A lawsuit filed this week over Illinois' new legislative district lines is a preview of what's sure to be a litigious and tense second half of the year for mapmakers.
While Illinois has made more progress than most states, the redistricting process in the Prairie State is far from over. Full census data has not yet been released due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many states are facing impossible redistricting deadlines — some of them constitutionally mandated. If adjustments aren't made soon, courts will have to step in and draw temporary maps for upcoming elections.
Late last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation to establish new lines for the legislative districts in Illinois, a process the state Constitution requires to be completed by the end of this month. (The state still needs to draw new congressional maps.) Because Democrats have a 73-45 majority in the House and a 41-18 majority in the Senate, they were able to quickly draw districts and get Pritzker's approval without any input from Republicans.
A few days after the new maps were finalized, the state's top Republican officials, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, filed a federal lawsuit. They argue the redistricting plan approved by Democrats was inaccurate, "arbitrary" and discriminatory toward minority voters.
By forgoing the official Census Bureau counts in favor of population estimates, "the Plan ensures that historically undercounted minority communities will continue to be underrepresented and lose their right to an equal vote in the legislature," the lawsuit states.
The GOP leaders want a judge to declare the redistricting plan unconstitutional and to require the Legislature to establish a bipartisan commission to draw new maps.
Redistricting has historically been a heavily litigated issue due to partisan disputes like this. But there will likely be even more challenges this time around thanks to the Supreme Court's recent landmark decision. In 2019, the five conservative justices ruled that determining whether there is a constitutional limit to partisan gerrymandering fell outside the purview of federal judges. As a result, many election maps are expected to be battled out in state courts this year.
The added time constraints this year won't help matters either. If states fail to meet certain mapmaking deadlines, the line-drawing will be left to the courts. The Census Bureau intends to begin releasing the data that states need to kick off the redistricting process on Aug. 16. Then the final set of data will be made available at the end of September — much later than a typical redistricting year.
The Census Bureau released its first set of data at the end of April, providing population estimates for congressional apportionment. Due to population growth, Texas gained two House seats, and another five states gained one seat each: Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon. Seven states saw population declines resulting in the loss of one House seat each: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The remaining states did not see a change in their number of seats, but all states with more than one district can redraw the lines.
While Illinois opted to use the population estimates already available to draw its legislative maps, most states will have to wait until more detailed data is released later this year. A delayed start could conflict with statutory deadlines set by state constitutions.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School, released a report in April analyzing how census delays could impact states' redistricting plans. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project also created a tool to track how the delays are affecting states and where urgent intervention is needed most.
Hawaii and Michigan, two states with redistricting commissions, are among the most severe cases identified by both the Brennan Center and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project because they have fixed dates for redistricting.
Hawaii's constitution states that its redistricting commission has 150 days from its first meeting — which this year was April 13 — to finalize election maps. However, that deadline will be impossible to meet given the data delays. State lawmakers have asked the attorney general to petition the Hawaii Supreme Court, requesting forgiveness for missed deadlines.
Similarly, Michigan's inaugural independent redistricting commission and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have asked the state Supreme Court to extend the deadline by which election maps need to be finalized.
Most states have relatively flexible redistricting timelines, though, because either the dates are tied to the release of census data, the deadlines are in 2022 or they have no set deadlines. However, these states will still most likely need to hold special sessions to finalize election maps in a timely manner.
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Since proclaiming his opposition to the For the People Act, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has drawn a lot of ire from voting rights advocates, including some from his home state of West Virginia.
Former Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and five other West Virginia advocates vowed during a press call Wednesday to keep the pressure on Manchin in the coming weeks. The the sweeping election reform bill is scheduled to be brought to the Senate floor later this month.
In an opinion piece published over the weekend, Manchin did not say he was opposed to specific elements of the For the People Act. Rather, he said he wouldn't vote for the bill unless Republicans were also on board — a nearly impossible standard. The moderate Democrat also reaffirmed his opposition to weakening or eliminating the filibuster, dealing another critical blow to the bill's chances of success.
The group of West Virginia voting rights advocates pushed back on Manchin's claim that there was no bipartisan support for the For the People Act.
"Sen. Manchin has an idea of bipartisanship that is not formed or based on reality. Bipartisanship is not how many Republican senators you can get to vote for a bill," said David Fryson, pastor-elect of The New First Baptist Church of Kanawha City in Charleston. Bipartisanship, he added, is demonstrated by the broad support the legislation has among West Virginians of all political affiliations, much like it does across the rest of the country.
An April poll conducted by Global Strategy Group and ALG Research for End Citizens United, a liberal democracy reform group, found that 79 percent of West Virginians overall, including three-quarters of Republicans, supported the For the People Act.
"So to be quite frank, it is Sen. Manchin who is not being bipartisan. What he is doing is being political. I don't see how protecting the sacrosanct of voting rights could be anything but a positive," said Fryson.
While many voting rights advocates were disheartened by Manchin's announcement, Tennant said she's not going to let it stop them from pushing forward on this issue. As she's been advocating for the For the People Act in the Mountain State, Tennant has also been actively combating misinformation and misconceptions around the bill. For instance, one falsehood she said she hears often is that the legislation would lead to a federal takeover of elections. In response to that, she emphasizes how it would actually help set minimum standards for states to make voting and elections more fair, transparent and accessible.
"When the facts aren't stated correctly or fairly, or there is this intention to mislead, that is what is so hurtful," Tennant said. "Our West Virginia voters are the ones that are going to be hurt by people just making up stuff."
Following the 2020 election, hundreds of restrictive voting measures have been introduced in nearly every state legislature. Fourteen states have already enacted a collective 22 laws limiting access to the ballot box and imposing stricter voting rules.
The For the People Act has been billed as the ultimate remedy to this wave of restrictive voting legislation. Another landmark bill being considered in Congress, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would also help combat future restrictive voting measures. Advocates say both are necessary to protect voting rights across the country.
Manchin wrote that, instead, he supports the Voting Rights Advancement Act, claiming it has bipartisan support. And while Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has joined him in backing that bill, it appears unlikely that enough lawmakers from her party will sign on to prevent the GOP from blocking the legislation.
The West Virginia senator is receiving heat not only from his home state, but also on a national scale. On Wednesday morning, a coalition of national political reform advocacy organizations and several of Manchin's congressional colleagues gathered for a rally outside the Supreme Court. Advocates and elected officials reiterated the importance of both bills and implored Manchin to choose democracy over politics.
But it remains to be seen if any of this outside pressure will convince Manchin to change his mind on the reform legislation. Even a meeting this week with civil rights leaders did not seem to sway his stance.
The voting rights advocates from West Virginia said whatever Manchin decides on this issue will not only reflect on his legacy as a senator but also the entire state's reputation.
"I don't want us to be the state that said 'no,'" Tennant said. "We are fighting stereotypes all the time that we're backward, that we don't understand. But we do understand [...] and we could lead the way on this."
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While much of the country's election reform legislation has been rife with partisanship, Vermont is bucking that trend.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed into law on Monday a measure that will automatically send Vermont's 495,000 registered voters a mail-in ballot ahead of statewide general elections. The General Assembly approved the legislation on a bipartisan basis last month.
Vermont's collaborative effort to expand voting access stands in stark relief from other states in which Democrats and Republicans are pushing opposing agendas. Following the 2020 election, Democrats have largely advocated for voting easements, whereas Republicans have backed restrictive measures.
Last year, Vermont was one of a handful of states that decided to mail every voter a ballot to make participating in the election easier and safer amid the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, nearly three-quarters of all registered voters in the state cast a ballot in the 2020 election, and most of them did so early or by mail.
Because the temporary expansion was so popular, state lawmakers decided to make it permanent. The newly enacted law will also give voters the opportunity to "cure," or fix, any mistakes with their ballot, such as a missing signature.
During last year's pandemic-era election, California, Nevada, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., also decided to mail every voter a ballot for that election. Additionally, Montana gave discretion to its 56 counties, most of which decided to proactively mail voters a ballot. Five more states already conducted their elections primarily by mail before the pandemic: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Like Vermont, Nevada also recently decided to make its temporary vote-by-mail expansion permanent. Last week, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed into law a measure that requires voters to opt out of, rather than opt in to, receiving a mail ballot.
National Conference of State Legislatures
In a statement Monday, Scott said he signed the bill because "I believe making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation, is important."
But the governor added that this vote-by-mail expansion should not be limited to just general elections, which already have the highest voter turnout. Scott asked the General Assembly, when it reconvenes in January, to extend the bill's scope to include primary and local elections, as well as school budget votes.
Scott's support for expanding vote by mail access is significant considering several Republican-led states are seeing the exact opposite. In Florida, Georgia and Texas, GOP lawmakers and governors are working to roll back mail voting and impose new, stricter rules. Thus far, Kentucky is the only state with a Republican-controlled legislature that has approved voting expansions.
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When Sen. Joe Manchin announced Sunday he would not vote in favor of the For the People Act, he dealt another critical blow to his party's sweeping election overhaul legislation. But reformers haven't given up hope.
Manchin put the focus squarely on the partisan divide: Democrats are pushing the legislation without any support from Republicans.
"Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized," Manchin wrote in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "As such, congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials."
Democracy reform advocates lambasted Manchin for focusing on the legislative process, rather than the substance of the bill. While his opposition creates a huge barrier for their cause, advocates remain determined to get the For the People Act across the finish line.
From the start, it was clear the For the People Act had little chance of getting support from 10 Republicans to help clear the 60-vote procedural threshold in the Senate. So Manchin's support was critical to passing the legislation on a party-line vote, if the filibuster could be somehow circumvented.
However, on Sunday, Manchin affirmed his stance on the filibuster, saying he would not vote to weaken or eliminate it the procedural move designed to protect the rights of the minority party. He expressed concern that doing so would only exacerbate the partisan dysfunction in Congress.
"I have always said, 'If I can't go home and explain it, I can't vote for it.' And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party's agenda," Manchin wrote in an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Democracy reform advocates agree that it would be preferable to pass the For the People Act with Republican support, but argue Manchin shouldn't allow the desire for bipartisanship to block critical voting rights legislation.
"When Sen. Manchin comes to the realization that Republicans in the Senate are not acting in good faith, he is going to have to make a decision about whether he is truly committed to protecting everyone's freedom to vote — because that fundamental right is under attack across the country," said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United and Let America Vote Action Fund, in a statement on Sunday.
An April poll conducted by Global Strategy Group and ALG Research for End Citizens United found that 79 percent of West Virginians overall, including three-quarters of Republicans in the state, supported the For the People Act.
Advocates also point out that historic, critical reforms were not always achieved in a bipartisan manner. Both the 14th and 15th amendments, which granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States and gave African American men the right to vote, were passed on party-line votes.
Over the next few weeks, democracy reform groups will keep the pressure on Manchin and others in the Senate to pass the For the People Act. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he plans on bringing the legislation to the chamber floor later this month.
On Monday, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who chairs the Rules and Administration Committee, reiterated her commitment to getting voting, ethics and campaign finance reforms passed in the Senate.
I refuse to give up the fight for voting rights. I will work with my colleagues to get critical voting, ethics an… https://t.co/nAzarteMyf— Amy Klobuchar (@Amy Klobuchar)1623080878.0
As Republican state lawmakers continue to push restrictive voting measures across the country, the call for nationwide election reforms has gotten louder and more urgent. Many advocates saw the blocking of the Jan. 6 investigative commission as an inflection point that could finally force Senate Democrats to nix the filibuster.
Fix Our Senate, a coalition of organizations that support eliminating the filibuster, underscored how time sensitive these issues are with the midterm elections quickly approaching and states soon to redraw election maps for the next decade.
"Republican governors and legislatures aren't waiting for Democrats' permission when they attack voting rights in states across the country, and there is no reason for Democrats to wait for Republicans' permission to fight back and protect voters," spokesperson Eli Zupnick said. "Very soon Sen. Manchin is going to have to choose between protecting the right to vote in America or preserving the 'Jim Crow relic' of the filibuster — there is no third option."
Although Manchin's recent announcement was not the news that reform advocates were hoping for, Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, said it won't stop his organization from continuing to "fight to save our democracy and protect our freedom to vote."
He added that it's possible Manchin could change his mind or that his position could evolve in the coming weeks. "I think he certainly has a decision to make for what side of history he wants to be on," Scherb said.
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