● Wisconsin: Wisconsin Republicans have launched an assault on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' power to block new gerrymanders after the 2020 census by asking the state Supreme Court to change the state's procedural rules in an attempt to guarantee that the high court's conservative majority will adjudicate the lawsuits over redistricting that are all but certain to arrive next year.
In the likely event that Evers winds up vetoing GOP gerrymanders and lawmakers fail to pass compromise maps, Wisconsin voters could file litigation asking a court to adopt new districts. Republicans want the state Supreme Court to establish rules that any redistricting lawsuit would go straight to the state Supreme Court instead of starting in a lower court as a typical lawsuit would. Litigation could also commence once census data is available in 2021, before legislators even have a chance to redraw the lines.
Democrats have blasted the GOP's maneuver as a ploy to circumvent Evers' veto power by enabling the partisan Republicans who control Wisconsin's Supreme Court to adopt new gerrymanders. They've specifically charged that, under these proposed rules, the Supreme Court majority could draw new districts "without discovery, a trial, or the presentation of any evidence or input by anyone other than partisan politicians." Such rules would allow the Supreme Court to fast-track any suits and institute new maps before the federal courts, which also have jurisdiction on redistricting matters, could resolve litigation filed with them.
Democrats are particularly alarmed at the prospect of conservative Wisconsin judges drawing the districts after the justices overrode Evers to require that voters either risk contracting coronavirus or give up the right to vote in April's election in a critical race for a seat on the court. In that case, the court's conservatives blocked Evers from postponing the election until it could be held in a safer manner largely by mail, even though the conservative justices participated in oral arguments remotely and themselves all voted by mail.
In spite of the court's ruling, progressive Judge Jill Karofsky ousted a conservative incumbent in this spring's vote. When Karofsky joins the bench in August, conservatives will be reduced to just a 4-3 majority. However, liberals won't have a chance to gain a majority of their own until at least 2023, and while a future progressive majority could strike down illegal maps later this decade, at least one election will have taken place under new maps by then.
Last year, the Wisconsin Examiner reported that Republicans were considering asking the Supreme Court to overturn a 1965 precedent so that they could draw new districts by "joint resolution," which isn't subject to veto, instead of as a regular statute, which is. This newest filing is the latest sign that Republicans, who won fewer votes than Democrats in both 2018 and 2012 but won sizable legislative majorities both years thanks to how they drew the districts, haven't given up on their efforts to strip Evers of his veto power so they can entrench their hold on power in defiance of the voters.
● 2020 Census: Several House Democrats introduced a bill late last month that would delay key deadlines for the 2020 census after the Census Bureau told Congress that it won't be able to meet the year-end deadline to deliver data to the president as required by law that governs how many seats in the House each state is entitled to, a process known as reapportionment. The bureau had previously said it also needed more time to deliver a follow-up set of more granular data to state officials that's used to actually draw districts themselves, and asked that the March 31, 2021 deadline be postponed.
In April, the Trump administration asked Congress to extend the deadline to July 31, which could wreak havoc with the redistricting process in many states because many state constitutions or statutes set deadlines that officials would no longer be able to meet. That's particularly the case in New Jersey and Virginia, the two states set to hold their regularly scheduled legislative elections in November 2021 when new districts are supposed to be implemented.
● Kansas: Kansas Republicans have announced that they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal of an April ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a lower court decision striking down a requirement that voters provide documents proving their citizenship when registering to vote. The courts have held that this requirement violated the National Voter Registration Act, best known as the "motor voter" law, which requires only that voters swear under penalty of perjury that they are eligible when registering for federal elections.
As we've previously detailed, this law was a signature accomplishment of former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is one of the country's foremost crusaders for voting restrictions. The measure had led to one in seven of Kansas' new voter registrations being suspended for lack of documentation, affecting 30,000 would-be registrants in total—a group that was disproportionately young and Latino. The requirement also made it impossible to conduct voter registration drives because few citizens carry around documents like a passport day-to-day.
● North Dakota: A federal district court has ruled in favor of voting rights advocates challenging North Dakota's procedures for rejecting absentee mail ballots for alleged problems with voter signatures. The court ordered officials not to reject signatures for not matching those on file without informing voters and giving them a chance to remedy the problem.
● Wisconsin: The conservative majority on Wisconsin's Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal in a lawsuit brought by conservative plaintiffs seeking to require Wisconsin to purge 129,000 voter registrations. The high court is taking up this case after an appeals court blocked the purge from going forward in a February ruling. Since that time, the number of potentially affected voters has shrunk from the 232,000 figure cited when the case was first filed because many voters have updated their registrations.
The Supreme Court's decision comes after conservative Justice Dan Kelly reversed his recusal following his defeat in April's election. Kelly will be replaced by progressive Justice-elect Jill Karofsky at the start of August, but it's unclear whether the court will rule before he leaves the bench.
With Kelly still in office, conservatives likely have at least a 4-to-3 majority in favor of ordering the purge. However, if a ruling is delayed until after Kelly leaves the court, conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn could decide the fate of this lawsuit, since he sided with the progressive minority in declining to expedite the case earlier this year when Kelly was still recused. It's unclear, however, which way Hagedorn leans on the merits of the case.
● District of Columbia: D.C. Councilman Charles Allen has introduced an emergency police-reform bill that includes a provision to eliminate felony disenfranchisement entirely, which currently bars incarcerated citizens from voting. The Council plans to take up the bill on Tuesday. If adopted, it would also require D.C. officials to provide every eligible incarcerated citizen with a voter registration form and mail ballot for this November's general election. Council members previously announced their unanimous support for ending felony disenfranchisement last year.
● Iowa: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed a bill into law passed by Iowa's Republican-run legislature largely along party lines that would effectively enact a poll tax on people who've served their felony sentences by requiring them to pay off any court-ordered restitution to crime victims before they could automatically regain their voting rights. In addition, people convicted of the most serious offenses, such as murder, would still be required to win the governor's consent to regain their voting rights, the same procedure that everyone convicted of a felony who has served their sentence currently must follow in order to be able to vote again.
Republican state Sen. Dan Dawson admitted earlier this year that the payment provision was in fact a tax: "This is not a poll tax. It’s a murder tax. It’s a sexual assault tax. It’s a robbery tax," he said at a hearing. "We’re not talking about people who randomly just got charged with felonies. We’re talking about persons who made an affirmative decision to go out and commit a serious crime."
Dawson's argument, however, runs afoul of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees that the right to vote shall not be denied "by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax." A handful of other states still have similar payment requirements in place, but a recent federal court ruling struck down Florida's requirement for citizens unable to pay their court obligations.
Republicans insisted on passing this poll tax before the state Senate GOP would agree to pass a separate constitutional amendment ending the lifetime ban on voting for anyone convicted of a felony and automatically restoring their rights upon completion of their sentences. The poll tax law would only take effect if the amendment passed. The state House passed the amendment last year, and if the Senate follows suit, both chambers would have to pass it again after 2020 before it would go before the voters in November 2022 as a referendum.
● Georgia: Newly released case files from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed that there was no evidence for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's claim that Democrats had hacked the state's voter registration system ahead of the 2018 elections, confirming a March report by the office of Georgia's Republican attorney general that reached the same conclusion.
While serving as secretary of state, Kemp oversaw his own election for governor in 2018. Just days before the election, he leveled an incendiary charge that Democrats had improperly accessed the state's election infrastructure and placed his accusations prominently on the secretary of state's official website—where thousands of voters would see it when looking for voting information.
Of course, it was Kemp himself whose office had a history of election security failures, which included allegedly destroying evidence amid litigation regarding the exposure of six million sensitive voter records. Kemp appears to have made his hacking claim to misdirect blame for his incompetence, since the GBI files indicated his office mistook planned security tests as hacking, and he issued his accusation just a day before ProPublica reported he had been warned about security vulnerabilities. Kemp's office subsequently worked to clandestinely fix some of the very security flaws that Kemp himself had refused to acknowledge even existed in the first place.
Kemp, who undertook many efforts to suppress black and Democratic voters through registration purges and other methods, had a clear-cut conflict of interest in overseeing his own election. There's no way, of course, to know whether his actions affected the outcome of the race. But by using his power and state resources to try to suppress voters in his own election, including his complete fabrication of serious charges of election interference against Democrats, Kemp's narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams should be viewed as tainted and lacking the legitimacy of a free and fair election.
● Arizona: Last month, Arizona's majority-conservative Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by ballot initiative organizers seeking to be able to gather signatures electronically, ruling that the state constitution required signatures made with pen on paper. The decision is a fatal blow to at least some of the campaigns collecting signatures for the ballot: Supporters of an effort to expand voting rights announced in response that they were giving up and withdrew their appeal of a separate federal court ruling that had barred electronic signatures.
The scrapped measure would have established automatic voter registration through the state's Motor Vehicle Division, same-day voter registration, and in-person polling places on Native American tribal lands. It would have also expanded early voting and allowed audits of election results. In addition, it would have lowered campaign contribution limits in state races, bolstered the state's existing public financing program, and created a new program that would have given voters a voucher to donate to their preferred candidates.
Arizona is now the second state where supporters of expanding access to voting have failed to obtain the necessary signatures to get on the ballot this year, following the demise of a similar effort in Missouri. One final state where voting expansion may yet appear on the ballot is Ohio, where a lower court allowed electronic signatures but saw its ruling stayed by an appellate court while GOP officials appeal.
● Nevada: A federal district court has ruled largely against activists attempting to put a redistricting reform initiative on the November ballot by preventing them from gathering electronic signatures. However, the court did grant the plaintiffs more time to gather signatures in-person by extending the deadline from June 24 to Aug. 5. The plaintiffs have not indicated whether they will appeal.
As we've previously explained, this proposed constitutional amendment would establish a bipartisan redistricting commission appointed by legislative leaders, with commissioners drawing maps in compliance with several nonpartisan criteria. However, the amendment wouldn't take effect in time for the next regularly scheduled round of redistricting after 2020 even if it passes this year, since amendments have to pass in two consecutive elections to become law. That means Democrats will likely control redistricting after this year's elections, although the new commission would redraw the lines for 2024 if it is eventually adopted.
● New York: New York's state Board of Elections has agreed to let voters with certain disabilities use the same absentee voting process as military and overseas voters in response to a federal lawsuit challenging the process available to most voters as a violation of blind voters' right to a secret ballot. The agreement will let affected voters receive their ballots by email, fill them out electronically, and print them out to mail back to election officials. The arrangement only covers the June 23 primary, but plaintiffs say they will continue pushing their claims for the November general election.