● New Mexico: Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bill that the New Mexico’s Democratic-controlled legislature had passed almost unanimously to create a bipartisan advisory redistricting commission. The new commission will propose maps for lawmakers to consider when devising new districts for Congress, the state legislature, the state Public Regulation Commission, and the state Public Education Commission.
The law will establish a board with seven members, with four chosen by the leadership of both parties in each of the state’s two legislative chambers; two unaffiliated members selected by the state Ethics Commission; and a final seventh member named by the Ethics Commission who will be a retired appellate judge and will serve as commission chair. No more than three commissioners can be members of the same party, and anyone who is or has served as an officeholder, candidate, or lobbyist (or whose close family members have) in the two years prior to redistricting cannot participate.
Commissioners will devise three proposals for each type of office and hold public hearings to discuss them. The criteria, in order of priority, will require that districts must be drawn to:
- Have equal population as closely as possible for Congress and no more than a 2% deviation for state legislature;
- Split no precincts;
- Adhere to the federal Voting Rights Act and its protections for voters of color;
- Elect only one member each;
- Be “reasonably compact;” and
- Preserve communities of interest, local government jurisdictions, and Native American communities “to the extent feasible.”
Mapmakers may also consider preserving the cores of existing districts but cannot use partisan data except to comply with federal voting rights protections, which will prevent them from drawing maps with partisan fairness explicitly in mind. Commissioners ostensibly cannot consider incumbents’ residences, but an exception that allows them to avoid pairing incumbents in the same districts makes that restriction relatively easy to circumvent. The law also lets the board use alternative “credible” population data sources in addition to the census.
However, the commission doesn’t actually have the power to enact proposed maps into law. Instead, it may only propose maps for lawmakers to consider, but legislators can nevertheless amend the proposals or reject them entirely and draw their own maps from scratch. The law says nothing about imposing the same criteria on maps drawn by the legislature that it does on the commission, leaving the door open for Democrats to draw gerrymanders, though the risk of sparking a backlash by rejecting the commission’s maps could deter Democrats from doing so.
● Oklahoma: With the census’ delayed release of redistricting data threatening to make it impossible for lawmakers in many states to meet constitutionally mandated deadlines, Republican legislators in Oklahoma have approved the use of estimates from the census’ American Community Survey to draw legislative districts ahead of a May 28 cutoff. If lawmakers fail to pass new legislative maps by then, Republican legislative leaders and the governor would have to appoint a backup commission with an even number of members of both parties to take over the process, which would risk forfeiting their power to gerrymander.
However, voting rights advocates have argued that ACS estimates are not precise enough to pass legal muster because they risk undermining representation of communities of color, threatening to sue if any state uses such estimates in lieu of the decennial census count.
● Oregon: Oregon’s Supreme Court has unanimously granted a request from a bipartisan group of legislative leaders to extend the state’s July 1 deadline for drawing new legislative districts to Sept. 27. Lawmakers won’t receive the census data needed to draw new districts until August thanks to delays, which would have made the original deadline impossible to meet. If they still fail to pass new maps by the deadline, Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan would take over the mapmaking process.
● Texas: State Senate Republicans are no longer considering a bill that would gerrymander Texas’ appellate court districts, shortly after advancing it in a committee last week. However, the bill could be revived in a future legislative session such as a special session on redistricting that is likely to take place later this year.
Texas’ intermediate appellate court is currently divided into 14 partially overlapping districts, but this bill would reduce that number to seven districts drawn by Republican lawmakers. Under the GOP’s proposed map, Democrats likely would have won just two of the seven districts over the last few elections, wiping out the historic gains that Black women made in 2018 in major urban areas such as Houston. These Democratic judges in Houston and other cities like El Paso, many of whom are also people of color, would be at strong risk of losing to white Republicans if these districts were to become law.
This bill is part of a growing trend of Republicans turning to extreme steps such as court-packing and gerrymandering to extend their power over state courts. In addition to successful efforts to pack state supreme courts by adding seats in 2016 in Arizona and Georgia and an unsuccessful 2018 attempt to do so in North Carolina, Republicans just this year are also trying to pass bills to gerrymander court districts in Montana and Pennsylvania.
Voting Access Expansions
● Colorado: State Senate Democrats have passed a bill in a committee to let people with disabilities vote online as a way to protect their right to vote a secret ballot. While the bill is intended to protect voting access, security experts have widely warned that internet-based voting is inherently insecure under any existing technology.
● Connecticut: Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has signed an executive order allowing voters to continue citing the pandemic to satisfy the state’s excuse requirement for voting absentee through May 20 for upcoming local elections. Democrats in the legislature are currently also trying to pass a constitutional amendment to permanently end the excuse requirement, but amending the constitution is a multi-year process that likely won’t conclude until the 2024 elections even if Democrats succeed.
● Hawaii: A second committee in Hawaii’s Democratic-run state House has unanimously passed two bills to expand voting access. The first would establish automatic voter registration through Hawaii’s driver’s licensing agency. The second would expand the number of in-person vote centers, where any voter in a county may cast their ballot. It would also require that people on parole and probation be given voting information, including a notification that they’ve regained their voting rights upon release from prison. Both bills have already passed the state Senate.
● Illinois: Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed a bill passed by legislative Democrats to permanently adopt some of the voting access measures that were temporarily implemented last year due to the pandemic, including provisions permanently allowing absentee ballot drop boxes and curbside voting.
● Kentucky: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has signed a compromise election reform bill that Kentucky’s Republican-run legislature had passed almost unanimously to implement several major changes to voting. The new law will:
- Establish three days of in-person early voting;
- Authorize counties to set up “vote centers” where any voter in the county may cast their ballot instead of just at traditional local polling places;
- Allow absentee ballot drop boxes;
- Notify voters about and let them fix problems with their absentee ballot signatures;
- Allow voters to request absentee ballots online;
- Require routine audits of election results;
- Mandate that new voting machines produce a paper trail record; and
- Ban voters from collecting and submitting an absentee ballot on behalf of another voter, with limited exceptions for family members, election officials, and postal workers.
Kentucky has long been one of the worst states for voting access and until now both didn’t allow early voting and required an excuse to vote absentee. This new law is a major step in the right direction, and while Kentucky will still lag the leading states in ease of access, this so far is the only case of a Republican legislature taking significant steps after the 2020 elections to make it easier to vote rather than harder.
● Maine: Democrats, who hold full control over state government, are considering a bill that would establish online voter registration beginning in 2023. The bill has the backing of state House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and other prominent Democratic lawmakers. Maine is one of just nine states that requires voter registration but does not yet allow online registration.
● Maryland: Maryland’s Democratic-run legislature has passed two bills that aim to expand voting access. The bills now go to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who doesn’t appear to have taken a position on them, but Democrats could override any vetoes.
The first bill would strengthen voting access on college campuses, military bases, retirement homes, and other “large residential communities.” Sites like these would be able to request an in-person voting location, and colleges would be required to establish voter registration efforts on campus and give students an excused absence to vote if needed. The bill would also let military service members register online using their identification smart cards issued by the Defense Department. The second bill would create a permanent list for automatically mailing absentee ballots in all future elections to voters who opt in.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have passed a bill that would permanently expand absentee ballot drop boxes, adopt an improved system for letting voters track the status of their absentee ballots, and require a process for notifying voters and letting them fix purported problems with those mail-in ballots. The two chambers must agree on a single version of the legislation after state House Democrats previously passed a different version.
Lastly, Democrats have passed a bill in a state Senate committee that would require absentee ballot drop boxes inside prisons for voters who still remain eligible and also require officials to give voter registration forms to people upon release from prison. House Democrats previously passed the bill last month.
● Massachusetts: The Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that promotes election reforms, reports that a majority in both chambers of Massachusetts’ Democratic-run legislature are now cosponsoring a voting reform bill that would adopt same-day registration along with expanded early voting and excuse-free mail voting. The bill would also require that incarcerated people who haven’t been deprived of their right to vote, such as those convicted of a misdemeanor or who are awaiting trial, be provided with mail ballot applications.
● Nevada: Democratic legislators in the Assembly held committee hearings on Tuesday on a bill that would expand Nevada’s existing automatic voter registration law. Currently, the law covers voters who interact with the state’s driver’s licensing agency; under this new proposal, it would also apply to voters who do business with other state agencies such as the state’s Medicaid program, which would help reach voters who don’t drive.
Democrats are also considering a second bill that would establish a straight-ticket voting option, which allows voters to check a single box to vote for all candidates on the ballot affiliated with a single party without having to mark every race. If the voter also checks the box for a particular candidate from the opposite party, that vote would supersede the straight-ticket vote in that instance. The straight-ticket 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.
The same bill would also double the signature requirements for third parties seeking to get onto the ballot and require the governor to select a same-party replacement appointee for any future U.S. Senate vacancies. Many states including Nevada already require same-party appointees for legislative vacancies, and Republican lawmakers recently had Kentucky join the list of states that impose a similar requirement for the Senate. Such requirements help ensure that the will of voters in the last election remains respected.
● New Mexico: Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bill that New Mexico’s Democratic-run legislature almost unanimously passed to expand voting access for Native Americans, which includes among other provisions a requirement that every reservation or other Native community have an in-person polling place.
● Oregon: Oregon Democrats in a state Senate committee have passed a bill along party lines that would entirely abolish felony voter disenfranchisement by restoring voting rights to currently incarcerated people. If Democrats in both legislative chambers and Gov. Kate Brown approve the bill, Oregon would become just the fourth jurisdiction in the country that doesn’t disenfranchise anyone for a felony conviction. The Sentencing Project estimates that roughly 16,000 people would regain their voting rights as a result.
● Rhode Island: Democratic Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea and several Democratic lawmakers are supporting a bill under consideration that would expand early voting availability; eliminate the requirement that mail voters have two witnesses or a notary sign their ballot envelope; enable voters to request mail ballots electronically; create a list to permanently mail a ballot in all future elections to voters who opt in; and end the excuse requirement for voting by mail (currently any excuse will suffice, but a voter must still present one).
● Washington: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a bill that ends the disenfranchisement of voters with felony convictions who are on parole or owe court fines or fees after having fully served their sentences, leaving only those who are currently incarcerated unable to vote.
The new law’s passage marks two historic milestones. It was successfully championed by Democratic state Rep. Tarra Simmons, who became the first formerly incarcerated lawmaker in state history after her election last year. In addition, Washington’s adoption of this policy means that a majority of Americans now live in states that don’t disenfranchise anyone who isn’t in prison.
● Alabama: State Senate Republicans have passed a bill in a committee that would ban curbside voting, a method that makes it easier for voters with mobility-limiting disabilities to be able to vote. State House Republicans have already passed the bill.
● Arizona: Republican state legislators have passed a bill along party lines that bans local election officials from accepting private grant money to help pay for election administration costs. Republicans have advanced similar bills in a number of states after philanthropic organizations backed by wealthy individuals such as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger donated hundreds of millions to local governments around the country in 2020.
● Arkansas: Republicans have passed a bill in a state Senate committee that would ban election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to all voters. State House Republicans had previously passed the same bill.
● Florida: State House Republicans in Florida have passed a new voting restriction bill in a committee but notably stripped the bill of a provision that would have banned giving food or drinks to voters waiting in line to vote, a measure that sparked national outcry when it was included in a new voting restriction package that Georgia Republicans enacted last month.
However, the Florida measure does contain other restrictions on voting such as eliminating a policy that allows voters to make a single request to receive an absentee ballot for all elections that take place in the next two federal election cycles. Instead, voters will now have to make a new request each election cycle, though requests from 2020 for the coming cycle wouldn’t be retroactively cancelled. Furthermore, the bill would require that a voter’s mail ballot signature match the most recent signature they’ve used instead of the more extensive history of their signature.
While the House bill wouldn’t outright ban absentee ballot drop boxes like the version approved in a Senate committee would, it would limit drop boxes only to active early voting locations and county election offices during their hours of operation. That’s a departure from current law, which allows drop boxes at any location that could serve as an early voting site even if it isn’t actually used for early voting. The bill would also require people dropping off ballots at drop boxes to show ID proving that they live at the same address as the voter or are a relative, banning other parties such as a trusted friend or neighbor from returning another voter’s ballot on their behalf.
● Georgia: U.S. District Judge Steve Jones has thrown out much of a lawsuit that Democrat Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight organization filed in the wake of the 2018 election that was tainted by Republican voter suppression efforts and had sought to require changes to Georgia’s voting systems. Jones’ ruling dismissed claims that the state provided too few voting machines and inadequate poll worker training, as well as those that had challenged Georgia’s system for cancelling voter registrations and rejecting absentee ballots.
Jones did, however, allow challenges to Georgia’s “exact match” system for voter registrations, the accuracy of its voter registration list, and its policy on absentee ballot cancellations to proceed. The first of these relates to a 2018 law Georgia Republicans adopted that puts voter registration applications on hold if even a single letter, character, or symbol in the information the voter provides does not perfectly match data from state and federal databases, which often contain inaccuracies. That draconian policy led to the suspension of 53,000 registrations, 90% of which were from voters of color. The affected voters were only able to vote in 2018 thanks to previous litigation.
There has been no reporting on whether plaintiffs are considering an appeal of the dismissed claims, and the case is set to proceed to trial.
Meanwhile, voting advocates have filed a fifth federal lawsuit against the new voting restriction law that Republicans enacted last month, adding to the four others that had already been filed. This latest lawsuit specifically challenges the restrictions that make it nearly impossible for third-party groups to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters.
The GOP’s new law also contains a provision banning people other than election workers from distributing food and drink to voters waiting in line to vote. The prosecutor responsible for handling misdemeanors in Atlanta’s populous suburb of Gwinnett County, however, announced that he won’t prosecute anyone for distributing food or drink under the law, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.
● Idaho: Republican state senators have passed a bill in a committee that would make it a crime to turn in another voter’s mail ballot on their behalf, with limited exceptions such as for family members. State House Republicans had previously passed the bill, which targets a voting practice that has been helpful for ensuring that people with limited access to transportation or mail service can still cast their mail ballots and has not been associated with any instances of fraud in Idaho.
● Indiana: State House Republicans have passed a bill in committee to require voter ID for absentee ballot requests, following the bill’s earlier passage in the GOP-run state Senate. However, House Republicans did remove a Senate-approved provision from the bill that would have stripped Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb and the state Election Commission of their power to institute emergency changes to election procedures or dates after they used those powers to temporarily expand voting access during the pandemic last year.
● New Hampshire: Although a committee in New Hampshire’s Republican-run state House had put on hold several proposals to restrict voting earlier this year, it is still considering a bill approved by state Senate Republicans last month that would establish a voter ID requirement for absentee ballot applications. Voters would have to present ID to local officials when picking up their ballot, or send a photocopy of their ID or include an ID number with their absentee ballot applications.
● South Carolina: Republicans have introduced a bill that would extend South Carolina’s existing voter ID requirement for in-person voting to cover absentee voting as well. Republicans representing a majority of the state House are already cosponsoring the bill, indicating that it is likely to pass.
● Texas: Republicans in a state House committee have passed a bill that would make it a felony for election officials to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters. Last year, Democratic officials in multiple urban counties did so due to the pandemic, or tried to before Republican officials blocked them from doing so. The bill would also require those who provide assistance to voters to help them to cast their ballots to disclose the reason why the voter needed help, which voting advocates argue could be intimidating.
● Wyoming: Republican Gov. Mark Gordon has signed a bill passed by Wyoming’s Republican legislature to adopt a voter ID requirement. Wyoming had previously been one of the very few red states that lacked a voter ID law, but conservative Republicans won their most dominant legislative majorities in generations in 2020.
● Maine: A committee in Maine’s Democratic-controlled state House has passed a bill requiring post-election audits of results, a policy that 34 other states have already adopted to promote election integrity and bolster public confidence in the results.