● 2020 Census: On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard the Trump administration's appeal in a lawsuit over its nefarious push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the outcome of which could have profoundly disastrous effects for fair political representation. In an ominous sign for democracy, legal observers almost universally concluded after oral arguments that they expect the decision to break 5-4 along ideological lines, with the Republican-appointed justices siding with Trump.
If the court rules in favor of Trump, the question would likely have a chilling effect and intimidate millions of people in immigrant communities into not participating in the census. That could in turn turbocharge a new wave of hyperpartisan Republican gerrymandering nationwide, since the data the census provides is the bedrock of redistricting.
The Constitution mandates that every person in the U.S. be counted in the decennial census, without regard to their legal status, and a question on citizenship hasn't been included in the census since 1950. Multiple courts have ruled that Trump's attempt to add the question for 2020 violates both federal laws and the Constitution.
The lower courts have consistently held that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' claim that the citizenship question was needed for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act was a bogus pretext that masked the administration's true motives—likely the deliberate intimidation of immigrant communities. However, Chief Justice John Roberts, who gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013, cynically appeared to buy the Trump administration's argument that citizenship data would help enforce the VRA, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Placing a citizenship question on the census could lead to a dramatic drop in participation among not only undocumented immigrants but also legal residents and naturalized citizens—all out of widespread fear that Trump's administration could illegally use the data to expand its brutal campaign of human rights abuses directed toward immigrants and asylum-seekers that has shocked the nation over the past year. Indeed, a new analysis in the Washington Post estimates that the question could deter 6 million Latinos from participating—roughly one out of every eight Latinos in America.
Undercounting millions of people would mean that affected communities would lose out not only on their rightful political representation in redistricting but also on federal funding, which is often determined by population statistics. But the citizenship question would be double blow to fair representation because it opens the door to Republican efforts to draw districts based on counting only eligible voters rather than all citizens. What's more, the Supreme Court hasn't foreclosed the possibility of permitting this practice, even though it has been a longstanding norm to count every person in redistricting, since elected officials represent voters and nonvoters alike.
Should this come to pass, it would badly undermine Democrats and voters of color in redistricting, further entrenching Republican minority rule even when Democrats receive more votes overall. Daily Kos Elections took a detailed look this week at how this would work in practice in Texas, one of the most hotly contested battleground states. Because Democratic-leaning communities are home to more ineligible voters on average than Republican communities, we found that Democratic districts would have to expand while Republican ones would shrink, making both types of districts more conservative overall.
This impact wouldn't be limited to just Texas, of course—a citizenship question would have ripple effects across the country, wherever there are large immigrant populations or other hard-to-count communities, or even simply in areas that have more children than others. Adding the citizenship question to the census would be a steroid injection for maps that give white Republicans an extreme undue advantage, making it a monumental threat to democracy and fair elections.
● Michigan: On Thursday, a federal district court struck down 34 of Michigan's congressional and state legislative districts, ruling that Republican gerrymandering had violated the First and 14th Amendment rights of Democratic voters.
The court ordered that the invalidated districts must be redrawn by Aug. 1, which should leave enough time for any appeals to be resolved quickly enough so that new maps could be implemented for the 2020 elections. Notably, the court also ordered special elections for the affected districts in the state Senate, since the chamber otherwise isn't up for election until 2022, after the next regular round of redistricting.
Michigan is home to some of the most insidious GOP gerrymandering in the country, so much so that Republicans have won legislative majorities despite losing the popular vote in six of the nine elections since the 2000 census—a stretch of time during which they’ve had exclusive control of redistricting. While Democrats elected Gretchen Whitmer as governor, swept every statewide office, and broke through the GOP’s congressional gerrymander by flipping two seats in 2018, Republicans nevertheless held on to narrow majorities in both legislative chambers.
Michigan voters also approved a ballot initiative to end gerrymandering last year by creating an independent redistricting commission, but that commission won't redraw the lines until 2022. Republican gerrymandering helped thwart Democrats from winning full control of state government in 2018 for the first time since the early 1980s, but if this ruling survives, Democrats would have a strong chance of winning power in 2020.
However, there's a strong chance that this ruling will be overturned when Republicans appeal thanks to the partisan Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court will soon rule in two key cases over gerrymandering in Maryland and North Carolina, and it has never before ruled in favor of plaintiffs seeking to overturn maps on the basis of unfair partisan advantage. Whether or not this Michigan ruling survives will hinge on the outcome of those two cases, which are expected to see rulings issued in June.
● Missouri: Republican legislators in the state House gave their initial approval to a state constitutional amendment that would gut a voter-approved 2018 ballot initiative that had amended Missouri's constitution to make state legislative redistricting fairer. If passed by both chambers, Republicans would get to choose when to hold a referendum to try to convince voters to approve this power grab.
As we've previously explained, this amendment abolishes the requirement for partisan fairness and weakens protections for communities of color, supplanting them with a compactness requirement that would pack Democrats and black voters into a disproportionately small share of districts. It would also eliminate the nonpartisan demographer who would propose maps to the legislature and instead hand the mapmaking power back to a bipartisan commission that had grown hobbled by gridlock.
Even worse, the GOP's proposal would take full advantage of the apparent likelihood that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will let Trump add a citizenship question to the census as a way to weaponize the census against Democrats and voters of color. Indeed, the GOP's amendment removes the requirement that districts be drawn based on their total population and instead substitutes language that says districts should be drawn on a vague basis of "one person, one vote."
While that language might sound equitable—gerrymandering opponents have used it to argue for partisan fairness—Republicans could use it for nefarious ends by pushing for districts to be drawn based on the eligible voter population of adult citizens instead of on the total population. That would further deprive communities of color of their rightful representation, instead giving more representation to rural white voters.
● Texas: Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton and the plaintiffs challenging the GOP-drawn state House map for racial gerrymandering say they have reached an agreement to redraw the 90th State House District in Fort Worth and a few of its neighbors. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling and ordered the district to be redrawn to eliminate the unconstitutional misuse of race. However, the nature of the Supreme Court's decision effectively delivered a win for Republican defendants: The proposed redraw makes very few changes and would have a very limited impact.
● Washington: Washington Democrats have passed a bill out of both chambers largely along party lines that would end the practice of "prison gerrymandering," sending it to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. The bill would count prisoners at their last address prior to incarceration, which could shift representation from disproportionately white areas to urban communities of color, especially at the local level.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Connecticut: On Tuesday, Connecticut's Democratic-majority state House passed a constitutional amendment that would finally establish early voting. Connecticut is one just a handful of states that have no early voting and still require an excuse to vote absentee.
Despite uniformly opposing similar legislation in the past, a majority of Republicans surprisingly agreed to pass the proposal after reaching a compromise to remove a provision requiring at least three days of early voting; implementation of early voting will instead be determined by a future statute, and the amendment no longer removed the excuse requirement for absentee voting.
The amendment was therefore able to pass with more than a three-fourths supermajority, which is critical because it'll have the chance to go before voters in 2020 as long as the Senate follows suit. However, if the Senate passes the amendment with only a simple majority, the soonest it could appear on the ballot would be 2022—and then only if legislators pass the amendment again after the 2020 elections.
● Florida: Following a federal court ruling ahead of the 2018 elections that found dozens of Florida counties were violating the Voting Rights Act by not providing Spanish-language ballots, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered that ballots and election materials written in Spanish be made available statewide. This decision comes as Florida has seen a large influx of citizens from Puerto Rico after 2017's Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
● Hawaii: A committee of legislators representing both chambers has at long last advanced a single version of a bill to bring universal mail voting to Hawaii by 2022, meaning every registered voter would be mailed a ballot at each election. Similar proposals had repeatedly passed both the House and the Senate for the last several years, only to see the two chambers fail to agree on a common version, despite the fact that Democrats have wide majorities in both houses. This latest proposal would still let voters cast a ballot in person if they prefer, and it would extend the close of Election Day polling hours from 6 PM to 7 PM.
A final floor vote of the state House is still needed, but it appears Hawaii is finally on its way to joining the three other states that vote almost entirely by mail: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. If this bill becomes law, it could help boost Hawaii's last-in-the-nation turnout rate by making it more convenient to vote. It should also save money, since the state would need to operate far fewer in-person polling places.
● Nevada: After gaining full control of state government in 2018, Nevada Democrats have advanced a bundle of bills to make voting easier and increase turnout, passing them out of at least one legislative chamber ahead of a critical deadline to do so. Each proposal has advanced with at least a few Republicans voting in favor.
Starting off, the Assembly passed a bill to restore voting rights to everyone who is no longer incarcerated for a felony conviction, meaning citizens would be able to vote if they are on parole, probation, or post-sentence (currently, Nevada permanently disenfranchises some but not all people with felony convictions). The Assembly also passed another bill to end "prison gerrymandering" by counting prisoners for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of where they're incarcerated, which could shift representation from rural white communities to urban communities of color, particularly at the local level.
Separately, the Assembly approved a bill sponsored by Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske that would require local elections be held on dates that coincide with federal and state elections instead of in the spring or in odd-numbered years. Assembly members also passed a bill to require a general election take place for local offices even if a candidate wins a majority in the primary. Together, these two bills would mean local elections would be decided in November of even-numbered years, which would boost participation considerably in some locales.
The Assembly also unanimously passed a bill to establish a permanent polling place on each Native American reservation in the state unless a reservation specifically asks to change it. Many people living on remote reservations lack reliable transportation options, so establishing local polling places should improve voting access.
Meanwhile, the state Senate passed a bill to allow voters to turn in their absentee ballots at any early-voting location in their county. Currently, voters must either send such ballots via the mail or drop them off at their county clerk's office, so having multiple drop-off locations would make turning in a mail ballot in person much more convenient.
Finally, the Senate also passed a bill to change the recall process. Republicans had tried to abuse the recall process solely for partisan gain in 2017 because they had lost control of the legislature in 2016 and had no realistic path to regaining power in last year's elections. That effort had failed after courts ruled that Republicans failed to turn in enough valid signatures for the three Democratic senators they had targeted—none of whom had been accused of any sort of wrongdoing that the recall process is intended to address.
The Senate's bill would require that all recall petition signatures be verified, instead of just a random sampling of them. It would further impose the cost of the verification on recall backers while also limiting individual donor contributions to $5,000 for recall special elections. The bill furthermore gives voters ample opportunity to rescind their signatures if they choose to do so, which many voters did in 2017 after Democrats countered the GOP's misinformation campaign. Lastly, it imposes criminal penalties on those who attempt to deceive voters into signing.
One more bill has yet to pass either chamber but is exempted from the deadline the others faced, and it contains several election-related provisions. The most significant among them would establish same-day voter registration, expand the availability of early voting, and implement an automatic voter registration law that voters passed at the ballot box in 2018. The bill would also allow counties to adopt "vote centers," where any voter can cast a ballot instead of being able to do so just at their local polling place.
Additionally, another provision would let voters opt in to permanently receive absentee mail ballots for every election instead of having to request them each year. That could significantly boost the use of mail voting, which has become very popular in neighboring Arizona after that state implemented a similar option. Lastly, the bill would let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election. With Democrats holding full control of state government, all of these bills stand a good chance of becoming law.
(A special thanks to Daily Kos community member Decided Voter for flagging many of these bills for us.)
● Wisconsin: On Tuesday, the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that Wisconsin's Republican-backed voter ID requirements for college students violate the Constitution. The lawsuit doesn't challenge the entirety of the law, but it does seek to invalidate the restrictions on which types of college-issued IDs are valid for the purposes of providing voter ID.
Republicans passed this voter ID law shortly after they took full control of state government in 2010, and have even admitted that they did so because they thought it would help them win elections. The law requires college IDs to contain the student's name, photo, and signature, as well as an issuance date and an expiration date no more than two years after the issuance date. Students using a college ID to vote must also present proof of enrollment, such as a tuition fee receipt.
The lawsuit calls these requirements onerous, noting that other valid forms of ID never expire; that the proof of enrollment is redundant; and that the signature requirement is unnecessary because poll workers aren't required to match it to the one on file. Many Wisconsin schools don't offer IDs that meet the requirements, meaning students without another form of ID have no recourse.
The broader ID law itself has been the subject of separate litigation, and after getting blocked by the courts for years, it finally took effect in 2016. However, that matter remains pending before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments more than two years ago but still hasn't reached a decision.
● Colorado: On Friday, Democrats passed a bill in the Colorado Senate to restore voting rights to citizens on parole after a felony conviction, joining their counterparts in the state House, who approved the proposal earlier in April. Democrats hold full control of state government, and if the bill becomes law, Colorado would only disenfranchise those who are currently incarcerated.
● Florida: As expected, Florida Republicans have passed a bill in the state House that imposes a modern-day poll tax in the service of preserving a disenfranchisement regime that's a remnant of the Jim Crow era. Even though voters passed an amendment to Florida's constitution by a 65-35 margin last year that would automatically restore voting rights to potentially more than 1 million people with felony convictions who'd been disenfranchised, the GOP's bill would require the payment of not just restitution but also all court-related fines and fees before voters could regain their rights.
As we have previously explained, imposing a requirement to pay off all court costs is especially draconian because of the predatory ways in which Florida courts and law enforcement derive funding from harsh fines imposed on criminal defendants, above and beyond restitution to crime victims. Furthermore, the House GOP's version of the bill goes beyond what its Senate counterparts recently passed out of committee: It requires the payment of fines that have been converted into civil liens, meaning even some who have paid all of their criminal penalties still wouldn't have the right to vote.
By demanding that citizens pay all court fines and fees, Republicans could effectively roll back the 2018 amendment and keep more than 1 million people permanently disenfranchised, according to one estimate—roughly four-fifths of all those who were supposed to regain their rights—all because they're too poor to pay court costs. Black defendants in particular are considerably less likely to be able to pay off all their court costs than white defendants, according to one study.
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 suit.
Correction: A previous version of the story regarding Connecticut relied on an inaccurate news report saying that the constitutional amendment still removed the excuse requirement for absentee voting. That provision was removed from the final version of the amendment.