● Florida: Florida Republicans recently enacted what's effectively a poll tax by requiring citizens who have completed their sentences for felony convictions to also pay off all court fines and fees before they can regain their voting rights, but local officials are mobilizing to mitigate these new obstacles to voting.
Writing in The Appeal, Kira Lerner and Daniel Nichanian report that Miami-Dade County's top prosecutor, public defender, and chief judge all agree that only fines and fees actually listed in a person's sentencing document fall under the new payment requirement, which should substantially reduce the burden these fees pose.
In fact, Public Defender Carlos Martinez estimates that 90% of citizens with outstanding fines and fees owe those costs due to judgments or court orders that are separate from their sentencing. An earlier study found that citizens with felony convictions owed roughly $278 million in Miami-Dade County alone, which is home to roughly 2.8 million people, but it's unclear how many individuals bear that burden and consequently how many stand to avoid the GOP's poll tax if local officials are able to implement this workaround.
Importantly, Miami-Dade isn't the only county where Democratic prosecutors and local officials can exercise their powers to curtail the new poll tax. As we recently illustrated, jurisdictions home to 46% of Florida's population are represented by a Democratic state attorney. Of these, The Appeal also reports that prosecutors in Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach Counties—which are collectively home to nearly 5 million residents—are also interested in pursuing measures to alleviate the GOP's poll tax for as many voters as possible.
Meanwhile, a new report by the Campaign Legal Center and Georgetown Law's Civil Rights Clinic finds that similar poll tax provisions are widespread in the United States. Florida is one of eight states that explicitly requires the payment of fines and fees in order to vote, along with Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington. Another 20 states do so implicitly.
There are also still two states that automatically impose lifetime disenfranchisement for all felony convictions, Iowa and Kentucky. There, citizens can only have their rights restored by individually petitioning the governor, a power that's very rarely exercised by the Republican incumbents in both states. But even for the lucky few granted this boon, they must still pay all fines and fees first before they can vote once more.
Notably, this list of states with effective poll tax provisions includes six where Democrats have full control of state government: California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Washington. Democratic lawmakers made significant progress in 2019 to curb felony disenfranchisement in states such as Colorado and Nevada, but this report indicates that even blue states have a long way to go toward curtailing this discriminatory practice.
● Louisiana: On Tuesday, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law filed a federal lawsuit arguing Louisiana's state Supreme Court districts violate the Voting Rights Act for insufficiently empowering black voters to elect their preferred candidates.
Louisiana uses a system of seven court districts, which were last redrawn in 1999 and are consequently badly malapportioned today. Even though the state itself is nearly one-third black, only one of its seven judicial districts is home to a predominantly black population. In large part because of these district lines, only two black justices have ever been elected to the court since 1813.
This isn't the first federal lawsuit over the structure of Louisiana's Supreme Court. Back in 1972, a federal court ruled that the doctrine of "one person, one vote" doesn't apply to judicial elections, thereby sustaining the malapportionment that exists today. However, a 1991 Supreme Court ruling held that the Voting Rights Act does apply to judicial elections, which led to the creation of the sole majority-black district in New Orleans.
A similar lawsuit filed last year is challenging Louisiana's six-district congressional map for only having one district where black voters are able to elect their candidate of choice rather than two. Not only would the black share of the statewide population suggest that two such districts ought to exist, drawing a second black district would not be difficult.
Creating such a district would be even easier for the seven-district Supreme Court map, even assuming all districts were to have equal populations; without such a requirement, it would be simpler still. Plaintiffs should therefore have a compelling argument, but they'll need to persuade a conservative-dominated judiciary's that's now much more hostile to voting rights than when the Supreme Court last weighed in on the issue almost 30 years ago.
● North Carolina: The trial in the state-level lawsuit over the North Carolina GOP's legislative gerrymanders concluded on Friday, and the three judges hearing the case will rule in the coming weeks on whether the maps in question violate citizens' right to vote in "free" elections under the state constitution.
Much of this case has focused on the files of deceased GOP redistricting operative Thomas Hofeller, which were disclosed earlier this year. Those archives showed that Hofeller had begun working on the current maps long before Republicans actually claimed he had, and that he relied on racial and partisan data that Republicans told a federal court in a separate suit they didn't use.
In a setback for the Republican defendants, one of their key expert witnesses, who had attempted to dispute the notion that Hofeller had already drawn the vast majority of his maps before the GOP claimed he had done so, had much of his testimony stricken from the record. An attorney for plaintiffs compelled the witness, Douglas Johnson, to admit on the stand that he had made serious omissions that undermined his credibility, including leaving out 11 districts where Hofeller's lines perfectly overlapped with the maps the GOP enacted in his report to the court.
Democrats hold a 2-1 majority on the three-judge panel that oversaw the trial, but regardless of how these judges rule, the case is all but guaranteed to be appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 6-1 majority. If the maps do get struck down and are ordered to be redrawn, the plaintiffs have already announced they will petition the courts not to give Republican legislators another shot at drawing the lines due to their deception in the earlier federal lawsuit that struck down their original 2011 maps over illegal racial gerrymandering.
● Texas: In a major yet unsurprising defeat for voting rights, a three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to put Texas back under the Voting Rights Act's "preclearance" regime, which would have required election officials to obtain the Justice Department's approval for any changes to election laws or procedures.
The plaintiffs challenging Texas Republicans' racial gerrymandering had sought to have the state returned to the preclearance system (a procedure known as "bail in") after lower courts ruled several times this decade that Republican lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters.
However, a 2018 Supreme Court ruling let Texas Republicans whitewash their discriminatory maps by ruling that because lawmakers passed another map in 2013, they had "cured" the racism found in their first plan. That ruling came even though the new map maintained similar districts, which the lower court struck down in 2017 as discriminatory before the Supreme Court overruled that decision.
In their ruling this past week, the judges acknowledged the GOP's record of intentional discrimination and the strong risk that Republicans will discriminate again in the 2020 round of redistricting. Nevertheless, they declined to place Texas back under mandatory DOJ review.
While this ruling isn't binding nationwide, it's nevertheless dismaying for challengers elsewhere. It's still possible that suits in other parts of the country could succeed at a lower level, but even if they do, the Supreme Court would likely be poised to overturn any such decisions.
Voting rights advocates had hoped that bailing states back in to preclearance would provide a measure of redress after the Supreme Court struck down the VRA's original system in 2013, which used a formula to automatically place jurisdictions under preclearance. Supporters of preclearance now need Congress to act by passing a law updating the VRA's preclearance formula, but again, even that approach might not survive the current Supreme Court.
● North Carolina: In an ongoing state-level lawsuit challenging the North Carolina GOP's new voter ID law, a three-judge lower court panel declined to temporarily block the measure's implementation while the lawsuit remains ongoing. The judges also dismissed all but one of the plaintiffs' claims, but plaintiffs have said they will appeal.
● Georgia: Amid an ongoing lawsuit by election security advocates seeking to require Georgia to adopt paper ballots in place of its paperless voting machines, the plaintiffs have filed an explosive new claim that Republican election officials destroyed evidence that could have showed unauthorized entry by hackers into the state's election systems, an accusation that GOP officials dispute.
Plaintiffs argue that election administrators working under Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state when this lawsuit was first launched in 2017, began destroying evidence within days of getting sued and have continued to do so over the past two years. Specifically, plaintiffs contend that officials destroyed computer servers related to a breach of the state's voter registration database that had exposed millions of voters' personal data, and that they've deleted or overwritten data on voting machines themselves.
If the court agrees with the plaintiffs, it could pave the way for sanctions against the defendants and potentially a court order requiring the adoption of paper ballots. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers passed a plan pushed by Kemp to pay millions to a company with close ties to the governor to purchase new machines that print barcodes that voters are unable to read.