Eric Holder launches unprecedented national Democratic redistricting effort

Redistricting Reform: Former Attorney General Eric Holder formally launched a new redistricting reform effort backed by key party leaders called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The NDRC aims to deploy an entirely new level of resources to prevent Republicans from obtaining the same systematic advantage in congressional and state legislative redistricting following the 2020 census, which the GOP used after 2010 to lock Democrats out of power in Congress and legislative chambers across the country.

Just as Daily Kos Elections itself has proposed, the NDRC plans a multi-step strategy of targeting critical gubernatorial and state legislative races in order to break Republicans’ grip on key state governments. These plans significantly include waging court challenges and using ballot initiatives to directly reform redistricting laws, both of which have often been badly underfinanced.

Combined with President Obama’s plans to reportedly make redistricting a major focus after he leaves office, and former DCCC chair Steve Israel’s recently joining the Democratic Governors Association’s “Unrig the Map” project, Holder’s leadership of the NDRC indicates that national Democrats are dead serious about helping to cure America’s GOP gerrymandering epidemic. That marks a major turnaround from the 2010s redistricting cycle, when Democrats had no national organization comparable to the GOP’s REDMAP project, which Republicans enacted with devastating effectiveness. You can find out more about how you can support the NDRC by visiting their website. They’re also on Twitter and Facebook.

Voting Rights Act

Texas: A federal district court recently tuled that the Houston suburb of Pasadena intentionally discriminated against Latinos in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment when it turned two of its eight single-member city council seats into at-large districts in 2013, ordering the city of 154,000 to revert back to its previous districts for the 2017 elections. As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg covered in a 2015 exposé on the systematic attack on Latino voting rights in America that focused on Pasadena, at-large districts have long been an instrumental strategy for white politicians to dilute the power of minority voters.

For Pasadena, this meant replacing two council districts, one of which could have elected the candidate whom Latinos preferred, with two at-large seats, neither of which likely could. Such a move flagrantly diluted the voting strength of the city’s growing Latino population in violation of Section 2 of the VRA, which requires mapmakers to draw relatively compact districts that can elect minority voters’ candidates of choice when voting typically breaks down along racially polarized lines. White officials in Pasadena enacted their new plan precisely because they feared that Latino-favored candidates could have otherwise gained a majority in 2015.

This ruling was a resounding victory for voting rights because it marked the first time that a court had placed any jurisdiction back under “preclearance” since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013 that had required a large number of predominantly Southern states like Texas with a history of racial discrimination to clear any proposed voting changes with the Justice Department. That decision, Shelby County v. Holder, eliminated the traditional preclearance regime, prompting white Republicans in many states and cities to rush an array of restrictive voting laws into law.

But preclearance isn’t entirely dead. In Pasadena, the district court was able to use another provision of the VRA to “bail” Pasadena back into preclearance by finding officials had intentionally discriminated. These Republican officeholders will almost certainly appeal the ruling and could soon find itself before a Supreme Court with four justices implacably hostile to voting rights after Trump picks Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Nonetheless, if Justice Anthony Kennedy can be swayed to uphold this decision, the threat of imposing preclearance via this “bail-in” procedure might become a viable option for deterring some of the most flagrantly discriminatory voting laws.

Unfortunately, Republicans are about to take over the Justice Department, and Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, is an extreme enemy of voting rights, so even if Pasadena is required to clear future changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department, Sessions may just give the city a green light to do whatever it pleases. However, should Democrats regain the presidency and thus the Justice Department, they might one day follow the precedent to partly overcome congressional Republicans’ opposition to restoring the full Voting Rights Act.

Voter suppression

Attorney General: Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general proceeded this week as he stumbled through his confirmation hearings apparently unscathed. Many key Democratic senators announced their opposition, but since Democrats would need three Republican votes to block Sessions even if the entire party were unanimous in opposition, his chance of confirmation appeared strong after faux centrist GOP Sen. Susan Collins effusively backed him.

Sessions’ nomination as the nation’s top law enforcement officer is the surest sign possible that the incoming Trump administration will take an extremely hostile stance toward voting rights, as The Nation’s Ari Berman has detailed extensively in his coverage of the senator’s reactionary record (here and here). During his confirmation hearings, Sessions reiterated that he believes the Voting Rights Act is “intrusive” of states’ rights, claimed that voter ID laws are not discriminatory, and feigned ignorance of recent major 2016 court rulings that explicitly found that such voter ID laws were, in fact, discriminatory.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Sessions has expressed no remorse for, back in 1985, becoming the first prosecutor after the Voting Rights Act’s passage to charge civil rights activists for bogus voter fraud when they attempted to help minorities to exercise their right to vote. (Sessions at the time was a U.S. attorney.) Now Sessions’ powers will be far greater. He could use office to switch sides on major voting rights lawsuits, direct U.S. attorneys to prosecute concocted voter fraud cases, and generally turn the Justice Department from a crusader for minority voting rights, as it was under Obama, into the instrument of their demise.

• Iowa: Republicans gained complete control over Iowa’s state government last fall, and they swiftly began talking about changes to voting laws, including a new requirement for voter ID. However, Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate is now publicly backpedaling, claiming his voter ID proposal didn’t aim to fight supposed fraud but rather was designed streamline election administration. He supposedly wants to require a suitable ID card from every voter but would issue a photo-less one for free to everyone who lacks the appropriate ID and allow provisional ballots from those who lack ID.

It remains to be seen whether legislators will actually implement Pate’s proposal or a stricter one. Regardless, voting rights advocates can’t rest easy given the GOP’s record of introducing voting restrictions in state after state since winning control over legislatures across the country after 2010.

Early Voting & Registration

• New York: The Empire State is one of just 13 that does not offer any form of in-person early or absentee voting without an excuse. Although it has long polling hours on Election Day and allows excused absentee ballots, this lack of options can be burdensome for many voters, and New York regularly has one of the nation’s lower turnout rates. In a surprise move, though, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo just released a sweeping proposal of reforms that would require 12 days of early voting, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration for those who interact with the Department of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out.

These proposals are a welcome change from Cuomo, who in the past has done little to advance the cause of voting rights. However, they could face stiff opposition from the Republican-led coalition that controls the state Senate along with several turncoat Democrats. And a huge reason this obstacle exists is because Cuomo duplicitously signed one of the nation’s most aggressive Republican gerrymanders, which is how the GOP has retained control of the chamber in such a blue state.

Notably, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently proposed some of these reforms himself, indicating that a possible 2018 gubernatorial primary between him and Cuomo could see both Democrats campaign on voting reforms.

• Virginia: Like New York, Virginia is another state that lacks early voting. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe just unveiled a package of reforms that include allowing voters to cast absentee ballots in-person and without an excuse for three weeks before an election. The governor is also advocating for the repeal the state’s voter ID law, although Virginia’s requirement isn’t as strict as in other states. The Republican-controlled legislature almost certainly won’t let McAuliffe get anywhere, but these proposals demonstrate the Democratic Party’s commitment to voting rights ahead of this year’s crucial gubernatorial election, where a Republican victory could lead to new voting restrictions.

Felony Disenfranchisement

• Wyoming: A new Republican bill in Wyoming would streamline the process for those with non-violent felony convictions to regain their voting rights upon the completion of their sentences. Wyoming currently has one of the harshest laws on felony disenfranchisement, with five percent of the population unable to vote, including an enormous 17 percent of the state’s small African-American population. At present, those who have completed their sentences have to go through a burdensome application process to restore their right to vote. As a result, almost three quarters of the state’s disenfranchised population have fully served their sentences.

This bill would make the restoration process automatic for many of those convicted of non-violent felonies. While this reform would be far from perfect—for instance, Maine and Vermont don’t disenfranchise anyone with felony convictions—it could dramatically reduce the proportion of disenfranchised voters. Wyoming’s legislature has an overwhelming Republican majority, but a bipartisan group of legislators has sponsored the bill, meaning its hopes for passage can’t be ruled out.

Election Timing & Turnout

• Kentucky: A Republican state senator has proposed a state constitutional amendment that would move statewide elections from odd-numbered years to coincide with presidential elections starting in 2024. If such an amendment passed the legislature, it would go before voters on the 2018 ballot. Republicans gained total control over state government in 2016 for the first time in history, but it’s uncertain whether this proposal could attain broad support, particularly since Democrats might oppose it if they think it would be harder to win in an election where their party’s presidential nominee would likely lose by a landslide.

Any partisan motivations aside, consolidating elections with the presidential cycle would increase participation more than any other reform short of compulsory voting. Kentucky’s 2015 turnout rate was a paltry 30 percent of eligible voters despite featuring a heavily contested gubernatorial election, while the uncompetitive 2016 presidential election in the state saw approximately 59 percent of eligible voters participate. Only 11 other states hold their gubernatorial elections in presidential years, and doing so in Kentucky could practically double turnout in downballot races.

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

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Court strikes down Texas’ GOP-drawn congressional map for racial gerrymandering

TX Redistricting: Late on Friday, a federal district court finally issued its long-awaited ruling in the lawsuit over Texas’ Republican-drawn congressional map (shown here). The court delivered a major victory for voting rights when it struck down several districts for violating the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protections Clause, holding that they were intentionally racially discriminatory. This ruling could result in a new map being used in the 2018 elections that would contain additional districts where Latino voters could elect their candidate preference, and Democrats could consequently gain seats.

The court struck down several districts where Republicans had either diluted Latino voting strength so that Anglo candidates could win, or where Republicans had packed Latino voters to prevent them from electing their candidate choice in neighboring seats. A redrawn map could consequently see considerable changes to the invalidated 23rd District, which spans from El Paso to San Antonio, the 27th, which covers Corpus Christi and Victoria, and the 35th, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio, along with neighboring seats. Such adjustments could subsequently see a Latino Democrat oust Republican incumbents Will Hurd and Blake Farenthold in the 23rd and 27th, respectively.

The judges additionally faulted Republicans for abusing race when drawing districts in the greater Dallas area, but did not specifically indicate that they would require Republican legislators to draw a new district to elect a Latino candidate. Plaintiffs will undoubtedly press the court to impose such a requirement when they argue for the appropriate remedy. Indeed, Daily Kos Elections itself has previously demonstrated how Republicans could have drawn another seat that would elect Latino voters’ candidate choice in Dallas at the expense of an Anglo Republican, in addition to making the aforementioned GOP-held 23rd and 27th heavily Latino.

Crucially, the court’s finding that Republicans intentionally discriminated could be grounds for placing Texas back under Justice Department “preclearance” for voting law changes under the Voting Rights Act. Several predominantly Southern states with a history of discriminatory voting laws previously had to preclear any such changes until the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the VRA in 2013. While a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department is unlikely to block new oppressive voting laws, a future Democratic administration could.

Absurdly, this case has been ongoing ever since 2011, and litigants completed their arguments all the way back in 2014. Plaintiffs had rightly been outraged that the court was dragging its feet on issuing its ruling. Republicans have gotten away with an illegal racial gerrymander for a majority of this decade, demonstrating how it pays to illegally gerrymander, since the court of course can’t invalidate the last three election results held under the existing map.

Republican legislators will assuredly appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. However, given a string of recent victories against Republican racial gerrymandering, there is a strong likelihood that the court will uphold part or even all of this decision, meaning Texas could have a new congressional map for 2018. Should the courts impose a remedy that makes the 23rd and 27th districts capable of electing Latino voters’ candidate preference, Democrats could gain at least two additional seats next year thanks to redistricting.


DE-Sen:  Democratic Sen. Tom Carper will be 71 on Election Day and he hasn’t announced his 2018 plans yet, but he seems to be leaning towards seeking another term. Carper recently told the National Journal that he did consider retiring when he thought Hillary Clinton would win, but under Trump, “I am probably more energized right now than I’ve been in 16 years.” Carper did not commit to anything, though he says he’d run if he had to decide now. If Carper does leave the Senate, there are a number of Democrats who might eye his seat, but he’s unlikely to face any credible primary or general election opposition if he wants a fourth term.

IN-Sen: GOP Rep. Luke Messer has signaled that he plans to run against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year, though Messer recently insisted to Howey Politics that he’ll make a final decision in a couple of months. However, one of Messer’s colleagues is also coveting the same seat. Rep. Todd Rokita expressed interest a little while ago, and his political strategist makes it sound like he’s likely to go for it. Howey also reports that Rokita has been touting a mid-2016 poll that showed him “within 5 percent of Donnelly” to unnamed GOP insiders.

As we’ve noted before, Rokita doesn’t seem to have a great relationship with those GOP insiders, though. Last year, after Mike Pence ended his re-election campaign in order to serve as Trump’s running mate, Rokita entered the race to take his spot as Team Red’s gubernatorial nominee. Since the primary had passed, the 22-member state party central committee chose the new nominee, and Rokita reportedly won just two votes.

Other Republicans may also be eyeing this seat. Howey says that state Sen. Mike Delph, ex-Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, and Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke are all considering, though there’s no other information about their thinking. However, Winnecke did announce last week that he would run for re-election in 2019, and he hasn’t shown any interest in leaving before then. When the mayor was asked if he saw himself running for another office last week, Winnecke said that “I don’t see myself in terms of public service being anything else.”

Delph, who thought about running for the Senate in 2016, is a far-right politician who is not liked by the state GOP establishment. Ballard may be his exact opposite, and if he could do well in Democratic-leaning Indianapolis in a general, he’d be tough to beat. But Ballard’s relatively liberal social positions (he once served as grand marshal of Indianapolis’ LGBTQ parade) could hold him back in a primary. Ballard also left the door open to challenging Pence in the 2016 primary when the governor was still running for re-election, which could also cause him problems now that Pence is more powerful than ever.


AL-Gov: Republican state Auditor Jim Zeigler has been one of scandal-tarred Gov. Robert Bentley’s biggest intra-party critics, and he recently earned some attention when he filed a lawsuit to try and force the state to hold a special election for the United States Senate sooner than November of 2018. Zeigler has also been one of the loudest voices in the GOP to speak out against Bentley’s decision to appoint then-state Attorney General Luther Strange, whose office was investigating Bentley for allegedly using state resources to conceal an affair, to the Senate. Bentley is termed-out in 2018, though he may leave a lot earlier if the legislature removes him, and Zeigler confirms he’s interested in running to replace him. In fact, Zeigler is currently hawking his new book, unsubtly titled, “The Making of the People’s Governor 2018.”

Zeigler did not give any timeline for when he expects to decide, though he says that “people’s response” to his book will help him make up his mind. But if that book is any indication, he’s very likely to go for it: The tome’s description states that, “Several of the usual suspects ran for governor with no track records of having stood up against the abuses of the Bentley administration. But one candidate had stood up in the Bentley years and, in 2018, stood out from the rest.” Why, which candidate could that be?

Zeigler has run for office several times in the past, and earned the nickname “Mr. 49 percent” for narrowly falling short. Zeigler had a reputation for picking fights with powerful Alabamians, but in the 2014 auditor primary runoff, he got to face a very different type of politician. Zeigler’s opponent in that fateful race was none other than the one and only Dale Peterson, who ran the classic “thugs and criminals” ad during his unsuccessful 2010 bid for state agriculture commissioner; while Peterson only took third in the GOP primary, he became an internet star and inspired a very funny parody. But Peterson’s second campaign was nowhere near as fun as his first, and he lost the auditor runoff to Zeigler 65-35.

A number of other Alabama Republicans have talked about running for this office. We’ve heard interest from Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington; Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr.; Mark Johnston, who led a large Episcopal camp; state Senate President Del Marsh; and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who lost the 2010 runoff to Bentley, and twice-disgraced former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore also haven’t said no.

Several other GOP politicians haven’t said anything publicly, though they continue to be mentioned as possible contenders, including Secretary of State John Merrill; Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey (who would assume the powers of the governor if the state House impeaches Bentley, and become governor if he resigns or is convicted by the state Senate); and state Treasurer Young Boozer. The Alabama Political Report also mentions Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan, who was the guy who ultimately won that fateful race that Dale Peterson lost. If nothing else, McMillan got a small piece of eternal fame when Peterson created a second commercial for the runoff where he endorsed McMillan and fired his gun at someone who tried to steal a McMillan yard sign.

CA-Gov: Republicans may get a candidate for governor… just probably not one they’re especially excited about. Ex-Assemblyman David Hadley has formed an exploratory committee, and he says he’ll decide in the next two months. Hadley actually does have experience running in competitive races: In 2014, Hadley narrowly unseated Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi in a race for a Torrance seat, but he lost their expensive rematch 54-46. Businessman John Cox is already in, and he contributed $1 million to his campaign. But in a state this expensive, $1 million for a statewide campaign is sort of like a candidate in Vermont announcing that he’ll spend $14,000 of his own money. Republicans are still holding out hope that San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer will run, but he’s sent only mixed signals about his level of interest.

CO-Gov: It looks like we’ll only need to keep track of one Salazar at the most in next year’s open gubernatorial race. Democratic state Rep. Joe Salazar, who was a prominent Bernie Sanders’ supporter in Colorado, spent a few months flirting with running to succeed termed-out Gov. John Hickenlooper, but he’s announced that he will run for attorney general instead. Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is herself a possible candidate for governor, though she hasn’t said anything publicly. Ex-Sen. Ken Salazar, who doesn’t appear to be related to Joe Salazar, is one of several Democrats mulling a bid for the governor’s office.

GA-Gov: The GOP may have their first declared candidate soon. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports that Secretary of State Brian Kemp will run, though they say it’s not clear when he will make an announcement. A number of other Peach State Republicans are considering.

MD-Gov: Last week, Maryland Matters reported that Alec Ross, a former State Department senior adviser for innovation, was considering seeking the Democratic nod to face GOP Gov. Larry Hogan. Ross confirmed his interest to Politico, and says he’ll decide “in the next month.” A number of other Old Line State Democrats have talked about challenging Hogan, who has polled well during the first half of his governorship.

NJ-Gov: A few days ago, Clinton-era Undersecretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson launched what his campaign says is a seven-figure cable and internet buy. Johnson’s minute-long ad emphasizes his humble origins and how his family almost lost their home during an economic downturn. Johnson then blames political insiders for not helping regular people. Johnson is a longshot in June’s Democratic primary against establishment favorite Phil Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany and Goldman Sachs executive. However, Johnson is the only Murphy primary opponent who has raised enough money to qualify for the state’s two-for-one matching funds, and he may be the best positioned to benefit if the frontrunner stumbles.

NY-Gov: Pretty much from the moment that Donald Trump fired Preet Bharara as part of a large purge of Obama-era U.S. attorneys, speculation began that Bharara could challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo in next year’s Democratic primary. However, unnamed people tell Politico that they’ve never heard Bharara show any interest in running for elected office. Bharara himself did take a shot at Cuomo on Twitter shortly after he was sacked, but running against the governor in what would be an incredibly expensive race is another thing altogether.

OH-Gov: On Monday, ex-state Rep. Connie Pillich announced that she would seek the Democratic nod to succeed termed-out GOP Gov. John Kasich. Pillich represented a competitive Cincinnati-area seat for three terms, and she won her last term in 2012 52-44 as Romney was carrying her district 51-48. Two years later, Pillich was Team Blue’s nominee against Treasurer Josh Mandel, who took a sabbatical from running for the Senate to seek re-election. Pillich’s 57-43 loss was better than the rest of the statewide ticket, which speaks volumes about how awful 2014 was for Ohio Democrats. Pillich joins state Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni and ex-U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton in the primary.


NE-02: According to attorney Ann Ferlic Ashford, ex-Rep. Brad Ashford has ruled out seeking a rematch with Republican Rep. Don Bacon, who unseated him 49-48 last year. However, Ashford says she’s interested in picking up where her husband left off and challenging Bacon in this Omaha-based seat, which Trump carried 48-46. Ashford says she’ll decide on whether she’ll seek the Democratic nomination in the spring.

Ashford has identified as a Republican for most of her life, and her father, Randy Ferlic, served on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents as a Republican. Ashford has only run for office once, losing a nonpartisan 2012 contest to succeed her father to GOP ex-Omaha Mayor Hal Daub by a 53-47 margin. This seat is likely to be a Democratic target next year, and there may be other Omaha Democrats interested in running.

SC-05: Filing closed on Monday for the special election to succeed Republican Mick Mulvaney, who resigned to become Trump’s budget chief. Trump carried this northern seat, which includes Rock Hill, by a 57-39 margin, and the GOP nominee should have little trouble holding it on June 20. The party primaries will be May 2, and there will be a May 16 runoff in contests where no one took a majority of the vote.

There were no last-minute surprises before the filing deadline. On the GOP side, the candidates are ex-state party head Chad Connelly; Sheri Few, a prominent state opponent of Common Core education standards who took a close third place in the 2014 primary for superintendent of education; attorney Tom Mullikin, the commander of the all-volunteer S.C. State Guard; ex-state Rep. Ralph Norman, who lost a 2006 bid for this seat to Democratic incumbent John Spratt; state House Speaker Pro Temp Tommy Pope; attorney Kris Wampler; and Ray Craig, who took 21 percent against Mulvaney in a quixotic 2016 primary race. On the Democratic side, former Goldman Sachs senior advisor Archie Parnell faces Les Murphy, a veteran who works with a local veterans’ non-profit, as well as one other candidate.


Atlanta, GA Mayor: We have our first poll of the non-partisan November race to succeed termed-out Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed. In a survey for WSB-TV, local GOP pollsters Landmark Communications and Rosetta Stone have City Councilor Mary Norwood, who lost the 2009 runoff to Reed by 714 votes, taking first place with 29 percent. In the very likely event that no one takes a majority, there will be a runoff, and it’s a muddled field for second:

City Councilor Mary Norwood: 29

State Sen. Vincent Ford: 9

City Councilor Keisha Lance Bottoms: 9

City Council President Ceasar Mitchell: 8

Ex-City Council President Cathy Woolard: 6

City Councilor Kwanza Hall: 6

Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves: 4

Ex-Atlanta chief operating officer Peter Aman: 2

Ex-Atlanta Workforce Development Agency head Michael Sterling was not tested. Most of the candidates are Democrats, though Norwood identifies as an independent.


The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, and James Lambert.

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