Voting Rights Roundup: North Carolina Republicans plot even more new ways to rig elections


North Carolina: It seems that not a week goes by without North Carolina’s Republican legislators concocting new schemes to change election laws to their benefit and usurp power from newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The GOP’s latest set of proposals would turn local elections into partisan contests for city councils, school boards, and even judges sitting on lower courts. Republicans hope that identify candidates by party will help them win downballot offices from Democrats in locales where the electorate otherwise leans Republican. Indeed, the state House has already approved these changes for judicial races, although the good news is that the measure passed with less than three-fifths support, meaning Cooper could successfully veto it if it also passes the Senate.

A separate effort would change the state Board of Education from an appointed body into an elected one. The governor currently chooses most of the board’s members, but the GOP’s bill would allow him to appoint only the board’s chairman, while the superintendent of public instruction and lieutenant governor (two Republican elected officials) would remain on the board.

Republicans also figured out a way to retain a hammerlock on the board’s 13 other members: elect one for each congressional district in the state. Since Republicans drew an extreme gerrymander (shown in the map at the top of this post) that guarantees them 10 of those seats in the House, this provision would almost certainly do the same for the board.

Unexpectedly, another proposal would move municipal elections from odd- to even-numbered years to increase turnout. That change could actually end up hurting Republican candidates, since races in even years often see higher turnout among Democratic-leaning demographics such as young voters and African-Americans.

Finally, several Republican lawmakers introduced a House bill to extend the length of the terms state legislators in both chamber serve from two years to four. Deviously, this proposed change would only take effect starting in 2022, meaning North Carolina would thenceforth elect its legislature only in midterm years. That could give Republicans a major leg up, since Democratic turnout tends to disproportionately drop in non-presidential elections. The measure would also impose a three-term limit for members of either chamber.

Changing the composition of the Board of Education and altering term lengths in this manner would require state constitutional amendments. Thanks to gerrymandering on the legislative level, Republicans just narrowly hold the three-fifths supermajorities needed to pass the measures, but any amendment would have to face voter approval, too. Unfortunately, legislators could time a referendum to coincide with the 2018 primary, when low turnout could result in a disproportionately Republican-leaning electorate.

Campaign Finance

Federal Election Commission: Democrat Ann Ravel announced that she plans to step down from the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance regulations. The commission has long been deadlocked between three Democrats and three Republicans, crippling its ability to adequately regulate elections, since the Republican commissioners almost invariably vote for less oversight. Ravel cited this very gridlock as a reason for her leaving.

While traditionally, Senate leaders in each party select their party’s commissioners, the ultimate authority to name Ravel’s replacement lies with Donald Trump. By law, no more than three commissioners can come from the same political party, but there’s nothing forcing Trump to appoint a Democrat as opposed to a conservative independent. Given Trump’s disdain for honoring longstanding political norms, he might appoint a commissioner who would side with the three Republicans, giving them an effective majority.

Such a move could be devastating for campaign finance restrictions. No longer shackled by partisan deadlock, the FEC could enable even more unaccountable campaign spending by overturning existing regulations and even participating in litigation against current restrictions. With no filibuster in the Senate, Democrats would be powerless to stop Trump from nominating an anti-regulation crusader if he so chooses.

Voting Access

California: California already tries to make voting easier than many states by automatically registering voters and by allowing everyone who wants to vote by mail, but despite these efforts, it still lags when it comes to turnout rates. One Democratic state senator wants to turn Election Day in November into a holiday for schools and state workers as a way to make it easier to vote. The bill wouldn’t affect private businesses, but its sponsor hopes many would follow suit.

Idaho: A committee in Idaho’s Republican-dominated state House approved a measure that would potentially cut early voting availability under the guise of standardizing the number of early voting hours offered throughout the state. Current law gives local jurisdictions the authority to choose whether to begin early voting on or before the third week prior to an election. This bill would restrict the start of early voting to one to three weeks before Election Day, which could reduce the current number of hours offered in some locales.

Nevada: Election reformers filed signatures last December to put an automatic voter registration law up for a statewide vote. The measure would register anyone who interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they choose to opt out. However, Nevada law gives the legislature the opportunity to pass such measures first, thereby avoiding the ballot.

Following the lead of these reformers, the Democratic-controlled state Assembly approved implementing automatic registration last week on a party-line vote. Democrats also hold a majority in the Senate, but they don’t have enough votes in either chamber to override a potential veto from Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. However, even if Sandoval vetoes the measure, it would still head to voters in 2018.

Election Reform

Utah: A bipartisan group of state legislators want this ruby red state to consider adopting instant-runoff voting, where voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If no one attains a majority in the first round, the last place candidate gets eliminated, and votes for that candidate shift to each voter’s second preference. That process repeats until one candidate achieves a majority.

Maine recently became the first state to implement instant-runoff voting for state and congressional races following a 2016 ballot initiative, but Utah could become the first state to pass this reform legislatively. Proponents want it to apply up and down the ballot in races where more than two candidates are running. A state House committee has already advanced a bill to the full chamber for consideration, but its chances of success are uncertain.

Electoral College

Connecticut: The Nutmeg State’s legislature will soon hold hearings over a proposal to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. That plan would award Connecticut’s seven Electoral College votes to the national popular vote winner regardless of which presidential candidate wins the state, but only if enough states amounting to a majority of electoral votes also sign on.

This compact is far and away the most realistic path toward having presidential elections reflect the popular vote, so naturally, most Republicans are adamantly opposed. Ten states and D.C. have currently joined the compact, but their total of 165 electoral votes is still well shy of the 270 majority needed for it to come into effect.

Democrats narrowly control Connecticut’s state government thanks to their lieutenant governor, who can break ties in their favor in the tied state Senate. So if the party is serious about this vital reform, they could pass it without any Republican support.

Maine: Democratic legislators in Maine also want their small state to add its four electoral votes to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Maine is one of just two states (along with Nebraska) that divides its electoral votes by congressional district. Candidates get one vote for each district that they win and two if they win the state. That system saw Donald Trump pick off one electoral vote thanks to his edge in the 2nd District, meaning Maine helped contribute to Trump’s Electoral College victory even though he lost the popular vote nationwide.

Democrats currently control the state House, but Republicans have a one-seat majority in the state Senate and hold the governor’s office. While Trump-esque Gov. Paul LePage could veto this bill even if it were to somehow pass the legislature, he’s term-limited in 2018. Democrats have a good chance of regaining the governor’s mansion and even retaking the state Senate next year. If they do attain unified control over the state government, they could have Maine join the popular vote compact ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

New Mexico: The Democratic-controlled state Senate recently approved a bill to include its five electoral votes in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This bill passed on a party-line vote, and although Democrats also hold the state House, they don’t have enough seats to override a possible veto from Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. However, like LePage in Maine, Martinez is term-limited in 2018, so New Mexico could join the compact by 2020 if they can win next year’s gubernatorial race.

But even if these three small states all enter the compact before the next presidential election, its members would still only total 181 electoral votes. In order to reach the 270 threshold, supporters would need to make inroads in several larger states, including some currently under Republican control.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Virginia: Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe took executive action in 2016 to begin restoring the voting rights of all citizens with felony convictions who had fully served out their sentences, an effort Republicans unsuccessfully opposed in court. In reaction, the Republican-run state Senate recently approved a state constitutional amendment that would restrict the governor’s ability to restore voting rights by making the process automatic but also imposing new burdensome restrictions.

However, the GOP-dominated state House just sunk that plan when a key committee decided not to advance the proposal. A constitutional amendment would need to pass both legislative chambers both this year and again after the 2017 elections, followed by a statewide voter referendum. With the legislature soon adjourning for the year, this measure appears to be dead for now.

Voter Suppression

Arkansas: As we’ve covered previously, the GOP-dominated state House passed a voter ID bill earlier this month, and the staunchly Republican state Senate appears poised to follow suit soon. A Senate committee passed an amended bill that would somewhat soften the House’s ID requirement by allowing registered voters who don’t have an ID to sign a sworn affidavit permitting them to vote. While that option could indeed lessen the law’s burden, the requirement could nonetheless intimidate registered voters who lack ID into not voting, or still disenfranchise them if a poll worker were to decide their signature doesn’t match the one on file.

Meanwhile, a House committee approved a resolution to put a constitutional amendment implementing voter ID on the ballot for 2018. The state Supreme Court had previously struck down as unconstitutional the voter ID law that Republican legislators passed in 2013, though GOP legislators believe their latest voter ID bill will survive judicial review, but it looks like they also want to change the state constitution just to be sure.

North Carolina: Last summer, a federal appeals court brought the hammer down on North Carolina Republicans’ sweeping 2013 voter suppression law, striking it down while slamming it for “target[ing] African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Republican Gov. Pat McCrory had asked the Supreme Court to review the law right before he left office at the end of last year, but now the man who beat him is trying to drop the state’s appeal. New Gov. Roy Cooper and state Attorney General Josh Stein moved to dismiss the attorneys who had been representing the state.

It’s uncertain, though, whether the two Democrats will be able to succeed. Republican state legislators could try to find a way to hire outside counsel to argue the state’s appeal, but the legislature itself is not a party to the lawsuit. Should those lawmakers succeed, though, the Supreme Court could reverse at least part of the lower court ruling if Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch, gets confirmed.

Texas: Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ strict voter ID law was racially discriminatory ahead of the 2016 elections. The judges had ordered the state to temporarily “soften” the law’s requirements by allowing registered voters who lacked the appropriate ID to sign a sworn affidavit to cast a ballot. Republican legislators are now fast-tracking a new bill that would make this system permanent so that the state remains in compliance with the court ruling. However, the Supreme Court might still hear a future appeal once a Trump appointee fills the high court’s vacant seat.

Ballot Measures

Arizona: Progressives have scored recent victories at the ballot box in Arizona, like a $12-an-hour minimum wage and a paid leave measure in 2016. And years ago, voters established an independent redistricting commission, which Republicans unsuccessfully fought in court in their quest to gerrymander the state. Unhappy that they can’t defeat progressive reforms when they’re on the ballot, Republican legislators are now mulling using their unified control over state government to impose new restrictions on the initiative and referendum process itself.

One proposal would ban campaigns from paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, forcing them to pay them by the hour or rely on volunteers. Such a change could make it far more expensive for campaigns to obtain the voter signatures needed to put measures on the ballot because it could kill the incentive for circulators to gather as many signatures as possible.

Republicans claim that this proposal is an attempt to eliminate fraud, but the state already checks signatures for validity when campaigns submit them. And of course, Republicans don’t propose to ban paying circulators per signature when candidates themselves seek to qualify for the ballot, demonstrating just how nonsensical their justification is of supposedly preventing fraud.

Another bill would impose an even more onerous requirement that campaigns gather signatures in all 30 state legislative districts. This hurdle would make it particularly burdensome for progressive groups to acquire enough signatures in a timely manner because they’d have to target staunchly Republican districts, and canvassing in sparsely populated rural areas would be particularly time-consuming and costly. For instance, the state’s 5th Legislative District, which stretches almost 300 miles from the Utah border to just north of Yuma (and voted for Trump 73-22), is 533 times the size of the 30th District in downtown Phoenix (which backed Clinton 62-32). Good luck finding Democrats in a district like the 5th.

A House committee has already approved both of these changes, but there’s more afoot. Arizona has a law on the books called the Voter Protection Act that currently prohibits the legislature from altering voter-initiated laws in ways that undermine the statute’s intent. The GOP-controlled state House wants to do away with that act and has already voted to refer a ballot measure to the voters that would repeal the law and allow legislators to easily thwart voter-initiated laws measures.

When Republicans can’t gerrymander or suppress voters to guarantee victory, placing new restrictions on the ballot initiative process is a logical next step for those seeking to thwart democracy.

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

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