● Kentucky: On Tuesday, state Attorney General Andy Beshear won the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in November, setting up a contest whose outcome will determine whether roughly 140,000 individuals regain the right to vote.
Kentucky is one of just two remaining states that impose a lifetime ban on voting by anyone convicted of a felony (the other is Iowa), but the governor has the power to unilaterally restore the voting rights of those who have completed their sentences. Beshear has pledged to do exactly this via executive order for citizens convicted of nonviolent felonies.
Beshear's promise to use executive power to restore voting rights comes after his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, tried to do the very same thing as his own tenure drew to a close in 2015. The elder Beshear issued just such an executive order, only to see Bevin reverse it two weeks after being sworn into office.
Bevin is also facing a lawsuit over how infrequently he's restored individual voting rights during his four-year term. That's left Kentucky with one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement in the country, banning one out of every 11 adults from voting, including roughly one in four black adults.
Andy Beshear's proposal would still leave most citizens convicted of violent felonies permanently disenfranchised, making it less far-reaching than a similar system of executive orders that Democratic governors of Virginia have used since 2016 to make rights restoration automatic upon completion of any felony sentence. However, Beshear's plan would still strike a major blow against the existing lifetime ban that Bevin and Republicans have revived and refused to reform, potentially restoring the voting rights of half or more of those citizens who are currently deprived of their political voice.
● Nevada: Following a vote in the state Senate on Tuesday, Nevada Democrats have now passed a bill out of both chambers to add the Silver State's six Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has not said whether or not he will sign the bill, but a veto appears unlikely.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Iowa: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a new law, passed with unanimous support, that requires barcodes on absentee mail ballots. Under Iowa law, absentee ballots must be mailed by the Monday before Election Day and received by the Monday after Election Day. These barcodes will allow officials to determine whether later-arriving ballots were postmarked in a timely fashion and will therefore ensure fewer voters are wrongly disenfranchised.
● New York: Democrats passed several laws to expand voting rights and voter access earlier this year, but a measure to automatically register voters was not among them. In part, that was because there are competing proposals that must be reconciled before a final bill can be passed. However, Democrats will now hold a state Senate committee hearing on May 30, which is a sign that an automatic registration bill may be closer to advancing.
Elsewhere on the legislative front, Democrats have reached an agreement to pass a bill that would dramatically shorten New York's unusual requirement that voters who want to switch their party registration to participate in another party's primary must do so by October of the year preceding the primary. The proposal would slash that deadline to just 25 days before the primary election for registered independent voters and 60 days before the primary for voters registered with another party.
However, for all the progress New York has made this year on voting rights, some elements of the state's sclerotic governing establishment are still resisting change. One key new law passed in January finally established an early voting period starting in this year's elections, but New York City's Board of Elections has sparked a backlash after proposing only 38 early-voting locations in a city with 4.7 million registered voters.
What's more, the board's plan would assign the same number of early-voting sites—just seven—to Staten Island, a predominantly white and conservative borough with only 300,000 registered voters, as it would to Queens, a highly diverse borough of 1.3 million voters that, geographically, is almost twice as large as Staten Island.
That early voting plan is far short of the 100 sites that Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, had proposed, which he'd offered to fund with $75 million in city money. Civil and voting rights groups have sent a letter to the board warning that its proposal would disproportionately underserve voters of color, which could foreshadow a lawsuit if the board does not change course.
● New Hampshire: On Thursday, New Hampshire's Democratic-majority state Senate unanimously passed a compromise bill to create a bipartisan redistricting commission. While the bill calls the proposed commission "independent," it ultimately isn't fully independent, since it's only statutory in nature and still gives legislators a significant role in the redistricting process. However, if the proposal becomes law, it nevertheless may make it much harder to gerrymander in favor of a single party.
As for how it would work: Members of the proposed commission would apply to serve with the secretary of state, and legislative leaders from both parties would choose five members from the pool of applicants for each major party. Those 10 commissioners would then choose five other members who are unaffiliated with either party, and it would take nine of 15 votes to pass any map.
Proposed maps would be required to comply with federal law; be contiguous; be compact; avoid unnecessarily splitting local government units; and respect communities of interest. Importantly, maps must have neither the intent nor the effect of unduly favoring any party or incumbent. To police this, the commission would be required to "measure the maps against external metrics," which "may include" a metric known as the efficiency gap to test partisan fairness, as well as unspecified tests for compactness.
Once the commissioners agree to a map, legislators would get an up-or-down vote on it with no chance to make amendments. If the legislature rejects the commission's proposal, commissioners must come up with a different proposal, and if legislators ultimately don't approve any map, the state Supreme Court would take over the process and draw a map using the same criteria detailed above.
Consequently, this system is an improvement on the status quo because it would effectively ensure that maps are drawn according to the above nonpartisan criteria so long as the statute remains in place. However, should New Hampshire Republicans take back control at some point and display the same thirst for power as their counterparts in other states, they could repeal the commission and draw their own lines.
In fact, Republican senators had previously voted in lockstep against an earlier Democratic proposal that gave legislators less influence over the commission. That made a compromise necessary, since Democrats lacked the votes to override what would have been a likely veto from GOP Gov. Chris Sununu.
● Washington: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a new law that bans the practice of "prison gerrymandering," whereby prisoners are counted for redistricting purposes at their prison. Instead, incarcerated people will be counted at their last address. That could help restore representation to urban communities of color, where many prisoners hail from, and curtail the inflation of population figures in the predominantly white regions where prisons are often located. This change may not be felt at the congressional or even the legislative level, but rather will likely have the biggest impact at the local government level in jurisdictions that house prisons.
● Nevada: Nevada's Democratic-run state Senate has failed to pass a bill before a key deadline that would have required local jurisdictions to conduct general elections even when a candidate takes a majority in the primary. Separately, however, a Senate committee did advance a related bill that would move all local election dates so that they coincide with federal and state elections, meaning that bill now goes to the full Senate floor.
The Democratic-controlled Assembly previously had passed both bills, and if they had both become law, all local elections would have been decided in what is typically the highest-turnout environment: a November general election in even-numbered years. However, even if some candidates still prevail in lower-turnout primaries, simply holding those primaries at the same time as federal and state primaries could nevertheless result in much higher turnout for localities that currently elect their offices in the spring or in odd-numbered years.
● Nevada: Democrats have passed a bill out of the legislature, largely along party lines, to end felony disenfranchisement for every resident who is no longer incarcerated. Currently, Nevada has one of the more restrictive voting bans nationally, disenfranchising citizens on parole and probation, and even permanently for some crimes. This bill could therefore restore voting rights to tens of thousands of citizens.
● Georgia: On Tuesday, federal district court Judge Amy Totenberg rejected a motion by attorneys for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to require that Georgia switch from paperless voting machines to paper ballots over election security concerns, meaning the case can proceed. The plaintiffs are urging the court to require the state to adopt a system by which voters fill out paper ballots that are then fed into an optical scanner, allowing for post-election audits to ensure results have been accurately counted.
Last September, Totenberg criticized then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican who is now governor, and other election officials for having "buried their heads in the sand" about the vulnerabilities of paperless voting machines, but she declined to bar their use for 2018 out of concern that it was too late to make a switch. Kemp and Republicans in the legislature passed a widely criticized law earlier this year to pave the way for new voting machines by 2020 that produce a paper barcode, which voters themselves can't verify, and the plaintiffs contend this approach still has vulnerabilities that violate voters' rights.
● Michigan: On Wednesday, Democratic state Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a formal legal opinion concluding that a law restricting ballot initiatives that Republicans passed in last year's lame-duck session is unconstitutional. Nessel's ruling is binding on state officials unless it's overturned in court, meaning litigation is likely.
Republicans passed the law using their gerrymandered majorities after voters approved several progressive ballot initiatives in 2018, including a ban on gerrymandering. The law blocks any initiative campaign from having more than 15% of its petition signers live in any one of Michigan's 14 congressional districts, which would disproportionately hinder liberal organizers, since the GOP gerrymandered the congressional map to pack Democratic voters into just five districts. Nessel deemed this provision unconstitutional, along with one that requires noting on petitions if petition circulators are paid or volunteers.
● Texas: In an unexpected break for opponents of a GOP-backed bill known as SB9 that contained several restrictions on voting, Republican leaders in the state House failed to give the bill a floor vote ahead of a key deadline to do so with the end of the legislative session quickly approaching. That effectively killed the bill, which would have criminalized errors on voter registration forms even if they were unintentional. It also would have restricted who could transport others to the polls, among other provisions.
SB9 had started off as a bipartisan effort to require Texas' remaining paperless voting machines be replaced with ones that leave a paper trail by 2024, but Republicans stripped out that provision and replaced it with their various voting restrictions. Fortunately, the measure to replace voting machines was kept alive after the Senate voted to add it to a separate bill that lacks the voting restrictions found in SB9, passing this revised bill on to the House.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators did pass one voting restriction—over the objection of Democrats—that would ban the use of mobile polling stations during early voting. Such stations allow local election officials to bring voting equipment to voters with limited mobility. Republicans even rejected a Democratic amendment to exempt retirement and nursing homes. It appears unlikely that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will veto it.