North Carolina’s Republican power grab, voter fraud, and state supreme courts

North Carolina: Republican Gov. Pat McCrory finally signed House Bill 17, which is the second half of a flagrantly undemocratic Republican power grab following the governor’s loss to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper in the 2016 elections. The new law dramatically limits the authority of the governor to independently staff the executive branch, instead giving much of that power to the Republican-dominated legislature—which passed this bill in the first place.

North Carolina’s governor has the ability to appoint the heads of key departments concerning transportation, natural resources, the environment, and more. However, this new law requires that these posts be subject to state Senate approval. Since the legislature is hopelessly gerrymandered to produce a Republican majority, that simply means Republicans will institutionalize a veto over any Democratic appointees.

Similarly, as part of this same law, Republicans slashed the number of executive branch appointees from roughly 1,500 to just 425. After McCrory took over from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue in 2013, the Republican legislature dramatically increased the number of these appointments, meaning this reversal is yet another transparently cynical ploy to retain power, because, of course, it leaves Republican officials in charge of key regulatory decisions.

Republicans also completely eliminated the governor’s authority to appoint members of the state Board of Education and to the University of North Carolina system’s board of trustees, a move that could subject the UNC system to serious sanctions by accrediting authorities. Instead, the GOP’s changes give the legislature itself the authority to appoint board members and transfers other powers to the superintendent of public instruction—another Republican elected official. Under McCrory, Republicans have tried to eviscerate public education so that they can privatize and profiteer off of it, so this is very much in keeping with the GOP’s past behavior.

This law and a related one that took away Cooper’s control over the state and county boards of elections represent a stunning repudiation of democracy itself. A legislature that owes its existence to an unconstitutional gerrymander is trying to usurp the powers of a governor who was chosen by the people, despite the GOP’s best efforts to suppress the vote of minorities. Republicans have deemed any attempt at governance by the Democratic Party as illegitimate and are taking extreme actions—any that they can—to prevent Democrats from exercising any political power. Lawsuits are sure to follow, but their fate is uncertain, and they may not succeed in undoing the GOP effort to unleash a new era of Jim Crow.

● Florida: Republican Gov. Rick Scott recently made his first appointment to the state Supreme Court after nearly six years in office, replacing a justice from the liberal bloc with a conservative. Scott also claims that he has the authority to appoint three more justices on the very day his final term ends in 2019, when three liberal justices reach mandatory retirement age. This pledge is crucial because those three future appointments would tip the ideological balance of the court from a liberal majority to a conservative one—and that would have important implications for upcoming battles over voting rights.

The liberal bloc had controlled the state Supreme Court with a five-to-two majority until Scott’s most recent appointee narrowed that margin down to four-to-three. The court had been instrumental in striking down Florida’s Republican-drawn maps of Congress and the state Senate in 2015 because they violated amendments to the state constitution cracking down on gerrymandering that voters had approved in two 2010 ballot initiatives. Both of the court’s two conservative justices at the time had sided with Republican legislators on redistricting, and if conservatives gain a majority on the court, they could enable aggressive GOP gerrymanders after 2020.

Scott’s pledge flies in the face of what Floridians themselves voted for when they defeated a 2014 ballot measure that was specifically intended to allow Scott to fill these three pending vacancies, rather than reserving that authority for Scott’s successor, which is how many interpret the current law. If a Democrat wins the open gubernatorial race to succeed Scott in 2018, and Scott indeed proceeds with this plan to stack the court with conservatives, we can expect a critical legal battle where Florida’s very political future itself would be at stake.

● Voter Fraud: A comprehensive review of state-based inquiries into voter fraud confirmed what we have long known: Voter impersonation fraud is practically nonexistent. Officials in 26 states and the District of Columbia found exactly zero credible cases of voter fraud in 2016, while only a handful of states even reported more than one allegation of fraudulent voting. The rate of credible instances is astronomically small and validates one widely cited study that found just 31 cases of fraud among 1 billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014. Sadly, these facts won’t stop Republicans like President-elect Donald Trump from falsely raising the specter of fraud to justify partisan voter suppression measures like voter ID.

● Voting Rights Reform: Daily Kos Elections contributor and University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow Daniel Nichanian (aka Taniel) lays out an extensive list of reforms that would help protect and strengthen voting rights. These policies would make it easier to vote and include automatic and same-day voter registration; the restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions; expanded early voting availability; and mail voting. He details how voting rights advocates can overcome hostility from congressional Republicans to pass reforms at the state level in places where Democrats and moderate Republicans hold power, or even use ballot initiatives to circumvent legislative opposition altogether.

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

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