● Redistricting Reform: Redistricting reform will be on the ballot in four states this November, following the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a GOP-backed appeal seeking to block a state legislative redistricting reform from going before voters. Below, we'll detail just what each proposal entails and its implication for each state.
Earlier this year, Colorado's Republican-run state Senate and Democratic-majority state House unanimously referred two state constitutional amendments to the ballot for voter approval: Amendment Y would create a congressional redistricting commission, and Amendment Z would do the same for the state legislature. Currently, congressional redistricting is handled like typical legislation, while legislative redistricting is carried out by a commission where the governor can determine which party effectively holds the majority.
Under these proposals, a panel of three retired appellate judges—one from each major party and one who is unaffiliated—would play a key role in randomly selecting commissioners from a pool of applicants. Democrats, Republicans, and independents would each have four members on the commission, and it would take two votes from each bloc to pass a map. The four legislative party leaders would not get to hand-pick any of the commission’s members, although they do get to select a pool of 10 applicants each to submit to the panel of judges for random selection. Consequently, this arrangement can reasonably be considered independent.
Any adopted maps would also have to follow several strict criteria, which the proposals list as: following federal law; preserving communities of interest (extensively defined by the amendments); keeping cities and counties whole; maximizing compactness; maximizing the number of politically competitive districts; banning the intentional favoring or disfavoring of a party or candidate; and preventing the dilution of the electoral strength of voters belonging to a racial or ethnic minority.
Nonpartisan legislative staff would assist commissioners by preparing preliminary maps, but commissioners could direct them to make changes as they saw fit. If the commission passed a map, the state Supreme Court would review it to determine whether it faithfully complied with the above criteria. If commissioners failed to pass a map, the commission staff would be directed to submit their final plan to the court, which would then review it for compliance with the criteria above.
Both amendments require 55 percent of the vote to pass. These measures would guard against partisan gerrymanders by either side, but they’re more likely to impact Democrats, who are better-positioned than Republicans to have unified control of the state government after 2020.
Michigan's Proposal 2 would create a fully independent redistricting commission and take away state lawmakers' existing control over both congressional and legislative redistricting. Republicans have gerrymandered Michigan for the last two decades, and their maps have helped them to win majorities in at least one legislative chamber despite winning fewer votes than Democrats in four of the last eight election cycles—a phenomenon that is likely to repeat itself in 2018.
The proposed reform would create a 13-member commission with four Democrats, four Republicans, and five non-major-party members. The secretary of state would solicit applications to serve on the commission, review them, and prepare demographically and geographically representative random samples of 30 for each major party and 40 for the other applicants. Each of the four legislative leaders would be able to remove five applicants from each pool, but they wouldn't be able to select members: Once they've made their objections, the secretary of state randomly picks from the remainder.
Importantly, this commission requires that at least two commissioners from each group agree to any map. Furthermore, these multi-partisan proposals must meet specific criteria, including: compliance with the Voting Rights Act; geographic contiguity; preserving communities of interest; partisan fairness; not favoring or disfavoring a particular candidate or incumbent; keeping counties, cities, and townships whole; and compactness. These criteria should ensure the maps treat both parties the same and adequately represent racial minorities.
However, if retired Justice Anthony Kennedy is replaced with a conservative hardliner, the U.S. Supreme Court could overturn its 2015 decision that upheld the constitutionality of an Arizona ballot initiative that created an independent commission for congressional redistricting. Such a reversal would also put Michigan’s congressional proposal at risk.
The "Clean Missouri" Amendment 1 would overhaul the state's legislative redistricting process while also instituting broader ethics reforms (congressional redistricting would be unaffected). Currently, a bipartisan commission of political appointees draws the maps, which leaves open the risk that elected officials will make deals to protect incumbents of both parties, stifling competitive races.
By contrast, the proposed reform 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. This reform could therefore promote greater partisan fairness and more competitive elections.
Utah’s Proposition 4 would create a seven-member bipartisan commission where legislative leaders from both parties would each pick three members and the governor would appoint a seventh member as chair. While this would let Republicans appoint four of the seven members thanks to their hold on the governor's office in this ruby-red state, it would take the vote of at least one of the Democratic appointees to pass a map. That stands in contrast to the current system, in which redistricting is treated like regular legislation.
The proposal also restricts the criteria mapmakers can use, which the state courts would then be able to enforce. In order of priority, they are: following federal law; minimizing the number of divided municipalities; minimizing the number of divided counties; promoting compactness; ensuring transportation connections exist within districts; preserving neighborhoods and communities of interest; following natural geography; and nesting districts so that state Senate and state House borders overlap as much as possible. Most importantly, it bans intentionally favoring or disfavoring any particular party or candidate.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of weaknesses in the proposed law. For one, the GOP-dominated legislature would still be empowered to pass its own map if it doesn’t like the commission’s, though it would still be constrained by the criteria described above. The other is that it’s only a law: Even if the measure passes, it would add a statute to the books rather than amend the state’s constitution, since Utah doesn’t permit voters to take the latter route. As a result, lawmakers could simply try to repeal the measure—as long as they’re willing to weather any potential blowback.
However, Utah Republicans have not been as nakedly partisan as their brethren in other states when it comes to issues like voter suppression; for instance, they passed same-day voter registration earlier this year as a way to make the registration process easier. If GOP legislators let this reform stand and faithfully adhere to it, it would likely strike a blow against Republican gerrymandering, but that outcome remains very much unsettled.
● Illinois: Illinois lawmakers unanimously passed an automatic voter registration law last year, but longtime Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White has come under scrutiny for failing to implement the measure in time for this year's elections, in violation of a July deadline to do so. White has wrongly claimed that automatic registration is already in place, but in reality, his office has only made the previous opt-in policy more visible when eligible voters interact with certain government services like the driver's license office or other state agencies.
Voting rights advocates are threatening a lawsuit to require White to make the switch to a fully opt-out system that puts the burden on the state to register everyone except those who explicitly decline. With Chicago, a Democratic stronghold home to 2.7 million residents, set to hold its nonpartisan primary for the open mayor's race on Feb. 26, there's limited time for White to implement automatic registration before that major election and other local elections across the state.
● Michigan: On Wednesday, Michigan's Republican-run state House passed a bipartisan bill to finally let voters register online if they have an in-state driver's license or ID card. The GOP-majority state Senate almost unanimously approved a similar bill back in March, so there's a strong chance Michigan will finally join the 37 other states and D.C. that already permit online registration.
● Michigan: In a positive turnabout, the federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against a GOP-backed law restricting the votes of college students has reversed course and agreed to expedite the case, setting an Oct. 19 hearing so that it might be resolved in time for this year's election. As we've previously explained, this law requires voters to register at the address on their driver's license, even if that address doesn't match their residence at school (where students are in fact permitted to vote). The law also requires those who register by mail or through a third-party voter registration drive to cast their first ballot in person instead of by absentee, which likely deters many students from voting at all.
● North Carolina: Just as state legislative Republicans had plotted, three of their voter suppression laws are working in concert to reduce early voting locations by 20 percent ahead of this year's elections, according to a new report by ProPublica. North Carolina Republicans have gone to extremes to make voting more difficult, and this reduction in early voting locations will increase travel times to early voting centers, especially for rural residents, and potentially decrease turnout in a state where early voting has long been popular.
This outcome is the product of three different provisions Republicans passed in the runup to this year's elections. First, they repeatedly passed laws to prevent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper from replacing the Republican majorities on the state and county elections boards with a Democratic ones when he took office after defeating GOP Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016. After multiple setbacks in court, their final attempt restructured the boards so the county boards would be evenly divided between the parties, while a member of neither major party breaks ties on the state board.
Rationalizing this change as a way to increase bipartisanship and fairness, Republicans have instead used their veto power to stop county boards from agreeing on early voting plans. That gridlock is key because another GOP-backed law requires counties to revert to the minimum of just one early voting location countywide if the board can't agree on such a plan. And thanks to a third GOP law that requires all early voting sites within a county to be open from 7 AM to 7 PM on weekdays, these county boards are struggling with limited funding, and the rigid operating hours requirement has prompted many to cut locations.
● North Dakota: In a setback for Native American voting rights, a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court order that had blocked part of a Republican-backed voter ID law, letting it remain in place for this year's elections while a trial on the merits continues. The ruling means voters will be required to show identification that lists a residential address instead of just a mailing address, a provision that is particularly burdensome for Native American voters who live on reservations, since they often lack a residential address and rely on a post office box.
As the only state without voter registration, North Dakota has a more legitimate reason for requiring identification than any other, but that shouldn't be grounds for Republicans to make it harder to vote for a Democratic-leaning demographic like Native American voters. While rulings like this that come so close to Election Day are usually disfavored, it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court would block it.
● Congress: On Tuesday, Republican Sen. James Lankford announced that his bipartisan election security bill would be impossible to pass before this year's elections. This development is unsurprising after Republican congressional leaders abruptly canceled a planned consideration of the bill in committee last month. It’s yet another sign that GOP leadership is refusing to protect America's election systems from security threats because they welcome such efforts, like Russia's involvement in boosting Trump.
Had it passed, this bill would have required every state to conduct audits after federal elections and would have incentivized the adoption of voting methods that leave a paper trail. It would have also promoted greater information-sharing between federal and state governments by granting top state officials a security clearance for sensitive information.