North Carolina: In a major victory for voting rights on Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling issued last year that had struck down 28 of North Carolina’s 170 state legislative districts on the grounds that Republicans had unconstitutionally relied too heavily on race when drawing them in 2011. These lines will now have to be redrawn, and new elections will be held using these new maps, but it’s a big open question when those elections will occur. When they do, Democrats could finally break the GOP’s years-long veto-proof supermajorities in the legislature, which Republicans have used to run roughshod over democratic norms and impose a radical conservative agenda on an evenly divided swing state.
So why did the courts determine these lines were invalid? Republicans had taken seats like the 21st State Senate District in Fayetteville—the tentacular monstrosity shown in the map at the top of this post—that had pluralities of African-American voters and made them majority-black by slicing and dicing cities and even precincts themselves to scoop out black voters. Republicans claimed that they were required to do so under the Voting Rights Act so that black voters could elect their candidates of choice, but that argument was entirely pretextual.
That’s because black voters, even in plurality-black districts, were already able to elect their preferred candidates—typically, black Democrats. Republicans merely sought to pack as many black voters into as few seats as possible in order to make surrounding seats whiter. In the South in particular, black voters tend to overwhelmingly back Democrats while whites vote heavily for Republicans, so reducing the black population in these neighboring seats quite simply made it easier for the GOP to win them.
So while the invalidation of these GOP-drawn districts is good news for Democrats, there’s still one big hitch: The very same Republicans who benefited from the gerrymanders that were just struck down will get to draw up new lines to replace the old ones. And whatever new districts they produce, Republicans will now likely claim that they’re only taking partisanship (and not race) into account. We know this because the exact same thing happened with the state’s congressional map, which was also struck down as an illegal racial gerrymander but reconstituted (so Republicans said) as a purely partisan construct—something the Supreme Court still tolerates.
But the GOP will still face new constraints on how it can use race when it goes back to the literal drawing board, and that could make all the difference.
The now-invalidated maps were so brutally effective that Republicans managed to win veto-proof supermajorities every election since the lines were first put in place following the 2010 census. To illustrate just how durable these gerrymanders have been, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump all also won a supermajority of seats despite running very close races statewide. (McCain even lost!) And last year, North Carolina even elected Roy Cooper—a Democrat—as governor, yet the GOP’s supermajority persisted.
But while they’ll try their damnedest to cling to power, it’ll nevertheless be harder for Republicans to retain that hammerlock going forward. Democrats only need to gain four seats in the 120-member state House to break the Republicans’ 74-46 supermajority (one nominally Democratic member in a heavily Trump district frequently sides with Republicans).
Exactly when the GOP will face its moment of truth remains to be seen, though. The lower court had originally called for special elections to take place this year, but the Supreme Court vacated that part of the ruling and told the district court to issue new findings in regard to timing. That means we could still see 2017 special elections under new maps, though given how far we are into the year, 2018 (when the legislature would normally be up) seems more likely.
Cooper quickly called a special legislative session to begin on Thursday for the legislature to draw new maps. However, shortly before the session was scheduled to start, Republican legislators, on a party-line vote, moved to overrule the governor and cancel the session. They’re arguing that Cooper doesn’t have the authority to call such a session over redistricting, particularly while the legislature’s regular session remains ongoing. Both parties will likely take this fight to court, potentially raising the odds that the court will wind up drawing the lines.
Meanwhile, North Carolina state law gives the legislature roughly two weeks to come up with new maps before judges are allowed to step in and take over the process, which would of course be the ideal outcome for Democrats and gerrymandering opponents. By calling a special session, Cooper is likely trying to jump-start the clock ahead of the filing period for this fall’s regularly scheduled municipal races (which runs from July 7 to 21) to increase the chances of holding special elections this November. Republicans, by contrast, are attempting to delay until the regularly scheduled November 2018 elections.
It’s unclear just what the chances are of special elections this fall as opposed to next year, though. But whatever schedule we wind up with, Democrats have a major opportunity to set North Carolina in a new direction. Republicans have turned the Tar Heel State into an experiment in hardline conservative governance and made it ground zero in the battle over voting rights. With redrawn districts, Democrats could finally provide a firm check against Republican legislative abuses by sustaining Cooper’s vetoes and restoring some sanity to North Carolina’s government.
• Puerto Rico: On June 11, residents of Puerto Rico will vote on the future political status of their island commonwealth, which is currently an unincorporated territory—meaning the Constitution does not fully apply there—whose residents have been U.S. citizens for the last 100 years. Voters will face three choices: the status quo, statehood, or independence in free association with the U.S.
This referendum marks the fifth time that Puerto Rico citizens have had the option to vote for statehood. The most recent opportunity came in 2012, when two questions were on the ballot: The first asked whether voters wanted to change the island’s status, and the second asked what that status should look like if it changed. Most voted in favor of some form of change on the first question, and a larger majority supported statehood on the second question, but statehood failed to attain a majority among all ballots cast thanks to abstentions. Some statehood opponents have called for a boycott in 2017 to once again prevent the option from obtaining a majority of registered voters.
Given Puerto Rico’s long-running deep financial crisis and economic struggles, statehood could be a more appealing option this time than in previous votes. If the territory votes to become a state, Congress would then have the power to admit it to the union with just a simple majority vote. Surprisingly, the national Republican Party platform has long favored honoring the wishes of Puerto Rico voters on this issue, and the territorial GOP strongly supports statehood. However, since Puerto Ricans living on the mainland have long voted overwhelmingly Democratic, it is unlikely that congressional Republicans would admit a new state that could very well elect two new Democratic senators and five Democratic representatives at the federal level.
But even if the GOP remains obstinate following a pro-statehood vote, congressional Democrats could admit Puerto Rico as the 51st state if they regain control of both chambers of Congress in 2018 or 2020. And as a matter of principle, Democrats should embrace statehood if Puerto Ricans themselves do. The island’s 3.4 million people are American citizens who are currently deprived of full voting rights and representation, and its admission as a state would mark a small step toward correcting Congress’ steep structural bias that over-represents white voters and under-represents Latinos compared to their proportions of the national electorate. The same goes for admitting Washington, D.C., as a state, which voted for statehood in a landslide last year, but whose heavily black electorate also lacks proper representation on Capitol Hill.
• Oregon: Oregon became the first state to pass automatic voter registration in 2015, and the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, has issued an extensive new report on its impact on last year’s elections. The report finds that the new law boosted registration substantially among demographics that are typically less likely to participate: the young, nonwhites, low-income citizens, and rural residents. Indeed, roughly 40 percent of automatic registrants were age 30 or younger, or about twice the proportion of eligible citizens of that age.
CAP estimates that approximately 116,000 of the 273,000 automatic registrants otherwise would not have registered at all. And although just 44 percent of automatic registrants actually turned out in 2016 compared to 84 percent of traditional registrants, CAP concludes that about 40 percent of automatically registered voters otherwise wouldn’t have participated in the election, meaning some 40,000 voters were added to the electorate. It’s likely that this effect could build in future elections as automatic registrations accumulate over time, particularly because voting is a habit-forming behavior.
This is just one study, and gauging a citizen’s propensity to vote is not easy, meaning far more research is needed. Additionally, Oregon makes it very easy to vote by mailing ballots to all registered voters, a procedure very few states use. Nonetheless, the available evidence strongly indicates that automatic registration is indeed working to increase voter participation. And following Oregon’s lead two years ago, five more states and D.C. have since joined it, while several other states are considering adopting similar policies in an effort to lower barriers to voter participation.
• Kansas: On Thursday, Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced he would run for governor to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Sam Brownback in 2018. Gubernatorial elections are typically outside the Voting Rights Roundup’s purview, but since taking office after ousting an appointed Democratic incumbent in the 2010 GOP wave election, Kobach has used his position as the Sunflower State’s chief elections administrator to become one of America’s foremost crusaders for restrictive voting laws.
Under his advocacy, Kansas passed a burdensome proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration. This law would have effectively made voter registration drives next to impossible, since few people carry around such documents day-to-day, and many citizens don’t have easy access to them either. For Kobach, though, this regime worked exactly as planned: Kansas wound up suspending one in seven new voter registrations since 2013 under this law. Fortunately, a court ruled that this system violated federal law when it blocked a key component last year.
Not content to abuse civil law to suppress the vote, Kobach even convinced the state legislature to allow him to prosecute voter fraud as a criminal matter, making him the only secretary of state in the country with the power to do so. And yet in spite of his fanatic pursuit of fraud, Kobach has only ever successfully prosecuted one non-citizen voter, demonstrating yet again just how extremely rare such cases are.
Not only has Kobach been a leading opponent of voting rights in Kansas, his proposals have influenced Republicans around the country. Indeed, he has clout at the highest levels: Shortly after Donald Trump’s victory, Kobach was seen meeting Trump in D.C. while carrying documents that outlined proposed changes to federal voting laws. Following a lawsuit, a court ordered him to turn over those documents last month. Trump most recently named Kobach as the vice chair of his “voting integrity” commission, a thinly veiled fishing expedition to find more excuses to suppress the vote, and one that Democrats and voting rights advocates have widely condemned.
Kobach will still have to fight his way through a contested Republican primary, and after Brownback’s disastrous tenure, Democrats think they have a shot at the governorship even in dark red Kansas. But if Kobach wins, we can be certain that he will continue his crusade against voting.
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