The Daily Kos Elections Voting Rights Roundup is written by Stephen Wolf and edited by David Nir.
• Massachusetts: On Thursday, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law an automatic voter registration bill that had previously passed the Democratic-run legislature with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, making Massachusetts the 11th state along with D.C. to pass this policy since Oregon became the first to do so in 2015. Any eligible voter who conducts business with the state Registry of Motor Vehicles will be automatically registered unless they opt out, as will those conducting transactions with MassHealth, the state’s health insurance program. Critically, that will allow AVR to reach many non-drivers, since Massachusetts has the lowest uninsured rate in the nation.
This policy will make voting easier by softening a barrier to voting that Massachusetts had pioneered in the mid-1800s: voter registration itself. Indeed, as we discuss in our Voter Suppression item below, Massachusetts first started requiring voters to register as a way to suppress Irish Catholic immigrant voters in places like Boston. Now, automatic registration will cover the vast majority of citizens and could even increase turnout, particularly among young voters and people of color.
While Massachusetts passed this policy legislatively and in a bipartisan manner, the map at the top of this post shows how many more states could enact automatic registration via ballot initiative if legislators are unsupportive (see here for a larger version). It’s already headed before voters in Nevada this fall, and Michigan proponents have turned in a large enough number of signatures that their proposal should also make it onto the November ballot.
• Arkansas: Following a previous state Supreme Court order, GOP state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has finally given the go-ahead for backers of a proposed redistricting reform initiative to begin gathering signatures to try to get onto the 2020 ballot in time for next decade’s round of redistricting. This proposal would create a bipartisan commission appointed by state legislative leaders that would handle congressional and legislative redistricting.
Under the current system, congressional redistricting operates like typical legislation, while legislative redistricting is controlled by whichever party is in charge of the offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. After 2010, Democrats drew both sets of maps, but their congressional map was so poorly designed that it predictably backfired and functioned like a Republican gerrymander. Democrats also lost their legislative majorities thanks to Arkansas’ sharp rightward trend.
However, with Republicans poised to control redistricting after 2020 for the first time since Reconstruction, a switch to bipartisan redistricting could make Arkansas’ congressional and legislative districts fairer than the alternative of GOP gerrymanders.
• Michigan: In a major relief for proponents of redistricting reform, Michigan’s Republican-majority state Supreme Court ruled four-to-three to allow an anti-gerrymandering initiative to stay on the November ballot. This grassroots initiative would create an independent commission for congressional and legislative redistricting after the 2020 census, which could lead to much fairer maps next decade.
Indeed, gerrymandering is a major problem in Michigan, where Republicanas have drawn the lines since 2002. In the last eight general elections that have taken place since then, half of them saw Republicans win a majority in at least one legislative chamber despite Democratic candidates winning more votes statewide. That outcome is almost certain to happen again this year if Democrats fail to take majorities. A recent court-ordered release of emails even revealed that Republicans had bragged about cramming “Dem garbage” into a minority of districts in this pivotal swing state.
While this initiative stands a good chance of passing in November thanks to an army of volunteers and ample access to campaign funds, victory isn’t guaranteed. But Michiganders have two other electoral avenues to fight back against GOP gerrymandering this fall: They can elect Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor, who’d be able to veto GOP maps, and they can also elect progressive state Supreme Court candidates Megan Cavanaugh and Sam Bagenstos, whose victories would give the court a progressive majority that could strike down gerrymanders.
• Missouri: A good-government reform measure has qualified for this November’s ballot, but if Republicans get their way, a recently filed lawsuit could prevent voters from weighing in. Backed by the group CLEAN Missouri, this proposal contains a number of ethics rules for legislators and restrictions on lobbying, and it would also reform Missouri’s current bipartisan state legislative redistricting process to require that the maps treat both parties fairly.
However, Missouri’s constitution has provisions that limit the number of subjects a single measure can address, and the combination of redistricting and ethics reform could land this proposal in trouble with the state Supreme Court, which has previously thrown out measures for addressing too many topics at once. Consequently, the fate of this initiative is uncertain, but proponents could try again in 2020 with a separate proposal in time for next decade’s redistricting cycle if they fail this year.
• Indiana: Indiana Republicans finally agreed to a legal settlement last month that expanded early voting locations from one to six polling places in Marion County, which is Indiana’s largest at nearly 1 million people, but GOP state Attorney General Curtis Hill filed a motion on Tuesday to overturn that agreement. Fellow Republicans were not supportive, however, with Secretary of State Connie Lawson calling Hill’s move “reckless.” A federal district court rejected Hill’s motion, but he swiftly appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule.
As we have previously detailed, Republicans cut early voting in Marion County, which is home to Indianapolis and is a Democratic stronghold, while simultaneously expanding it in heavily Republican suburban counties after Barack Obama won Indiana’s electoral votes in 2008. Voting rights groups had filed a lawsuit to overturn these cuts on the basis that it discriminated against black voters, who disproportionately reside in Marion County instead of its heavily white suburbs, and Republicans on the county elections board agreed to expand the number of voting sites earlier this year.
• Iowa: On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court handed voting rights advocates a victory when it upheld a preliminary injunction a lower court had issued to block a GOP-backed law that cut the early voting period and made it harder to request an absentee ballot and ensure it would be counted. Although the lower court still has yet to rule on the merits of the case, this ruling will likely block these provisions from taking effect for the November election while the trial is ongoing. Importantly, because the basis of this case is rooted in the state constitution, that could inoculate it from review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
• Michigan: A federal court has ruled that Michigan Republicans intentionally discriminated against black voters when they tried to eliminate straight-ticket voting in 2015, and it permanently barred the state from enforcing the ban after temporarily blocking it ahead of the 2016 elections. Because black voters were disproportionately likely to vote a straight ticket, the absence of this option would have likely produced longer voting lines, making voting disparately harder for black voters.
Republicans could appeal this decision, and it’s plausible that the impending right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court may side with them and overturn the lower court’s ruling. However, Michigan voters have a chance to enshrine the right to the straight-ticket option into the state constitution this fall as part of a ballot initiative that also includes automatic and same-day registration. If that measure passes, even the Supreme Court would be hard-pressed to eliminate this popular voting option, which voters have twice favored in past referenda to veto prior GOP-backed repeal efforts.
• Voter Suppression: Writing for Talking Points Memo, UC Davis history professor Gregory Downs recently published an extensive article on the 19th century origins of voter suppression in America. While many politically aware observers know about Jim Crow measures to suppress black voters in the post-Civil War South, such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses, readers may be more surprised to learn that several voter suppression measures arose in the North—before the war.
Policies such as literacy tests and even the very practice of voter registration were implemented in places like New York City and Boston in the mid-1800s to deter Catholic immigrants from countries like Ireland and Germany from voting. Even the secret ballot was adopted not to ensure the integrity of the voting process but rather to make it harder for illiterate voters to know whom they were voting for, leading many of them to simply not vote.
Thankfully, modern-day literacy rates and provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require translation services in immigrant-heavy communities have helped reduce the number of voters who might otherwise feel intimidated by the voting process. And with modern reforms like automatic voter registration now the law in nearly a dozen states, Americans are in the process of rethinking a system that puts the burden on the voter to register instead of requiring the state to ensure everyone who is eligible can vote, which is what many foreign democracies do to achieve near-universal registration rates.
• Voter Suppression Commission: Last week, Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap released documents from Trump’s bogus “Election Integrity Commission” that show unambiguously that the whole thing was a charade searching for a pretext to justify new voting restrictions. Dunlap was one of the token Democrats on the commission, but Trump shut it down in December after Dunlap and others had sued to obtain these documents, which the GOP commissioners finally turned over after losing in court.
• North Carolina: The North Carolina GOP’s latest assault on the rule of law is now in court after Democrats, civil rights groups, and a state Supreme Court candidate all filed lawsuits over election changes that Republicans rammed through last month.
One of these suits aims to keep four power-grabbing constitutional amendments off the November ballot after Republicans passed a law—over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto—to remove the short “ballot captions” for each amendment after they discovered a Democratic-majority commission would have written them.
Instead of these brief captions, voters will only see longer summaries of each amendment, which Republicans have written themselves—in misleading fashion. For instance, their proposal to shift judicial appointments from the governor to the GOP-gerrymandered legislature, effectively gerrymandering the judicial branch and enabling the GOP to pack the state Supreme Court, would be farcically described as a “nonpartisan merit-based system.” Similarly, the GOP’s voter ID proposal lacks any details about how it would be implemented and how strict it would be.
Another lawsuit was brought by Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin, who switched his party registration from Democratic to Republican shortly before filing and was the target of a Republican law that would strip his party affiliation on voters’ ballots because he hadn’t been a registered Republican 90 days prior to becoming a candidate. The GOP had previously eliminated a primary for this race in hopes of getting multiple Democrats to split the vote against Republican Justice Barbara Jackson, but they found themselves hoisted by their own petards after attorney Anita Earls was the only Democrat to file against the two Republicans, Jackson and Anglin.
Anglin won a preliminary victory in court on Monday, when a state judge temporarily blocked election officials from printing any ballots for the November general election while his lawsuit is ongoing. However, the court has not yet ruled on whether the law targeting Anglin is unconstitutional by violating his right to due process. The next hearing is set for Monday.
One astonishing sign that Republicans may have sparked a genuine backlash with their amendment power-grab is that all five living former North Carolina governors have publicly opposed their amendments to gerrymander the judicial branch and cripple the state Board of Elections’ ability to expand early voting. That includes even former Republican Govs. Jim Martin and Pat McCrory, the latter of whom presided over a sweeping GOP-backed voter suppression law when he was in office, which eventually got struck down.