● New York City, NY: Voters in New York City will decide this November whether to adopt instant-runoff voting for all city primaries and special elections after the city's Charter Revision Commission voted almost unanimously to put the issue on the ballot.
This proposed change comes in the context of city politics where the primary is often the only election that matters, given how heavily Democratic New York is. As well, a recent special election for public advocate took place without any primary or runoff and saw the winner prevail with just 33% in a field of 17 candidates.
While instant-runoff voting in primaries would be a big departure from the status quo, it wouldn't be that unusual for New York. In elections from 1937 to 1945, the state used a variant of instant-runoff voting in multi-member districts for the City Council, creating a multi-party system of proportional representation via what's known as a single transferable vote. That approach led to a brief flourishing of third-party candidacies, but that's not likely to happen again if the commission's proposed reform passes because it's limited only to primaries.
If New York does adopt instant-runoff voting, it would be by far the largest jurisdiction in America to do so. Last year, Maine became the first state to implement the system for federal and state elections, and San Francisco has used instant-runoff voting for years in local elections, but both are much smaller than New York. Given the city's prominence in the media, switching to this system could wind up accelerating its adoption elsewhere.
● Maine: In a dramatic turn of events, Maine's Democratic-majority state House has reversed its earlier opposition to a bill to add the state's four Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The House had previously rejected the bill by a 76-66 margin, but a vote to drop its opposition on Wednesday sets up the possibility that the House will soon concur with the Democratic-run state Senate and pass the bill on to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. Mills, however, has not yet stated whether or not she would sign the measure if it were to reach her desk.
● Oregon: Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has signed a bill to add Oregon's seven Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Oregon's addition brings the compact to 196 of the 270 electoral votes needed for it to enter into effect.
● Florida: Last year, 65% of Florida voters passed a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million citizens who had completed their felony convictions, part of a trend of reformers using initiatives to circumvent GOP legislators and pass pro-democracy measures. But not only are Republicans poised to soon gut this restoration of voting rights by effectively imposing a poll tax, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a new law that makes it harder to get an initiative on the ballot and pass one at all.
The GOP's new measure bans campaigns from paying petition-gatherers per signature instead of hourly and will 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 ballot campaigns 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 2018's voting rights amendment. 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. Florida already requires 60% voter approval for an initiative to pass, one of the highest such thresholds in the country, and these additional restrictions will likely make the initiative process prohibitively difficult for many causes.
Yet even these restraints aren't enough for DeSantis, who has now also proposed moving the dates of ballot measure elections so that they're held separately from other elections. That would almost certainly lead to a sharp drop in voter participation, and low turnout would likely make the typical electorate for a ballot measure whiter, older, and more conservative than for federal and state elections.
The Florida GOP's dismissive approach to voter-approved laws is part of a broader national trend. Since the 2018 elections, Republicans in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah have all reacted to efforts to pass ballot initiatives that enact progressive policies, fight gerrymandering, or protect the right to vote by trying to subvert those new laws and make future initiatives more difficult.
While direct democracy has its drawbacks, it has nevertheless been a vital tool in fighting back against the Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering. Republican efforts to roll back direct democracy is therefore an effort to undermine representative democracy, too.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Maine: On a party-line vote, state Senate Democrats have passed a bill to establish automatic voter registration, sending it to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who is expected to sign it. If it becomes law, Maine would automatically register eligible voters who do business with the state's driver's license agency. The secretary of state would also be able to decide whether to add other qualifying agencies, which would be important for reaching eligible voters who don't drive.
● Nevada: On Friday, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak brought to a close this year's busy session of election-related legislation by signing a sweeping bill to expand voting access. Chief among the bill's provisions are measures to enable same-day voter registration and implement automatic voter registration after voters passed the latter policy at the ballot box in 2018.
The bill also expands early voting availability hours and gives all voters the option to sign up to permanently receive an absentee ballot at each election. Absentee ballots would also be counted so long as they're postmarked by Election Day instead of only those that officials receive by Election Day (as is the current practice). Additionally, when absentee mail ballots have a problem with the voter's signature missing or not appearing to match the one on file, officials will be required to contact the voter to confirm their identity so that they aren't disenfranchised.
Voters who have to cast a provisional ballot would also get to vote on all races in their jurisdiction instead of just in federal contests. Finally, the bill would codify into law the option for counties to adopt vote centers, where any voter in the county can cast a ballot, instead of traditional local precincts. Taken together, all of these provisions should make it much easier for voters to cast ballots and, in so doing, increase voter participation.
And with the deadline now passed for Sisolak to take action on bills approved by the legislature this session, we owe a special acknowledgement to correspondent Mark B. Mark, an activist in Nevada, kept exceptionally close watch on every piece of voting rights legislation that lawmakers considered and provided regular, detailed updates for us that were invaluable to our coverage. It was a particularly busy and productive legislative session, so we're especially grateful that Mark kept us—and, in turn, our readers—so well-informed. Thank you, Mark!
● New York: After finally holding their first hearing on automatic voter registration late last month, legislative Democrats have reached an agreement to push for a single version of the policy after differing proposals had been introduced. Democrats have introduced identical bills in the Senate and Assembly that would automatically register eligible voters who do business with a wide variety of state agencies, unless they opt out at the time of the transaction. However, Democrats only have until Wednesday's planned adjournment to pass AVR during this legislative session.
● Arkansas: On Monday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in federal court contending that Arkansas' method for electing its state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals violates the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against black voters. All Arkansas Supreme Court justices are elected statewide, and no black candidate has ever won such an election. Meanwhile, the 12 judges on the appeals court are elected in seven districts, some of which have two members. Only one such district, with a single judge, is capable of electing black voters' preferred candidate.
While federal courts have long used the Voting Rights Act to strike down systems that dilute the power of black voters, such as at-large elections or winner-take-all elections in districts with multiple members, those rulings have almost exclusively affected legislative offices rather than judicial ones. However, a victory here wouldn't be completely unprecedented, since a federal court struck down a similar at-large system used by a Louisiana lower court district in 2018. Conversely, a federal court rejected a similar lawsuit last year over at-large elections for Texas' appellate courts, so it's unclear what the outcome will be for Arkansas.
● Oregon: With significant bipartisan support, Oregon's Democratic-run legislature has passed the Oregon Voting Rights Act, which would help enforce the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act. The state-level bill would ensure elections for school board and other education-related offices are conducted in a manner that protects racial or other minority groups' ability to elect their preferred candidates when faced with a majority that would otherwise vote to defeat those same candidates.
Similar to laws in neighboring California and Washington, this bill gives plaintiffs the ability to file suit in state court instead of federal court, where challengers might fare better given the increasing hostility to voting rights in the federal judiciary. The measure's adoption could also lead to certain jurisdictions switching from at-large local elections to district-based elections, since the latter system can allow groups that are an overall minority in a given jurisdiction to elect its preferred candidates if its members are geographically concentrated.
● Nevada: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed a new law that passed with broad bipartisan support to consolidate all local election dates with federal and state elections, ending the practice of some cities holding elections in the spring or odd-numbered years. This change will likely save money, since officials will have to hold fewer elections, and it should increase voter participation dramatically in local elections across the state, since turnout is almost always much higher in federal and state races.
● Wisconsin: The conservative majority on Wisconsin's Supreme Court, ruling 4-3 along ideological lines on Tuesday, reinstated most of the power-grabbing laws that Republicans had passed in last year's lame-duck legislative session, granting a GOP request to stay a lower court ruling that had temporarily blocked the new laws from taking effect while the case proceeded through the legal system.
These laws were designed to strip powers from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and state Attorney General Josh Kaul after the duo defeated Republican incumbents in 2018. The GOP's efforts spawned four lawsuits, two of which led to lower state court rulings that temporarily blocking some measures. However, an appellate court had already stayed one of those rulings, and now the state Supreme Court has stayed the other.
These decisions, though, are by no means the end of the legal battles over these laws, since appeals on the merits in the two state-level cases remain ongoing and there are also two separate federal lawsuits pending.
With the state Supreme Court's new decision, the only major provisions that remain on hold are the GOP's cuts to early voting and restrictions on student voter IDs, thanks to one of the federal suits. Consequently, measures have gone back into effect that strip Evers of the power to appoint members to important boards and state agencies, stop him from increasing accountability over the way the state doles out tax breaks and incentives to businesses, and prevent him from banning guns in the state capitol.
Furthermore, the reinstated provisions empower the Republican legislative majority to intervene in lawsuits now that Evers and Kaul are unlikely to defend the state when other GOP power grabs, like gerrymandering or voter suppression, are challenged. That would ensure they have standing to sue or appeal in any case they don’t like—and make the taxpayers pay their legal bills. Relatedly, these laws also curtail Kaul’s discretion over how to spend money from court settlements.
This outcome was expected given the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court, and they're a reminder of just how important the court elections are. Progressive-leaning Judge Lisa Neubauer lost an April election to hardline conservative Judge Brian Hagedorn by just 6,000 votes, and while Hagedorn won't succeed a retiring liberal justice until August, his narrow victory will prevent liberals from taking a majority on the bench following the next court election in 2020. If any of these lawsuits are still ongoing a year from now, April's election may have proved decisive.
● 2020 Census: On Wednesday, the plaintiffs challenging the Trump administration's plans to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census petitioned the Supreme Court to postpone its impending ruling. Following damning revelations from the files of a deceased GOP mapmaker that the citizenship question was intended to undermine the power of Democrats and voters of color in redistricting, the plaintiffs are asking the justices to send the case back to lower court to allow for comprehensive discovery of what else is in this document trove.
The census is currently set to begin printing millions of census forms in July, which led to a compressed time frame for litigation. However, plaintiffs contend that printing could be postponed to the end of October to give the Supreme Court time to issue a ruling incorporating the new evidence of the GOP's malicious intent.
Also this week, Democrats and Republican Rep. Justin Amash on the House Oversight Committee voted to hold Attorney General Bill Bar and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents related to the dispute in this case. Those documents likely would further expose how the Trump administration concocted the bogus pretext of enforcing the Voting Rights Act to hide its true motive of discriminating against Democrats and people of color.
The Supreme Court previously blocked Ross from being deposed, and in oral arguments in April, Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to cynically entertain the GOP's pretense of wanting citizenship data to enforce the VRA. Odds are therefore against Roberts or any other conservative justice siding with the plaintiffs' latest request despite the extensive evidence of the Trump administration's bad faith.
Correction: This post has been updated to remove reference to a Nevada law that would guarantee the right to vote if voters are still waiting in line when polls close. This protection already exists under state law; the provision in question simply clarified that it also applies to those who vote early, those who cast ballots at county-wide “vote centers” rather than their traditional polling places, and those still needing to register.