Programming Note: The Voting Rights Roundup will be taking a break for the holidays but will return the week of Jan. 8.
● Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania's bipartisan legislative redistricting commission gave initial approval to new maps on Thursday, with all five members supporting the Senate plan while the court-appointed tiebreaker sided with the panel's two Democratic commissioners in favor of the House proposal.
The House map in particular represents a dramatic change from the past: Under the current lines, which were heavily gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, Donald Trump carried 109 districts while Joe Biden won just 94, despite the fact that Biden narrowly beat Trump in Pennsylvania last year. The new plan, by contrast, would give Biden a 102-101 edge, according to Dave's Redistricting App. Nonetheless, despite baseless Republican howls that the proposal is unfair to them, it actually still very slightly favors the GOP according to the nonpartisan site Planscore. The Senate map, meanwhile, would have given Trump a 26-24 advantage in seats, which is actually an increase from the existing map, which is evenly split.
The commission will now take public comments for 30 days, after which it will have 30 more days to make any changes in response to those comments. Following that deadline, any opponents of the map have another 30 days to challenge it before the state Supreme Court.
Speaking of the court, it's worth noting that the commission's move toward much fairer maps was no accident. It's the justices who select the tiebreaking member, which is why Democrats years ago launched an expensive and far-sighted campaign that succeeded in flipping the Supreme Court in 2015 after two decades where GOP majorities had selected the redistricting tiebreaker. That effort culminated in the court tapping former University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg, a registered Democrat who has described himself as "about as close to the middle as you probably could get."
Unlike with legislative redistricting, lawmakers are directly responsible for congressional remapping. However, the GOP-run legislature has gone on recess until January without making any serious progress toward a compromise with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has threatened to veto any new districts that are excessively gerrymandered.
Consequently, Pennsylvania voters backed by a nationally prominent Democratic law firm have filed a lawsuit asking that the state courts take over congressional redistricting given the strong likelihood of a deadlock. A state court had previously dismissed a similar lawsuit on the grounds that it had been brought too early, but the plaintiffs are hoping that the ongoing legislative impasse will convince the courts to step in at this time.
● Texas: A federal district court has once again rejected Texas Republicans' attempt to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Vote.org challenging a law that the GOP passed earlier this year to require a physical "wet" signature for voter registration applications submitted electronically or via fax, which makes any form of online registration impractical. The suit will therefore proceed.
● Michigan: Supporters of a ballot initiative that would enter Michigan into the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact for the Electoral College have announced that they are abandoning plans to attempt to qualify for the 2022 ballot and will instead aim for 2024.
Electoral System Reform
● Nevada: A Nevada voter who has worked for various Democratic candidates has filed a lawsuit in state court that seeks to block a recently announced ballot initiative effort that would abolish traditional party primaries for state and congressional offices. The measure would instead adopt a "top-five" primary system, where the top five vote-getters regardless of party would advance to a general election that would be decided via ranked-choice voting.
The suit argues that the proposed initiative violates the state constitution's single-subject limit; would create an unfunded spending mandate; and has a misleading summary, contending that voters would no longer be able to trust political party labels when candidates can self-select them.
Supporters of the initiative still have to gather approximately 141,000 signatures, including nearly 35,000 from each of the state's four congressional districts, by the end of June. Voters would have to approve the same measure both in 2022 and 2024 before it would amend the state constitution, meaning that this proposal could not be implemented any sooner than the 2026 elections.
● Alaska: Four more lawsuits have been filed in state court over the legislative maps recently adopted by Alaska's GOP-majority redistricting commission, with voters in Anchorage, Native American voter advocates, and officials in the cities of Skagway and Valdez challenging districts in their areas for allegedly violating the integrity of communities of interest, while Native advocates also allege racial discrimination. A fifth suit was previously filed by local officials in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
● Nevada: Redistricting reformers including the group Fair Maps Nevada have re-filed a ballot initiative that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission after their previous effort last year failed to qualify for the ballot after the pandemic made it difficult to gather voter signatures and the courts did not allow exceptions in light of the unusual circumstances. The measure is virtually identical to last cycle's proposal, and supporters are hoping that they will have an easier time gathering signatures now that they have more time to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic compared to last year.
The proposed measure would create a seven-member commission where the legislative majority and minority leaders from both parties would each choose one of the four members. Those four appointees would in turn choose the remaining three, who couldn't be registered members of a major party for the prior four years. The measure imposes restrictions on who may serve as a commissioner such as prohibiting lobbyists, elected partisan officials, political party officials, and those closely related to such prohibited people.
The proposal ranks redistricting criteria in order of importance, prioritizing compliance with federal law; equal population; prohibiting discrimination against racial or language minorities; barring an undue advantage for either party when considered on a statewide basis; keeping local government units united; avoiding the division of communities of interest; compactness; and partisan competition. It would take five commissioners to approve a map, including at least one member from each major party and one who isn't affiliated with either major party.
Supporters of the initiative still have to gather approximately 141,000 signatures, including nearly 35,000 from each of the state's four congressional districts, by the end of June. Voters would have to approve the same measure both in 2022 and 2024 before it would amend the state constitution, but if voters do pass it, the commission would redraw the gerrymandered districts that Democrats recently enacted, likely producing fairer maps for the 2026 elections and each subsequent decade thereafter.
● New Mexico: Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed the new congressional map passed a few days earlier by New Mexico's Democratic-run legislature, which we analyzed in depth in our other newsletter, the Morning Digest.
The new map is a gerrymander that aims to allow Democrats to sweep all three districts and oust hardline conservative GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell in the 2nd District by turning it from strongly Republican into a light-blue swing district that Joe Biden won by 52-46 last year according to Dave's Redistricting App. However, since New Mexico itself isn't overwhelmingly blue, Democrats settled for giving themselves substantial but not wave-proof advantages in the other two districts in order to make the 2nd winnable, and it's possible that one or more districts could still elect Republicans in a strongly GOP-favoring year.
Meanwhile, both legislative chambers have approved new maps for their own districts, sending them to Lujan Grisham for her signature. The approval came after the state Senate had reinstated a map preferred by Native leaders; one senior Democrat had tried to replace that map with a proposal that those leaders opposed, but it was yanked in favor of the original plan.
● North Carolina: The three-judge state court panel overseeing multiple lawsuits challenging North Carolina Republicans' congressional and legislative maps has set a trial date for Jan. 3-6. The state Supreme Court recently ordered the court to reach a verdict on the merits and provide a written ruling by Jan. 11.
● Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for Dec. 28 in the lawsuits challenging Republicans' new congressional map as impermissibly gerrymandered. The court held arguments last week in the cases over the GOP's new legislative maps.
● Texas: Texas has drawn yet another lawsuit over Republican gerrymandering after Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a complaint in federal court over the 35th Congressional District, a district that Martinez Fischer is running for next year and that Republicans once again drew by connecting parts of Austin and San Antonio into one district connected via a thin long strip along the Interstate 35 corridor.
The district packs in Democratic voters under the guise of drawing a predominantly Latino district to ensure neighboring seats remain strongly Republican, but Martinez Fischer's lawsuit argues that the district as drawn diminishes the voting strength of Latinos in the two cities. Texas Republicans notably refused to draw any new Black or Latino districts despite people of color accounting for 95% of Texas' population growth over the past decade.
With the addition of this latest case, there are now eight federal lawsuits and one state lawsuit challenging parts of the GOP's various congressional, legislative, and state Board of Education gerrymanders (see our past coverage here), but don't expect a speedy resolution in most of these cases. With the exception of a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in the 10th State Senate District, most of the plaintiffs in these cases, including the U.S. Justice Department, have indicated that they won't try to block the maps for the 2022 elections with the March 1 primary soon approaching and will instead seek a trial in October of next year.
This failure to promptly block the new gerrymanders is partly a consequence of Senate Democrats refusing to curb the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act. The FTVA would severely restrict partisan congressional gerrymandering and allow courts to swiftly block unfair maps that score poorly on various partisan fairness metrics before they even go into effect rather than relying on years-long court battles that might only block the use of unfair maps after one or more elections take place, as was often the case even in successful litigation this past decade.
● Wisconsin: The parties to the lawsuit pending before the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court, which took over the redistricting process after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers vetoed maps passed by the state's Republican-run legislature, have now submitted proposed congressional and legislative maps in response to a Wednesday deadline set by the justices. You can find all of the maps here. All plans are required to comply with the court's previous order that it would draw "least change" maps that would lock in the state's existing Republican gerrymanders. Further briefing will now follow, with oral arguments likely to start on Jan. 18.