July court trial could force Texas GOP to draw new congressional map for 2018


Texas: A three-judge federal district court panel overseeing two racial gerrymandering challenges to the congressional and state House maps that Texas Republicans drew in 2011 has ordered that an expedited trial take place for five days starting on July 10 over whether the current maps are invalid. Absurdly, this litigation has been ongoing ever since 2011, but if the plaintiffs prevail, it would finally pave the way for Republican legislators to have to draw new congressional and state House districts for the 2018 elections that would result in black and Latino voters being able to elect their preferred candidates in additional districts.

This same court panel struck down the GOP’s congressional gerrymander in March and did the same for the state House map in April, both over intentional racially discrimination. However, they did not impose any remedy because neither map was still in effect. Federal courts had blocked the GOP’s original 2011 maps from ever being used and had imposed temporary lines for the 2012 elections. Republican legislators largely made those changes permanent in 2013, and plaintiffs will be arguing to invalidate those 2013 maps this summer, since those lines still largely resemble the original 2011 districts.

Given the judges’ recent ruling against the 2011 maps and the fact that some of the challenged 2013 districts are literally the exact same as those the court deemed illegal, there is a strong chance that the plaintiffs will prevail after this latest trial. Republican legislators would almost certainly appeal any such ruling directly to the Supreme Court, but swing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recent pattern of siding with the court’s liberals on racial gerrymandering cases is an encouraging sign for opponents of Republican abuses of the practice.

Redistricting

Alabama: Republican legislators recently used their lopsided majorities to advance a proposal through the state Senate and through a state House committee that would redraw most of the state’s legislative districts for both chambers following an early 2017 federal court ruling that invalidated a dozen districts over racial gerrymandering. Democratic and black legislators steadfastly objected to these proposed districts for failing to eliminate the racial harms of the existing maps. Further litigation is likely, and the court will ultimately have to approve any new districts for the 2018 elections.

Alabama Republicans gained control over redistricting in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction. Claiming the Voting Rights Act required it, the GOP drew districts in 2012 that used a mechanical black population proportion threshold for certain heavily black districts that already had a history of electing the preferred candidates of black voters, regardless of whether that threshold was necessary. Doing so effectively packed black voters into fewer districts so that they could not elect their chosen candidates in neighboring seats, consequently hurting Democrats.

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling found that this mechanical threshold violated the Constitution, sending the case back to the lower court to redecide, which they did this year in a partial victory for the plaintiffs. However, since Republicans dominate Alabama’s state government, they get first crack at drawing maps that pass constitutional scrutiny. With white Republican legislators having no desire to see the election of additional black Democrats, litigation over the GOP’s new remedy maps will likely wind up back in court, with a probable appeal to the Supreme Court once again.

Ohio: Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine blocked approval of a proposed redistricting reform initiative from appearing on the 2017 ballot, although proponents would have faced the daunting task of gathering over 300,000 valid signatures by July 5 even if he had approved it. The nonpartisan redistricting-reform group Common Cause is hoping to change the way Ohio redraws its congressional districts before the next round of redistricting in 2021. Their failed 2017 proposal would have added congressional redistricting to the purview of Ohio’s bipartisan legislative redistricting commission, which Republican legislators oppose.

That commission itself was reformed in a 2015 ballot referendum that had broad support from legislators within both parties. It consists of elected officials from both major political parties and requires support from at least one minority-party member for a map to last for 10 full years, although the majority party can unilaterally pass a map for four years. This commission is undoubtedly preferable to the status quo of the legislature still getting to draw an unencumbered GOP gerrymander for Congress in 2021, but Daily Kos Elections has previously detailed its fundamental flaws compared to truly independent commissions like the one in California and elsewhere.

Voter ID

Iowa: As expected, GOP Gov. Terry Branstad finally signed a broad voting restriction bill that Iowa Republicans eyed almost immediately after they gained unified control over state government in 2016 for the first time in nearly two decades. Among other changes, the new law imposes a strict voter ID requirement, although some IDs without a photo are acceptable. It also abolishes the straight-ticket voting option and cuts early voting down from 40 days to 29, although that latter number is still far more generous than what’s offered in many states.

Republicans contend that the law will provide an ID to registered voters who lack one, but it won’t provide IDs to the far larger number of unregistered yet eligible voters without one. Furthermore, Republicans rejected allowing the use of student IDs from state schools, a move that is transparently designed to target that Democratic-leaning demographic. Meanwhile, ending straight-ticket voting could lead to longer lines, particularly in predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods, and encourage voters to skip downballot races.

Voting Access and Registration

Alaska: The coalition of Democrats, independents, and a few dissident Republicans that controls the Alaska state House passed a bill strictly along caucus lines that would allow for same-day voter registration, with all members of the GOP caucus minority in opposition. While independent Gov. Bill Walker, who was elected with the support of Democrats, would likely sign it, the bill faces a dicey fate in the state Senate, where the Republican caucus remains decisively in the majority.

Georgia: Voting rights advocates scored a victory on Thursday when a federal judge granted an injunction that temporarily reopens the voter registration period ahead of the critical 6th Congressional District special election. Federal law bans states from setting a registration deadline more than 30 days in advance of an election, but Georgia Republicans had tried to prevent anyone who hadn’t registered ahead of the April 18 all-party primary from participating in the June 20 general election, essentially imposing a 90-day cutoff. Consequently, new voters have through May 21to register.

Although the partisan impact of this ruling might be modest, it could nonetheless prove key for Democrat Jon Ossoff in what has become an incredibly closely contested race, since bringing new voters into the electorate is an indispensable component of how to successfully channel the Trump-inspired surge of Democratic enthusiasm into the ballot box. Indeed, Georgia has seen a surge of new voter registration applications statewide after recently moving to comply with the federal “Motor Voter” law, with 559,000 new applications in 2017 compared to a mere 95,000 during this same period in 2015.

Hawaii: For the third straight year in a row, both chambers of Hawaii’s almost monolithically Democratic legislature have passed a bill to switch elections to a vote-by-mail system only to see it die in conference committee after each chamber was unable to reconcile different versions. After Hawaii ranked last in voter turnout in both 2012, proponents had pushed this change to have the state simply mail every registered voter a ballot, making the process easier. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington already run their elections this way and consistently rank well above average in turnout, but unfortunately Hawaii will not join them for now.

Illinois: On Friday, the Illinois state Senate unanimously passed an automatic voter registration bill, coming after the Democratic-run legislature passed a different proposal in 2016, but Democrats lacked the votes to override Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto. However, it’s unclear if this new compromise version will be nearly as effective as 2016’s proposal in terms of expanding the voter rolls. It would still automatically register eligible voters who interact with certain state agencies unless they opt out, but it would ask voters up front to confirm their eligibility rather than having election administrators do so, which could deter eligible registrants.

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

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