● North Carolina: In a major loss in the fight for fair elections, the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to issue a temporary restraining order to block several of the GOP's deceptively written, power-grabbing constitutional amendments from appearing on the ballot this November. While a trial on the merits will still proceed, it's doubtful that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the NAACP will find greater success, given that they failed to persuade the court’s Democratic majority that two of the amendments were too misleadingly written to put on the ballot.
Consequently, North Carolinians will vote on six amendments, three of which could determine whether legislative Republicans are able to further consolidate their ill-gotten power. Most dangerous is their amendment to usurp the governor's power to fill judicial vacancies, effectively gerrymandering the judicial branch by giving Republicans in the legislature—who themselves owe their seats and their majority to gerrymandering—control over whom the governor can name.
If this amendment passes, Republicans then plan to take advantage of a provision that would allow them to pack the state Supreme Court by adding two more seats, which could turn the four-to-three Democratic majority into a five-to-four GOP advantage. Maintaining a Democratic majority on the court could prove critical for constraining Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts, which is why Republicans have gone to such extremes to try to win control over it.
But that's not all. Voters will also decide on a measure that would have the legislature assume control over the state Board of Elections and thereby hobble it through partisan gridlock. That would allow Republicans to cut early voting locations to the bare minimum and simultaneously stop Democrats from restoring polling places that Republicans had removed from black neighborhoods and college campuses. And finally, voters will also vote on whether to require a photo ID to vote, a measure that a new poll finds passing by a 63-20 margin.
However, the united opposition to these amendments by every former governor and former state Supreme Court chief justice from both parties could help raise voter awareness that these proposals are a threat to democracy. Furthermore, if Democrat Anita Earls defeats Republican Justice Barbara Jackson in this year's Supreme Court election, Republicans wouldn't be able to pack their way to a majority after the election.
● North Carolina: The federal court that struck down North Carolina's GOP congressional gerrymander last month ruled this week that the map can nevertheless remain in place for this year's elections, which is an unsurprising outcome after the plaintiffs themselves told the court last Friday they believed there wasn't enough time to redraw the map before Election Day. That also means North Carolina probably won’t get a new map for 2020 either, since the lower court’s ruling is very likely to get overturned on appeal next year once Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court. That would leave the state courts as the last option for opponents of gerrymandering, since any such rulings would likely be insulated from Supreme Court review.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Michigan: In a setback for voting rights, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal district court ruling and reinstated a Republican-backed repeal of straight-ticket voting for 2018. The lower court had held that Republicans had intentionally discriminated against black voters by removing this popular voting option because black voters were disproportionately likely to use it. But thanks to the appeals court’s ruling, the loss of the straight-ticket option will increase the time it takes to cast a ballot and could lead to long voting lines in heavily black precincts—a problem exacerbated by the fact that Michigan offers neither early voting nor excuse-free absentee voting.
Fortunately, Michiganders will soon have the chance to reverse this decision at the ballot box. On Thursday, the state Board of Canvassers officially gave their final approval for a proposed constitutional amendment that includes a sweeping set of voting rights measures, meaning it will appear on the ballot this fall.
This measure would not only restore the straight-ticket option and protect it from Republican repeal efforts, but it would also establish automatic and same-day voter registration, excuse-free absentee voting, and routine audits of elections. Combined, these measures would make it significantly easier to vote—a major change for a state that has made voting harder than most.
● New Jersey: Last month, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a measure that will make it easier for voters to cast a ballot by mail, in an attempt to increase participation. Voters can now apply for a mail-in ballot when they register, and those who sign up will automatically receive mail ballots in future elections unless they opt out. This change could pave the way for New Jersey to eventually switch to universal vote-by-mail.
● New Mexico: Following Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver's recent decision to restore the straight-ticket voting option via administrative action, the state Republican and Libertarian Parties have filed a lawsuit to stop the option from being reinstituted for this year's elections. However, Toulouse Oliver plans to finalize ballots next week, and the plaintiffs may have trouble persuading the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court to act, especially given the compressed time frame.
Secretary of State Elections
● Massachusetts: Longtime incumbent Secretary of State Bill Galvin won renomination by a two-to-one margin in the Democratic primary against progressive challenger Josh Zakim despite losing the state party's endorsement, dealing a blow to those hoping to have a stronger advocate for voting rights reforms. Zakim had made policies like automatic and same-day voter registration a key priority. While Galvin eventually came around on automatic registration, Zakim had criticized the incumbent for failing to more proactively advocate for reforms to make voting easier and more accessible.
● Fargo, North Dakota: In what could be a trailblazing move, voters in Fargo, North Dakota's largest city, will vote this November on whether to become the first American city to adopt a system called "approval voting" for their local elections. While instant-runoff voting has been gaining steam across the country as an alternative to the status quo, approval voting takes a different approach to try to solve the problem of “spoiler” candidates in elections where only a plurality is needed—that is to say, virtually all elections conducted in the U.S.
With approval voting, voters get to cast one vote each for every candidate they like, and the candidate with the most votes wins. One potential benefit of this system is that it mitigates a problem that can arise with instant-runoff voting, where the order in which candidates are eliminated can affect the final result. That can result in situations where there winner is not the candidate would would have beaten every other candidate in a one-on-one contest. Approval voting could also prove to be easier to understand than instant-runoff voting, where so-called “strategic voting” can play a confusing role.
However, unlike instant-runoff, approval voting itself is virtually untested for elections to public office, and it's possible that voters may still find it confusing. Nevertheless, if Fargo voters adopt this new system, it’ll provide important empirical evidence on how this reform works in practice, regardless of whether it ultimately succeeds or fails.
● Georgia: After facing criticism over the lack of security offered by paperless voting machines and a massive exposure of millions of voters' data during his time in office, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp's latest move on election security has once again sparked a backlash. Kemp has been blocking all traffic to the state's voter registration website from overseas internet addresses, which prevents citizens residing abroad from registering for federal elections in which they're entitled to vote.
While Kemp’s move is ostensibly designed to protect against hacking from foreign sources, security experts called it useless, since hackers can easily mask their location by means of a so-called virtual private network, or VPN. Most average citizens, though, are unlikely to use a VPN, meaning this measure not only won't do anything to stop hackers, it’s actively blocking eligible voters abroad from participating in the electoral process and exercising their right to vote.
● Florida: On Friday, a federal district court judge issued an injunction requiring that election officials provide Spanish-language ballots and election materials in 32 of Florida’s 67 counties that hadn't been offering them. This ruling is a victory for the estimated tens of thousands of Puerto Rican citizens with limited English proficiency who had moved to these particular Florida counties following the devastation of Hurricane Maria last year, and whose rights under the Voting Rights Act would have been violated with English-only ballots. (P.S. The opening lines from Judge Mark Walker are an incredible must-read—including the footnote.)
● North Carolina: Following a widespread outcry, the Justice Department has tapped the brakes on its ominous demand from earlier this week for 44 disproportionately minority counties in eastern North Carolina, as well as the state Board of Elections, to turn over years of voting records in what could only be a transparent fishing expedition to trawl for nonexistent cases of voter fraud.
Even more alarming, the records are being sought on behalf of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that has become the symbol of the Trump administration's human rights abuses of immigrants and refugees. That suggests the opening of a new avenue for ICE and the DOJ to intimidate voters in communities of color. As the chair of North Carolina’s elections board said, “We have not been given a reason as to why ICE wants that information, and candidly, I can’t think of any reason for it.”
In response to the backlash, the DOJ said it wouldn't require the records be produced until after the election and would redact information on how any individual voted, but it hasn’t dropped its demands. The department had initially subpoenaed millions of documents, including more than 2 million ballots that could be traced back to individual voters, and demanded them by later this month. That raised further concerns with voting rights groups, since there would have been no way for elections boards to comply with the demand in the midst of preparing for a general election in just two months.
But even with the delay, the DOJ’s move may not succeed: The state Board of Elections decided to fight the subpoenas in a unanimous vote, meaning even Republican members are unhappy with the demand. But even if it ultimately fails, this far-reaching order is still deeply concerning—just as it was when Trump's bogus voter suppression commission unsuccessfully sought voter registration data from all 50 states last year—whether the Justice Department is trying to gin up more bogus claims of voter fraud, sow fear among voters of color, or both.