering two different voter registration forms: one only for federal elections and one that includes state elections. But tens of thousands of voters who lacked proof of citizenship had registered with the state form yet were still illegally disenfranchised in federal elections. Consequently, this settlement will ensure that those who are eligible for federal elections are indeed allowed to vote, regardless of which form they use.
Furthermore, voters will no longer have to provide citizenship documentation when they register using a state driver's license, since Arizona verifies citizenship status for almost everyone who obtains a license or state ID. Because few voters carry around a passport or birth certificate day-to-day, easing this restriction will make it much easier for campaigns and civic groups to conduct voter registration drives. This deal will also make it easier for voters to update their registration when they move within the state.
Unfortunately, this settlement still leaves in place the law requiring that voters prove their citizenship to register for state elections. Because the agreement now allows a state driver's license as proof, that should mitigate the problem, but this requirement might still unduly burden those who don't drive. However, this agreement is nevertheless a major improvement over the status quo that had made Arizona's registration system one of the most difficult to navigate.
● California: On Tuesday, voters in California's 29th State Senate District voted to recall Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman, ostensibly over his vote to increase gas taxes last year. Republican proponents of the recall, however, openly admitted the real goal was ending the two-thirds Democratic supermajority needed to raise taxes without any GOP support. Former Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, whom Newman defeated in 2016, won a simultaneous election to fill the rest of his four-year term.
Republicans never accused Newman of any lawbreaking or ethical misconduct. Rather, he was simply a Democrat sitting in a vulnerable swing district, and recall opponents alleged that the GOP misled voters into thinking signing the recall petition could repeal the gas tax itself. As such, this election was an abuse of the recall process aimed at undoing an election loss for purely partisan purposes.
The election also offered another reminder that California’s recall procedures are themselves deeply flawed. California requires a two part-ballot for all recalls: On the first part, voters are asked if they want to recall the official in question. The second features a a simultaneous election in which all potential replacement candidates run on a single ballot regardless of party, and for which only a plurality is required to win. (The results only matter if “Yes” takes a majority in the first question.)
Consequently, this system makes it nearly impossible for the incumbent party to campaign against the recall but for a replacement candidate as a backup plan. You may recall the Democrats’ incredibly awkward slogan from 2003—“No on recall, yes on Bustamante”—exhorting voters to oppose the recall of Gov. Gray Davis but, hey, just in case, vote for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante in case Davis gets the hook. Needless to say, it failed badly, and the same thing happened in Newman’s case.
In other states, voters face a much more straightforward process. In some jurisdictions, voters are asked whether they want to recall an office-holder. If a majority says yes, then that official is removed from office, creating a vacancy for which a separate special election is later held. In others, if a recall is placed on the ballot, then there’s just a single traditional election, pitting the recalled candidate against an opponent from the other party.
Ultimately, this episode demonstrates that California’s recall laws are badly in need of reform, but Democrats in the legislature can fix them if they have the political will to do so.
● New Mexico: On Tuesday, progressive challenger Susan Herrera defeated longtime state Rep. Debbie Rodella by a 56-44 margin in New Mexico’s Democratic primary, greatly improving the chances that Democrats in the legislature will be able to expand voting rights next year. Using her pivotal seat on the state House's elections committee, Rodella had sided with the chamber’s Republican minority to block both automatic voter registration and same-day registration from getting a vote in the full chamber in 2017, a key reason that inspired progressives to unite against her this year.
Democrats are favored to regain the governor's office this fall and are in a strong position to retain their legislative majorities, which would give them full control over state government for the first time since 2010. If that happens, they'll have a great shot at passing these policies to make the registration process less burdensome and more inclusive next year.