The Daily Kos Elections Voting Rights Roundup is written by Stephen Wolf and edited by David Nir.
• Voter Fraud Commission: On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s “Election Integrity Commission” held its first official meeting, which was closed to the public and only available via online broadcast. Vice-chair Kris Kobach, one of America’s most notorious vote-suppressors, inaugurated the proceedings with a brazen lie in order to undermine public confidence in our electoral system, claiming that we “will probably never know” whether Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. There is utterly no evidencethat millions of illegal voters cost Trump the popular vote, but that hasn’t stopped the administration and Kobach from furthering the notion.
The commission is already facing at least seven lawsuits against its proceedings for a variety of legal violations, chiefly over privacy—a concern there’s good reason to think the panel has little regard for. In a breach of confidence that could lead to harassment, the commission recently released thousands of comments submitted by the public and failed to redact accompanying personal information, making email addresses and even home addresses available for all to see.
Even more concerning, states began reporting last week that they’ve seen a surge in voter requests to cancel their registrations after Kobach requested that election officials send the commission their full registration records. New data from Colorado, for instance, shows that nearly 4,000 voters have done so there, with 54 percent of cancellations coming from Democrats and just 12 percent from Republicans. While that represents just a small fraction of the voter pool, no voter should have to fear for their privacy to exercise their right to cast a ballot.
This commission’s end goal is for Congress to amend the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (better known as the Motor Voter law) and impose new voting restrictions at the federal level for the first time in the modern era. Indeed, a newly released email discovered in an ongoing ACLU lawsuit against Kobach revealed that he had emailed a Trump transition team member the day after last November’s election to explicitly propose amending the NVRA. However, his scaremongering is already having its intended effect by diminishing public confidence in our very democracy and even inspiring people to opt out entirely—and the commission has barely even begun its work.
• North Carolina: Earlier this year, North Carolina Republicans sought to overturn a longstanding law that would allow Gov. Roy Cooper to appoint Democratic majorities to the state elections board and its counterparts in each county—a law that the GOP had no problem with when it held the governorship. The motive was simple: Republicans simply wanted to prevent Democrats from being able to roll back past voter suppression measures that the GOP had imposed when they were in charge prior to 2017. Cooper sued to block the new law, but a trial-level state court dismissed his lawsuit, prompting him to appeal the matter.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court refused to grant Cooper a stay pending the appeal, meaning the new law will remain in effect for now. However, the court also barred Cooper from making any new appointments, leaving the revamped state board of elections vacant. Since the state board is responsible for naming members to the county boards, though, Republicans will maintain their two-to-one majorities on those panels. But some of those local boards have vacancies and even lack the minimum votes needed to take action, which could throw this fall’s municipal races into chaos.
The high court has scheduled a hearing for August 28 on Cooper’s appeal. While the court blocked the new law from taking full effect thanks to its freeze on appointments, the judges’ refusal to grant a stay until the litigation is resolved is potentially a bad sign for Cooper’s chances of overturning the law. This in fact is already the second time since Cooper’s 2016 election that Republicans have attempted to neuter his control over the election boards; courts ruled their first attempt unconstitutional back in March. That effort, though, was enjoined while the case against it was proceeding, so it’s concerning that this revised version wasn’t.
Democrats won a majority on the Supreme Court last fall, but as their latest ruling on the stay request shows, that’s no guarantee of victory. Indeed, the trial-level court that had dismissed Cooper’s latest lawsuit—which is what he’s now appealing—did so unanimously on a bipartisan basis, so Republicans may very well ultimately succeed in their efforts to force deadlocks.
• Rhode Island: Rhode Island became the latest state to enact automatic voter registration after Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the policy into law on Wednesday. This new measure will automatically register any eligible voter who interacts with the state Division of Motor Vehicles, unless they opt out. It will eventually expand to include other state agencies once those agencies demonstrate they can verify voter eligibility requirements, which is critical for reaching the large number of unregistered citizens who don’t drive.
Despite having had veto-proof Democratic legislative majorities for several decades, Rhode Island’s voting laws are surprisingly restrictive. The state lacks early voting and excuse-free absentee voting, and it only allows same-day registered voters to cast a ballot for president, not downballot races. It’s also the lone state where Democrats enacted a voter ID law, although that measure is much less stringent than the vast majority of Republican-initiated ones. In that context, automatic registration could go a long way toward making voting easier in the Ocean State.
• Michigan: A group of activists in Michigan called “Voters Not Politicians” is attempting to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would establish an independent redistricting commission for the state and require support from Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated commissioners to pass any maps. The group recently submitted petition language to election officials and is awaiting approval that would start a 180-day clock to gather the 316,000 valid signatures needed to send the proposal to voters.
Organizers say they’ve already raised $100,000, though they’ll need much more. They also say they plan to use volunteers to gather signatures, which could prove to be a major hindrance—most such efforts rely on paid canvassers. The group does not yet appear to have the backing of key supporters of redistricting reform like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, so it’s unclear just what their prospects of success are. Well-funded initiatives like those in California and Florida have met with success in recent years, but underfunded ones in states like Ohio have crashed and burned amid GOP opposition.
But Michigan desperately needs change. Republicans have made it one of the most effectively gerrymandered states in the country: Since gaining complete control over the redistricting process, the GOP’s maps have helped Republicans to maintain legislative majorities despite losing the statewide popular vote in at least one chamber in four of the past eight election cycles. Consequently, the success of this initiative would strike a crucial blow against one of the worst gerrymandering regimes in the country.
• North Carolina: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling striking down North Carolina’s Republican-drawn state legislative districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders back in early June and ordered new maps be put in place. However, the district court that will oversee the redrawing of the lines is only just now planning to hold its first hearing on July 27 on whether to require 2017 special elections for these redrawn districts. Even if the lower court orders elections to take place this year, GOP legislators could again appeal to the Supreme Court, further delaying the process.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s delay in returning jurisdiction over the case back to the district court, each passing day makes the prospect of special elections this fall less feasible. The July 21 filing deadline for regularly scheduled municipal races in North Carolina has now passed, so holding legislative elections this November could require either a compressed calendar or separate elections a month or two later, which would impose additional costs on the state.
Republican legislators are undoubtedly pleased that the slow gears of justice could help them maintain their ill-gotten gains until after the regularly scheduled elections in November of 2018. They finally scheduledthe first meeting of the state House’s redistricting committee for July 26, but their self-imposed November 15 deadline to redraw the maps is an obvious ploy to prevent special elections from taking place this year.
• Wisconsin: The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Wednesday that it will hear a major case against partisan gerrymandering, Gill v. Whitford, on Oct. 3. As we’ve previously explained, this lawsuit seeks to invalidate Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn state Assembly districts as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, a step the Supreme Court has never taken before despite issuing rulings in the past saying that such gerrymanders could theoretically violate the Constitution.
The high court could set a sweeping national precedent if it upholds a lower court ruling that struck down the map last last year. And since the justices will hear the case at the very start of their next term, the court could feasibly issue a ruling by the spring of next year. If the plaintiffs prevail, that should give Wisconsin enough time to be required to redraw the lines in time for the 2018 elections.
• Maine: Last month, Maine’s ongoing saga over instant-runoff voting (IRV) appeared to result in the law surviving unchanged for the time being, but in August, legislators will once more consider whether to alter the voter-approved statute. Back in May, the state Supreme Court issued a non-binding advisory opinion that held that the new measure was unconstitutional for state-level general elections (but not primaries or federal races), prompting a flurry of legislative action in the face of near-certain lawsuits over implementing the law.
Republican legislators tried to repeal the statute entirely, and their bill did indeed pass the GOP-controlled state Senate. However, the Democratic-run state House unexpectedly passed a competing measure to implement IRV with a “trigger” that would suspend its use in state-level general elections until the passage (at any future point) of a state constitutional amendment that would permit IRV in such instances. The two chambers failed to reach a compromise, leaving the ballot measure intact—but also leaving litigation looming.
However, an independent state representative has introduced a bill to take another shot at passing the “trigger” provision so that the state can avoid lawsuits, and the House will likely vote on it when it reconvenes next month. It’s unclear whether the Senate will be more inclined to go along with this proposed modification now that the only alternative appears to be costly lawsuits and legal uncertainty over next year’s elections.
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