SCOTUS takes up Arizona voting rights law that will be heard after the election

From today’s CNN Online:

The Supreme Court said Friday it will review two provisions of an Arizona voting rights law that a federal appeals court said could have a discriminatory impact for American Indian, Hispanic and African Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

One provision concerns an “out of precinct policy” that does not count provisional ballots cast in person on Election Day outside of the voter’s designated precinct. Another concerns the “ballot collection law” which permits only certain persons — family and household members, caregivers, mail carriers and elections officials — to handle another person’s completed ballot.

The dispute will not be resolved before the election because the argument calendar is already full through December.In January, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state’s policy of “wholly discarding” rather than counting or partially counting out of precinct ballots and the criminalization of the collection of another person’s ballot has a “discriminatory impact on American Indian, Hispanic and African American voters in the state in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

The court also held that the ballot collection provision was enacted with discriminatory intent. The court agreed to put its decision on hold pending appeal. Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s attorney general, called the provisions “commonplace election administration provisions” used by Arizona and “dozens of states.” Over the dissent of four judges, the majority invalidated two commonplace election administration provisions used by Arizona and dozens of other states to prevent multiple voting, protect against voter intimidation, preserve the secrecy of the ballot, and safeguard election integrity.

But Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, argued that Supreme Court precedents and the law compelled the lower court to conclude that Arizona’s wholesale rejection of ballots cast out of precinct and its criminalization of ballot collection violated Voting Rights Act.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: The right to vote should not fall victim to partisan battles

From today’s Chicago Sun-Times:

The right to vote is fundamental to any democracy. Protecting that right — and making it easier to exercise it — ought to be a priority across partisan lines.Instead, in states across the country — particularly in the five years since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act — it has become a pitched battle.

The basic reality is clear: Republicans, increasingly a party of older, white voters, have chosen not to reach out to Hispanics, African Americans or the young, but instead seek ways to make it harder for them to vote — or for their votes to count. Backed by right-wing think tanks, Republican state legislators and governors push a slew of measures to suppress the vote of targeted populations. These are increasingly challenged in courts and protested on the streets.

Alabama, for example, is a state that is over one-fourth African American. Yet it has had all white appellate court justices for a quarter-century. This was locked in by requiring at-large statewide elections for both appellate and Supreme Court judges instead of district elections where African American candidates would have a good chance of being elected in some areas. This practice — followed in Texas against Hispanic voters — is now being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.

At-large elections are only one of the tactics tried by the Republican power structure in Alabama.

Since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision that ended federal pre-approval of voting rights changes, Alabama has passed measures to require a photo ID to vote while seeking to close driver’s license offices disproportionately in black areas. They sought to impose a “proof of citizenship” mandate to register to vote in state and local elections. Dozens of polling places were closed, disproportionately in areas with large African American populations. Get-out-the-vote efforts were made more difficult with the passage of a ban on financial transfers from one PAC to another, an act aimed at the leading organizations working on African American turnout, which got much of their revenue from other political entities. Alabama has also begun the process of purging the voting rolls. When the state legislature passed a measure giving felons who had served their sentences the right to vote, the state government refused to do anything to inform people that their rights had been restored. Some of these measures have been stalled by judicial decisions, but the effort to constrict the vote continues.

Read the complete article here.

Trump administration gives up fight over citizenship question on the census

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The Trump administration, abruptly switching course, has decided to give up its fight to add a question about citizenship to next year’s census. Word of the decision to give up the fight came initially in an email from a Justice Department attorney to the lawyers who had challenged the administration in court. The email announced the decision to begin printing census forms without the controversial question.

Administration officials did not dispute the authenticity of the email, but declined additional immediate comment. A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed the decision to print the census forms without the citizenship query.

The Supreme Court last week blocked the administration’s effort to add the question on citizenship to the census, saying Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the Census Bureau, had not provided an honest answer for why he wanted to make the move.

But the 5-4 ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. gave the administration a chance to start over and try to come up with a new rationale for adding the question for the first time in decades.

As recently as Monday, President Trump had repeated his insistence that the census should include a question about citizenship. After the high court’s decision, he had publicly called for delaying the census.

Read the complete article here.

Supreme Court decides federal judges cannot block gerrymandering

From today’s CNBC Online:

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that federal courts may not block gerrymandering in a 5-4 decision that fell along partisan lines.

The court also ruled, in a separate high-profile case decided Thursday, that the Trump administration’s reasoning for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census was insufficient, effectively blocking the question for now.

On the final day of decisions before the court’s summer recess, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinions of the court in both cases.

The closely watched case on a charged political matter comes in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. The decision was met with scorn by some Democrats running for president, including former vice president Joe Biden, and a sharp dissent from the liberal justices.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Roberts wrote in the redistricting case. He said those asking the top court to block gerrymandered districts effectively sought “an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” he wrote.

The court’s decision prompted a fierce reply from its liberal wing. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

Read the complete article here.

Federal court: Michigan political maps illegally rigged to ‘historical proportions’

From today’s Detroit News:

Michigan must redraw legislative and congressional districts for the 2020 election because current maps drawn by Republicans represent a political gerrymander “of historical proportions,” a three-judge federal panel ruled Thursday.

The blockbuster ruling — which a GOP leader said the party will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — requires Michigan to conduct special state Senate elections for certain seats next year, cutting in half the four-year terms that current lawmakers are now serving. 

The “predominate purpose” of the redistricting plan approved by the Michigan Legislature in 2011 “was to subordinate the interests of Democratic voters and entrench Republicans in power,” said the unanimous decision written by U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“Therefore, the enacted plan constitutes a durable partisan gerrymander” that violates the First and 14th Amendment rights of plaintiff voters, the court concluded.

The panel is giving the Republican-led House and Senate until Aug. 1 to redraw the maps and get them signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The judges said they want all the parties and processes used in the redistricting process to be made public, including any alternative plans that the Legislature rejects.

If state officials do not finalize new maps by then, the federal court would draw new boundaries itself and could appoint a special master to do so. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and some aggrieved Democrats. The complaint was eventually narrowed down to target 34 of the state’s 162 congressional and legislative districts that would need to be redrawn, along with any bordering districts they impact. 

Read the complete article here.

Kavanaugh Seems Conflicted About Gerrymandering at SCOTUS Arguments

From today’s NPR News Online:

The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided on the question of whether there’s any limit on what the courts can impose on partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the newest member of the court, appearing at least somewhat conflicted.

“I took some of your argument in the briefs and the amicus briefs to be that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy,” Kavanaugh told the lawyers arguing the case, “and I’m not going to dispute that.”

On Tuesday, the court considered challenges to congressional district maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and in Maryland, drawn by Democrats.

The question of how political boundaries are drawn has taken on increasing importance for both parties over the past decade.

After the 2010 midterms, Republicans used their control of many state legislatures to draw favorable congressional maps for the GOP. An analysis this month by the Associated Press found that Republicans very likely won about 16 more House seats last fall than they would have been expected to based on their share of the vote owing to those lines. Still, Democrats did win control of the House.

Read the complete article here.

Appeals court rules North Carolina’s electoral map unconstitutional, map may have to be redrawn before midterms

From today’s Washington Post:

A panel of three federal judges held Monday that North Carolina’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans over Democrats and said it may require new districts before the November elections, possibly affecting control of the House.

The judges acknowledged that primary elections have already produced candidates for the 2018 elections but said they were reluctant to let voting take place in congressional districts that courts twice have found violate constitutional standards.

North Carolina legislators are likely to ask the Supreme Court to step in. The court traditionally does not approve of judicial actions that can affect an election so close to the day voters go to the polls.

But the Supreme Court has just eight members since Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement last month; a tie vote would leave the lower court’s decision in place. Senate hearings on President Trump’s nominee to fill the open seat, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, commence Sept. 4.

The North Carolina case is a long-running saga, with a federal court in 2016 striking down the legislature’s 2011 map as a racial gerrymander. The legislature then passed a plan that left essentially the same districts in place but said lawmakers were motivated by politics, not race.

The Supreme Court told the three-judge panel to take another look at the North Carolina case in light of the high court’s June decision in a Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, in which the justices said those who brought that case did not have legal standing.

Read the complete article here.

Drive Against Gerrymandering Finds New Life in Ballot Initiatives

From today’s New York Times:

The movement to take politics out of setting legislative district boundaries seemed to suffer a grievous, and perhaps even mortal, blow this spring when the Supreme Court passed up three chances to declare partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.

But it turns out that reports of its death are exaggerated. As federal courts dither over how to resolve the issue, activists have begun tackling it state by state at the grass roots.

In Michigan, a proposed constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering, written and promoted by a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians, will be on the ballot in November, unless blocked by a court challenge that has so far fallen short. So many Michiganders signed petitions to bring the measure to a vote — 110,000 more than state law requires — that the group ended its signature campaign 70 days short of the six months allowed.

In Missouri, another nonpartisan group called Clean Missouri needed 180,000 signatures to get its anti-gerrymander initiative on the ballot; it collected 346,000. Final certification is expected next month.

In Utah, a group called Better Boundaries collected 190,000 signatures, 75,000 more than were required, to place its proposition to end gerrymanders on the November ballot.

And in Colorado, both the Democratic-run state House and the Republican-run Senate voted unanimously in May to place two proposals on the November ballot that would shift the duty to draw state legislative and congressional districts away from lawmakers and into the hands of independent redistricting commissions.

Those proposals join another, in Ohio, that became law in May. The state legislature there put a measure to curb partisan gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts on the ballot for the state’s May 8 primary, after it became apparent that a citizens’ campaign for an even tougher measure was likely to succeed. Ohioans approved the legislature’s version by a three-to-one margin.

Read the complete article here.

Local News: Why Santa Monica is fighting the California Voting Rights Act

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

By Ted Winterer (Santa Monica Mayor) and Gleam Davis (City Council Rep),

The city of Santa Monica received a letter from a Malibu law firm in late 2015 claiming that its at-large election system — in which all voters choose the whole city council — discriminated against Latino residents. We were both on the City Council at the time and found it surprising, not least because the then-mayor was Mexican American.

Still, the letter threatened a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act if the council did not immediately agree to change to district-based elections. It turns out Santa Monica wasn’t alone. Dozens of cities have received similar demand letters — many from the same lawyer — and many have altered their election systems in response.

Santa Monica, however, has decided to fight this lawsuit. Why? Because making electoral changes based on lawsuits instead of the will of voters diminishes rather than enhances voting rights. Equally important, the facts in Santa Monica and the experience of cities elsewhere show that carving the city into districts will not meaningfully enhance local Latino political representation.

The Pico neighborhood is the focus of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, but the 13% of Santa Monica voters who are Latino live in every part the city. Under our existing at-large election system, Latino candidates have won seats on all of the city’s governing bodies, including two currently serving on the seven-member City Council. As the Los Angeles Times reported, in this kind of racially integrated landscape, a change to district-based elections is unlikely to increase Latino representation.

GrassrootsLab, a consulting firm that specializes in local government politics, studied the electoral outcomes in 22 cities that switched to district elections because of a California Voting Rights Act legal threat. Only seven of the 22 cities saw any increase in Latino elected officials. Indeed, some people are trying to make the case that district elections create their own set of problems. The former mayor of Poway, for instance, in October filed a federal lawsuitarguing that forcing district elections ultimately violates the constitutional rights of other voters.

Santa Monica voters have twice rejected proposals to move to district-based elections, in 1975 and 2002. A district system may work well in larger cities like Los Angeles, but dividing up our 8.3-square-mile community will pit neighborhood against neighborhood, increasing balkanization and encouraging legislative deal-making to serve the interests of individual districts rather than the city as a whole.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS defers gerrymandering ruling

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to address the central questions in two closely watched challenges to partisan gerrymandering, putting off for another time a ruling on the constitutionality of voting districts designed by legislatures to amplify one party’s political power.

In a challenge to a redistricting plan devised by the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin, the court unanimously said that the plaintiffs had not proved that they had suffered the sort of direct injury that would give them standing to sue. The justices sent the case back to a trial court to allow the plaintiffs to try again to prove that their voting power had been directly affected by the way state lawmakers drew voting districts for the State Assembly.

In the second case, the court unanimously ruled against the Republican challengers to a Democratic plan to redraw a Maryland congressional district. In a brief unsigned opinion, the court said the challengers had waited too long to seek an injunction blocking the district, which was drawn in 2011.

Both cases had the potential to deliver a reckoning on a practice that dates to the early days of the Republic and got its name from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. The court instead kicked the can down the road, leaving the door open to further challenges.

But the decisions were a setback for critics of gerrymandering, who had hoped that the Supreme Court would transform American democracy by subjecting to close judicial scrutiny the way districts have been redrawn to accommodate the preferences of the party in power. When the dust settled Monday, the status quo remained in place.

Read the complete article here.