● Florida: After Floridians overwhelmingly voted to approve a 2018 constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to roughly 1.4 million citizens who had fully completed their felony sentences, Republicans are advancing a bill that would gut that reform and could keep the vast majority of those citizens disenfranchised by imposing a measure straight out of the Jim Crow playbook: poll taxes. Their measure, which has already passed out of a state House committee, would require the repayment of all court-related restitution, fines, and fees before those who've served their time can regain the right to vote.
Florida's felony disenfranchisement system itself is a remnant of Jim Crow: It was given its modern form shortly after the Civil War with the explicit purpose of keeping the vote from black voters in a state that was nearly half black at the time. Before 2018's ballot initiative passed, the Sentencing Project estimated that one in 10 Floridians were disenfranchised, including one in five black voters—five times the rate of those who aren't black.
Imposing a requirement to pay off all court-related costs is especially draconian because of the predatory nature by which Florida courts and law enforcement derive funding from harsh fines imposed on criminal defendants, above and beyond restitution to crime victims. As Slate's Mark Joseph Stern relays, Florida imposed $1 billion in felony fines between 2013 and 2018, but only 19 percent of that sum was paid. The Florida County Clerks and Comptrollers association even determined that 83 percent of court fines had "minimal collections expectations."
By demanding that citizens repay all court fines and fees, Republicans could effectively roll back the 2018 ballot initiative and keep more than 1 million people permanently disenfranchised—roughly four-fifths of all those who were supposed to regain their rights—all because they're too poor to pay court costs.
Voting rights advocates such as the ACLU, which played a major role in supporting the 2018 measure, have condemned the GOP's efforts, and a lawsuit is all but guaranteed. However, after Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly won last year's election for governor—in part thanks to felony disenfranchisement—Republicans now hold a 6-1 majority on Florida's Supreme Court, putting the odds of such a lawsuit's success in doubt. By the same token, the U.S. Supreme Court's dismal record on voting rights under Chief Justice John Roberts isn't encouraging for the prospects of a federal lawsuit.
Of course, gutting the 2018 amendment isn't enough for Florida Republicans, who have now introduced a state constitutional amendment to restrict the initiative process itself. This proposal would require those gathering signatures for ballot measure petitions to be Florida residents and register with the secretary of state, even though many courts in other states have ruled that similar residency requirements are unconstitutional. It would also ban campaigns from paying petition-gatherers per signature and further require a disclosure of a campaign's proportion of out-of-state funding to appear on the ballot itself.
Taken together, these provisions are designed to eviscerate the ability of national organizations such as the ACLU to support pro-democracy initiatives. Even when campaigns can count on in-state funding and in-state residents to gather petitions, banning payment per signature could seriously hinder the ability of campaigns to collect petitions by eliminating the financial incentive for gatherers to obtain as many signatures as quickly as they can. The alternative would be paying them by the hour, regardless of how many they collect, or relying on volunteers.
Fortunately, these restrictions themselves would have to pass at the ballot box and win at least 60 percent of the vote to amend Florida's constitution. However, these latest developments demonstrate how Florida Republicans simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of a voter-approved effort to end one of Florida's most shameful vestiges of Jim Crow, all because disenfranchisement likely benefits them at the ballot box. And given how close Florida elections so often are, the electoral consequences are very real.
● Alabama: A federal district court judge has ruled against plaintiffs in a lawsuit that, relying on the Voting Rights Act, sought to require Alabama to draw a second congressional district that would have enabled black voters to elect their preferred candidate. George W. Bush-appointed Judge Karon Bowdre reasoned that, because redistricting will take soon place again after the 2020 census, it was too late for the plaintiffs to bring their suit, specifically criticizing them for not filing their lawsuit until 2018.
However, this decision takes an unsavory view of the importance of voting rights by letting discriminatory districts remain in place simply because most of the harm to voters has already been done, especially since other courts have regularly struck down years-old maps. Furthermore, as we have previously demonstrated, it is eminently possible to draw a second heavily black congressional district in Alabama, which would bring black representation up to two out of the state's seven seats. That would be much more proportionate to the black population in Alabama, which makes up 26 percent of the state.
It's unclear if the plaintiffs will appeal, but if they do, they may struggle to persuade the conservative-dominated 11th Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, which has an extensive track record of hostility toward voting rights, to rule differently.
● Maryland, North Carolina: On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two critical cases challenging a Democratic congressional gerrymander in Maryland and a Republican one in North Carolina that could determine whether the court will finally start curtailing partisan gerrymandering or give mapmakers free rein to try to rig the lines to favor their party, even when the other side wins more votes. However, now that hardline Republican Justice Brett Kavanaugh has replaced conservative swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, the plaintiffs are not expected to meet with much success.
Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that partisan gerrymandering could theoretically violate the Constitution. However, it has never actually invalidated any particular map on such grounds, saying it lacks a standard to decide when to do so. Indeed, when both of these cases came before the high court last year, the conservative majority sent the North Carolina case back to the lower court by requiring the plaintiffs to prove they were harmed in each individual district and not just on a statewide basis, and it refused to expedite the Maryland case.
Both cases saw district courts strike down the maps later in 2018, with the North Carolina litigators making sure they had plaintiffs from each of the challenged districts. Consequently, if the Supreme Court upholds either of these decisions, it could establish such a standard against gerrymandering, setting a far-reaching precedent that could finally begin to place limits on the epidemic of gerrymandering that has swept the nation. However, if the plaintiffs fail, it could open the floodgates to even more extreme gerrymanders going forward.
For a more in-depth look at the particulars of each of these Maryland and North Carolina cases, check out Stephen Wolf's full write-up, which details why redistricting reformers are so pessimistic that the court will take a major stand against gerrymandering.
● Mississippi: A three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a district court ruling that recently struck down a GOP-held state Senate district for violating the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of black voters. It's unclear if Republicans plan a further appeal, but if this ruling survives, the 22nd District in the state Senate would have to be redrawn in a way that would all but ensure black voters could elect their preferred candidate (in this case a Democrat, and likely a black Democrat).
In a sign that Republicans might be ready to acquiesce, the GOP-majority state Senate passed a bill to redraw the 22nd District and the neighboring 13th District, which is Democratic-held and overwhelmingly black. The proposed revisions would increase the black population in the 22nd while still ensuring the 13th maintained a significant black majority. If Republicans in the state House and GOP Gov. Phil Bryant pass the bill by the court's April 3 deadline and the court approves the remedy, it would take effect for this year's legislative elections.
In an interesting aside, this case came about because a college student at Ole Miss, John Chappel, rigorously investigated the heavily gerrymandered 22nd District on his own and concluded that it violated the rights of black voters. He shared his findings with a civic group, the Mississippi Center for Justice, which ultimately brought this lawsuit. You can read this entire fascinating story of citizen activism at Mississippi Today, and it's yet another example of why it's essential for ordinary citizens to have access to their own redistricting tools to allow them to analyze districts and propose fairer maps.
● Virginia: In mid-March, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an appeal from Republican legislators seeking to overturn a lower court ruling that struck down their state House gerrymander for discriminating against black voters. It's unclear how the justices are leaning, but during the hearing, they focused much of their attention on whether Republicans even have standing to appeal. Even Trump's Justice Department argued that Virginia's attorney general, who is Democrat Mark Herring, retains sole authority to appeal the lower court's decision, something he's declined to do.
But even if the Supreme Court finds the GOP has standing to appeal, there is nevertheless a strong chance that Chief Justice John Roberts or even Justice Clarence Thomas will side with the court's four liberal justices to uphold that lower court's decision. That's because when this case previously went before the Supreme Court in 2017, Roberts sided with the plaintiffs to overturn the district court's initial decision to uphold the map, ordering the lower court to reconsider it. Thomas, meanwhile, has a long history of opposing the use of race as a predominating factor in redistricting, as it was here.
● Colorado, Delaware: Two Democratic governors, Jared Polis in Colorado and John Carney in Delaware, have each signed bills into law that would add their state's Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. With the addition of Colorado's nine votes and Delaware's three, the compact now has 184 of the necessary 270 electoral votes for it to take effect.
● Oregon: In a very welcome development in the fight to pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in Oregon, Democratic state Senate President Peter Courtney has finally relented and said he will allow a floor vote on a bill to add Oregon's seven Electoral College votes to the compact. Courtney, who has been the party's leader in the Senate for two decades, has long blocked similar bills even though they've repeatedly passed in the state House, saying he favored a referendum on the subject instead.
With the path finally cleared, the chances of passage look good. Supporters already have 13 co-sponsors in the Senate, and they could attain the 16-vote majority they need even without Courtney's vote, since Democrats hold 18 of the chamber's 30 seats. Meanwhile, Democratic state House Speaker Tina Kotek also supports the proposal, and in the past, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has said the same.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Boston, MA: Boston City Council members Michelle Wu and Josh Zakim have introduced a proposal to require most landlords to provide new tenants with voter registration forms upon signing a lease, similar to an ordinance passed in Seattle in 2017. This policy could encourage higher participation among renters, who usually turn out at much lower rates than homeowners do, which subsequently affects how elected officials address housing policy in particular.
● Congress: All 47 Democratic senators have introduced and co-sponsored the Senate version of the sweeping voting rights bill that House Democrats passed earlier in March, known as the For the People Act. As we have previously detailed, this proposal includes a wide range of measures to strengthen voting rights, ban congressional gerrymandering, and reform campaign finance. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to never bring the bill to a vote so long as Republicans hold the Senate, a future Democratic majority could pass it.
● Connecticut: Connecticut Democrats have introduced two bills to finally bring automatic voter registration to the Nutmeg State. The first measure would automatically register eligible voters (unless they opt out) who do business not only with the state Department of Motor Vehicles but also with other state agencies, which is critical for reaching voters who don't drive. The second proposal would automatically "pre-register" 16- and 17-year-olds who obtain a state driver's license or ID card, ensuring they'll be added to the voter rolls when they turn 18.
Meanwhile, Democrats have passed a state constitutional amendment out of a joint committee comprised of members of both chambers that would finally establish both in-person early voting and remove the excuse requirement to vote absentee. Democrats hold majorities in both legislative chambers, but because Republicans are expected to deny them the three-fourths supermajorities needed to put the amendment on the 2020 ballot, the measure would have to pass each chamber both before and after the 2020 elections before it could go before voters in 2022.
● Delaware: Delaware's Democratic-dominated state House has passed a bill to create an early voting period, with most Republicans also voting in favor. The bill now heads to the state Senate, where Democrats have a similar majority, so it should again pass easily.
● New Mexico: Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a law that will enable voters to register and cast a ballot on the same day, including on Election Day. Same-day registration will remove one of the most powerful barriers to participation, and states that have the policy consistently rank above average in terms of turnout.
● Arizona: Republicans in Arizona have advanced several new voting restrictions in recent weeks, starting with a new law signed by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey that requires those who vote early in-person to show a photo ID. That move extends a requirement that already applies to those who vote on Election Day.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the state House have passed a bill out of committee that would purge infrequent voters from the state's "Permanent Early Voting List," which is a list voters can sign up for to permanently receive mail ballots in every election. Republicans already passed this measure in the state Senate, and if it becomes law, more than 200,000 voters would be cut from the list. While those voters would still be registered, they would have to either apply for a new absentee ballot or vote in person, a switch that would be sure to cause confusion for voters accustomed to receiving ballots at home every year.
Finally, state House Republicans also passed a bill to add criminal penalties to certain voter registration activities. This legislation would make it a misdemeanor to pay someone based on the number of people they sign up to vote, with violators facing up to six months in jail and a $2,500 fine. The bill would also require that filled-out voter registration forms be sent in to election officials within 10 days of completion; anyone who fails to do so could receive a four-month jail term. If this bill passes, it would seriously hinder civic groups conducting voter registration drives, and it could have a chilling effect that deters groups from even attempting them.
● North Carolina: The state Board of Elections rejected applications from almost every school in the University of North Carolina to let their student IDs be used to satisfy the state's new voter ID requirement, standing in contrast to promises Republicans made when they passed their ID law in last year's lame-duck session. While the law's implementation has been postponed until 2020, and it also faces two separate lawsuits, this latest development shows the measure's potential to suppress votes if it eventually goes into effect.
● Texas: Republicans are aiming to pass legislation that would replace Texas' widely used paperless voting machines with much-needed alternatives that produce a paper trail, but other provisions in this bill that would restrict voting access and impose criminal penalties on certain election activities have raised alarm among voting rights advocates. Deemed Senate Bill 9, the proposal makes it harder to assist disabled, elderly, or absentee voters.
Furthermore, SB9 would make it a crime to make false statements on a voter registration form, even if such statements are made in error. SB9 would also effectively remove the requirement of intent when prosecuting people for violating election law, which would mean that individuals who mistakenly vote could face harsh criminal penalties. That could very easily serve to intimidate citizens who don't fully understand their rights, or deter civic groups from conducting registration drives because they fear liability for any mistakes.
Law enforcement officials would also be granted immunity to investigate potential election crimes, which the Texas Civil Rights Project's senior attorney James Slatter said could lead to "undercover sting operations of civic engagement groups or political parties," something that could be twisted for nefarious purposes to spy on and intimidate such groups.
● Iowa: Iowa's Republican-controlled state House has passed a state constitutional amendment with almost unanimous support that would automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences. Iowa is currently one of just two states, alongside Kentucky, that disenfranchises everyone with a felony conviction for life unless the governor personally restores their rights.
GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds has been pushing for this amendment, but it's unclear if the proposal will pass the heavily Republican state Senate, where some want to add a requirement that citizens with felony convictions pay off all court-related fines and fees. That demand would effectively impose a poll tax that permanently disenfranchises many formerly incarcerated individuals who can't afford to pay off such costs. In addition, even if the amendment passes both chambers this year, it would have to pass again after the 2020 elections and then be approved in a 2022 voter referendum.
● Mississippi: Once again, Mississippi's Republican-dominated state Senate has killed a bill that had almost unanimous support in the GOP-run state House to study the prospect of reforming the state's felony disenfranchisement regime, which is one of the most restrictive in the country and effectively imposes a lifetime ban on voting for many crimes. However, opponents of this legacy of Jim Crow could follow in the footsteps of 2018 Florida voters and attempt a ballot initiative to circumvent legislative opposition.
● Tennessee: A committee in Tennessee's heavily Republican state House has advanced a bill with bipartisan support to eliminate the requirement that people with convictions for certain felonies who have finished their sentences must also be up-to-date on child support and have paid off other court-mandated fines and fees in order to have their voting rights restored. If this bill becomes law, those who have finished their sentences would be able to regain the right to vote regardless of their financial situation, which would end the current system that effectively imposes a poll tax.
● Wisconsin: In a major blow to the GOP's lame-duck power grab laws passed after they lost the 2018 governor's race, two separate Wisconsin state courts have now temporarily blocked several of those measures. The judges ruled that the lame-duck session itself violated the state constitution because it was called by Republican-led legislative committees (which don't have the power to do so) instead of the governor (who does). These decisions therefore barred implementation of the lame-duck laws as well as 82 executive appointments that Walker had made just before he was replaced by the Democrat who defeated him last November, Tony Evers.
After Walker lost but before Evers and Democrat Josh Kaul, the new state attorney general, took office, Republicans passed legislation stripping both Democrats of key powers and transferring those powers to the legislature. In particular, Republicans had removed Evers' ability to appoint members of certain state boards and agencies and usurped Kaul's authority to decide whether the state should defend against lawsuits such as those related to voter suppression and gerrymandering. They also slashed early voting availability to two weeks statewide, down from as much as six weeks in some localities.
Republicans have already appealed the first of these two decisions, which had blocked all of the GOP's power grabs (both legislation and appointments), and a state appellate court has stayed it, pending appeal. However, the second ruling, which was issued on Wednesday, is still in effect, blocking several of the main parts of the GOP's power-grabbing legislation. An appeal is expected in that case soon, and at least one of these two lawsuits appears destined to wind up before Wisconsin's Supreme Court.
This court battle shows just how important next Tuesday's election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is. If progressive Judge Lisa Neubauer defeats conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn to hold the seat of a retiring liberal justice, progressives would have a strong chance to gain a four-to-three majority on the court next year, when one of Walker's staunchly conservative appointees will be up for his first election. With the U.S. Supreme Court unlikely to rein in the GOP's gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other power grabs, that makes Wisconsin's own Supreme Court even more vital.
● Kentucky: After a damning investigation by ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader alleged several abuses of power by Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Republican-led state government has passed a contentious new law that strips Grimes' office of its oversight of the state Board of Elections and instead creates a new bipartisan board that does not include the secretary as not a voting member.
The journalists who investigated Grimes reported that she had taken steps to assert greater control over the board in recent years, including allegations that she'd improperly fired employees. Public officials later confirmed that that Grimes' office had used the state's voter registration database to look up information on her political opponents, the political affiliation of employees and job applicants, and even the very officials who had been investigating the office over complaints that it had improperly awarded contracts and mishandled sensitive voter information.
Grimes has denied that she or her subordinates acted inappropriately, and she's term-limited in November regardless. However, the investigation was enough to prompt Republicans to pass a bill ostensibly designed to reassert the independence of the bipartisan Board of Elections.
Their new measure creates a board with an even partisan split between the three members affiliated with each major party. The governor would choose four members from lists submitted by the major parties, with each party getting two members, and the governor would choose the remaining two seats from a list of former county clerks nominated by the Kentucky County Clerks' Association, picking one per party. The secretary of state wouldn't get to vote, and their access to the voter registration database would be limited.
Grimes and Democrats have called the law, which passed largely along party lines, a power grab that could lead to gridlock, saying that it gives Republican Gov. Matt Bevin too much power over the revamped board. However, the measure had bipartisan support from county clerks, though the secretary of state's longtime elections director, Mary Sue Helm, a nonpartisan official who had served under both parties, testified against the proposal. Saying it would lead to less impartial oversight over Kentucky's elections, her testimony prompted a few Republicans to side with Democrats against it but did not stop the bill from becoming law.