Monthly Archives: May 2021

“Texas Democrats abandon House floor, blocking passage of voting bill before final deadline”

Alexa Ura for the Texas Tribune:

The sweeping overhaul of Texas elections and voter access was poised from the beginning of the session to pass into law. It had the backing of Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature. It had support from the governor.

Democrats who opposed the bill, chiding it as a naked attempt of voter suppression, were simply outnumbered.

But on Sunday night, with an hour left for the Legislature to give final approval to the bill, Democrats staged a walkout, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a text message to other Democrats obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Senate Bill 7, a Republican priority bill, is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process. It would create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options like drive-thru voting.

Democrats had argued the bill would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans called the bill an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud.


Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he would veto the section of the state budget that funds the Legislature, hours after a Democratic walkout killed his priority elections bill.

“No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott said in a tweet. “Stay tuned.”

Late Sunday night, enough Democrats left the House to break a quorum and block passage of the elections bill, Senate Bill 7, before a midnight deadline. Calling the bill’s failure “deeply disappointing,” Abbott quickly made clear he would call a special session to get it passed, though he has not specified a timeline.

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“Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge”

John Matsusaka has written this book for Princeton University Press that is well worth your time. Here’s the description:

Propelled by the belief that government has slipped out of the hands of ordinary citizens, a surging wave of populism is destabilizing democracies around the world. As John Matsusaka reveals in Let the People Rule, this belief is based in fact. Over the past century, while democratic governments have become more efficient, they have also become more disconnected from the people they purport to represent. The solution Matsusaka advances is familiar but surprisingly underused: direct democracy, in the form of referendums. While this might seem like a dangerous idea post-Brexit, there is a great deal of evidence that, with careful design and thoughtful implementation, referendums can help bridge the growing gulf between the government and the people.

Drawing on examples from around the world, Matsusaka shows how direct democracy can bring policies back in line with the will of the people (and provide other benefits, like curbing corruption). Taking lessons from failed processes like Brexit, he also describes what issues are best suited to referendums and how they should be designed, and he tackles questions that have long vexed direct democracy: can voters be trusted to choose reasonable policies, and can minority rights survive majority decisions? The result is one of the most comprehensive examinations of direct democracy to date—coupled with concrete, nonpartisan proposals for how countries can make the most of the powerful tools that referendums offer.

With a crisis of representation hobbling democracies across the globe, Let the People Rule offers important new ideas about the crucial role the referendum can play in the future of government.

And here’s my blurb of the book:

“Is the cure for populist anger around the world giving voters a greater say in governance through direct democracy? In Let the People Rule, John Matsusaka makes this counterintuitive argument by resorting to evidence and reason, not inflammatory rhetoric. A crucial, clearly written book for those who care about the fate of advanced democracies.”—Richard L. Hasen, author of Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy

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How Gerrymandering Shaped Major Late 19th Century National Policies

I have been reading Erik J. Engstrom’s book, Partisan Gerrymandering and the Construction of American Democracy, which is a tour de force on the history of partisan gerrymandering. I decided to put this post together to convey a sense of the fascinating stories he uncovers.

In the 19th century, after Congress began requiring single-member districts in 1842, mid-decade redistricting was common.  Ohio, for example, redistricted seven times between 1878 and 1892 – indeed, it conducted six consecutive congressional elections with six different plans during one point in this stretch.  Mid-decade redistricting was most common when the party out of power at the time the prior maps had been drawn gained control of the state’s political process in a subsequent election.  Yet in other states, districts went unchanged for decades, if the party in power continued to benefit.

In addition, when control of Congress was at stake, national party leaders pressed same-party state governments to gerrymander congressional districts aggressively.  The effects on national policy were dramatic.  In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Republicans had a near lock on control of the Senate and the Presidency, due in part to Republicans strategically admitted several new Western states that would clearly be controlled by Republicans.  Thus the House was the only place from which Democrats could fight off the Republican agenda – and the most intense period of partisan competition over control of the House before recent years was from 1872-1894.  Throughout this period, the parties were virtually tied in House elections; the swing of a few seats thus had dramatic effects on national policy.

When Republicans appeared on the verge of recapturing the House in 1878, after the disputed 1876 Hayes-Tilden presidential election, the Speaker of the House, Democrat Samuel Randall, did so explicitly enough that the New York Times reported:

Dispatches have poured in upon them [Democratic state legislators] from all parts of the country, and especially from the Democratic leaders at Washington, who have declared that the passage of this bill [on redistricting] was the only way to save the next Congress from falling into Republican hands.

In response, redistricting controlled by Democrats in Ohio and Missouri enabled Democrats to capture nine swing seats, which preserved their slim majority control of the House.  A further direct effect on voting rights followed: House Democrats eliminated federal supervision of polling places in the South, by eliminating funding for the army and federal marshals to monitor voting. 

Gerrymandering also enabled the Republicans to gain control of the House in 1888, also with major policy consequences:  on a straight-party line vote regarding the most controversial economic policy of the late 19th century, Congress passed the protectionist “McKinley Tariff.”

In contrast to modern gerrymandering, which typically involves creating a lot of safe seats, in the 19th century gerrymandering involved creating many competitive districts that were marginally tilted toward the party in power.  In this era, the political parties had far greater control over their candidates, and the parties used this power to maximize advantages to the party, without putting their incumbents in safe seats. 

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IL Democrats Redraw State Supreme Court Districts for First Time in 60 Years to Keep Control

From the Chicago Tribune (note that the one-person, one-vote doctrine does not apply to election districts for elected state supreme courts):

In addition to the legislature, Democrats doubled-down on their cartography skills, passing the first redrawing of Illinois Supreme Court boundaries in nearly 60 years due to fear that their 4-3 advantage on the high court could evaporate under the current boundaries in the 2022 election.

Democrats said their work was an attempt to equalize population among districts that had grown wildly disparate over the decades, with a district that covers much of the collar counties holding more than 3.1 million people, while two Downstate districts each hold populations of less than 1.3 million.

For decades, the current court boundaries were allowed to stand with Democrats holding a majority, helped by a constitutional requirement that three of the seven justices come from Cook County.

Last year, Democrat Thomas Kilbride of Rock Island became the first justice to lose retention as his central Illinois district turned more Republican and opponents highlighted his ties to Madigan. The new map alters the boundaries of the four court districts outside Cook County to make it easier for a Democrat to win at least one of those seats.

Senate Republican leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods said the public doesn’t view the courts as creatures of a partisan political system but would do so now as a result of the Democratic redistricting.

And in Illinois, it is Republicans who are calling for independent commissions to do redistricting:

Republican Rep. Avery Bourne of Morrisonville chastised Democrats for bucking their own party nationally by supporting a gerrymandered map. She noted that then-President Barack Obama voiced his support for independent redistricting commissions in a 2016 speech to the Illinois General Assembly and that President Joe Biden has railed against GOP efforts to pass gerrymandered maps in a number of states.

“We want it to be the independent commission that you have promised in your editorial boards, promised to your voters. It’s in alignment with what Barack Obama said on that pedestal. It’s in alignment with what your own president right now says,” said Bourne as she pointed across the chamber at Democrats. “He says that elections are being rigged through gerrymandering. It’s pretty rich to hear how you all are justifying this map.”

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“As G.O.P. Blocks Inquiry, Questions on Jan. 6 Attack May Go Unanswered”


In blocking the formation of an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Republicans in Congress have all but closed off the possibility of a full and impartial accounting for one of the most serious assaults on American democracy in history, leaving unanswered critical questions with broad implications for politics, security and public trust.

Fearing political damage from any sustained scrutiny of the attack, Republicans united in large numbers against the inquiry, moving to shift an unwelcome spotlight away from former President Donald J. Trump, his election lies that fueled the attack, and the complicity of many G.O.P. lawmakers in amplifying his false claims of widespread voter fraud.

The result is that key details about a shocking act of domestic extremism against the United States government are likely to remain shrouded in mystery, and anything new that may be revealed about the assault at the Capitol will most likely be viewed through a partisan lens, with a substantial proportion of the country rejecting the reality of what transpired.

The public may never know precisely what Mr. Trump and members of his administration did or said as a throng of his supporters stormed the Capitol while Congress met to formalize President Biden’s victory, threatening the lives of lawmakers and the vice president. The full story may never be revealed of why security officials were so unprepared for the breach of the building, supposedly one of the most secure in the nation, despite ample warnings of potential violence. The extent of the role of Republican lawmakers closely allied with Mr. Trump in planning the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally that spiraled into a brutal onslaught may remain unexplored.

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“How the new Texas voting bill would create hurdles for voters of color”

Amy Gardner for WaPo:

Texas is poised to adopt one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country, a 67-page measure with a slew of provisions that would make it harder to cast ballots by mail, give new access to partisan poll watchers and impose stiff new civil and criminal penalties on election administrators, voters and those who seek to assist them.

While Senate Bill 7 would have wide-ranging effects on voters across the state, it includes specific language that critics say would disproportionately affect people of color — particularly those who live in under-resourced and urban communities…

Similarly, the bill’s provision barring early voting before 1 p.m. on Sundays is likely to disproportionately affect the long-standing get-out-the-vote effort known as “souls to the polls,” which aims at encouraging Black churchgoers to cast their ballots right after services.

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“Texas House set to consider GOP priority voting bill after sweeping changes made behind closed doors”

Alexa Ura for the Texas Tribune:

The Texas House is expected to take up a sweeping voting bill after 5 p.m. Sunday that includes provisions to limit early voting hours, curtail local voting options and further tighten voting-by-mail.

Senate Bill 7, a GOP priority, was approved by the Senate early Sunday morning. It was negotiated behind closed doors over the last week after the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the legislation and pulled from each chamber’s version of the bill. The bill also came back with a series of additional voting rule changes, including a new ID requirement for mail-in ballots, that weren’t part of previous debates on the legislation.

Over Democrats’ objections, the Senate suspended the chamber’s own rules to narrow the window lawmakers had to review the new massive piece of legislation before giving it final approval ahead of the end of Monday’s end to the legislative session. This culminated in an overnight debate and party line vote early Sunday to sign off on a raft of new voting restrictions and changes to elections and get it one step closer to the governor’s desk.

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“Defense for some Capitol rioters: election misinformation”


Falsehoods about the election helped bring insurrectionists to the Capitol on Jan. 6, and now some who are facing criminal charges for their actions during the riot hope their gullibility might save them or at least engender some sympathy.

Lawyers for at least three defendants charged in connection with the violent siege tell The Associated Press that they will blame election misinformation and conspiracy theories, much of it pushed by then-President Donald Trump, for misleading their clients. The attorneys say those who spread that misinformation bear as much responsibility for the violence as do those who participated in the actual breach of the Capitol.

“I kind of sound like an idiot now saying it, but my faith was in him,” defendant Anthony Antonio said, speaking of Trump. Antonio said he wasn’t interested in politics before pandemic boredom led him to conservative cable news and right-wing social media. “I think they did a great job of convincing people.”

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“Is Gerrymandering About to Become More Difficult?”

Zack Stanton for Politico:

For the past five years, Duchin has led Tufts’ Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, a lab that has quietly upended conventional wisdom about how gerrymandering works by approaching the issue less as a political problem than a mathematical one. As the country sprints into a new redistricting cycle, understanding redistricting in those terms has taken on new importance—especially in light of a controversial change to the Census Bureau data that will be used to draw the new district maps.

This year, for the first time, the Census Bureau has added random noise to its data that makes it slightly inaccurate at the smallest, most zoomed-in level, but accurate at an aggregate, wide-angle view. The approach, known as “differential privacy,” aims to protect the anonymity of census respondents amid a glut of third-party online data that could otherwise make it possible to personally identify census respondents. The move has prompted a wave of criticism that redistricting based on those “noisy” numbers will be inaccurate.

Duchin, who has studied the Census’ use of differential privacy for the past year, has come to a different conclusion: that, in terms of drawing districts and enforcing Voting Rights Act provisions, the effect of the noise is negligible. But, in something of a surprise, Duchin also found that this noise might actually make it more difficult to do extreme gerrymandering in the new districts—which could actually complicate partisans’ designs for the 2022 congressional maps.

“If you build your district starting with the tiniest particles—in other words, if you do the practices that are associated with gerrymandering and make microdetailed plans—[differential privacy] is going to mess up your numbers more than if you start with larger units and only use the little units to tune at the end,” said Duchin.

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A Harbinger of Things to Come?

A disturbing story about the just-completed race for Mayor in Anchorage:

For Anchorage election workers, this month’s mayoral runoff was like no other. Citizen observers crowded outside the Election Center, photographing workers and writing down their license plate numbers. Inside, they filed challenge after challenge to routine counting procedures.

At times, the observers grew openly hostile. Several officials were “accosted” in the parking lot, according to the city clerk’s office. Emailed threats poured in, with one announcing that election officials “should be publicly executed.”

Meanwhile, the clerk’s office said, false claims flowed on local talk radio and blogs about “blank ballots” being smuggled into the Election Center, part of an effort to “sow distrust among voters.” Dave Bronson, the Republican candidate, parked an RV outside the center to provide 24/7 surveillance.

The result, according to a report released this week by the Anchorage city clerk, was “unprecedented harassment of election officials.”…

Voting by mail, which grew in popularity during the pandemic, has particularly drawn the ire of conservatives due to Trump’s baseless attacks on the process. Anchorage has for years used a universal mail-in system, sending ballots to every registered voter in the city. But during the campaign, the Daily News reported, Bronson supporters repeatedly questioned and attacked the mail-in procedures….

Dunbar’s campaign warned that the observers’ tactics against officials were aimed at casting false doubt on the election — and could have led to serious conflict had Bronson lost.

“The national playbook is happening right here in this little election, too. It’s alarming to see it even on this level,” Claire Shaw, Dunbar’s campaign manager, told The Post. “If the election doesn’t go your way, then you can claim it’s fraud.”

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“GOP senators block Jan. 6 Commission, likely ending bid for independent probe of Capitol riot”


The bipartisan push to launch an independent and nonpartisan investigation of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol suffered a fatal blow Friday, after nearly all Senate Republicans banded together in opposition.

The 54 to 35 outcome, which fell six votes shy of the 60 needed to circumvent a procedural filibuster, followed hours of overnight chaos as lawmakers haggled over unrelated legislation. The vote stood as a blunt rejection by Republicans of an emotional last-minute appeal from the family of a Capitol Police officer who died after responding to the insurrection, and an eleventh-hour bid by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to save the measure by introducing changes intended to address her party’s principal objections.

In its wake, many senators who had supported the commission were openly angry, as even the Democrats’ most moderate senator blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for killing a bill to score political points, instead of doing what was right.ADVERTISING

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told reporters that there were “an awful lot of other Republicans that would have supported” the commission “if it hadn’t been for his intervention,” guessing that but for McConnell’s whipping, “13 or 14” GOP senators might have voted for the bill.

In the last two weeks, only a handful of Republican senators have expressed positive sentiments about a commission. On Friday, six of them — Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Collins — joined all voting Democrats to back the commission. All except Portman voted earlier this year to convict Trump on impeachment charges for inciting an insurrection.

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“It’s Not Complacency That’s Paralyzing Democrats”

From David Frum (@davidfrum), at The Atlantic (sub-titled: An overambitious faction of the activist left is standing in the way of voting-rights reform):

Here are two leading examples.

Republican gerrymandering works by stuffing as many as possible of a state’s Democratic-leaning voters, especially Black voters, into the fewest possible districts. Gerrymanders improve Republican election outcomes—but also deliver super-safe seats to minority officeholders. The reform bills would promote independent commissions in place of partisan gerrymandering. That project would boost Democratic prospects in general, but could threaten Black Democratic incumbents.

Here’s another example.

The House versions of the reform bills take aim at big money in politics by offering federal matching grants to campaign contributions of up to $200 in the amazing ratio of 6 to 1: Donate $200 to the congressional candidate of your choice, and you would also direct their way an additional $1,200 in federal money. That plan horrifies many mainstream Democrats, who interpret it as a massive windfall for unelectable left-wing insurgent candidates running primary campaigns against more electable centrists.

It’s squabbles among the passengers, not dilatoriness by the conductors, that have sidetracked the train.

It goes without saying that posting pieces does not indicate agreement with them, nor do I plan to get in the habit of indicating points on which I might disagree. But in this case, I want to suggest on the first point it would have better to say that gerrymandering reform “is perceived by some to threaten Black Democratic incumbents.” As long as these reforms do not change Section 2 of the VRA, and no reformers have suggested that, the VRA districts in which incumbents currently sit would not be threatened. Still, most incumbents are highly risk-averse and want their districts to be as safe as possible, which is why perceptions can matter a great deal.

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