● Michigan: Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative last year to amend their state constitution and create an independent redistricting commission, but Republican legislators are doing everything they can to undermine the new law.
Using the majorities they hold thanks in part to gerrymanders that have been ruled unconstitutional—gerrymanders that held fast despite Democrats winning more votes in 2018—Republican legislators passed a budget out of a House subcommittee that takes aim at the funding for not only the commission but also the offices of the attorney general and secretary of state.
Those two posts had long been in GOP hands but are now under attack following a Democratic sweep last year. The Republican budget starts by slashing the attorney general's administrative budget by 15% and allowing legislators to usurp control over the commission's budget from the secretary of state's office.
Furthermore, it would allocate only $3.2 million for the commission's operations, which is just two-thirds of what Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had recommended. The new constitutional amendment requires the commission to have funding equivalent to at least 25% of the secretary of state's general fund budget, so Republicans would simply redesignate millions of dollars that had previously been part of the secretary's general fund as "restricted funds" to get around the state constitution's intent.
Republican state senators have already passed similar proposals in their version of the spending bill, although their cuts to the attorney general's budget aren't quite as severe as those in the House. If these proposals make it into the final budget, which must be passed by Oct. 1 to keep state government running, Whitmer could veto them, and Republicans would lack the votes to override her on their own.
In such a scenario, if Republicans refuse to back down, that could lead to a shutdown of some government services. Given that the redistricting reforms Republicans are trying to sabotage passed by a wide 61-39 margin, the GOP would therefore find itself defying the will of voters in defense of a minority view that the state has already rejected.
● Maine: Democrats in Maine's state Senate have passed a bill to add Maine's four Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The bill had previously passed out of committee in the state House, where the Democratic majority appears likely to approve the measure when it comes up for a vote in the full chamber. Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has yet to say where she stands on the bill.
● Nevada: A committee in Nevada's Democratic-run state Senate has passed a bill to add Nevada's six electoral votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Democrats have already passed the bill in the Assembly.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Colorado: Colorado legislators have adjourned the 2019 legislative session, and Democrats have sent a bill to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis that aims to improve voters' access to in-person polling places and mail ballot drop-off sites. One measure would also let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election, a practice that is already law in more than a dozen states.
● Connecticut: Democratic state senators in Connecticut have passed a state constitutional amendment to finally enable early voting, following suit after the state House passed the measure earlier this year. However, even though House Democrats had compromised with Republicans in their chamber to drop provisions removing the excuse requirement to vote absentee and adding a requirement of at least three early voting days in exchange for the GOP providing enough votes to surpass a critical three-fourths supermajority threshold, Republican senators did not follow suit.
Instead, only a single Republican senator backed the amendment, meaning it passed with only a simple majority. Consequently, the amendment won't appear on the 2020 ballot. Instead, Democrats will have to pass the same amendment (with a simple majority) after the 2020 elections before it can go on the 2022 ballot.
With GOP support now a dead letter, though, Democrats could potentially reverse their end of the rejected compromise and pass a revised version of the amendment this session that restores the requirement of three days of early voting. It's not clear, however, whether Democrats would be able or willing to do so.
● Nevada: Nevada legislators have unanimously passed a new measure into law, which Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has already signed, that will require a polling place be located on each Native American reservation in the state unless the reservation requests otherwise. Many people living on remote reservations lack reliable transportation options, so establishing a permanent local polling place should improve voting access.
● Nevada: Nevada Democrats and one of two Republicans on a state Senate committee have advanced a bill to the full chamber that would consolidate all local elections with federal and state elections instead of allowing them to be held in the spring or in odd-numbered years. This bill, backed by Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, has already passed the Assembly with bipartisan support, and it could significantly increase local election participation if it becomes law.
● Arizona: In the last edition of the Voting Rights Roundup, we incorrectly reported that Arizona legislators had adjourned this year's session. Because lawmakers have yet to pass a budget, the legislature extended its session past the late-April date by which it had originally been scheduled to adjourn.
Consequently, one Republican-backed voting restriction bill that we previously reported as having failed is still nominally alive, as the session will stretch on at least until the budget is complete. However, its chance of passing appears in doubt after the GOP-majority state Senate voted it down 18-12, though proponents have called for another vote.
The bill in question would 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.
Arizona Republicans are also still considering another bill to restrict the process for citizens to put initiatives on the ballot, with Republicans passing different versions in each chamber along party lines. The bill would require anyone gathering petition signatures to register with the state if they aren't an Arizona resident or are being paid for their efforts. Addresses and contact information would be made publicly available, which could intimidate potential signature-gatherers.
Furthermore, the bill would let the state attorney general—currently Republican Mark Brnovich—rewrite the ballot language describing what an initiative does, giving the GOP the power to override Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who has final say over ballot language descriptions under existing law.
Finally, state House Republicans dropped a provision from the Senate's bill that banned paying petition-circulators for each signature they obtain, but collectively, these proposed changes would still undermine the ability of citizens to put initiatives on the ballot and have them described in an accurate and fair manner.
● Iowa: In a victory over Republican senators who had tried to cram several partisan voting restrictions into a bipartisan state House bill aimed at ensuring absentee mail ballots get counted, Iowa legislators have rejected the Senate GOP's amended version of the bill and unanimously passed a version of the bill without those restrictions. The bill that ultimately passed both chambers (which are both controlled by Republicans) would require barcodes on absentee ballots so that election officials can determine if they were put in the mail ahead of the deadline, which is the Monday before Election Day.
● Indiana: The good-government group Common Cause has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Indiana officials that challenges the arbitrary procedures that let election workers throw out absentee mail ballots when a voter's signature supposedly doesn't match the one on file. The plaintiffs contend that this practice violates the Constitution because voters aren't given any chance to fix the issue and are not even notified. This problem has led to litigation and legislation in several other states in recent years.
● Tennessee: The ACLU, the League of Women Voters, and several other groups have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee GOP's recently passed voter suppression law that adds criminal and civil penalties to those attempting to conduct voter registration drives, which we have previously examined in detail. This is the second lawsuit over the new law; the first was brought by the NAACP and other groups immediately after Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the law earlier this month.
● Wyoming: Wyoming Republicans have indicated they will try to pass a voter ID bill during the 2020 legislative session after it failed by a single vote in the state House earlier this year. Local NBC news affiliate KPVI reports that some Republicans opposed 2019's bill only because of uncertainty over what types of photo ID would be acceptable, meaning there's a strong chance that Republicans, who hold the vast majority of seats in both chambers, could pass a revised bill next year.
● Michigan, Ohio: After judges recently struck down GOP gerrymanders in Ohio (for Congress) and Michigan (for both Congress and the legislature), the courts in both states have refused to stay their rulings while Republicans appeal. Consequently, Republicans have asked the Supreme Court to put each of those rulings on hold, and the high court has given the plaintiffs until May 20 to respond. The Supreme Court is likely to stay both rulings at least until it resolves two other gerrymandering cases in Maryland and North Carolina by June, if not longer.
● Mississippi: After a federal district court struck down Mississippi's GOP-held 22nd State Senate District earlier this year for diluting the power of black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the conservative-dominated Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a request by Mississippi Republicans to hear their appeal "en banc," where all judges on the circuit sit together. Instead, the GOP's appeal will go before a panel of three appeals court judges.
Previously, we had reported that a three-judge appellate panel had already upheld the district court's ruling back in March. However, the appeals court had only ruled on the Republican defendants' request to stay the lower court's ruling while they appeal. The appellate judges largely rejected that request, meaning there is no stay currently in effect. As a result, the district court's ruling will go into effect with the August primary soon approaching, unless the decision is overturned on appeal.
While Republican legislators had passed a new map in April redrawing the 22nd District and the neighboring 13th District to ensure both could elect black voters' preferred candidates instead of just the 13th, those new lines would only come into effect if the GOP's appeal fails.
By contrast, the district court's ruling would adopt the plaintiffs' own proposed map, which redraws the 22nd and neighboring 23rd District, making the latter even safer for Republicans. Ironically, the GOP's map is actually better for Democrats than the court's because they would retain an outside chance of flipping the 23rd, but either would allow Democrats to flip the 22nd District.
Because there's no stay in effect, it's possible the district court's map could be used in November's election simply because of the chance that the three judges won't rule on the merits of the GOP's appeal in time. That could render the appeal moot depending on how long it takes to resolve, since the next regularly scheduled election is not until 2023, and new maps will be required after the 2020 census.
● Missouri: In an unexpected development, Missouri Republicans have failed to advance a power-grabbing constitutional amendment that would undo a 2018 ballot initiative to make state legislative redistricting fairer. Republicans were unable to pass the measure out of a state Senate committee ahead of a key deadline after three members of their own caucus inexplicably failed to show up for the vote.
Unfortunately for redistricting reformers, though, Republicans could revive this measure in the 2020 legislative session and put it on the ballot next year on a date of their choosing. Given that the GOP's amendment already passed the state House and only failed in the Senate thanks to an entirely unforced error, there's a strong risk it could make a comeback next year.
● Nevada: A committee in Nevada's Democratic-run state Senate has advanced a bill to the full chamber that would end prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners for redistricting purposes at their last address instead of where they are incarcerated. The Assembly has already approved the bill.
● Florida: As expected, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced he will sign a GOP-backed bill that effectively imposes a poll tax on citizens who want to regain their voting rights after serving their time for a felony conviction, which we have previously explained could prevent up to 1.1 million citizens from exercising their right to vote.
The law requires those citizens to pay off all court-related fines and fees, even beyond restitution to crime victims, and even if criminal penalties have been converted into civil liens. The GOP's imminent passage of this bill into law is a direct rebuke to the nearly two-thirds of Floridians who voted to amend the state constitution in 2018 and end the lifetime ban on voting for most people with felony convictions.
To make matters worse, Republican legislators also passed a bill before they adjourned that would restrict similar ballot initiatives in the future. That bill would ban campaigns from paying petition-gatherers per signature instead of hourly and would further require the disclosure of a campaign's proportion of out-of-state funding, a figure that would appear on the ballot itself. The final bill dropped an earlier and constitutionally dubious provision that banned signature-gatherers who weren't Florida residents, but a ballot campaign would still have to disclose whether they hired gatherers from other states.
Combined, these provisions are intended to undermine the ability of national civil rights groups such as the ACLU to support initiatives like last year's. They're also designed to hurt the ability of groups with limited funding to get on the ballot by making it more expensive to collect signatures.
Most worrisome for opponents, these provisions were attached to an unrelated tax bill after Republicans failed to pass them as a separate constitutional amendment. Consequently, they would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and because they don't amend the Florida constitution, voters won't get a chance to reject them at the ballot box.
● Nevada: Nevada Democrats have passed a bill out of state Senate committee to end felony disenfranchisement for everyone not currently incarcerated. The Assembly previously passed the bill last month.
● Federal Election Commission: In a crippling blow to the enforcement of campaign finance restrictions, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has denied the plaintiffs' request for an appeal before the entire circuit in a lawsuit challenging the Federal Election Commission's 2015 decision not to pursue a case against a conservative group for violating election laws that restrict how "dark money" groups exempt from disclosing their donors can spend their money. As a result, the decision by a three-judge panel on the circuit rejecting the plaintiff's challenge will stand, and a reversal by the Supreme Court appears unlikely.
This case saw the FEC's Republican commissioners block the three Democratic-aligned commissioners' attempt to go after the dark money group, called the "Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity," or CHGO, for breaking federal laws that restrict it from engaging directly in campaign advocacy advertising, since it takes four votes to pursue an enforcement action. While the even partisan split in the makeup of the commission was designed to stimulate consensus, Republicans have gridlocked the FEC for years, preventing it from enforcing even the weakened regulations still on the books. Making matters worse, the FEC is down to just four commissioners because Donald Trump and Senate Republicans have refused to fill vacancies.
The plaintiffs had hoped the courts would step in to rectify the FEC's indecision in this case and compel the commission to take action in cases when it is "unable or unwilling to apply settled law to clear facts," which the Federal Election Campaign Act ostensibly enables the courts to do. However, the judges who heard the case last year—including Brett Kavanaugh, who of course now sits on the Supreme Court—ruled that the FEC had exercised its "prosecutorial discretion" in not pursuing the case against CHGO, even if that "choice" was the result of a deadlock.
Consequently, the Court of Appeals' decision to let the original ruling stand effectively means the FEC's refusal to enforce the law is not subject to judicial review. That in turn will allow Republican commissioners to continue blocking enforcement actions—and will let wealthy donors abuse campaign finance regulations without consequence.
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.