● New York: In Thursday's Democratic primaries, mainstream Democrats won a smashing victory over a group of renegade Democratic state senators who for the last several years had handed Republicans control over the extremely gerrymandered chamber, even when Democrats won nominal majorities in 2012 and 2016 despite the unfair map. These victories leave the mainstream Democratic caucus well positioned to finally regain control over both of New York's legislative chambers after this year's elections, and they could consequently pass a slew of voting rights measures next year.
Despite being a deep-blue state, Republicans have long used their heavily gerrymandered grip on the Senate to thwart the Democratic Assembly's bills aimed at making it easier to vote. New York is among just 13 states that don't allow early voting and require an excuse to vote absentee, and it's the lone state in America to have separate state and federal primaries, hurting turnout and wasting money. Furthermore, it has an onerous deadline to register with a party nearly a year before primaries to be able to vote in them except for new registrants, and it lacks automatic voter registration and doesn't allow registration on Election Day or online for most voters.
Those burdensome election laws were well on display on Thursday, where, despite a massive surge in Democratic enthusiasm, countless voters showed up at the polls to vote, only to find that they were missing from the rolls and be forced to fill out a provisional ballot. This isn't the first time in recent years that New York's voter registration procedures have drawn scathing criticism. New York City was forced by a court to reverse course after it had illegally purged 117,000 eligible voters from the rolls between 2013 and 2017 simply for not voting frequently enough.
But thanks to this surge of victories by progressives who had promised to support mainstream Democratic control of the chamber, defeating six of the nine nominal Democrats who had thrown control to Republicans, mainstream Democrats who support voting rights expansion are poised to assume control next year if they flip just a couple of Republican-held seats in November. Consequently, one of the absolute worst states for voting rights could soon become a leader by establishing early and excuse-free absentee voting and automatic and same-day voter registration, and by curtailing or even eliminating felony disenfranchisement.
● North Carolina: North Carolina's congressional map was struck down again last month, but after the plaintiffs told the district court that there wasn't enough time to redraw the map this year and the court subsequently ruled last week that the illegal map would have to be used, the court has now granted the Republican defendants' request for a stay of its decision pending appeal. However, the court only agreed to stay its order to redraw the map following this year's elections on the condition that Republicans expedite their appeal so the Supreme Court can issue a ruling by mid-2019.
That condition means that any further foot-dragging from Republican legislators would render the stay invalid and even give the court authority to redraw the map itself, after the GOP's first map this decade was struck down in 2016 for racial gerrymandering. However, if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, the five conservative hardliners would likely overturn the lower court.
● Texas: A federal district court has rejected a Voting Rights Act lawsuit that had tried to require Texas to switch from electing its two appellate courts on a statewide basis to electing them by districts so that Latino voters would be able to elect their preferred candidates. The court ultimately held that partisanship, not race, explained Latino voters failing to elect their preferred candidates, i.e., Democrats, for more than two decades. Lawsuits like this have long been used to break up at-large elections into districts for offices like city councils, but applying it to judicial elections was a novel legal strategy.
Had the plaintiffs prevailed, Texas could have seen Latino voters elect Democratic candidates to the state Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, where Republicans currently hold every seat. However, a victory would have also allowed the GOP, which controls the state legislature, to gerrymander new judicial districts and lock in a long-term majority.
● Virginia: On Wednesday, GOP state legislative leaders told the federal court overseeing the redrawing of 11 state House districts it had previously struck down over racial discrimination that they plan to return in mid-October to vote on a new map, ahead of the court's Oct. 30 deadline. However, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam wrote to legislators last week that he's prepared to let the court draw its own map because he doubted Republicans would produce a new map that passes constitutional muster, and Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring asked the court on Monday to do just that.
The Republican legislative majority has tried to drag out the redistricting process in the hope that they won't have to draw a new map before Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, and they have failed to even introduce any proposals after state House Democrats unveiled their own map in late August. As we have previously detailed, this ruling's ultimate survival most likely will depend on Chief Justice John Roberts, who has long enabled GOP gerrymanders, yet nevertheless sided with the plaintiffs when this long-running case was last before the high court in 2017.
● California: California Democrats passed a law in July to prepay the postage on mail-in ballots statewide starting in 2019, as the state increasingly transitions to vote-by-mail, but Los Angeles County isn't waiting until then and will go ahead with prepaid postage for this year's elections. This change makes it more convenient to cast a ballot by saving voters a trip to the post office, and it could subsequently boost turnout in a county that is home to over 10 million people—a quarter of the state's population.
● Michigan: The straight-ticket voting option officially won't appear on Michigan's ballot this year after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene after an appeals court overturned a district court decision that had struck down the GOP's repeal of straight-ticket voting for intentionally discriminating against black voters. However, voters have a chance to restore the popular option via ballot initiative this fall thanks to a measure, known as Proposal 3, that enshrines it and other voting access measures into the state constitution, likely insulating it from federal review.
● New Mexico: In a blow to voting access, New Mexico's Supreme Court unanimously rejected Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver's move to restore the straight-ticket voting option this fall via administrative action after her GOP predecessor had unilaterally removed it the same way in 2012. Restoring straight-ticket voting would have decreased the time it takes to cast a ballot and could have consequently mitigated the risk of long voting lines on Election Day.
● Florida: In a surprising yet positive development, a national group called Freedom Partners, a part of the staunchly conservative Koch brothers’ network, has announced its support of Florida's Amendment 4 ballot initiative, which would automatically restore the voting rights of roughly 1.4 million citizens who have completely served out their sentences for felony convictions, a group that is disproportionately African-American.
Freedom Partners and other Koch affiliates have a history of spending big on campaigns, but more importantly, it's an encouraging sign that voting rights restoration has major support across the ideological spectrum. That's especially critical in Florida, because the state requires 60 percent of the vote for a ballot measure to pass.
● Arizona: In a setback for voting rights, a divided three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a Democratic-backed appeal of a lower-court decision that declined to strike down a GOP-passed law making it a felony for someone who isn't a family member, caregiver, or postal worker to gather and turn in another person’s mail-in ballot.
As we've previously explained, Arizona casts roughly 80 percent of its votes by mail, and while that's much more convenient for most voters, it can be particularly burdensome for rural voters with limited transportation options. Those voters most affected by this ban are disproportionately Latino and Native American, the latter of whom tend to rely on distant post office boxes when living on reservations, where most lack a car. The majority, however, rejected the argument that the law in question is discriminatory.
Separately, the judges also refused to overturn a ban on counting votes from registered voters who cast a ballot at the wrong precinct but within the right county. In a dissent, Judge Sidney Thomas noted that those who are most likely to vote at the wrong precinct tend to be urban renters who move more frequently. The majority was unmoved by statistics showing that Arizona discards a higher percentage of out-of-precinct ballots than any other state, which Thomas blamed on the frequent relocation of polling places in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and three-fifths of the state’s population.
Following this defeat, the plaintiffs may ask the full 9th Circuit, which leans to the left, to hear an appeal "en banc," in which all the judges would sit together and decide the case. But even if additional appeals fail to overturn the so-called "ballot harvesting" ban, there's still a separate lawsuit working its way through the system, making the unusual argument that federal law doesn't give GOP legislators the authority to regulate the U.S. mail.