Courts block key parts of North Carolina GOP’s undemocratic power grab


North Carolina: Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last year, breaking the GOP’s chokehold on North Carolina’s state government. Soon thereafter, Republicans lawmakers engaged in an unprecedented and undemocratic power grab that usurped key powers from the governor’s office before McCrory left office on Jan. 1. Among other things, they passed legislation to curtail Cooper’s authority over state and county boards of election and undermine his ability to make appointments to key executive offices, all of which McCrory signed.

But those efforts at sabotage are now the target of multiple lawsuits, and many provisions have already been blocked from taking effect. Late last month, a state court judge put a temporary stop to the part of the law revamping the state elections board after Cooper filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the state constitution’s provisions regarding the separation of powers. On Thursday, a three-judge panel convened by the state Supreme Court upheld that ruling, pending further review.

Separately, the state Board of Education (whose members are appointed by the governor) also launched its own suit against a new law that would transfer much of its authority to the state’s newly elected superintendent of public instruction—a Republican, of course. That law has also been blocked from going into effect.

Gov. Cooper has promised that more lawsuits will follow, and importantly, Democrats just assumed a four-to-three majority on the state Supreme Court after Democrat Mike Morgan won a crucial judicial race in November, giving the party reason for optimism that such suits might ultimately succeed. Removing Cooper’s powers was nothing short of an attempt to nullify the 2016 election outcome and undermine democracy itself, and North Carolina can expect to remain in the national spotlight as a battleground in the voting wars for some time to come.

Voter ID

● Alabama: In 2015, Alabama’s state government sparked a public outcry—and a federal civil rights investigation—when it closed or sharply reduced the operating hours of 31 driver’s license offices that disproportionately served minority communities in the state’s rural Black Belt. Coupled with Alabama’s voter ID law requirement, these changes made it much more difficult for many otherwise eligible voters to vote, because obtaining a license or other form of identification became so much more onerous.

In late December, the state finally reached a deal with the Department of Justice to partially roll back its previous reductions by dramatically expanding operating hours of those driver’s license offices in several key counties. While this agreement won’t fully counteract the harmful impact of the state’s voter ID law, it will at least lessen the burden of obtaining an ID for many voters in one of the state’s poorest regions.

● Iowa: Republicans won complete control over Iowa’s state government in 2016 for the first time since 1998, and, as they’ve reliably done when they’ve achieved such dominance in other states, they almost immediately begun contemplating new voting restrictions. Outgoing Gov. Terry Branstad, who is set to become Donald Trump’s ambassador to China, recently said that it “makes sense” for the state to consider a voter ID requirement, even though impersonation fraud is almost nonexistent. Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate subsequently announced his plan for a voter ID law that, among other things, wouldn’t recognize the validity of college IDs. Millennial voters, of course, lean the left, so it’s not hard to see the cynical motives at play here.

Redistricting

● North Carolina: In 2016, a federal district court struck down a wide swath of North Carolina’s Republican-drawn state legislative districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders and ordered that they be redrawn by March 15 of this year, with special elections to take place in November rather than waiting until 2018. Republican legislators have appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court and have also asked the lower court to stay its ruling pending appeal, but on Thursday, that court denied the GOP’s stay request.

Legislators also petitioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts for a stay, hoping for better luck. Roberts has given the plaintiffs until Jan. 9 to respond, but election law expert Rick Hasen does not think a stay is likely.

● Ohio: Republican Gov. John Kasich recently expressed his desire to add congressional redistricting reform to the agenda when he presents Ohio’s Republican-dominated legislature with his next budget proposal later this month. Kasich wants to give the bipartisan commission that now handles legislative mapmaking the power to also draw congressional lines, rather than the legislature. Taken at face value, it would ordinarily be unheard of to see a sitting Republican governor actually try to clamp down on gerrymandering, but Kasich’s position is so unusual that it merits serious scrutiny—and indeed, it comes up far short of genuine reform.

First, Kasich signed one of the most extreme Republican gerrymanders in 2011, which was so aggressive that it gave Republicans a staggering 12 of 16 districts in 2012 even as Obama won the state by a 51-48 margin. Daily Kos Elections has previously proposed nonpartisan districts for every state, and we estimated that Democrats might have won four or even five more seats in Ohio in 2012 and even two to three more in 2016 without the gerrymander that Kasich enabled. Second, Kasich now has even less leverage over state lawmakers than he did in 2011, since Republicans gained veto-proof majorities in 2012 thanks to—you guessed it—their gerrymanders of their own legislative districts.

Finally, the commission that Kasich wants to put in charge of congressional maps, which was created by a 2015 ballot measure focused only on legislative redistricting, is itself deeply flawed, as we’ve previously explained in depth. In particular, this supposedly bipartisan panel still allows the majority party to pass whatever map it desires with only modest restrictions, so any claim that it guarantees greater minority input is simply bogus. And in states with similar commissions, we’ve often seen so-called bipartisan “incumbent-protection” gerrymanders that tend to favor Republicans.

Nonpartisan reform groups have talked about putting their own reform amendment on the ballot that would go to much greater lengths to promote partisan fairness, unlike Kasich’s proposal. The governor’s plan could be an improvement on the status quo, if only because the status quo is so miserable. But if Kasich were to get his way, Ohio might end up with a highly flawed system that blunts any future momentum for comprehensive redistricting reform—though that’s probably precisely what Republicans want.

● Texas: Three election cycles have come and gone since the 2010 census, yet a lawsuit filed in 2011 that challenged Texas’ congressional and state House districts over alleged Voting Rights Act violations still remains unresolved. Even though a trial was held in 2014, the federal three-judge panel hearing the case has taken no action since then. Understandably frustrated, the plaintiffs filed a motion last month asking the court to issue a final ruling; sure enough, the court denied the request on Thursday.

The plaintiffs’ motion, while couched in lawyerly language, was unusually harsh in excoriating the court for its delay; normally, you don’t want to attack the very judges who are hearing your case, but at this point, plaintiffs have little left to lose. Election law expert Rick Hasen, who has called the extreme wait “unconscionable,” went one step further. He speculates that one judge on the panel, a Reagan appointee named Jerry Smith, might be trying to run out the clock until Donald Trump can appoint a fifth conservative to the Supreme Court. The high court would directly hear any appeal from this case and could easily overturn a ruling favorable to plaintiffs.

And this lawsuit is no small matter. It’s impossible to say just how exactly the court would redraw the lines if it does overturn both of the challenged maps, but Republicans have been strenuously fighting the case for years, knowing they could face major losses if they get an adverse ruling. Daily Kos Elections has previously shown that Texas could have drawn three additional congressional districts that would elect Latino voters’ candidate of choice, meaning Republicans could lose three seats in Congress, and perhaps more in the state House. Texas’ litigation proves the maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied,” since even if it sides with plaintiffs now, the court can’t undo the effects of years-old election outcomes. That might be precisely what Republicans are counting on.

Electoral College

● New Hampshire: Republicans gained total control over New Hampshire’s state government in 2016 for the first time since 2004, and three legislators have already proposed changing the way the Granite State allocates its four Electoral College votes after Hillary Clinton narrowly captured them in 2016. This Republican bill would allot two votes to the statewide winner and one to the victor in each of the state’s two congressional districts, a practice followed by only Maine and Nebraska. (Every other state is winner-take-all.) This change would have given Trump an extra electoral vote, since according to our calculations, he carried the 1st District by 48-47 while dropping the 2nd 49-46 and narrowly losing statewide by less than 1 point.

If Republicans control redistricting in New Hampshire in the next decade, they could potentially create one strongly Republican district to guarantee themselves at least one electoral vote. This proposal may not go anywhere, and New Hampshire is a tiny state, but it would, quite simply, represent an effort to gerrymander the Electoral College itself. Republicans have considered similar efforts in larger, blue-leaning states like Pennsylvania in the recent past, and if they succeed, it could further exacerbate their already undemocratic edge in the Electoral College.

● Reform: To demonstrate how arbitrary and undemocratic many arguments against abolishing the Electoral College are, Daily Kos Elections mapped out what the 2016 presidential election would have looked like if the cultural region of Appalachia were a single state instead of divided among 11 different ones. Take the hypothetical state of Appalachia out of the equation and Trump actually would have won fewer electoral votes than Clinton. While many Republicans have defended the Electoral College as preventing California from exerting undue influence over the country, they simply don’t contend with the logical end of their argument: that it’s somehow acceptable for Appalachia—or any other state or region, all of which are the product of historical accident—to wield outsized power over who becomes president.

The Daily Kos Elections Voting Rights Roundup is written by Stephen Wolf and edited by David Nir.

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