● North Carolina: On Tuesday, a state court delivered a victory for democracy when it temporarily blocked two constitutional amendments from the November ballot on the grounds that Republican legislators had written misleading ballot summaries of the measures that do not "sufficiently inform the voters" and are "not stated in such a manner as to enable them intelligently to express their opinion." Republicans swiftly appealed to the GOP-dominated Court of Appeals and called a special session of the legislature starting on Friday to rewrite the summaries for the two amendments so that the proposals can remain on the ballot.
As we have previously detailed, one of the two amendments in question would essentially gerrymander the judicial branch by letting the legislature—which itself is gerrymandered—have sway over judicial appointees. That would allow Republicans to pack the state Supreme Court and flip it from a Democratic majority to a Republican one, while also effectively neutering the governor's veto power. The other amendment transfers appointments of state boards to the legislature, including the state Board of Elections, thereby preventing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from appointing a majority that could reverse past GOP voter suppression measures.
However, the court did not block the GOP's voter ID amendment, even though their previous voter ID statute was struck down in federal court. It also declined to rule on the NAACP's claim that the current legislature is a "usurper" legislature that lacks the authority to amend North Carolina's constitution because it was elected under gerrymandered districts that were struck down as unconstitutional and redrawn earlier this year.
Following the GOP’s appeal, Cooper asked the state Supreme Court to expedite the case, and the NAACP is separately appealing to the high court to stop the voter ID amendment, partly based on its "usurper" legal theory. Republicans, however, appear to be trying to run out the clock. By dragging things out at the Court of Appeals, both in this case and in another one they recently lost over an attempt to retroactively strip a party-switching Supreme Court candidate of his Republican affiliation on the ballot, they may be able to deprive the Supreme Court of enough time to resolve both cases before ballots must be printed.
It's unclear how these two cases will unfold from here, but Republicans have already tipped their hand that they aren't confident of victory if the Supreme Court weighs in, since the executive director of the state party threatened to impeach the Democratic justices last week. If the Supreme Court accepts Cooper’s request to expedite the matter, though, it should have enough time to issue a ruling preventing these deceptive power grabs from appearing on the ballot.
● Virginia: On Monday, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam called an Aug. 30 special session of the state’s Republican-controlled legislature so that lawmakers can redraw Virginia’s state House map. A federal court struck down 11 House districts earlier this year for violating the rights of black voters by packing them into fewer districts, thereby diluting their influence in neighboring seats. The district court gave lawmakers until Oct. 30 to redraw the map, but Republicans are appealing to the Supreme Court and have asked the lower court to suspend its deadline pending appeal.
With Justice Anthony Kennedy no longer on the bench, conservatives temporarily lack the majority they'd need to stay the lower court's ruling until a new justice joins them. However, once Trump's nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is confirmed, Republicans will soon have a conservative majority on the bench once again. Consequently, whether the lower court's ruling survives will likely depend on Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the plaintiffs and told the lower court to reconsider its previous ruling in favor of the defendants when this case was last before the Supreme Court in 2017.
● Illinois: GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has issued an “amendatory veto” of a Democratic-backed bill that would promote voting access in jails for inmates who are awaiting trial and thus still eligible to vote, and would also educate former prisoners about their voting rights upon release. Rauner specifically objected to the provision that would inform former prisoners of their rights. Democrats lack the votes to override Rauner’s veto, but they can accept Rauner’s proposed changes to the legislation (hence the “amendatory” nature of the veto) and pass it with a simple majority. The bill’s sponsor says she will consult with supporters before proceeding.
● Arizona: A coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on Monday against Republican Secretary of State Michele Reagan, arguing she violated the National Voter Registration Act (or “motor voter” law) by failing to automatically update voters' registration records when they updated their address on their driver's licenses with the state Transportation Department. This failure could prevent thousands of voters from voting at their new addresses. Having come to rely on the DMV doing it for them automatically (the motor voter law has now been in place for 25 years), many voters might not manually update their voter registration records after moving.
● Georgia: Following a national outcry, officials in heavily black Randolph County, Georgia, voted down a proposal on Friday to close seven of the county’s nine polling places on the grounds that they didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Confirming critics’ fears, that justification turned out to be entirely pretextual: An attorney for Randolph County admitted that there hadn’t been a single complaint about accessibility at polling places, meaning they were used without problems in this year’s primary just months ago.
It’s nevertheless worth understanding why officials even entertained this plan in the first place. Randolph County, it turns out, is just one of nearly a dozen counties in Georgia with large African-American populations where local governments have moved to close polling places at the behest of a consultant with close ties to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. (Randolph County fired the consultant, Mike Malone, the day before the vote.) It also happens that Kemp, a longtime crusader for voter suppression, is running for governor this year, and his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, would be Georgia' first black governor if she were to win.
Perhaps unexpectedly, an analysis by the blogger Xenocrypt found that it was unclear whether these closures would have had disparate impact on black residents in Randolph County, which itself only cast around 3,000 votes in 2016. But officials didn't initially characterize the move as a small county’s way to save money. Rather, the pretextual nature of Malone’s claims of promoting ADA compliance, coupled with his association with Kemp, made his proposal highly suspect regardless of its effects, and civil rights groups were understandably outraged.
It's breathtakingly cynical for Republicans to try to use one landmark civil rights law as a pretext to undermine another. Ever since the Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that had previously required several mostly Southern states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before changing their election procedures—including closing polling sites—these Republican-run states have led the way in shuttering hundreds of polling places in disproportionately minority areas, which academic research has found to lower turnout.
But there's one key way that progressives can fight back: Elect more Democratic secretaries of state. These people who serve in these offices are typically the top election administrator in each state, and they often play a key role in whether states and cities can get away with voter suppression, or whether they instead have to ensure that voting is easy and accessible for every citizen.
● Texas: Texas' Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative agency that pushes for cuts in supposedly inefficient government spending, is considering a proposal from the state Department of Public Safety to close 87 driver's license offices, including the only such office in 78 of the state's 254 counties. DPS says it’s pushing these closures as a cost-saving measure in sparsely populated areas, estimating that these offices each average just 2,500 customers per year, but the Texas Association of Counties contends that this will force affected residents to drive an average of 100 miles round trip to obtain a license or state ID card.
Making this matter a concern for voting rights is Texas' Republican-backed voter ID law: The harder it is to obtain an ID, the harder it is to vote. But the plan may not come to fruition: Though the commission is dominated by Republican state legislators, the proposal has already drawn opposition from a bipartisan slate of lawmakers in the Lone Star State. And while no analysis has yet been performed as to whether these closures might have a disparate impact on black or Latino voters, it’s worth noting that Alabama Republicans had to settle a lawsuit in 2016 when they tried to close down a slew of driver's license offices in disproportionately black counties after implementing a similar voter ID law a few years earlier.
● 2020 Census: On Wednesday, a federal judge allowed another lawsuit to proceed against the Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, concluding that the plaintiffs "have made a strong preliminary showing that defendants have acted in bad faith." The judge agreed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress when, in his sworn testimony, he claimed that the Justice Department initiated the request to add the citizenship question in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, documents exposed that it was instead Ross who initially pushed the idea on the DOJ, making the VRA claim a bogus pretext. A separate suit, filed by several state attorneys general and civil rights groups, has also survived preliminary procedural hurdles and is now making its way through the courts.
● Congress: Congress has been considering bipartisan legislation called the Secure Elections Act that seeks to improve election security, but Yahoo News reported on Thursday that the bill was abruptly pulled from consideration in a Senate committee this week at the urging of the Trump administration. This bill would require every state to conduct audits after federal elections and incentivize the adoption of voting methods that leave a paper trail. It would also promote greater information-sharing between federal and state officials, granting top state officials a security clearance for sensitive information.
Supporters say they won't give up, but this is the second time this summer that Republicans in Congress have blocked a measure to improve election security: Just last month, House Republicans voted down an amendment to increase funding for the states. It's yet another sign that Republican leadership is refusing to protect America's election systems from hackers because they welcome such efforts, like Russia's involvement in boosting Trump.