• June 20, 2021

Exclusive: Texas Dems stop GOP voting restrictions with walkout, but the bill may return

 Exclusive: Texas Dems stop GOP voting restrictions with walkout, but the bill may return


The GOP’s latest bill combined elements of different legislation that Republicans had passed in the state Senate and House, focusing much of its attention on making it harder for voters to cast a ballot in advance of Election Day. The bill would have:

  • Made it easier for partisan officials and judges to overturn election results by lowering the threshold of evidence required and removing a requirement for a court to try to determine whether allegedly illegal votes actually changed the outcome;
  • Made it a crime for officials to mail unsolicited absentee ballots to voters;
  • Expanded minimum early voting hours but banned 24-hour early voting locations and extended early voting in the evenings by requiring all early voting take place between 6 AM and 9 PM, which would effectively have cut early voting in several Democratic counties and expanded it in GOP-leaning counties last year;
  • Banned drive-thru early voting;
  • Banned early voting on Sundays before 1 PM, which Black churches have historically used to get out the vote on Sunday mornings after services;
  • Banned absentee ballot drop boxes;
  • Required the inclusion of voter ID numbers for absentee ballots and ballot applications;
  • Restricted absentee excuse eligibility even further for voters with disabilities (voters age 65 or older, who lean heavily white and Republican, would have remained exempted from the excuse requirement);
  • Required people driving three or more non-relatives to the polls to fill out a form with their identifying information and a reason why they’re providing assistance;
  • Prohibited county officials from changing election procedures without legislative authorization; and
  • Enabled partisan “poll watchers” to potentially harass and intimidate voters while limiting their oversight by election officials by imposing criminal penalties for getting in their way.

These changes were squarely aimed at preventing a repeat of 2020, when Democratic officials in several large urban counties expanded access to voting by creating 24-hour or drive-thru voting, extended early voting hours, and attempted to mail absentee applications to all voters, all of which would have been banned under this law. (Extended voting hours and drive-thru voting were disproportionately used by voters of color in Houston’s Harris County last fall.)

Campaign Action

Amid a firestorm of public backlash, one of the lead GOP sponsors dubiously claimed afterward that the cuts to Sunday morning early voting hours were due to a typo that turned an “11” into a “1,” even though that excuse would also require one to believe that the same typo turned the “A” in “11 AM” into a “P” in “1 PM.” Regardless of what really happened, this attempt to backtrack suggests that Republicans could drop this provision when they try to pass the bill in the upcoming special session.

Under similar pressure, Republicans also abandoned a measure that would have cut the number of polling places in Democratic-leaning urban areas with large communities of color in five large counties and transferred them to suburban areas in those same counties that are much whiter and more conservative.

Republican legislators did manage to pass a separate bill that would ban the use of post office boxes for voter registration, which could prevent homeless people or voters living in remote rural areas with limited mail service from registering.

Redistricting

Colorado: The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that the Democratic-run legislature lacks the authority to impose new requirements on the state’s new independent redistricting commissions, which lawmakers had sought to do by requiring the use of population data estimates in order to pass new maps ahead of a mid-September deadline. However, the court also held that the amendments that created the commissions don’t require the “exclusive use” of decennial census numbers (which won’t be released before August), and the commissioners themselves have voted to proceed with the use of data estimates, saying they plan to draw preliminary maps by the end of the month.

Illinois: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed new maps passed by Illinois’ Democratic-run legislature on party-line votes, redrawing both the districts used to elect state lawmakers and justices to the state Supreme Court.

Though lacking final data from the Census Bureau (which won’t be available before August), Democrats sought to approve new legislative maps in order to beat a June 30 deadline in the state constitution that would have kicked the redistricting process to a bipartisan commission and given the Republican minority an even shot at controlling the outcome.

While the new maps feature several hallmarks of gerrymandering, Democratic-drawn maps for the previous decade had in fact failed to create a partisan advantage for the party in excess of its popular support. That’s because Democrats in Illinois face a “geography penalty” due to decades of suburban white flight that’s left voters of color heavily concentrated in urban areas such as Chicago. One initial review found that, in this regard, the new districts would behave similarly to the old ones, but more detailed data is needed for further analysis.

Democrats also passed a bill that would redraw the Supreme Court map for the first time in nearly 60 years to rectify districts that had become badly malapportioned. The new map’s districts are all much closer in population size to one another, but they still maintain a very sizable bias toward Republicans thanks to a prohibition on splitting counties, though overall the map is much fairer than the one it’s replacing. (Four elections will be held next year for the high court, which Democrats currently control by a 4-3 margin.)

While these maps are now law, Pritzker’s signature may not be the end of the line. Because the new legislative districts were drawn using population data estimates, opponents could file a lawsuit challenging the propriety of using those estimates rather than waiting for final counts from the 2020 census.

Maine: Legislative leaders and Maine’s bipartisan advisory redistricting commission have filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to extend a June 11 deadline in the state constitution in light of the delayed release of census data, which is on track for publication in mid-August. Officials are asking the court to give commissioners 45 days after the release of the data to propose new maps to lawmakers, who would then have 10 days to vote on them. Maps take two-thirds support for lawmakers to pass, meaning the most likely outcome is either a bipartisan compromise or court-drawn districts.

Michigan: A panel of three judges on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously rejected a Republican-backed challenge to the constitutionality of Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission, which voters enacted via a 2018 ballot initiative. The court ruled that it was not improper for the commission to exclude certain applicants from serving who have held public office or have been a campaign operative, a legislative staffer, or a registered lobbyist in the past six years. Republican plaintiffs had argued these restrictions violated their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs have not indicated whether they will appeal.

Washington: Washington’s bipartisan redistricting commission has created a website where members of the public can submit comments or proposed maps that define the boundaries of their communities.

Voting Access Expansions

California: Assembly Democrats have passed a bill along party lines that would permanently adopt universal mail voting statewide after it was temporarily implemented in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic.

Connecticut: State Senate Democrats and a few Republicans have passed a constitutional amendment to allow early voting, meaning that the measure will now go before voters in November 2022 for their approval after state House Democrats previously approved the amendment. Connecticut is one of just five states that still won’t allow in-person voting in advance of Election Day for next year’s elections, but that could change in the future depending on what voters decide next year.

State Senate Democrats also passed a constitutional amendment previously approved by the House to remove the excuse requirement for absentee voting. However, because Republicans denied Democrats the votes needed for a three-fourths supermajority, both legislative chambers will have to pass the same amendment after the 2022 elections before it could go before voters in a 2024 referendum.

Connecticut voters last weighed in on these issues in 2014 when they rejected by a slim 52-48 margin a similar amendment that would have adopted early voting and removed the excuse requirement to vote absentee. However, advocates have contended that the way the earlier amendment was written caused confusion and are hoping for a different outcome this time.

Florida: Former state Rep. Sean Shaw, who was the Democratic nominee for state attorney general in 2018, is leading a new effort by a group called Fair Elections for Democracy and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union that’s attempting to put three initiatives on the ballot next year to expand access to voting. The three measures, which are each separate in order to satisfy a constitutional requirement that limits initiatives to a single subject, would:

The third amendment on voter eligibility is intended to overturn a poll tax that Republicans passed in 2019 by requiring voters with a felony conviction who have completely served any prison, parole, or probation sentences to also pay off all court fines and fees before they can regain their voting rights.

The GOP’s poll tax law came in response to the passage of a 2018 initiative that was supposed to restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million people who had completely served their sentences. That new poll tax, however, has kept nearly 800,000 citizens disenfranchised due to outstanding court debts, a group that is disproportionately Black.

Illinois: Democratic legislators have passed a wide-ranging elections bill containing several components intended to make it easier to vote. One provision creates a permanent absentee ballot list that would allow voters to opt to automatically receive an absentee ballot in all future elections. The bill also allows polling places in county jails for voters who remain eligible. (Cook County, which is home to Chicago and whose 5 million residents make it by far the most populous in Illinois, is already required to house a polling place in the county jail.)

The bill also makes Election Day next year a state holiday and lets people with certain disabilities vote electronically, but these policies aren’t without their drawbacks. Voting advocates have been divided over making Election Day a holiday, with critics arguing that the benefits don’t outweigh the costs of shutting down key public services such as schools or mass transit and could in fact make voting harder for some voters. Security experts, meanwhile, have widely argued that online voting technology is not secure from hacking threats in its current form.

Finally, the bill would move the 2022 statewide primary from its usual date in March to June 28 in order to give lawmakers enough time to complete congressional redistricting.

Nevada: Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has signed a new law passed by Democrats along party lines to permanently adopt universal mail voting following its temporary use last year due to the pandemic. The move makes Nevada the sixth state to automatically send every active registered voter a ballot in all future elections (except for those who opt out). The new law also requires a minimum number of in-person polling places for voters who can’t readily vote by mail or prefer not to vote that way.

The legislation, however, shrinks the time for ballots posted by Election Day to arrive and still be counted, from seven days to four. Voters will have up to six days after Election Day to fix any potential problems with their mail ballot such as a supposedly non-matching signature, and officials will have seven days after the election to finish counting mail ballots.

Democrats also passed a bill in the legislature before adjourning to expand automatic voter registration to additional state agencies beyond just the Department of Motor Vehicles in order to reach people who don’t drive. Separately, they approved a bill that would require the governor to choose a member of the same party when filling any future U.S. Senate vacancies (same-party replacements are already required for state legislative vacancies).

However, Democrats amended that last bill before passage to remove a provision that would have created a straight-ticket voting option in exchange for Republicans providing the votes needed for Democrats to obtain the two-thirds supermajority required to pass a new mining tax that they had sought for years. The straight-ticket option would have let voters check a single box to vote for all candidates on the ballot affiliated with a single party without having to mark every race, and the option has been important in other states for preventing long voting lines in communities of color by reducing the time needed to fill out a ballot.

Voter Suppression

Arizona: Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has signed a bill that bans election officials such as Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs from modifying election deadlines without legislative approval, even during emergency situations, and makes attempted violations a crime. Last year, due to the pandemic, voting rights advocates had asked officials to extend the state’s voter registration deadline; while that effort was unsuccessful, under the new law, granting such a request would be prohibited.

Other Republican efforts to restrict voting in Arizona have, however, temporarily ground to a halt as Ducey has vowed to block all remaining bills until lawmakers pass a budget. True to his word, he vetoed a GOP-backed bill that would ban officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to voters. Republicans lack the two-thirds supermajorities needed to override vetoes without Democratic support, so additional voting legislation won’t advance unless Republicans pass a budget later this month ahead of a state constitutional deadline.

Kansas: Two separate groups of voting rights advocates have filed lawsuits in federal and state court, respectively, challenging provisions in the legislation Republicans passed earlier this year to restrict voting. The lawsuits (here and here) aim to roll back measures that make it a crime for election officials to assist or educate voters; ban out-of-state groups from sending absentee ballot applications to voters; add new requirements for absentee ballot signature verification; and ban people or groups from helping more than 10 voters return their absentee ballots on their behalf.

Louisiana: Republican lawmakers have advanced a bill in the state Senate and out of a state House committee that would add a voter ID requirement for absentee voting by requiring voters to include their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. The bill would also make it easier for ballots to be challenged if the information provided doesn’t fully match the voter’s registration data on file.

Montana: The county attorney in Lewis and Clark County, along with other practicing attorneys, has filed a lawsuit in state court challenging multiple parts of a law enacted by Republicans earlier this year that would restrict voting, among other things. One challenged provision bans groups from conducting voter registration, petition-signature collection, and get-out-the-vote efforts at college dorms, dining halls, and athletic facilities. The plaintiffs argue that Republicans violated the state constitution by repurposing an unrelated bill to include the new provisions at a point too late in the legislative session process, which state law limits to ensure bills aren’t amended beyond recognition from their original purpose.

Election Security

Texas: Shortly before adjourning, Texas’ Republican-run legislature has passed a bill with almost unanimous support to require the use of voting systems that can be audited and have a paper trail, which would phase out the remaining paperless voting machines that some counties still operate.

Ballot Measures

Arkansas: Supporters of a ballot measure that would impose term limits have filed a federal lawsuit that challenges a law Arkansas Republicans passed earlier this year to restrict ballot initiatives.

The GOP’s legislation among other things bans paying those who circulate voter petitions on a per-signature basis, instead requiring that they be paid hourly or not at all, which is aimed at reducing the incentive to obtain as many signatures as efficiently as possible. The law also mandates that paid circulators be Arkansas residents and requires criminal background checks on circulators but doesn’t spell out who can conduct them, adding further burdens on initiative backers.

Arkansas Republicans have repeatedly tried to restrict ballot initiatives after voters used them in recent years to pass progressive laws such as raising the minimum wage, and there’s an ongoing attempt to place a new measure on the ballot that would ban gerrymandering.

In a related effort to make initiatives harder, the GOP recently put a constitutional amendment on the November 2022 ballot that would require 60% voter approval for initiatives to pass instead of the current simple majority, so 2022 would be the last time advocates are able to pass initiatives with simple majorities if voters approve the amendment next year, raising the stakes of this newest lawsuit.

Court Cases

New Jersey: With New Jersey’s primaries for state offices taking place on Tuesday, an ongoing federal lawsuit filed in 2020 seeks to change the way that primary ballots work in future elections. New Jersey is the only state in the country where candidates are grouped into separate columns on the primary ballot depending on whether they have been endorsed by local party organizations, known locally as the “organization line.” The plaintiffs argue that this system confuses voters and unfairly advantages incumbents, who are disproportionately white, at the expense of candidates of color. They want officials to devise a new ballot that lists all candidates for the same office together.

Miscellaneous

Post Office: The Senate has confirmed Joe Biden’s three appointees for the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, filling a trio of vacancies and giving the board a 5-4 majority nominally aligned with Democrats.

That moves Democrats one step closer to being able to fire Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was a key player in Donald Trump’s attempt to sabotage the post office in order to thwart mail voting last year. It’s unclear, though, whether the board’s other two Democratic-appointed members will agree to fire DeJoy, which is why some Democrats have urged Biden to fire and replace the entire board.

Those potentially reluctant board members might however be persuaded to come around in light of recent news that DeJoy is under investigation by the Department of Justice and the FBI for potential campaign finance law violations stemming from donations made by employees at the logistics company he ran from 1983 to 2014. Former employees had told the Washington Post and New York Times last year that they had been pressured to give to GOP candidates and were given bonuses to reimburse them in violation of federal law.

Meanwhile, in the House, Democrats have passed a bill in a committee that would, among other things, require trackable barcodes on all mail ballots to allow voters to monitor their ballot status. A House committee also unanimously passed a bill that would shift more postal retirees to Medicare and reform a 2006 requirement that the post office pre-fund retiree health benefits for several decades into the future. That mandate, which no other agency or private competitor faces, had turned yearly profits into large annual deficits that have long threatened the post office’s financial solvency.





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