Voting Rights Roundup: Top North Carolina court halts filing, a sign it could block GOP gerrymanders

North Carolina’s filing period was set to begin on Monday at 12 PM ET, but a three-judge panel on the state Court of Appeals indefinitely delayed filing for legislative and congressional candidates that morning. Later that same day, however, the entire court (with all 15 members sitting “en banc”) reversed that order and allowed filing to recommence. It’s still not known which judges were on the original panel, or how they or the entire appeals court voted, though the Court of Appeals has a Republican majority. The Supreme Court’s order likewise did not indicate how the seven justices—four Democrats and three Republicans—each voted.

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Meanwhile in a third redistricting lawsuit where civil rights advocates have been challenging the process—but not the maps themselves—that Republicans used to draw the legislative maps for refusing to even consider drawing Voting Rights Act districts, the plaintiffs have appealed to the state Supreme Court to expedite their case after a lower court judge denied their request for a preliminary injunction last week. The plaintiffs also filed a motion to recuse GOP Justice Phil Berger Jr. since he’s the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger Sr., one of the main defendants in the case, something Republicans have loudly resisted in other cases where Berger Sr. is a defendant.

Voting Access Expansions

New York: Following the shock defeat last month of two ballot measures that would have amended New York’s constitution to expand voting access, Democratic legislators are planning to introduce statutory reforms that aim to protect access to the ballot box in the meantime since taking another shot at constitutional changes would be a years-long process.

The failed amendments would have permanently abolished the excuse requirement for absentee voting and enabled same-day voter registration. While neither reform could be adopted by statute only, the proposed changes Democrats now are considering could at least shorten the registration deadline from 25 days before Election Day to just 10 days and extend a pandemic-related exception to the absentee excuse requirement through Feb. 1, 2024.

New York City, NY: New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic City Council has passed a bill by a more than 2-1 margin to extend voting rights in all local elections to the approximately 800,000-900,000 noncitizens who have legal permanent resident status or legal work authorization, a group that includes a particularly sizable number of Asian and Latino immigrants. Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed his concerns about the bill but said he wouldn’t veto it, meaning the measure is poised to become law, though a lawsuit by Republican opponents is virtually guaranteed.

Although several small jurisdictions in states such as Maryland have granted local voting rights to noncitizens and San Francisco has done so for school board elections, New York is the first major city in living memory to do so in all elections. It’s by no means the first in U.S. history, however: Many states throughout the 19th century granted voting rights—even in elections beyond the local level—to people who had permanently immigrated but not yet attained citizenship, though that trend ended by the 1920s.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: A panel of three judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court decision and issued a ruling that upholds a law passed by Republicans earlier this year that sets an Election Day deadline for voters to correct problems with a missing signature on their absentee ballot. The Arizona Democratic Party had challenged the law because absentee voters whose signature supposedly doesn’t match the one on file have a separate deadline of a week after Election Day to “cure” their ballots. Plaintiffs have yet to say whether they will appeal.

Georgia: A federal district court has rejected Republican officials’ attempt to dismiss eight lawsuits brought by the Justice Department and an array of civil rights groups that are challenging parts of the sweeping voting restriction law Republicans enacted back in March. The court ruled that the plaintiffs can proceed with their challenges against the law, whose numerous provisions we’ve detailed previously, including components such as stricter voter ID requirements, restrictions on absentee ballot request deadlines and drop boxes, and a ban on distributing food and water to voters waiting in line.

Massachusetts: Republicans attempting to use a ballot initiative to adopt a statute requiring voter ID have failed to obtain the roughly 80,000 voter signatures necessary to qualify for the 2022 ballot ahead of a key deadline earlier this month.

Tennessee: Federal District Judge Eli Richardson, a Donald Trump appointee, has upheld a law passed by Republicans that makes it a felony for anyone other than an employee of an election commission to share absentee ballot applications with voters, which the plaintiffs argued violated their First Amendment rights. Voters with access to a computer and printer can at least download the form directly on their own, though the decision makes it harder for get-out-the-vote groups to encourage people to vote. The plaintiffs have not indicated yet whether they will appeal.

Utah: Conservative activists have launched a 2022 ballot initiative effort that would adopt a wide range of voting restrictions and in doing so turn one of the best red states for voting access into one of the most restrictive. The proposed initiative would:

  • End same-day voter registration;
  • Set the registration deadline 30 days before Election Day, the maximum allowed under federal law;
  • Disenfranchise voters who move to a new address within 30 days of Election Day by preventing them from voting at either location;
  • Ban voter registration by mail or online and require voters to hand in their own registration forms, effectively prohibiting voter registration drives;
  • End Utah’s current system of universal mail voting and instead allow only restricted absentee voting;
  • Abolish in-person early voting;
  • End a law allowing local governments to adopt ranked-choice voting;
  • Make Utah’s voter ID law much stricter by only allowing state driver’s licenses or ID cards and concealed weapons permits while disallowing passports, military IDs, birth certificates, Social Security cards, tribal IDs, and school IDs.

However, getting onto the ballot in Utah is no simple matter. If the ballot petitions are cleared for circulation, supporters would have only 30 days to gather roughly 138,000 voter signatures statewide and signatures equivalent to 8% of active registered voters in 26 of 29 state Senate districts.

Virginia: Democrats have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging two state laws, one of which requires full Social Security numbers instead of partial numbers to register to vote, which only a few other states mandate, and which Democrats contend violates the Civil Rights Act. The other law only requires officials to notify voters of supposed deficiencies that could lead to a rejection of their mail ballots if the ballots were received the Friday before Election Day, even though ballots postmarked by Election Day and received up to the Friday afterward are valid, which Democrats argue is unconstitutional.

Wisconsin: A federal court ruling has rejected a lawsuit where voting rights advocates had been challenging a law enacted by Republicans that only allowed college student IDs to be used to satisfy the GOP’s voter ID law if the IDs include an expiration date within two years of an issuance date and the voter’s signature, which IDs from several state institutions don’t meet.

Electoral System Reform

Missouri: Election reform advocates are attempting to put an initiative on the 2022 ballot that would amend the state constitution to do away with traditional party primaries. The measure would instead adopt a “top-four” primary in which all candidates would run on a single ballot and the top-four finishers, regardless of party, would advance to a general election that would be decided using ranked-choice voting. The proposal would apply to both congressional and state offices.

The measure would also require that voting methods produce a paper trail of individual votes in all elections. Supporters must gather nearly 172,000 voter signatures statewide, including signatures equivalent to 8% of the last gubernatorial vote in six of the state’s eight congressional districts.

Wyoming: A joint committee in Wyoming’s Republican-dominated legislature has blocked a proposed constitutional amendment and companion bill that would have required primary runoffs in races where no candidate wins a majority starting in 2024. Hardline conservatives have repeatedly pushed for changes to the primary process, fueled by their zeal to oust Republican Rep. Liz Cheney over her opposition to Donald Trump, but have come up short each time.


Alaska: Officials in Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a fast-growing community of 100,000 residents located north of Anchorage (and often known as “Mat-Su”), have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the state’s new legislative maps. The plaintiffs argue that the region’s state House districts approved by Alaska’s Republican-majority redistricting commission are systematically overpopulated and that two districts shared with neighboring jurisdictions ignore “logical, municipal, and natural boundaries.”

Connecticut: The Connecticut Supreme Court has granted a request from the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission for additional time to complete work on a new congressional map, setting a deadline of Dec. 21. Under state law, the panel was required to produce a new map by Nov. 30 but was unable to do so. The court also ordered commissioners to provide the names of three potential special masters by Wednesday to assist the justices in drawing a new map in the event that the commission misses its new deadline.

Maryland: Democrats in both chambers of Maryland’s legislature overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of their new congressional gerrymander on Thursday, just hours after Hogan had rejected the map. That means the new districts are now final, though a group with ties to Hogan says it plans to sue.

We delved into the details of the new map and the intra-Democratic Party politics behind its passage in our other newsletter, the Morning Digest. In summary, the map aims to extend Democrats’ existing 7-1 advantage but does so in a half-hearted way by turning GOP Rep. Andy Harris’ 1st District along the Eastern Shore from solidly GOP into a red-leaning swing district instead of a safely Democratic seat as many in the party had advocated.

New York: Late last month, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill passed by Democratic legislators to help ensure Democrats are able to take control over redistricting if the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission fails to come to an agreement on new maps.

The 2014 constitutional amendment establishing the commission already allows a sufficient majority of legislators to reject the commission’s proposed maps and draw their own. (Although the amendment is ambiguous as to whether a two-thirds supermajority or simple majority is ultimately required, Democrats enjoy a supermajority regardless.)

The new law aims to prevent Republicans on the commission from running out the clock and sending the redistricting process to the courts. Instead, the law makes clear that if the panel misses its Jan. 15 deadline, mapmaking would instead be handed over to legislators, allowing Democrats to draw new gerrymandered districts.

Ohio: Two Black voters have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that Ohio Republicans’ new congressional and legislative maps illegally discriminate against Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. The plaintiffs cite the GOP mapmakers’ claim that they didn’t consider racial data when drawing the congressional map, and the district lines in the Youngstown area in particular, as diluting the voting strength of African Americans.

Two other lawsuits opposing the congressional map and three more cases challenging legislative maps have previously been filed with the state Supreme Court over the maps, and the high court just heard oral arguments regarding the legislative districts on Wednesday. This case, though, is the first federal challenge to the new districts. However, given that the Supreme Court’s conservatives have successively dismantled the protections of the Voting Rights Act, this case’s chance of success is in doubt.

South Carolina: Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has quickly signed the new state legislative maps passed by the Republican-run legislature with a number of Democratic votes earlier this week. Lawmakers reportedly will not take up congressional redistricting until they reconvene in January, though Senate Republicans unveiled a proposal last month.

Texas: The U.S. Department of Justice this week became the latest party to file a federal lawsuit challenging Texas Republicans’ new congressional and legislative gerrymanders for intentionally discriminating against Black and Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Six other federal lawsuits are challenging the GOP’s maps (a seventh is in state court), and a federal court last week rejected the GOP’s attempt to dismiss those cases after Republicans argued that private parties lack the right to action to enforce the VRA, a line of thought that would practically eliminate what’s left of the law.

Vermont: Vermont’s Apportionment Board has advanced proposed legislative maps to state lawmakers, though because the panel is advisory in nature, legislators are not obligated to consider its plans.

Virginia: The two special masters tasked with drawing new election districts by the Virginia Supreme Court released their proposals for both Congress and the legislature on Wednesday. The congressional plan in particular makes significant changes to the state’s existing boundaries, and a number of would-be candidates immediately began announcing their plans. However, the maps must first be approved by the justices, who could make changes to them before they take legal effect. The court has not set out a specific timetable for finalizing the maps, but it will hold public hearings on them next week.

Washington: Washington’s Supreme Court ruled last week that the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission had “substantially complied” with state law requiring it to transmit new maps to the legislature by the legal deadline of midnight on Nov. 15, despite the fact that the panel only voted to do so after the clock had struck midnight, thus adopting the maps that commissioners had belatedly approved in apparent violation of state transparency laws.

Ultimately, for all the commission’s many procedural deficiencies, the maps themselves change very little. Almost every congressional district retains its current presidential performance, according to Dave’s Redistricting App, including the two most competitive seats, Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier’s 8th and Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s 3rd. The legislative map also retains the status quo, with Joe Biden winning 33 districts to 16 for Donald Trump; the median district also supported Biden by a margin very close to his statewide performance. (Washington uses the same map for both chambers, with each district electing one senator and two representatives.)

Last week’s ruling may not be the last word, though. The Supreme Court was careful to note that it was only addressing the question of whether the commission had met its legal deadline and would not “not render any opinion on the plan’s compliance with any statutory and constitutional requirements” aside from that. There’s a possibility of further litigation, in fact, because of concerns about whether commissioners were required to draw a legislative district in the Yakima Valley where Latino voters could elect their preferred candidate.

Wisconsin: The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to dismiss a lawsuit where Democrats have been asking a federal court to draw new congressional and legislative maps in light of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ veto of Republican lawmakers’ proposed gerrymanders.

Wisconsin’s conservative Supreme Court had already taken over the redistricting process and late last month effectively gave the green light to new GOP gerrymanders by ruling that it would adopt a “least-change” approach to redrawing the maps even though last decade’s maps are extreme Republican gerrymanders that were passed on party-line votes without any Democratic input. The federal lower court had already put proceedings at that level on hold while the state case proceeds, but it will get a chance to review the maps after the state court issues a final decision early next year.

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