Programming Note: The Voting Rights Roundup will be on hiatus the week of July 3 but will return the following week.
● District of Columbia: On Friday, House Democrats passed a bill to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., marking the first time in U.S. history that a chamber of Congress has approved such legislation.
The vote comes in response to the nationwide protest movement challenging police violence and discrimination against Black Americans. It's also a rebuke to the Trump administration, which teargassed peaceful protestors and used the military to occupy parts of the city—actions Donald Trump was able to take in large part because of the District's lack of statehood and the legal protections such status grants against federal interference.
The measure passed along party lines by a 232-180 margin, with just one Democrat joining all Republicans to oppose the bill. Senate Republicans have vowed to block statehood for the District so long as they control the chamber, but Democrats in the upper chamber have grown increasingly unified in their support for the measure. In the month following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police that sparked a national wave of protests, five Senate Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors. As shown in the map at the top of this post (see here for a larger version), these new additions mean that 41 senators now favor statehood, with just six Democratic holdouts remaining.
Both chambers of Congress passed a constitutional amendment to grant D.C. full voting rights in 1978, but only 16 of the necessary 38 states ratified it before the allotted time to do so expired. The current statehood bill, by contrast, would sidestep any need to amend the Constitution by shrinking the District of Columbia down to a handful of important federal buildings surrounding the National Mall while admitting the rest of the district as a new state. As a result, D.C. could become a state with the simple majorities required of ordinary legislation rather than the supermajorities needed for constitutional amendments.
If Democrats win back the Senate in November, statehood supporters will come within striking distance of a majority because many of their would-be colleagues are already on record backing statehood. That includes a number of candidates running for vulnerable Republican-held seats, including John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, Steve Bullock in Montana, and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia.
To allow statehood to pass the Senate with a majority, Democrats would need to first eliminate the filibuster, a movement that may also be gaining steam. If Joe Biden—who has also expressed his support for statehood—wins the White House and his vice president breaks any tie in favor, advocates would only need 10 more votes in the Senate to make their long-held dream a reality.
Notably, almost no other democratic country disenfranchises its own capital. Washington, D.C.'s population of almost 700,000 is already larger than Vermont’s and Wyoming’s, and the city is projected to reach 1 million residents in the coming decades. Most critically, the U.S. Senate gives white voters vastly outsized political power relative to voters of color, so admitting Washington, D.C. with its predominantly Black population would help mitigate the chamber's considerable racial bias—and ensure greater justice for the District.
● California: California's Democratic-run state Senate has passed a constitutional amendment largely along party lines to end felony disenfranchisement for citizens on parole, which would leave only those who are currently incarcerated unable to vote. The Assembly previously passed the same measure, meaning voters will now get a chance to decide the fate of the amendment in a November ballot referendum. If adopted, California would become the 18th state to no longer disenfranchise anyone who is not incarcerated. (Two additional states, Maine and Vermont, allow all citizens to vote, including those in prison.)
● District of Columbia: A committee on the D.C. Council has unanimously advanced a budget bill that includes a provision to eliminate felony disenfranchisement starting in 2021. Council members are expected to pass the legislation as soon as next month. Councilors previously advanced an emergency police reform bill earlier this month that would restore voting rights for citizens who are incarcerated in city custody. However, most incarcerated D.C. residents are in federal custody, making this second bill necessary.
● Michigan: Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has announced a collaborative effort with the Michigan Department of Corrections to ensure that citizens who are released from prison are registered to vote. The partnership recently launched a new program to ensure that incarcerated people are issued new IDs upon completion of their sentences, meaning they can be automatically registered just like any other citizen who conducts a driver's license or ID-card transaction with the state. Michigan automatically restores voting rights for people with felony convictions once they're released from prison.
● Arizona: A federal district court has dismissed a Democratic-backed lawsuit seeking to overturn an Arizona law that gives the top spot on the ballot to whichever party came in first in the last election for governor in each county, which means Republicans will be listed first for 81% of voters this fall. Research has shown this can unfairly favor top-listed candidates, particularly in lower-profile races further down the ballot, but the court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the law because they personally would not be harmed by it. Democrats have not yet indicated whether they plan to appeal.
● Texas: A federal district court has dismissed a Democratic-backed lawsuit seeking to reinstate Texas' straight-ticket voting option, ruling that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case and that their claims were too speculative. Republicans repealed the straight-ticket option after 2016 saw Texas move to the left, but the repeal didn't go into effect until this year.
Restoring the option for November's elections would help shorten voting lines by making voting faster for anyone who chooses a straight ticket, since it's necessary to only check a single box instead of going one-by-one through every race. (Texas also has one of the largest numbers of partisan races on the ballot of any state.) Two-thirds of voters used the straight-ticket option in 2018, with Black and Latino voters disproportionately likely to do so. Democrats argued that the repeal intentionally discriminated against these voters and therefore violates the Constitution and Voting Rights Act. They haven't yet indicated whether they will appeal.
Please bookmark our litigation tracker for a complete compilation of the latest developments in every lawsuit regarding changes to election and voting procedures.
● Arkansas: The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily stayed a lower court ruling easing restrictions on ballot initiative signature-gathering. The delay, known as an administrative stay, is a brief one designed to give the court time to decide on whether to issue a longer stay while the case proceeds on the merits. The ruling Republicans are appealing had suspended a requirement that signatures be witnessed or notarized, meaning voters would be able to sign forms at home and mail them in. Initiative organizers are trying to put a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission on the ballot and are quickly approaching the July 6 deadline to submit the required 89,000 signatures.
● Ohio: The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to overturn a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals' stay of a district court ruling that had temporarily enabled ballot initiative supporters to gather signatures electronically, effectively killing any hope of putting multiple measures on the ballot this year such as marijuana decriminalization. After the 6th Circuit's decision, supporters of an initiative to enact automatic voter registration and other voting reforms had announced they were giving up on getting onto the 2020 ballot, though marijuana reformers pressed on to the Supreme Court, ultimately unsuccessfully.
● Oklahoma: Late last month, Oklahoma's state Supreme Court rejected a conservative-backed legal challenge to a proposed ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. However, without the ability to gather 178,000 signatures electronically, supporters face the daunting task of obtaining the necessary signatures by the Aug. 24 deadline, and they do not appear optimistic about their chances. Nevertheless, reform proponents vowed to try to get onto the ballot in future election cycles if they fail this year.
● New Hampshire: New Hampshire's Democratic-run state Senate has passed a bill along party lines to permanently allow no-excuse absentee voting and online voter registration, which would take effect next year, following passage of similar legislation by the state House earlier this year. Both chambers must reconcile the differences between their bills before the measure can go to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
Sununu vetoed a similar bill for no-excuse absentee voting in 2019, but state Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Secretary of State Bill Gardner waived the excuse requirement for this year's elections due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sununu has not yet said whether he supports this latest effort.
● New Jersey: Following its ruling requiring New Jersey officials to notify voters and give them a chance to correct any problems with their signature on their mail ballots, a federal district court has directed officials to "presume" that ballots received for the July 7 primary with a questionable signature came from the correct voter "unless there is a clear discrepancy that cannot be reasonably explained," noting that people's signatures vary somewhat over time.
● North Dakota: Supporters of a measure to reform redistricting and adopt instant-runoff voting have chosen not to appeal a recent federal district court ruling that prohibited them from gathering voter signatures electronically. Backers of the initiative announced at a press conference on Tuesday that they are nonetheless confident they will be able to obtain the roughly 27,000 signatures needed to put their constitutional amendment on the ballot and say they have already gathered 18,000.