● Missouri: After Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative in a 62-38 landslide last year to amend the state constitution to make legislative redistricting fairer, Republicans in the legislature are now plotting to both undermine the new amendment and make the initiative process itself much more difficult.
Missouri already had a bipartisan redistricting commission for drawing legislative maps, but its operations had become deeply deadlocked and left the state with some of the most unfair lines in the country. By contrast, the new redistricting reform measure imposes a requirement that any new maps be fair to voters from a partisan perspective.
That partisan fairness requirement isn't sitting well with Republicans, whose veto-proof supermajorities could be threatened if the maps are redrawn to be fairer. As the Brennan Center's Michael Li has explained, the GOP is considering its own constitutional amendment that would make several alterations to 2018's redistricting reform.
First, it would abolish the position of nonpartisan state demographer tasked with drawing the maps and put that duty back in the hands of a bipartisan commission of political appointees—a commission that repeatedly deadlocked during this decade's redistricting. Most critically, it would eliminate the partisan fairness requirement and instead require that maps prioritize geometric compactness over other criteria, something the voter-approved reform only takes into consideration alongside other requirements.
Compactness itself is a poor foundation for truly fair maps, both in terms of partisanship and in ensuring that local communities, including communities of color, have the representation they ought to. What's more, Democrats aren't clustered by chance or by choice: Thanks to historical and ongoing racism in the housing market and suburban white flight, places like the St. Louis metro area are highly segregated by race, and, as a result, by party. Prioritizing compactness would therefore have the same impact as outright GOP gerrymandering by packing Democrats and black voters into a disproportionately small share of seats.
While Missouri is a red state, and the GOP is assured of winning majorities in all but the biggest of Democratic waves, Republicans could theoretically lose the popular vote by a landslide yet retain control under the current lines. That's something Republicans readily appreciate, since in a typical election, these unfair lines could mean the difference between a regular majority and one that can override vetoes.
Fortunately, this power-grabbing proposal would itself be subject to a voter referendum even if Republicans pass it in both chambers. That gives proponents of fairer maps a chance to fight back at the ballot box once again, but their success is far from guaranteed. For one thing, Republicans could hold the referendum separately from the 2020 general election, meaning it could take place on a different date when turnout would be much lower and the electorate potentially more conservative. Furthermore, they could try to label it with misleading ballot language.
Of course, undermining fairer redistricting isn't enough for Missouri Republicans, who are also considering legislation to make it harder for citizens to even put such constitutional amendments on the ballot in the first place. Republicans are debating various proposals, such as imposing a filing fee for initiatives and requiring the approval of at least 60% or even two-thirds of voters for them to pass.
Another GOP idea would require that organizers collect signatures in all eight of the state’s congressional districts to get on the ballot; under current rules, signatures equal to 8% of the vote in the most recent election for governor in six districts are needed. This requirement in particular could help stymie progressive initiatives disproportionately more than conservative ones, since it would be more difficult for Democrats to gather signatures in sparsely populated conservative districts than it would in the state's two densely populated Democratic districts.
Republicans could pass some of these changes, such as filing fees, by statute, but others, such as the supermajority voter-approval requirement, would require a constitutional amendment to be passed by voters in a referendum. Given the GOP's tight grip on state government, there's a good chance some or even all of these proposals could become law or appear on the ballot in the near future.
● Maine: A committee in Maine's Democratic-run state House has advanced a bill to add Maine's four Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. However, the committee did so with a recommendation of "ought not to pass," signaling that some Democrats may ultimately vote against the bill when it comes to the full floor. Democrats hold an 88-56 advantage in the chamber, but it's not clear whether there are enough potential defectors to threaten the measure's passage.
● Nevada: Nevada Democrats have passed a bill in the state Assembly to add the Silver State's six Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, overcoming the opposition of their own majority leader, Teresa Benitez-Thompson. Democrats control both the state Senate and the governor's office, meaning there's a good chance this bill will become law.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Kansas: Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has signed a new law that the Republican-majority legislature passed with bipartisan support to make voting easier and ensure every ballot counts. The law requires county election officials to notify absentee voters if their mail ballot signature is missing or doesn't match the one on file and give them a chance to correct it. Additionally, the law lets counties decide whether to switch from traditional polling places to "vote centers," where voters can vote anywhere in the county instead of just at their local polling place.
● Louisiana: A committee in Louisiana's GOP-run state Senate has surprisingly passed a bill to automatically register eligible voters via the state's driver's licensing agency, but the measure faces more difficult odds in the full chamber. Louisiana's legislature is unusual in that, despite Senate Republicans holding just shy of two-thirds of the seats, Democrats actually control a majority on certain committees, including the one that approved this bill. However, only one of the four Republicans on the committee sided with the panel's five Democrats, and if only a quarter of Republicans in the full Senate support the bill, it won't pass.
● North Carolina: North Carolina's Republican-controlled state House has passed a bill with near-unanimous support to extend the deadline for the state's colleges and universities to obtain approval from the state Board of Elections for their student IDs to serve as valid forms of identification once the GOP's new voter ID law takes effect next year. This bill moves the deadline for approval from March 15, which many higher education institutions had failed to meet, to Sept. 15, and loosens some of the requirements needed for approval.
The bill also gives counties more flexibility to set early voting hours by relaxing a devious measure the GOP passed last year that had required counties to keep all early-voting sites open from 7 AM to 7 PM every day. By imposing long hours on local authorities regardless of need, many counties had to reduce the number of early-voting locations due to the financial strain.
With the Senate expressing its support, these fixes are likely to become law. But don't mistake the GOP's about-face for contrition. Rather, Republicans are likely taking these steps simply to avoid getting slapped with—and losing—yet another lawsuit.
● Washington: Both chambers of Washington's Democratic-run state legislature have passed versions of a bill to have the state prepay the cost of postage on mail ballots, which would make it more convenient to cast a ballot in this universal vote-by-mail state by saving voters a trip to the post office. The two chambers still have to iron out some differences between their bills, but with broad bipartisan support, the proposal is likely to become law.
● Colorado: Democrats have passed a bill in the state House with a few Republicans in favor that would end the disenfranchisement of citizens who are on parole for a felony conviction. Colorado currently denies the right to vote to those who are incarcerated or on parole, but not to those who are on probation or post-sentence.
● Washington: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a new law passed by Washington's Democratic-controlled legislature that requires citizens with felony convictions who have completed their sentences to not only be informed of their voting rights but also be given a voter registration application. This measure is a positive step for ensuring that those who become eligible to vote again after finishing their sentences, including parole and probation, both know about those rights and can exercise them.
However, this measure's passage comes after Democrats abandoned a separate bill this session that would have ended felony disenfranchisement outright for those on parole or probation. That would have brought Washington in sync with the 16 largely progressive states, such as neighboring Oregon, that don't disenfranchise citizens who aren't incarcerated.
Meanwhile, Democrats have passed another bill in both legislative chambers to end the practice of "prison gerrymandering," where prisoners are counted for redistricting purposes at their prisons even though they cannot vote there. Their proposal would instead count prisoners at their last address prior to serving time, which could shift representation from disproportionately white rural areas to urban communities of color.
● Arizona: Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a new law passed along party lines that imposes new restrictions on early voting. Arizona's in-person early-voting period normally ends the Friday before Election Day, but voters who have an unexpected emergency that prevents them from voting on Election Day are currently allowed to vote at a limited number of "emergency" voting centers in the days between Election Day and the cutoff for regular early voting. The new legislation would require such voters to sign a sworn statement that they have an emergency and would penalize any false claims as a felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.
Democrats have attacked this bill as a measure that could intimidate voters into not casting a ballot out of fear of criminal prosecution. Furthermore, this measure likely is a retaliation against Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who runs election administration in Arizona's most populous county, which covers three-fifths of the state. In 2018, Fontes opened several emergency early-voting centers where voters were taken at their word if they said they were unable to vote on Election Day.
● Iowa: Republican state senators in Iowa have passed a bill along party lines that imposes multiple new restrictions on voting. The bill starts with a cut to Election Day voting hours, closing polling places at 8 PM instead of 9 PM. Another provision, meanwhile, restricts the ability of county auditors to establish additional voting sites. The bill also would put voters on the "inactive" list simply for skipping a presidential election, which could ultimately lead to their registrations being canceled.
Yet another provision targets college students by requiring all graduating students to fill out a form indicating whether they intend to stay in Iowa after graduation. Those who intend to leave the state would have their voter registrations changed to "inactive," which, again, would eventually pave the way for their registration to be canceled if they don't vote. Inactive voters would be required to show a form of ID in order to vote again. If a student were to say on the required form that they intended to leave Iowa but later decide to stay, their now-inactive voter registration would be canceled if they didn't vote in the next two elections.
The legislative vehicle the GOP is using here is a bill that the state House had passed unanimously but that Republicans then gutted so they could add their voting restrictions to it. The legislation still retains the House's provision to require a special postal barcode for absentee mail ballots so that officials can know whether late-arriving ballots were mailed before the deadline (the Monday before Election Day). But unlike the House version, this version would phase out this system in 2023 and instead require that mail ballots be received by Election Day instead of the following Monday to count, which could end up disenfranchising voters even when the post office is at fault for delays.
● Tennessee: Republicans have passed a bill in the state House that looks designed to intimidate groups that pay workers to conduct voter registration drives into abandoning such drives entirely, and the measure stands a good chance of becoming law. As we recently explained, this bill could put those organizing paid voter registration drives in a classic Catch-22: They could face criminal penalties for failing to submit inaccurate voter registration forms and civil fines if they do submit them.
Officials claim that that restriction doesn't apply to groups relying on volunteers, but the bill also bans paying signature-gatherers for each registration form they collect, meaning a campaign or civic group could only pay hourly or use volunteers. These provisions together appear designed to deter the use of paid workers altogether, both by eliminating the financial incentive for registration drive workers to register as many voters as they can within a given time frame and also by imposing potential criminal and civil penalties on those who use paid workers.
● Texas: Republican state senators have passed a bill along party lines that would replace Texas' widely used paperless voting machines with much-needed alternatives that produce a paper trail, but other provisions in the bill that would restrict voting access and impose criminal penalties on certain election activities have raised alarm among voting rights advocates. Called 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.
Republicans control the state House and the governor's office, meaning there's a good chance that SB9 will become law. If it does, there's a significant likelihood that it will incur yet another voting rights lawsuit against GOP-run Texas.
● Washington, D.C.: Democrats in Congress are pushing legislation this session to make Washington, D.C., a new state, and wide majorities of Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have signed on as co-sponsors. However, a number have yet to demonstrate their support, so we've compiled a list. In the Senate, 33 of the 47 members of the Democratic caucus are backing the D.C. statehood bill, while in the House, 200 of the chamber's 235 Democrats are doing the same. While unanimous GOP opposition means the bill won't receive a vote in the Senate so long as Republicans hold a majority, Democrats will have the opportunity to bring it to the floor if they regain control in 2020.