● Utah: Harkening back to the tactics of white-flight segregationists, a Utah state representative has proposed that a heavily white region within Navajo-majority San Juan County secede and form its own county after Navajo-backed candidates for county offices won historic majorities in 2018's elections. That election outcome was the byproduct of a successful lawsuit that struck down the racially gerrymandered districts for county commission and school board that had enabled candidates backed by the white minority to maintain a stranglehold on local government for decades.
The proponent of this plan, state Rep. Phil Lyman, isn't just a Republican legislator. He was also a San Juan County commissioner who chose to run for the state legislature in 2018 after his illegally gerrymandered district was struck down. Lyman claims he's not necessarily in favor of secession and merely thinks it should be debated, but he's consistently (and baselessly) rejected the court's ruling striking down the districts as illegitimate.
Normally, splitting an existing county would require supporters to gather signatures from one-quarter of residents in each portion of the proposed division. Voters in both sections of the proposed split would also have to approve the plan in a referendum. However, GOP state Rep. Kim Coleman has introduced a bill to drop the requirement that voters in both sections of the proposed division favor a plan to split the county. If these proposals become law, it could pave the way for white voters like those in San Juan to simply secede and take their tax base with them now that they've lost majority control in fair elections to candidates backed by a community of color.
● New Mexico: Democrats have passed a bill to add New Mexico's five Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would assign the state's electoral votes to the popular vote winner for president if enough states with a majority of electoral votes also join the compact. The bill stands a good chance of passing now that Democrats have unified control of state government. If it becomes law, the compact's membership would account for 177 of the 270 needed electoral votes.
● California: A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act that had been brought by conservative activist Ed Blum. This state law makes it easier to challenge the use of at-large districts to elect local offices, which can dilute the political power of Latino voters in particular. It has resulted in a wave of localities switching from at-large seats to localized districts for offices like city council and school board.
However, Blum, who was a key force behind the Supreme Court's infamous 2013 decision striking down a critical part of the federal Voting Rights Act, has vowed to appeal. Given the Supreme Court's hostility to voting rights and the likelihood that Justice Brett Kavanaugh's ascension to the bench has shifted the court even further in that direction, there's a real risk that Blum will succeed once again—with deleterious consequences for the political power of communities of color.
● Idaho: Idaho Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment out of a state House committee on a party-line vote that would enable the GOP to gerrymander after the 2020 census. Redistricting in Idaho is currently handled by a bipartisan commission with three members from each party, necessitating compromise, but this new Republican proposal would allow the party holding a majority among the governor and four other executive offices to pick a tie-breaking commissioner. Given GOP dominance in this very red state—no Democrat has won statewide here since 2002—that tiebreaker would inevitably be a Republican.
Republicans introduced a similar proposal in 2018 that failed to become law. However, the GOP majorities in the legislature are so wide that they could easily muster the two-thirds legislative majorities needed to put this amendment on the ballot if Republican legislators come around on the proposal.
● Michigan: On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected a Republican request to stay a case challenging the GOP's congressional and legislative gerrymanders, paving the way for a trial to begin on Tuesday. Republicans had tried to freeze the proceedings until the Supreme Court rules on two major gerrymandering cases out of Maryland and North Carolina, which likely won't happen until June.
Consequently, the lower court should have enough time to redraw any districts that get struck down in time for the 2020 elections (a ruling could come down sometime in the next several weeks). However, the plaintiffs still face daunting odds if this case ultimately makes it to the Supreme Court now that Justice Brett Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was more open to the possibility of curtailing partisan gerrymandering.
● Mississippi: On Wednesday, a federal judge heard arguments related to a lawsuit challenging one of Mississippi's Republican-gerrymandered state Senate districts on the grounds that it fails to give black voters the equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidate, as the Voting Rights Act requires. The district at issue has a slim majority-black population yet has failed to elect black voters' candidate choice (i.e., a black Democrat) thanks to low turnout among the black community compared to turnout among white voters, who lean heavily Republican. If the plaintiffs prevail, both this district and a neighboring seat could be redrawn ahead of November's elections.
● Ohio: On Friday, a federal district court rejected a Republican motion to stay a lawsuit over the GOP's congressional gerrymander, paving the way for the case to proceed to trial on March 4. As in similar cases in Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, there's a decent chance the plaintiffs will prevail, which would likely lead the court to order a new map for 2020. However, plaintiffs are likely to ultimately face a skeptical conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the event of a near-certain Republican appeal.
● Virginia: Virginia's state Senate has unanimously passed a bill to end the practice of splitting voting precincts between multiple congressional or legislative districts, which would entail redrawing precinct boundaries so that each precinct is entirely located within a single district. This bill is in response to revelations after the 2017 elections that thousands of voters in split precincts across the state had potentially been assigned to the wrong districts by election administrators. The debacle may have even cost Democrats a key state House seat that was decided by a tiebreaker that year.
● Arizona: A Republican-backed voter suppression measure appears to be dead after key GOP legislators came out against it in the state Senate, where the GOP holds just a 17-13 majority. This bill would have banned voters who receive a mail ballot from turning in that ballot in person, forcing them to return it via mail or wait in line to cast a regular ballot if they waited too late to mail it in on time. Most voters vote by mail in Arizona, but 228,000 voters dropped off their mail ballots in person in 2018, so this bill would likely have had a sizable impact had it passed.
However, Arizona Republicans are considering another proposal that could make it harder for thousands of Arizonans to vote. Arizona lets voters sign up to receive a mail ballot automatically at each election, which is why voting by mail has become so popular in the Grand Canyon state, but a state Senate committee passed a bill on a party-line vote to purge infrequent voters from the state's permanent absentee-by-mail list.
If this bill were to become law, it would remove voters from the permanent absentee list if they haven't voted in any of the last two general elections or primary elections. While those voters would still be registered, they would have to either apply for a new absentee ballot or vote in person. Opponents of the proposal argue it's simply unnecessary, since the state and counties already take steps to maintain their voter rolls when people move, die, or otherwise become ineligible.
● Texas: Texas Republicans have sparked a firestorm and incurred multiple lawsuits in the midst of an ominous voter purge pushed by Secretary of State David Whitley. Late last month, Whitley's office flagged 95,000 individuals as possible non-citizens on the voter registration rolls, 58,000 of whom had voted in the past two decades. His team further urged counties to send these voters notices requiring them to present documentation that they are in fact citizens and to purge the registrations of any who don't respond within 30 days.
Election experts quickly denounced the move as reckless given that similar findings of large numbers of non-citizens being registered have failed to hold up to scrutiny and are often the result of administrative errors or incomplete data. Indeed, numerous counties that looked into the list supplied by the secretary of state found that virtually all of the suspected non-citizens were in fact citizens. Many of those citizens had been naturalized before they registered but after they obtained a driver's license, thus leaving their records out of date with the DMV and useless for any kind of cross-check.
Nevertheless, this purge attempt captured even Donald Trump's attention and led him and other top Republicans to spread further lies about bogus voter fraud claims.
Consequently, the ACLU and other civil rights groups have filed three separate lawsuits urging the courts to halt eligible voters from being removed from the rolls. At least 20,000 people have been taken off the potential purge list, but Whitley and Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton continue to stand by this bad-faith effort to deny voters their rights based on faulty data.
● Wyoming: In a victory for voting access, Wyoming's overwhelmingly Republican state House rejected a bill to require voter ID by a narrow 30-29 vote. While voter fraud is exceedingly rare, Wyoming is one of the very few GOP-run states that does not demand voters present a photo ID to vote. However, similar proposals have failed to gain traction in previous sessions.
● Georgia: On Thursday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling last year that held that Georgia's paperless voting machines present a "concrete risk" to conducting secure elections. That decision paves the way for the plaintiffs to continue to push their case to require the state to adopt new voting machines that leave a paper trail by 2020, which would improve security and allow audits to bolster public confidence in the integrity of election results.
● Indiana: A committee in Indiana's heavily Republican state Senate has unanimously advanced a bill that would require counties use voting machines that produce a paper trail. To help protect against security threats and to bolster public confidence in election integrity, counties would have to replace any paperless voting machines by the 2024 elections.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Colorado: Colorado Democrats have dropped a plan to make Election Day a state holiday after hearing feedback from voting rights advocates who say that such a plan could counterintuitively make it harder to vote for certain segments of the electorate. Reformers are concerned that closing state government would put a burden on working-class people who rely on public transportation and government services. An Election Day holiday could also negatively affect those who wouldn't be able to get time off (such as retail workers), or working parents who would need to find childcare if schools were closed.
While the intent behind the proposed Election Day holiday is laudable, Colorado's universal vote-by-mail system already makes it easier for voters to cast ballots at their convenience than in almost any other state. Voting rights advocates should instead work to ensure every voter has ample opportunity to cast a ballot by mail or in-person in the weeks before Election Day.
● Hawaii: A committee in Hawaii's overwhelmingly Democratic state Senate has passed a bill to transition the state to universal vote-by-mail starting in 2020. However, it's unclear if proponents will ultimately pass the measure into law, since similar bills have repeatedly failed in recent years.
● Virginia: Members of Virginia's Republican-majority state Senate have unanimously passed a bill to establish one week of in-person early voting by the 2020 elections by letting voters vote absentee in-person without an excuse. Virginia is currently one just 11 states that don't allow early voting and require an excuse to vote absentee by mail, making this a welcome step in the right direction toward improved access to voting.
● Washington: A year after using their new hold on state government to pass a slew of laws expanding voting access, Washington Democrats are again eyeing several reforms to protect and strengthen the right to vote. On Wednesday, Democrats in the state Senate passed a bill called the Native American Voting Rights Act, which would make it easier for those living on rural reservations to cast a ballot.
Washington already offers universal mail voting, but many citizens living on reservations lack accessible mail service and some lack a traditional residential address. Consequently, this proposal would require officials provide at least one ballot drop-off location on every reservation. It would also let tribal members use their tribal identification card and a non-traditional address to register to vote.
Democrats are also considering a bills to end the disenfranchisement of those who are on parole or probation for felony convictions, which passed out of a committee earlier this month. Another bill would make permanent a temporary policy adopted in 2018 to have the state prepay the postage on mail ballots, which makes mail voting more convenient.
Finally, Democrats have introduced a bill to end what's known as "prison gerrymandering" by counting prisoners for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of their prison. The current system has resulted in prisoners, who are disproportionately incarcerated in whiter and more rural areas, counting for the purposes of population totals while at the same time being unable to vote and having no connection with the surrounding community. That can end up shifting representation away from urban communities of color, where a disproportionate share of prisoners originate and return to after their release.
● West Virginia:. West Virginia's GOP-run state Senate has passed a bill in committee to extend the deadline to implement automatic voter registration to 2021, a program the state had previously delayed until 2019 two years ago. West Virginia is the first and so far only state with a Republican-run legislature that has passed automatic registration, after Democrats forged a compromise 2016 law that combined it with a relatively less-strict voter ID requirement.
While the ID requirement has already gone into effect, the secretary of state, Division of Motor Vehicles, and county clerks have struggled to prepare to implement automatic registration, even as Democratic legislators have urged the DMV and secretary of state to devote more funds in their budgets to carry out this reform.
● Connecticut: This week, Democratic state Senate leader Martin Looney expressed his support for a proposal to restore the voting rights of some of the roughly 4,000 Connecticut citizens with felony convictions who are on parole. The details of this proposal are not yet clear, but Looney spoke favorably about restoring rights to those who were complying with accountability measures while on parole. Currently, Connecticut disenfranchises inmates and those on parole, though not those on probation or post-sentence, but that still makes it the most restrictive state in New England.
● New York: In a previous Voting Rights Roundup entry concerning a bill to automatically register voters in New York, we cited figures regarding the opt-out rates for two different types of automatic voter registration systems, one used in California and the other in Oregon. However, we've since learned that these figures were not directly comparable, and therefore any comparison between the two should only be made with caution.
Statistics from Oregon, where voters are given the chance to opt out of registering only after they transact business with the state (they're sent a follow-up mailer), indicate that just 6 percent of individuals who were not previously registered to vote have chosen to opt out. By contrast, in California, where voters can opt out at the time they interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, 40 percent do so.
However, the figures from California include all eligible voters who transacted business with the DMV, including those who were already registered to vote. Unless these already-registered voters had a need to update their registrations (for instance, because they'd moved), it's only natural that they'd "opt out" of the registration process. The state does not provide data on the opt-out rate for those who were not previously registered, but it's undoubtedly lower than 40 percent, and likely much lower.