● Congress: On Tuesday, Rep. Terri Sewell and her fellow Democrats introduced a bill to restore a critical part of the Voting Rights Act that conservatives on the Supreme Court had gutted in the infamous 2013 ruling Shelby County v. Holder. The bill creates a new formula to determine which states and localities must "preclear" any proposed changes to election laws and procedures with the Justice Department, a system that had been in place from the Voting Rights Act's passage in 1965 until Shelby County.
The previous preclearance regime applied to states and localities—largely in the South—with a history of racial discrimination in their voting laws. Under Sewell's bill, any state that sees at least 15 voting rights violations over a 25-year period would be required to obtain preclearance for 10 years. If the state itself, rather than localities within the state, is responsible for the violations, it would only take 10 violations to place it under preclearance. And any particular locality could individually be subjected to preclearance if it has at least three violations.
Consequently, this bill would put 11 states back under preclearance: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. That list contains mostly Southern states, but it also includes two very big and currently Democratic-leaning states outside the South, California and New York.
In Shelby, the Roberts Court didn't deem the concept of pre-clearance unconstitutional but instead struck down the formula used to determine where it applied, effectively removing preclearance in all of the covered jurisdictions. To help ensure the new preclearance regime survives judicial review by an increasingly hostile Supreme Court, Democrats are in the midst of compiling a lengthy record of evidence in hearings and proceedings around the country this year. And of course, while the Trump administration almost certainly wouldn't use preclearance to stop discriminatory voting laws, a future Democratic president could.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have unveiled their own bill to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., following the lead of the House, where Democrats may vote as soon as next week to pass the "For the People Act," which includes sweeping voting rights expansions, bans congressional gerrymandering, establishes a public financing system, and endorses the principle of D.C. statehood.
As of Thursday, a separate bill to formally grant statehood had 198 of the necessary 218 cosponsors needed for a majority in the House. In the Senate, 30 of the Democratic caucus' 47 members have cosponsored the D.C. statehood proposal, so it still has a long way to go just to get every Democrat on board. You can find a list of supporters here.
Congressional Democrats also recently amended the For the People Act to include a clause that incentivizes states to acquire voting systems and technology that is capable of running elections using ranked-choice voting. While the provision wouldn't require states use ranked-choice, it would make it easier for states or localities to choose to adopt it.
Of course, Senate Republicans will almost certainly use their majority to stop all of these bills from becoming law. However, by introducing and debating them now, Democrats can set the stage for a potential Democratic-run Senate to pass them if the party can also win back the White House and retain the House in 2020.
Secretary of State Elections
● Oregon: On Tuesday, Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson died of brain cancer at the age of 69. As a longtime conservative stalwart in the state House, Richardson was the GOP's unsuccessful nominee for governor in the 2014, but he won an upset victory in the 2016 election for secretary of state, making him the first Republican to win a statewide office in Oregon since former Sen. Gordon Smith won his final term in 2002. However, Richardson had been battling cancer since doctors discovered the tumor last May.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown will appoint a successor, and since Oregon doesn't have a lieutenant governor, the secretary of state is first in line to the governor's office. However, appointed secretaries of state aren't allowed to ascend to the governor's office in cases of vacancies, thus making Democratic state Treasurer Tobias Read first in line until a new secretary of state is elected next year.
State statute requires an appointee of the same party as the previous officeholder, and Brown issued a statement saying she will consider Republicans who will pledge not to run for a full term in 2020, setting up an open-seat race. A former secretary of state herself, Brown became governor in 2015 when Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned over a scandal, and Brown previously appointed a Democratic placeholder who didn't seek a full term in 2016.
● Kansas: Kansas' heavily Republican state Senate has unanimously passed a bill requiring election officials to notify voters if their signature on their absentee ballot is missing or doesn't match the one officials have on file. The change would give voters an extra week to fix the problem to help ensure their ballots get counted.
● North Carolina: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has signed into law a measure that undoes the GOP's "reverse" court-packing scheme from 2017, which would have eliminated the seats of retiring Appeals Court judges until the court shrank from 15 members to 12. The GOP's power grab would have thwarted Cooper from picking Democratic replacements for the three Republican judges who hit mandatory retirement age during his term. The reversal was designed to stave off a defeat in Cooper's lawsuit over the issue, which the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court was poised to hear.
Consequently, once these vacancies do in fact arise, Democrats will take a majority on the Appeals Court. Those appointees' seats will be up for election in 2020 for full eight-year terms, as will multiple state Supreme Court seats.
● North Carolina: As expected, North Carolina Republicans have appealed last week's astonishing state court ruling that struck down the GOP's constitutional amendments to implement voter ID and cap income tax rates. The court did so on the grounds that the Republican-run legislature lacked the authority to amend the state constitution last year because it was elected under illegally gerrymandered districts that have since been redrawn. This lawsuit appears destined to eventually reach the state Supreme Court, and given the highly unusual nature of the case, its fate is extremely hard to predict.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Elections revealed on Tuesday that North Carolina's colleges can't guarantee their student IDs will meet the new requirements set out by the voter ID statute that Republicans passed in last year's lame duck session to give force the now-questionable voter ID amendment. That could leave thousands of students unable to vote if the problem isn't resolved. Democrats are supporting a bill to postpone the March 15 deadline for compliance until September to give colleges more time to certify that their IDs meet the GOP's new standards.
● New Hampshire: New Hampshire's Democratic-majority state House has voted to pass a nonpartisan redistricting reform proposal with a partisan fairness requirement, which earned the votes of more than a dozen of the chamber's 167 Republicans. Last week, we incorrectly described this measure and a similar one under consideration in the state Senate as a constitutional amendments, but both proposals would only enact statutory changes if passed.
Consequently, what appeared to be a relatively independent redistricting commission is actually just an advisory one, since nothing would prevent a party with unified control of state government from simply repealing it. However, even though it's merely a statutory, if New Hampshire's current divided government persists after the 2020 elections, the nonpartisan criteria in this bill would still be requirements for any map so long as the law remains in place.
Unfortunately for Democrats, because the state House's proposal is a statute instead of an amendment, Democrats may need significantly more support from the Republican minority to pass it into law. That's because, while Democrats currently hold just over 58 percent of seats in both chambers, they only need 60 percent to send constitutional amendments to the ballot, meaning they'd only need a few Republicans on board. But because Republican Gov. Chris Sununu could veto a statutory change, Democrats may need to reach the two-thirds threshold to override vetoes if Sununu tries to block it.
The state House vote gave the measure slightly under two-thirds support even with some Republicans voting in favor, but many members were absent from the vote. However, the New Hampshire House is America's largest state legislative chamber at 400 members, who are paid almost nothing for their service, and it is not uncommon for legislation to be voted on by less than the entire membership thanks to frequent absenteeism. It consequently isn't clear if Democrats can muster two-thirds support in either chamber if Sununu vetoes a bill that has a good chance of making it to his desk.
● Virginia: In a positive development for fairer redistricting, lawmakers in Virginia's state legislature, where Republicans hold the narrowest of majorities, almost unanimously passed a constitutional amendment to reform the state's redistricting practices The proposal creates a bipartisan 16-member commission for congressional and legislative redistricting on which half the commissioners would be legislative appointees and half would be citizens picked by retired judges. Maps would be subject to approval by the legislature without gubernatorial veto, but lawmakers can't draw their own.
Unfortunately for gerrymandering opponents, this proposal is weaker than what the nonpartisan advocacy group One Virginia 2021 originally proposed, but it may still curb the worst partisan gerrymanders. Compared to the original proposal, this amendment dropped criteria that included a ban on maps unduly favoring one party, a requirement to try to keep cities and counties whole, and another to preserve so-called "communities of interest." Consequently, nothing would prevent bipartisan gerrymandering to aid incumbents, but it would take bipartisan support for the commission to recommend a map to lawmakers, potentially limiting the chance for one-party distortion.
The proposal still has a long way to go to become law in time for the next round of redistricting: It must pass both legislative chambers without any amendments next session, following this November's elections, before going to a statewide referendum in 2020. Democrats are favored to gain majorities in both legislative chambers this fall, which would give the party unified control of state government ahead of redistricting. It's unclear if Democrats would again pass a reform that would limit their own power if they win full control of state government in November.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the governor could veto maps approved by the proposed new Virginia redistricting process.