Voting Rights Roundup: Georgia lawmaker admits GOP gerrymandered the 6th District to stop Democrats


Georgia: Gerrymandering is a seedy business where legislators often go to extremes to hide their true motivations: maximizing partisan advantage for their own party. But every so often, someone on the inside will let the mask slip and acknowledge the truth. As Democrats continue to give Republicans the fight of their lives in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a historically Republican seat in the northern Atlanta suburbs, state Sen. Fran Millar said the quiet part out loud at a Republican breakfast meeting right before last Tuesday’s primary:

“I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that. They were not drawn for that purpose, OK? They were not drawn for that purpose.”

Millar is referring above to Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff, who previously worked for Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson and just advanced to a hotly contested June runoff in a seat that has been Republican for decades. He’s also absolutely right: As Daily Kos Elections has demonstrated, the district’s current boundaries played an instrumental role in ensuring that Georgia Democrats hold just three congressional districts in the Atlanta area instead of the four that simple math suggests they ought to hold.

It’s also not hard to feel that there’s a racial element to Millar’s remarks: Johnson, who serves the neighboring 4th District, is African-American, while the 6th has always been represented by white Republicans. Referring to Ossoff as Johnson’s “protégé” sounds like yet another attempt to suggest he doesn’t “belong” in the 6th District. And Millar deserves no benefit of the doubt: Three years ago, he vowed to shut down early voting in DeKalb County (where part of the 6th is located) because it was “dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches.”

Millar’s admission that Republicans intentionally drew the 6th District to ensure that they would win it does more than just expose the GOP’s flagrant efforts to twist the democratic process to its own benefit. It could also potentially come back to bite Republicans in court. Several major cases currently working their way toward the Supreme Court could finally result in the justices imposing limits on gerrymandering for partisan gain. By admitting what the GOP’s motivation was in drawing the 6th, Millar may have just handed opponents of gerrymandering a smoking gun.

Redistricting

Delaware: Delaware is one of just a handful of states where Democrats had full control over the legislative redistricting process after the 2010 census, and after prevailing in a hotly contested special election earlier this year, Team Blue still remains fully in charge of state government.

Surprisingly, though, Democrats in the state Senate just passed a bill that would hand over redistricting to an independent redistricting commission. The proposed panel would have a balance of three Democrats, three Republicans, and three independents, and legislators would be prevented from serving on the commission or handpicking its members.

The bill now moves on to the state House, where Democrats also have a majority, and passage appears likely. Although a few Republicans supported the bill in the Senate, most of them were opposed, which is odd because the current partisan control would once again allow Democrats to draw new district lines after 2020. However, if this bill becomes law, it wouldn’t affect congressional redistricting, since Delaware only has a single statewide congressional seat, and that’s not going to change with the next census.

Texas: On Thursday, a federal district court struck down the state House map that Texas Republicans drew in 2011 on the grounds that lawmakers intentionally engaged in racial discrimination in violation of the Voting Rights Act, the 14th Amendment, and the bedrock principle of “one person, one vote.” This major victory for voting rights could subsequently result in Republican legislators having to draw a new map for the 2018 elections that would give black and Latino voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates in more districts, most likely Democrats.

Making matters more complicated, federal courts had blocked the 2011 map from taking effect in full, imposing temporary changes ahead of the 2012 cycle that still largely left the original gerrymander in place. However, Republican legislators later passed a new plan in 2013 to make most of those changes permanent. That means reformers will have to wage a separate legal challenge to that plan, too, since it’s the one currently in effect, but that litigation should be much easier and quicker if Thursday’sruling against the original 2011 map stands.

And yeah, about that whole “2011” thing: This case has been ongoing for six years, and litigants completed their arguments all the way back in 2014. Plaintiffs rightly grew outraged at the court’s endless foot-dragging in such a major case of constitutional importance. As a result of this slow walk, Republicans have potentially gotten away with an illegal racial gerrymander for a majority of this decade, demonstrating how it pays for cynical lawmakers to draw illegal maps, since courts of course can’t invalidate previous elections conducted under prior maps.

There’s still a long way to go before this litigation concludes, and infuriatingly, it still might not be over in time to have new maps in place for the 2018 elections. This ruling will also have to survive a likely appeal to the Supreme Court, but given the frequent hostility swing Justice Anthony Kennedy has lately shown toward racial gerrymandering, there’s a good chance of success. If the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, Texas could end up with new state House districts that increase representation for black and Latino voters, and consequently Democrats, too.

There’s another, longer-term angle at play as well. Thursday’s ruling follows two separate recent court decisions that invalidated the Texas GOP’s congressional map and strict voter ID law, and all three crucially held that Republicans intentionally discriminated based on race. These repeated findings of intentional discrimination could be grounds for forcing Texas to seek Justice Department approval for all new voting-law changes for up to 10 years, which it previously had to do until the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. While Attorney General Jeff Sessions is unlikely to block new oppressive voting laws, a future Democratic administration could.

Voter Suppression

Indiana: The Hoosier State’s Republican secretary of state, Connie Lawson, announced on Tuesday that she had purged nearly half a million voter registrations from the rolls since November, or roughly 10 percent of the statewide total. While voter registries undoubtedly need to stay up to date as people move or die, in Indiana, local election administrators usually handle this task day-to-day.

Such an unusual and massive purge of supposedly inactive voters therefore almost automatically raises questions, because it could easily ensnare those who simply haven’t voted in a while and didn’t respond to postcards asking them to update their voter records but nonetheless haven’t moved or died. Indiana does not allow same-day registration, so those who are unaware that their registrations have been canceled would have little recourse if they show up to vote on Election Day. Voting rights advocates are trying to ascertain the impact of this voter purge, and if there is evidence of improper removals, litigation is likely.

Nebraska: Nebraska is one of the few states with a Republican-controlled state government that still has no voter ID law, but that might change soon. A committee in the state’s unicameral legislature (which is called the Senate) just advanced a resolution to the full chamber on a party-line vote that would refer a state constitutional amendment to the 2018 ballot. This measure would require voters to present a photo ID to cast a ballot. With Democrats promising a filibuster, Republicans and the lone Republican-turned-Libertarian will need perfect party unity to attain the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

North Dakota: Republican legislators have sent a new strict voter ID bill to GOP Gov. Doug Burgum, who is expected to sign it. North Dakota is the only state that doesn’t have voter registration at all, so identification of some sort makes more sense here than elsewhere, but not at the cost of disenfranchising eligible voters when fraud is nearly nonexistent. Indeed, a federal court struck down the state’s previous voter ID law because of its disparate impact on Native Americans living on reservations, who often lack a driver’s license, birth certificate, or even a residential address.

Under the court-ordered status quo, North Dakotans without the proper ID can still cast a ballot by swearing to their identity under penalty of perjury. However, this latest bill would still require those who don’t present an ID on Election Day to follow up and prove their identity shortly afterward for their vote to count, effectively undermining the court’s ruling.

One in 20 voters used the affidavit option to vote in 2016, and blocking them from voting could swing a close election to the GOP. That includes next year’s key Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces a tough re-election battle.

Texas: As expected, a state House committee has sent a bill to the full floor that would make permanent the changes to Texas’ strict voter ID law that a court ordered the state to implement for the 2016 election cycle. The state Senate has already approved the measure, which would allow those with a reasonable impediment to obtaining an ID to sign a statement under threat of perjury that would let them cast a ballot. It would also impose far stricter penalties for those who provide false information. Voting rights advocates have, however, warned that even this softer requirement will cause confusion, and litigation remains ongoing.

Voting Access

Montana: State legislative Republicans appear to have finally killed a bill that would have conducted Montana’s upcoming May 25 special election for its lone House seat entirely by mail. Since the state’s existing budget hadn’t allocated funds to conduct the special election, many county election administrators and a handful of key Republicans supported vote-by-mail as a cost-saving mechanism, while Democrats also pushed the measure as a way to boost turnout. However, most Republican legislators opposed it, with the state GOP chair even going so far as to explicitly acknowledge that his party’s opposition came about solely because Republicans think higher turnout helps Democrats.

The measure surprisingly had majority support in both Republican-controlled legislative chambers, but a state House committee had blocked it from receiving a full vote. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock subsequently used a special power known as an “amendatory veto” to send the provision to the full floor, but the Republican speaker simply refused to schedule a vote. The legislative session will soon draw to a close, and proponents lack the three-fifths supermajority needed to force a vote.

Felony Disenfranchisement

Florida: The Florida Supreme Court has now cleared the way for a 2018 ballot initiative to proceed that would automatically restore the voting rights of those with past felony convictions who have fully completed their sentences. Florida’s lifetime prohibition bans one in 10 adults from voting, more than any other state, and that includes a staggering one in five black people. Nearly 1.5 million people are disenfranchised in Florida despite having fully served their time, or roughly one fourth of the entire country’sdisenfranchised population of about 6 million people.

Indeed, the historical record shows that the very premise of disenfranchising those with past felony convictions is racially discriminatory by design, and George W. Bush almost certainly would not have become president in 2000 without Florida’s hard-line laws. These laws, in fact, could also have made the difference for Florida Republicans in key close races that they won for president last year and for governor in both 2010 and 2014, demonstrating just how high the stakes are and why Republican-led opposition will be fierce.

Following Thursday’s court ruling, this amendment still has far to go. Proponents need to gather just over 750,000 valid signatures by Feb. 1 of next year, and if they’re successful, 60 percent of voters would have to support the measure that November. While this reform isn’t quite perfect, it would nonetheless strike an enormous blow against felony disenfranchisement in America.

Electoral College

Nebraska: Nebraska Republicans have passed a bill out of committee in the state’s unicameral legislature that would end Nebraska’s system of assigning one Electoral College vote to the winner in each of its three congressional districts and two to the statewide victor. The proposed bill would have Nebraska switch to giving every vote to the statewide winner like the other 48 states and D.C. do. (The only state that does it like Nebraska is Maine, where Donald Trump won a single electoral vote last year in the state’s rural 2nd District.)

Republicans have frequently tried to switch Nebraska a winner-take-all system, largely because Barack Obama picked off the Omaha-based 2nd District’s electoral vote in 2008, and Hillary Clinton lost the district just 48-46 last year. Although Republicans have a dominant legislative majority, they will need to maintain perfect party unity to overcome a Democratic filibuster, leaving this bill’s chance of success uncertain.

This move comes as Republicans in three Clinton-won states have mulled switching to a by-congressional district allocation since the 2016 election, allowing them to effectively gerrymander the Electoral College. Taken together, these plans are an effort to make the Electoral College even more biased toward Republicans compared to the national popular vote.

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

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