North Carolina: No state has been at the vanguard in the Republican war on voting rights quite like North Carolina. In the last week alone, Republican legislators have enacted two new laws over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, one of which a court already temporarily blocked. Republicans also advanced another four bills, all designed to make voting more difficult and give the GOP an electoral advantage—and all of this is on top of months of repeated efforts to undermine Cooper and overturn the results of last year’s elections. There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s dive in.
Cooper ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory from office in the 2016 elections, entitling Democrats to gain one-seat majorities on the boards of election for the state and every county. However, Republican legislators have now overridden Cooper’s veto of a new law that would eviscerate these majorities by requiring the governor to choose equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans (the state parties would supply the governor with lists of potential nominees). Although Republicans claimed that this equal partisan division is about fairness, their true purpose was to ensure deadlocks throughout the state in order to prevent Democrats from overturning previous GOP voting restrictions.
Republicans have also turned their gaze on the court system itself. Last year, the GOP won an 11-to-four majority over Democrats on the state Court of Appeals, but three Republican judges would have reached mandatory retirement age during Cooper’s term. Existing law would have allowed Cooper to appoint Democratic replacements for those judges, who would then serve until the next election. However, rather than let Cooper fill those vacancies and swing the court to just a one-seat GOP majority, Republicans overrode Cooper’s veto to enact a new law that simply eliminates these seats upon a vacancy, reducing the court from 15 to 12 members.
Despite dubious Republican claims that they acted because the court’s workload had declined, this “reverse” court-packing bill was so flagrantly undemocratic that one of those very same Republican judges who was facing mandatory retirement in May, Douglas McCullough, promptly resigned a month early on Monday before the veto override took place. McCullough not only excoriated Republican legislators for injecting partisanship into the judiciary and burdening the court’s remaining members, his resignation allowed Cooper to appoint a Democratic replacement, which he did the same day.
Just to be extra certain that Cooper couldn’t in any way replace Republican judges with Democrats in the future, the state House passed a separate bill that would force the governor to fill all vacancies for judges and prosecutors from a list of names supplied by the political party of the departing officeholder. GOP legislators had previously passed several bills making court races partisan in recent years, so this would effectively mean that political parties get to choose judges.
Similarly, the state House approved another bill that would institute this same system for U.S. Senate vacancies, requiring the governor to fill any vacancies from a list of a handful of names provided by the outgoing senator’s party. Meanwhile, the House also passed a measure that would end the system of having candidates from the incumbent governor’s party listed first on the ballot in favor of randomly listing the candidates by either alphabetical or reverse-alphabetical order.
In a vacuum, both of these two bills would strengthen democracy. Requiring a same-party replacement for legislative vacancies more faithfully honors the will of the voters, since of course they favored that party in the last election, and this is indeed what North Carolina already requires for its state legislature. Additionally, since past academic research has shown that ballot order often benefits candidates who get listed first, it would be unfair to list one party first by default.
However, we know for a fact that Republicans aren’t concerned with fairness because they made no effort whatsoever to alter any of these laws when a Republican was governor. It was only once a Democrat got elected governor that they suddenly felt a burning desire to change everything in sight. Furthermore, it was GOP legislators themselves who gave the governor’s party first place on the ballot when they made Court of Appeals races partisan just last year! Their motives are so transparent, they might as well just pass a law saying that Republicans always go first.
The state Senate approved one last bill that would attempt to make voting itself more difficult by preventing election boards from extending voting hours in specific precincts if they experience voting machine malfunctions unless every other precinct in the state stays open just as late. This effort comes after heavily Democratic Durham County extended voting hours in several precincts in 2016 due to equipment problems. This law is designed simply to discourage elections boards from forcing a statewide voting extension just because of issues in a handful of precincts, meaning voters in those precincts could get screwed for reasons completely beyond their control.
One particularly irritating aspect of this whole slew of election-law changes is the very fact that Republicans are even able to pass them over Cooper’s veto in the first place. Even as Cooper won last year’s gubernatorial race, Republicans just narrowly maintained veto-proof three-fifths majorities in the legislature thanks to gerrymanders that were ruled unconstitutional by a federal court shortly before the election.
With little hope of sustaining almost-certain vetoes from Cooper, the only recourse Democrats have to stop these latest efforts to undermine Cooper and defy the will of the electorate will once again involve more lawsuits. Of course, if news of Republican power grabs and subsequent litigation by Democrats sounds familiar, it isn’t because you’re having déjà vu. Republicans are making a second attempt at removing the Democratic elections board majorities after a state district court panel overturned the first version that they passed in a lame-duck session right before McCrory left office.
If the GOP’s latest effort survives likely judicial scrutiny, not only would Democrats be unable to reverse past voter suppression measures, but board deadlocks could result in defaulting to the minimum early-voting availability under the new law. That default would mean just one early-voting location per county—even in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, home to 1 million people—that would only be open during weekday business hours. Such limited availability would generate absurdly long lines that would likely put early voting out of reach for many voters in a state where over 60 percent of voters regularly cast a ballot early and those who do so lean heavily Democratic.
Cooper has already filed a lawsuit against the elections board law, and a state court panel issued a temporary restraining order on Friday to block its implementation. That order will last until a May 10 hearing over whether to issue an injunction against the law while the litigation is ongoing. Fortunately, Democrats gained a majority on the state Supreme Court in last year’s elections, though that alone won’t guarantee victory on the actual merits of the case. Ultimately, the only way Democrats will be able to stop Republicans from running amok is by winning enough seats in the legislature next year to break the GOP’s supermajorities.
• Georgia: On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, a group founded in 1963 at the behest of John F. Kennedy, filed a lawsuit against Georgia Republicans over their redrawing of the state House in 2015. Redistricting normally only takes place every 10 years, immediately after the census, something Republicans did ahead of the 2012 cycle. But the GOP then redrew 17 of the House’s 160 seats to shore up their nearly two-to-one majority ahead of the 2016 elections.
Several of the GOP’s changes involved lowering the proportion of black voters in districts with white Republican incumbents, while packing additional black voters into neighboring seats that were already heavily nonwhite, a practice known as racial gerrymandering. The committee’s lawsuit contends that these alterations diminished the ability of black voters to elect their candidates of choice in those Republican-held seats, in violation of federal law.
Redistricting cases often take a long time to reach a resolution, but thanks to swing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recent hostility toward Republican racial gerrymandering plans in other Southern states, there’s a good chance the Supreme Court would ultimately side with the plaintiffs if they can prove their case.
What makes this saga even more astounding is that Republicans in the state House passed another mid-decade gerrymandering plan just last month to further protect several GOP districts. While that bill died in the state Senate, these repeated Republicans attempts to gerrymander and re-gerrymander their own districts demonstrate a deep resentment for electoral democracy itself. Resetting the lines after nearly every election is little more than an attempt to nullify the results.
• Nebraska: On Thursday, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed legislation that would have removed a two-year waiting period for those with past felony convictions to regain their voting rights, even though the bill had been passed with the support of members of both parties in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature earlier in the week. Although Nebraska only disenfranchises a small proportion of its overall population, the fact that black citizens are disenfranchised at five times the rate of whites was one of the key motivations behind these reforms.
There’s still a chance the bill could become law, though. Out of 49 senators, 27 voted in favor and only 13 opposed it, but seven abstained and two were absent, so supporters would need to gain three more votes to override Ricketts’ veto.
• Virginia: Last year, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe took unprecedented executive action to restore the voting rights for 206,000 Virginians with past felony convictions who had fully completed their sentences. The state Supreme Court ruled that McAuliffe couldn’t issue a single blanket order but instead had to issue individual orders for every affected citizen. The governor, however, was undeterred, and his office began cranking out executive orders one by one.
That culminated with a big announcement on Thursday that McAuliffe had so far successfully restored the franchise to 156,000 people, or roughly three-fourths of the citizens whom he originally intended to cover in 2016. McAuliffe’s press release didn’t address those Virginians who remain disenfranchised, though it did note that the “individualized process” for restoring voting rights “remains in use today.”
Prior to McAuliffe’s actions, Virginia was one of just four states that effectively disenfranchised nearly everyone with a past felony conviction for life. One of the original sponsors of Virginia’s Jim Crow-era system explicitly advocated for its passage by claiming it would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor,” and this intentionally discriminatory policy ultimately barred one in five African Americans from voting—five times the rate of white citizens. McAuliffe’s orders have gone a long way toward rectifying that injustice, but the governor is still pushing to make restoration automatic, despite opposition from the GOP-controlled legislature.
• North Dakota: On Monday, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed a strict new voter ID bill into law, likely putting state Republicans on a collision course with yet another federal lawsuit. This latest measure comes in the wake of a court ruling last year that struck down a previous Republican voter ID law in part because of its disparate impact on Native American voters, many of whom live on a reservation without a driver’s license, birth certificate, or even a home address. That ruling allowed voters who lacked the appropriate ID to sign a sworn affidavit attesting to their identity that would allow them to vote, but this latest law forces such voters to later show the relevant ID for their votes to count.
North Dakota is unique among all 50 states in that it does not have any form of voter registration. To cast a ballot, eligible voters need only prove their residency, so documentation of some sort is a reasonable demand, but that shouldn’t give Republicans an excuse to disenfranchise valid voters. Roughly one in 20 voters utilized the affidavit method in the 2016 elections, and disqualifying these voters could have a big impact in a close election. That’s exactly what Republicans may be hoping for next year, since Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won office in 2012 by just one percent, faces a very tough re-election fight.
• Alabama: Alabama is one of just 13 states that does not allow in-person early voting and also requires an excuse to vote absentee, and you wouldn’t expect this Republican-dominated state to be eager to make it easier to vote. Yet change is afoot: The heavily Republican state Senate almost unanimously passed a Democratic-sponsored bill to remove the excuse requirement. In exchange, voters would have to provide a copy of their photo ID with their request for an absentee ballot, but seeing as voters already have to submit a photo ID when actually returning a filled-out ballot, that new imposition should be minor when set against the increased availability of absentee voting.
The bill now heads to the GOP-dominated state House, but with Republican Secretary of State John Merrill in support, it stands a good chance of passage.
• Oregon: In early 2015, Oregon became the first state to automatically register any eligible voter who did business with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Five other states and the District of Columbia quickly joined Oregon in passing similar legislation, while several more are currently considering doing so. And by taking effect before last year’s election, Oregon’s experiment has now provided crucial early data on the potential for this reform to boost turnout.
Over 225,000 Oregonians were automatically registered under the new law, and roughly 43 percent actually cast a ballot in 2016. Although that was only half of the 80 percent turnout rate among all of the state’s registered voters, it nonetheless helped Oregon see the highest growth in eligible voter turnout of any state between 2012 and 2016.
Now, a new report details just how big of an impact automatic registration had for young voters in particular. According to the Alliance for Youth Action, turnout among eligible voters younger than age 30 surged from 37 percent in 2012 to 57 percent in 2016, while registration rates among Oregon’s relatively modest nonwhite population soared from 53 percent to 79 percent.
Another factor is also in play, though: Oregon (along with Washington and Colorado) conducts elections by mailing every registered voter a ballot, so this ease of access could consequently mean that automatic registration might not yield as big a boost in turnout elsewhere. However, with unregistered eligible voters disproportionately low-income, young, and people of color, automatic registration could still result in millions of new voters if adopted nationwide, making the electorate more demographically reflective of the citizenry. Of course, given how these demographics lean Democratic, it’s unsurprising that in state after state, Republican office-holders are fighting automatic registration.
The Daily Kos Elections Voting Rights Roundup is written by Stephen Wolf and edited by David Nir.
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