● North Carolina: Earlier this year, redistricting reformers gained access to a trove of documents from a leading national architect of Republican gerrymandering, the late Thomas Hofeller, and last week's bombshell revelation that the GOP plotted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census specifically to undermine Democrats and voters of color in redistricting is just the beginning of the fallout.
On Thursday, plaintiffs who are challenging the North Carolina GOP's legislative gerrymanders in state court submitted a new filing using the Hofeller documents to show the GOP lied in federal court. The filing concerns misrepresentations Republicans made in a separate federal lawsuit over GOP-drawn legislative districts that a federal court struck down for racial discrimination in late 2016 and ordered to be replaced.
Following an appeal to the Supreme Court, which upheld the district court's ruling, Republicans told the lower court in July of 2017 that there wasn't enough time to draw new maps and use them in special elections that November, as the court had originally ordered. Republicans went so far as to claim they had not even begun work on new lines, leading the district court to agree to wait until 2018 to impose remedial maps.
But in reality, as the Hofeller documents demonstrate, that claim was a lie. Not only had Hofeller (who died last year) already begun drawing new maps in late 2016, when the districts were initially invalidated, he'd almost entirely finished drawing new maps by July of the following year, when Republicans were pleading to the court for more time. (GOP lawmakers ultimately passed Hofeller's maps later that year.) Republicans even told the court that they hadn't loaded statistics on racial demographics on Hofeller's computer, something his archive also showed was completely false.
While that earlier racial gerrymandering case was ultimately resolved with federal courts accepting some of the GOP's redrawn districts and rejecting others in favor of the court's own nonpartisan districts, those new lines didn't take effect until the regularly scheduled 2018 elections, when Republicans finally lost their veto-proof majorities.
Had there been special elections in 2017, Republicans instead would almost certainly have lost their supermajorities a year earlier. So by lying to the court to avoid early elections, the GOP enjoyed their illegally gerrymandered advantage for an extra year, during which it put several power-grabbing constitutional amendments on the ballot, four of which ultimately passed last November.
A separate lawsuit challenging two of those constitutional amendments, one requiring voter ID and one that capped the maximum allowed income tax rate, saw a state court strike down both amendments earlier this year, holding that the legislature at the time lacked democratic legitimacy precisely because it had been elected under an illegal gerrymander. There's a good chance this new evidence from Hofeller's archives will make its way into that case as well, and these revelations may also undermine the GOP in the current lawsuit over the legislative maps themselves.
With the 6-1 Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court likely to ultimately strike down the GOP's gerrymanders ahead of the 2020 election, this evidence of the GOP's willful deception in federal court could be grounds for the justices to deny Republican legislators a chance to redraw the lines again. That would lead to fairer, court-drawn districts, because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper otherwise lacks the constitutional power to veto replacement gerrymanders.
Regardless of how the state courts rule in this case, another suit will require new state House districts in Wake County, home to the state capital of Raleigh. That's because when Republicans redrew the maps in 2017 to remedy their racial discrimination, they took the opportunity to gerrymander for partisan advantage in four House seats in the Wake County area that did not need to be redrawn to fix the discriminatory districts.
However, North Carolina's constitution bans mid-decade redistricting outside of the period immediately following the decennial census, something only a court order can override, and a state court struck down four such districts late in 2018. Consequently, Republican legislators relented and introduced a bipartisan bill to implement the same Wake County map that the federal district court had tried to impose in the racial gerrymandering case before the U.S. Supreme Court partially overruled it. However, this concession became much less meaningful for Republicans because they lost every state House seat in the county in 2018.
● Oregon: On Wednesday, Democrats passed a bill out of the legislature to add Oregon's seven Electoral College votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, sending the bill to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. In her prior role as secretary of state, Brown testified in favor of the compact a decade ago, and her office told CNN that "we anticipate that she will sign it" shortly after the measure passed. Once she does give her approval, the compact will have 196 of the 270 electoral votes needed to enter into effect.
Voter Registration and Voting Access
● Connecticut: In a major setback for voting access, Connecticut state Senate Democrats adjourned this year's legislative session on Wednesday without passing a bill that would have established automatic voter registration, expanded same-day registration, restored voting rights to citizens on parole, and eliminated the requirement that people with certain felonies pay off court-related fines before regaining their voting rights.
Democrats had passed the bill in the state House and hold a comfortable majority in the Senate, but they blamed the bill's failure on Republican threats to filibuster and block other bills from passing. However, the executive director of Connecticut's chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan good-government group, chastised Democrats for not bringing the bill to the floor sooner so that it could have avoided this procedural defeat. Nevertheless, Democrats could try again next year.
● Maine: On Thursday, Maine's Democratic-run state House voted along party lines to pass a bill establishing automatic voter registration via the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Attention now turns to the state Senate, where Democrats also hold a majority. Maine already has one of the highest turnout rates thanks in part to same-day registration, but this bill has the potential to bring even more voters into the electorate and cut down the time it takes to vote on Election Day by having more new voters registered in advance.
● Nevada: Shortly before adjourning this year's legislative session, Nevada Democrats passed a bill to significantly expand voting access. As we have previously explained in detail, this bill enables same-day voter registration, implements a voter-approved law to automatically register eligible voters through the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and expands both early voting and excuse-free absentee voting. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has said he will sign it.
Meanwhile, Sisolak signed another law that reforms the recall process to make it less vulnerable to partisan abuse, such as when Republicans tried to recall Democratic state senators in 2017 solely because they believed it would be easier to win back control of the chamber in low-turnout special elections. (That scheme ultimately failed after a costly legal challenge when Republicans failed to submit enough valid signatures.) This legislation aims to prevent future deceptive recall campaigns while still leaving the option open for legislators who break the law or abuse their office.
● Harris County, TX: County commissioners in Harris County, Texas, have unanimously voted to ask the state to allow the county, which is home to Houston and more than 4 million residents, to establish vote centers ahead of the 2020 general election. Vote centers allow any registered voter in the county to cast a ballot there, instead of only at their local polling place. The secretary of state's office had approved testing this system in local elections in May. Expanding it to all elections could both increase voting access and save money on election administration.
● Washington, D.C.: A majority on the City Council in Washington, D.C. has signed on in support of a newly introduced bill that would establish universal mail voting in the District ahead of the 2020 elections. If the bill becomes law, D.C. would join four states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington) that mail ballots to every registered voter at every election.
● Michigan: On Wednesday, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced that she had reached a settlement in a lawsuit over two Republican-backed laws that restrict how college students can vote. One law, passed in 1999, required voters to register at the address on their driver's license, even if that address doesn't match their residence at school. The other law, from 2004, required those who register by mail or through a third-party voter registration drive to cast their first ballot in-person instead of by absentee mail ballot.
These measures effectively required students, including those from Michigan, to either go to the effort of making otherwise unnecessary updates on their licenses or travel home on Election Day to vote. Students are also disproportionately likely to register through the mail or via campus registration drives. Plaintiffs had contended that Republican legislators were well aware of the problems these provisions would cause for student voters when they passed them.
Last year, voters elected Benson as the first Democrat to be Michigan's chief election officer in 24 years, and they also passed a constitutional amendment with provisions that include same-day registration and excuse-free absentee voting. Benson had contended that this amendment invalidated the GOP's restriction that requires voters to cast an in-person ballot if they registered by mail or registration drive. She also says she'll initiate a voter-outreach campaign to educate student voters by clarifying that registering to vote will automatically update their driver's license address.
This settlement will put an end to a restrictive system promoted by former Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who passed the initial address-matching law in 1999 and then went on to win his 2000 congressional race by just 111 votes. Rogers' Lansing-based congressional district included Michigan State University, which at the time enrolled more than 43,000 students, 90 percent of whom were from Michigan, and his voter suppression law may very well have made the difference that year.
● North Carolina: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has signed a law that North Carolina's Republican-run legislature passed with near-unanimous support to give colleges and universities more time to prepare their student IDs so they can qualify as valid forms of identification when the GOP's new voter ID law kicks in next spring. Additionally, the new law gives county election boards more flexibility for determining when and where to offer early voting for municipal elections in odd-numbered years.
Both of these changes are likely intended to avoid yet another lawsuit after a federal court struck down the GOP's previous voter ID law in 2016 along with several other voting restrictions that the court said targeted black voters "with almost surgical precision." However, this latest law doesn't restore the same early voting flexibility to even-numbered years, when federal, state, and some major local elections (such as Charlotte's mayoral race) take place. It also fails to restore early voting on the last Saturday prior to Election Day, which Republicans cut prior to the 2018 elections.
● Texas: On Wednesday, new emails came to light that indicate Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was a key instigator of the Texas GOP's recent attempt to purge the registrations of nearly 100,000 voters using faulty data that erroneously suggested they were not citizens.
The emails were revealed by civil rights groups that had successfully sued the state and blocked former acting Secretary of State David Whitley's attempt to carry out the purge. They show officials at the Texas Department of Safety, which maintains driver's license records, saying the request for the citizenship data came from the governor. Abbott has denied he was behind the attempted purge, but he has a long record of supporting policies that have frequently met defeat in court for discriminating against black and Latino voters.
Furthermore, while Whitley resigned last month shortly before he would have failed to win necessary Democratic support in the state Senate to be permanently confirmed, Abbott handed him a golden parachute by hiring him to work in the governor's office for $205,000 a year, showing Abbott cares very little about the optics of how his administration handled this attempted purge.
● Florida: With Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis poised to sign a bill that effectively imposes a poll tax on voters who have completed their felony sentences, a new analysis shows just how consequential that poll tax could be.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that between just October 2017 and September 2018, courts statewide imposed in excess of $1 billion in fines and other financial penalties for felony convictions. The GOP's bill requires citizens who have fully served their sentences to pay off not only court-ordered restitution to crime victims but also all court-related fines and fees to regain their voting rights.
The Sun-Sentinel also looked at the data available from earlier years in populous Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade Counties in Southeast Florida. Collectively, this trio is home to the greater Miami area and roughly 6.2 million people, including about a quarter of the state's voters. There, the Sun-Sentinel found that there is at least $1 billion more in outstanding payments, and even that data is incomplete (for instance, Miami-Dade's records only go back to the year 2000).
While these dollar amounts include debts owed by people who may still be incarcerated, on parole, or on probation, and thus ineligible to vote, these figures show that the outstanding total in fines and fees is staggeringly high and may be insurmountable for a significant number of voters.
Floridians voted nearly 2-to-1 in 2018 to end the lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions, but the GOP's poll tax is poised to keep potentially hundreds of thousands of citizens effectively disenfranchised for life because they're too poor to pay predatory fees.
● Washington, D.C.: With unanimous support, members of the Washington, D.C. City Council have unveiled a bill that would entirely end felony disenfranchisement by restoring voting rights to citizens who are currently incarcerated. If the bill becomes law, D.C. would join just Maine and Vermont in ending this discriminatory practice, and it would be the first jurisdiction with a significant proportion of people of color to do so. The bill could restore voting rights to roughly 6,000 citizens, and while all laws passed by the Council are subject to getting overturned by Congress, House Democrats are generally opposed to such efforts.
● Oregon: Oregon is one of just five states that places no limits on campaign contributions to candidates for state office, but Democratic lawmakers have advanced legislation to change that this year. On Thursday, state House Democrats passed a bill largely along party lines that would cap the amount a single donor could give to a candidate at $1,500 for the state Senate, $1,000 for the state House, and $2,800 for statewide offices. They also passed another bill to require tax-exempt nonprofit groups that spend above a certain amount to disclose their donors, as well as a third bill to require political ads to disclose their biggest donors' names.
However, because of a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling that struck down previous contribution limits for violating the state constitution's free-speech protections, Democrats will also need to pass a constitutional amendment that they're still working on. Such an amendment can be passed with just simple majorities, which Democrats comfortably hold, and it would then be up to the voters to approve it in a 2020 referendum.
● 2020 Census: On Thursday, a federal district court ruled that a lawsuit over the 2020 census backed by Alabama Republicans may proceed, rejecting the Trump administration's motion to dismiss it.
The suit aims to require the exclusion of undocumented immigrants when congressional seats are reapportioned among the states. If plaintiffs succeed, both House seats and Electoral College votes would likely shift from states with large immigrant populations such as California, Texas, and New York to states that are relatively lacking in immigrants—such as Alabama.
This lawsuit would appear to directly conflict with the 14th Amendment, which states that representatives "shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed." While the suit's chance of success does not appear high, it's part of a concerted effort by Republicans to use the Trump administration's push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census so that they can further manipulate redistricting to undermine the political power of Democrats and voters of color.
Meanwhile, a new report by the Urban Institute looks at just how bad a 2020 census undercount could be. While Trump's attempt to add his citizenship question may have its own chilling effect that deters millions of immigrants from participating, that isn't the only problem with the census. Not only have congressional Republicans deliberately underfunded it, but the 2020 census will be the first that is primarily conducted online, and the Census Bureau has not had the capacity to conduct field tests in hard-to-count communities.
The Urban Institute estimates that the 2020 census could see the worst undercount since 1990's, which would disproportionately affect people of color and children. According to the report, white Americans would be overcounted while 4 million black and Latino Americans could go uncounted—figures the Institute says are on the conservative side. This undercounting would consequently diminish the amount of representation communities of color receive and unjustly transfer it to whiter communities.