By Adam Eichen, Alasdair MacKenzie, and Danny Holt
The state of our democracy is constantly in flux. Even for those who spend their time in democracy’s trenches, it’s very hard to keep track of everything that happens across all 50 states, and while many attacks on democracy make the headlines, some pass under the radar, obscured from public view. At the same time, some hard-won victories push us closer to one-person, one-vote, but never enter the spotlight.
If we are going to build a strong movement for citizen equality, we need to keep better track of the terrain on which we stand.
So starting this month, Equal Citizens will begin chronicling the most significant events in U.S. democracy: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We will curate a monthly list of citizens’ victories and anti-democratic actions to celebrate the places where we prevail and highlight the places that need improvement.
This edition contains events from June and July, bringing us up to speed on the events this summer. Much has happened, from blatant attacks on democracy in North Carolina, to a wide range of pro-democracy ballot initiatives qualifying for the November elections. And overshadowing it all was the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, which will likely have major consequences for our democracy in the years to come.
1) Maine Approves Ranked-Choice Voting (June 12)
The people of Maine voted yes on Question 1, a referendum to repeal a law passed by the state legislature that suspended the implementation of ranked-choice voting. In doing so, they cemented Maine’s status as the first and only state in the nation to use ranked-choice voting for select elections.
2) Citizens Gather Signatures to Place Pro-Democracy Initiatives on November Ballot (June-July)
- In Michigan, voters collected enough signatures to put an automatic and same-day voter registration initiative on the state’s November ballot. The measure would also allow voters to use straight-ticket voting, in which citizens can vote for one party’s entire slate of nominees with a single notation. Voters also obtained enough signatures to place on the ballot a proposal that would amend the Michigan Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission for state legislative and Congressional districts. This second initiative was challenged in court, but the Michigan’s Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality.
- In North Dakota, an anti-corruption ballot initiative to alter the state constitution was placed on the November ballot. The proposed amendment, among other things, would ban lobbyists from giving gifts to public officials, ban public officials from serving as lobbyists within two years of leaving the government, and establish an ethics commission to investigate lobbyists, officials, and candidates.
3) Judge Strikes Down Kansas Proof-of-Citizenship Law (June 18)
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ruled that Kansas’s law requiring individuals to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote was a violation of the Constitution and the National Voter Registration Act. At least 25,000 Kansans regained their ability to vote as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach complied with a federal court ruling striking down this requirement (July 9).
4) Court Strikes Down Virginia House Gerrymander (June 26)
A panel of federal judges ruled that the boundaries of 11 Virginia House districts discriminated against African-Americans. The court ruled that the districts must be redrawn by the end of October 2018. This was a major victory in the fight against gerrymandering.
The Massachusetts state legislature passed automatic voter registration, under which all eligible residents who complete transactions with the state through the Registry of Motor Vehicles or the public healthcare system will be registered to vote. The bill went to the governor’s desk and was signed in August.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker found the Florida Department of State’s ban on early voting sites on college and university campuses to be unconstitutional, calling the ban “facially discriminatory on account of age.”
The Campaign Legal Center reached a settlement with the Arizona Sec. of State and the Maricopa County Recorder in a lawsuit challenging the state’s voter registration process. As part of the settlement, Arizona will end its dual registration requirement, which demands that voters register for state and federal elections separately. This change will effectively enfranchise many Arizonans in elections where they previously would have faced obstacles to voting.
The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. This was a small, but significant step towards accountability.
9) Baltimore Sends Public Financing to Ballot (June 26)
The Baltimore City Council voted to propose a November ballot initiative that, if approved by the city mayor and then the public, would create a public fund to match small donations, similar to the program that has been implemented successfully in New York City for three decades. The Baltimore Mayor signed off on the Democracy Charter Amendment on July 30th and voters will now have the chance to vote on the proposal.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to block a lawsuit challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, ruling that the administration may have added the question illegally. It is widely believed that the proposed citizenship question will skew the census and produce a racially discriminatory miscount, affecting political representation for a decade.
- A Win in Indiana Against Voter Purges (June 11)
- March on Harrisburg Protestors Camp out in the PA Governor’s Office for Redistricting (June 26)
- DC Council Funds DC Fair Elections (June 26)
- NAACP Challenges Prison Gerrymandering in Connecticut (June 28 )
- Marion County, Indiana Opens More Early Voting Sites (July 12)
- California Vote-By-Mail Becomes Easier (July 18)
- Iowa Ordered to Undo Early Voting Restrictions (July 25) (Overturned in August)
1) Russians Find First Target for 2018 Midterms (July 25)
As she began her 2018 re-election campaign, Senator Claire McCaskill, a vocal critic of Russia, was targeted by the same Russian intelligence agency that perpetrated the 2016 election cyberattacks. McCaskill has said that the cyberattack against her campaign was unsuccessful.
2) Pennsylvania GOP Undermines Gerrymandering Bill (June 16)
After the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee voted to advance redistricting reform, Republicans in the state senate attached to it a constitutional amendment rider to gerrymander the elections of state judges. This amendment would give Republicans an opportunity to replace the Democratic majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. While the bill was never passed, this maneuver effectively killed any prospect of gerrymandering reform in Pennsylvania before the next redistricting cycle.
3) Public Financing in Maine Held Hostage (June 27)
In 1996, Maine adopted a full public-financing system for statewide elections. This year, a drafting error in the state budget has prevented the Maine Ethics Commission from providing a large portion of the public financing grants to eligible candidates. A group of Republican politicians have held the program hostage, refusing to correct the error, causing panic over whether the funds would be allocated. The state’s governor, Paul LePage, compounded the problem by refusing to sign a financial order allocating a separate pool of money to candidates. In August, the Maine Superior Court forced the governor to disburse these latter funds to candidates, and advocates are hoping to use this ruling to release the funds blocked by aforementioned drafting error.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have withdrawn the state from Interstate Crosscheck, a multi-state voter registration database run through the Kansas secretary of state’s office aimed at catching duplicate voter registrations across state borders. Interstate Crosscheck has been widely criticized as a ploy to remove voters from rolls in the name of unsubstantiated concerns about voter fraud.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a law requiring citizens to register at least twenty days before elections in which they intend to vote, even though plaintiffs argued that the law effectively disenfranchised many Massachusetts voters. A lower court had previously struck down the registration deadline.
1) North Carolina GOP Continues its Assault on Democracy (June and July)
The North Carolina GOP’s summer of assaults on democracy included gerrymandering district court maps in predominantly Democratic-leaning counties, attempting to shorten the state’s early voting period, and designing undemocratic constitutional amendments that would, among other things, implement a voter ID law and usurp the power to control judicial appointments. North Carolina Republicans then capped off July by attempting to block voters from receiving information about their harmful constitutional amendments. Typically, ballot initiatives are accompanied by captions that explain each proposed law, but Republicans passed a bill to eliminate those captions for the upcoming election.
2) The Supreme Court Guts the Voting Rights Act (Again) (June 25)
In Abbott v. Perez, the Supreme Court ruled that an alleged racial gerrymander in Texas was constitutional despite plaintiffs’ claims that the plan effectively suppressed the votes of racial minorities. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that court should “presume” that district-drawing legislatures have acted in “good faith” when drawing district boundaries, making it more difficult for plaintiffs to prove intentional racism in district map-making. The Court, in effect, gutted elements of the Voting Rights Act.
New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu signed a bill that will effectively levy a poll tax on college students who come to New Hampshire from other states. The new law requires would-be voters to prove in-state residency by registering their cars with the state, a process that can cost hundreds of dollars, and obtaining a New Hampshire driver’s license. As such, the law is expected to depress voting among college students and hand an electoral advantage to Republicans.
4) Treasury Department Opens the Door for Dark Money (July 16)
The Treasury Department announced that it would stop requiring most non-profits to report their donors to the IRS, thereby eliminating a key difference between non-profits and political committees and exacerbating the problem of dark money.
House Republicans approved a spending bill that did not include new funding for election security grants for states, despite the fact that many states have out-of-date voting systems.
Supreme Court refuses to rule on gerrymandering.
The Supreme Court ruled in Gill v. Whitford (June 19) that the plaintiffs in the case challenging partisan gerrymandered districts in Wisconsin lacked standing to sue. The Court unanimously remanded the case, although Justice Elena Kagan’s concurring opinion offered advice to the plaintiffs on how to proceed with their suit. Similarly, the Supreme Court remanded a North Carolina gerrymandering case called Common Cause v. Rucho (June 25) for the same reason they had remanded Gill v. Whitford. While these were not direct attacks on democracy, the lack of a decision allowed partisan gerrymandering to remain in place for the near term.
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Adam Eichen is Equal Citizens Communications Strategist and co-author of Daring Democracy.
Alasdair MacKenzie is a research intern at Equal Citizens and a rising senior at Harvard College.
Danny Holt is a research intern at Equal Citizens and a rising sophomore at Wesleyan University.