● North Carolina: On Tuesday, North Carolina's Republican-led legislature passed new state House and Senate districts after a state court struck them down earlier this month for discriminating against Democrats in violation of the state constitution. Shown at the top of this post (see here for a larger version), the new Senate map redraws the 21 invalidated districts out of 50 total. However, as we demonstrated in our in-depth analysis of the maps, many of the districts in both chambers still bear the signs of partisan gerrymandering, in violation of the court's order.
Making matters worse, most Senate Democrats voted in favor of the GOP's new stealth gerrymanders of the upper chamber on Monday and gave Republicans political ammunition by praising the process for how the maps were drawn. Their actions stand in stark contrast to that of their counterparts in the House, who almost uniformly held firm against the GOP's maps for both chambers. Senate Democrats unanimously voted against the new House map, making their choice to side with Republicans on the Senate map even more inexplicable.
The legislature's decisions, however, do not represent the last word. Rather, the court retains final say over whether to approve the new districts, and it has already appointed a nonpartisan expert, Nathaniel Persily, to draw the lines for them if necessary. There's good reason to think he'll have to get involved.
The court's criteria mandated that any new maps make a "reasonable" effort to draw lines that "improve the compactness" of the legislature’s districts and split fewer precincts compared to the illegal versions. Lawmakers were allowed but not required to consider preserving the integrity of municipalities and avoid pairing incumbents in the same districts. Critically, they were prohibited from preserving the cores of the illegal districts or relying on any election data, but as we have previously explained, it's dubious that Republicans didn't have partisan considerations in mind.
The court's order, however, did not prohibit the use of partisan data to evaluate maps after they've been drawn, which is what we have done here since legislators ostensibly could not. To that end, we've calculated the results of all statewide elections from 2004 to 2016 for every district that makes up the new maps, as well as the racial demographics of each seat.
Under this analysis, the GOP’s Senate proposal discriminates against Democratic voters slightly less than the map that was struck down, but it still locks in a wide Republican advantage. One straightforward way to assess how much this legislative map does (or doesn't) favor one party is to sort each seat in each chamber by Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton and see how the seat in the middle—known as the median seat—voted.
Because the state Senate has an even number of seats, we average the two middle seats to come up with the median point in the chamber. That median seat voted for Trump by a 54-44 margin, 6 points to the right of his 50-46 win statewide. In other words, to capture a bare majority in the Senate, Democrats would have to win seats that Trump carried by 10 points (at least), even though swingy North Carolina only voted for Trump by 4. That's little better than the illegal map's median district, which backed Trump by 12 points.
Republicans went to even greater lengths to preserve their advantage in the state House, where 56 of 120 districts must be redrawn. Under the new map, the median district voted for Trump by a wide 55-43 spread, 8 points greater than his statewide margin of 4 points. Again, that's not much improvement over the 11-point median seat advantage Republicans enjoyed under the illegal gerrymander.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit have until Sept. 27 to respond to the GOP's maps with any objections, and they should object if North Carolina is to finally have fair legislative districts for the first time this decade. In 2018, Democratic candidates won more votes than Republicans yet failed to take majorities. If the court doesn't step in and fix these still-gerrymandered districts, that outcome risks a repeat in 2020, when legislative elections will determine which party if any gets to control next decade's redistricting (North Carolina's governor has no role in non-judicial redistricting).
For more detailed analysis of the GOP's new maps and hypothetical nonpartisan alternatives we created see this story; we'll have more analysis to come.
● New Hampshire: This week, Democrats failed to win over enough Republicans to override GOP Gov. Chris Sununu's veto of a redistricting reform bill that was passed with bipartisan support earlier this year. Had the proposal become law, it would have created a bipartisan advisory commission to draw maps based on partisan fairness and other nonpartisan criteria, which legislators would have only had the opportunity to approve or reject without any amendments.
Consequently, redistricting will still be handled like typical legislation. That means Republicans could have the chance to gerrymander the lines again, just as they did this past decade, if Sununu is re-elected and Republicans regain the legislative majorities they lost in 2018. However, Republicans may end up regretting their decision to block redistricting reform if Democrats hold the legislature and beat Sununu in 2020, which is possible in this swingy state.
● Redistricting: In a new deep dive, Daily Kos Elections detailed the rules that will govern 2020s redistricting in all 50 states and maps what the partisan outlook looks like if redistricting happened right now. Despite Democratic gains in 2018, Republicans would still be poised to draw states with three to four times as many congressional districts as states that Democrats could draw, and the GOP would maintain a similarly large advantage at the state legislative level.
However, elections in 2019 and 2020 give Democrats a critical opportunity to make further inroads against GOP gerrymandering, and we'll explore in a subsequent story how voters and activists can fight for fairer maps in all 50 states.
● 2020 Census: Earlier this month, a coalition of Latino community groups filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump administration from compiling the administrative records needed to match citizenship data to census data for the purposes of redistricting. After he was defeated in his effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census so that Republicans could use it to diminish the power of Democrats and Latinos in redistricting, Trump had issued an executive order earlier this summer directing the Census Bureau to produce the data using existing records.
● Washington, D.C.: In a historic moment, shortly after Democrats held a hearing Tuesday on Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton's bill to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the 218th voting member to endorse statehood, meaning a majority of the House now backs the idea. House Democrats will therefore likely approve D.C. statehood for the first time ever in a chamber of Congress.
Voting Access and Felony Disenfranchisement
● California: On Sept. 13, California legislators adjourned for the year without Democratic state senators taking action on three constitutional amendments that their counterparts in the Assembly had approved, meaning they will all have to wait until the 2020 legislative session to have another shot at passage. The amendments included ending the disenfranchisement of all citizens on parole, which would have left only those currently incarcerated for a felony without voting rights; letting 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they will turn 18 by the general election; and lowering the voting age to 17 outright.
● New York: In June, New York's Democratic-run state legislature passed a bill to make it easier for voters to participate in the state's closed primaries by giving them more time to change their party registration, but Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo still has yet to sign the bill into law. A spokesperson for Cuomo said the governor "fully intend[s]" to sign the measure in the coming weeks.
Under current law, voters would have to change their party registration by Oct. 11 of this year to be able to participate in their party's presidential primaries in April and congressional and state primaries in June. If Cuomo does sign the bill, voters would have until Feb. 14, 2020, to change their registration. This restriction doesn't apply to newly registered voters, who are permitted to register until just a few weeks prior to Election Day.
● Congress: In a surprising about-face on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled he would support a funding measure that had passed the Senate Appropriations Committee and would provide $250 million for election security grants to the states. McConnell had repeatedly blocked bipartisan efforts to pass legislation to secure American elections from hacking threats like the Russian government's 2016 intrusion to help elect Donald Trump.
McConnell has drawn widespread condemnation and the nickname "Moscow Mitch" for stonewalling bipartisan election security efforts, so it's possible that McConnell and Republicans finally came to see that public outcry as a political liability. However, that $250 million figure is still less than half of the $600 million that House Democrats included in a spending bill they previously passed, and it's a fraction of the several billion dollars that some estimates have concluded is necessary to secure state and local election systems from security threats.
● Colorado: On Monday, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold announced that, starting in 2021, Colorado will de-certify voting machines that rely on printed barcodes or QR codes instead of text that voters can read to verify that their ballot is correct. Such machines have voters electronically record their choices then print a paper ballot that counts as the actual record of votes cast. However, because the barcode is what is actually scanned instead of any readable text summary, opponents of this system have argued that it is insecure and undermines voter confidence.
An overwhelming majority of Colorado voters typically cast their ballots via universal vote-by-mail, so this decision's impact will be fairly limited for Colorado voters. However, some voters still cast ballots in person, and by becoming the first state to ban barcode voting machines, Colorado could influence officials in other states.
● Tennessee: A federal district court judge has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to block Tennessee from continuing to use paperless voting machines and instead require the state to use machines that incorporate a voter-verifiable paper trail or regular paper ballots. The plaintiffs have said they are considering an appeal after the judge ruled that they had failed to show how they were harmed and had no standing to sue.
● Alaska: After Alaska's Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general concluded that a proposed democracy reform ballot initiative violated the restrictions on the number of subjects a single measure may address, supporters of the initiative have sought redress in state court. A lower court judge recently ruled that initiative backers may proceed with gathering signatures while the litigation remains ongoing, and oral arguments are set for Nov. 1. If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, voters would have the chance to decide whether to adopt instant-runoff voting, implement open primaries, and strengthen campaign finance disclosure rules.