Voting Rights
Glenn Youngkin

Gov. Glenn Youngkin

Glenn Youngkin

After years of opposing early voting laws, Republicans in Virginia and nationally have been mounting an effort this summer to convince conservative voters to take advantage of those same laws, while former President Donald Trump and some Virginia Republicans have undermined their efforts.

Trump repeatedly opposed early voting and voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Though he has personally cast absentee ballots multiple times, Trump falsely claimed that mail-in voting leads to fraud and urged Republicans to block it.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” he tweeted on April 8, 2020. “Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

After losing his reelection bid, Trump baselessly claimed the election was unfair because of mail-in voting. “’I’ve been talking about mail-in voting for a long time. It’s really destroyed our system. It’s a corrupt system. And it makes people corrupt even if they aren’t by nature, but they become corrupt; it’s too easy,” he said on Nov. 5, 2020.

In Virginia, the Republican majority in the House of Delegates passed an array of bills in the 2023 legislative session that would have made it harder to vote early. The bills would have eliminated ballot drop boxes, cut the in-person early voting period down from 45 days to just two weeks, and ended the automatic vote-by-mail list. The bills each died in the Democratic-led Senate.

John Stirrup, a Republican currently running for the House of Delegates in a competitive district, called the 45-day early voting period “ridiculous.”

“Too many people have easy access to voting. Voting needs to be tightened up,” Stirrup said at a candidate forum in May, according to the Prince William Times.

Now some Republicans are changing their tune on early voting.

On July 11, the Republican Party of Virginia released a video in which Gov. Glenn Youngkin urged his fellow Republicans and swing voters to vote early in person or by mail ahead of the general election in November, when all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot.

“We’re making Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family, and to take us to the next level, I need your early vote this year,” Youngkin said. “We can’t go into our elections down thousands of votes, and you can secure your vote before Election Day. Join the permanent absentee list or make a plan to vote early by mail or in person.”

The Republican National Committee launched a national effort to encourage early voting.

On July 24, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel announced a campaign to encourage voters to “Bank Your Vote” before Election Day, starting with an early voting operation in Wisconsin in 2024.

“To beat Joe Biden and Democrats like Tammy Baldwin in 2024, we must ensure that Republicans bank as many pre-Election Day votes as possible in Wisconsin,” McDaniel said in a press release. “The RNC is proud to work with Republican leaders across the state to encourage voters to Bank Your Vote and deliver Republican victories up and down the ballot next November.”

The GOP even enlisted Trump to help with the effort. He urged supporters to vote early in a 40-second video message released on July 26.

“We must defeat the far left at their own game, or our country will never recover from this disastrous crooked Biden administration. Sign up at now and join the Republican effort to win big in 2024. We’re going to win, and we’re going to make America great again,” Trump said.

Just two days later, he appeared on John Fredericks’ right-wing radio program in Virginia and contradicted that message.

“We should have one-day voting, we should have paper ballots, and we should have voter ID and you’d have honest elections,” Trump said. “When you see these votes when they take 42 days and they have ballots sitting all over the place, it’s a disgrace. We’re like a third-world country.”

The same week, Axios reported that the GOP majority on the Richmond Electoral Board voted to reduce the number of early voting sites in the city from three to one, claiming budgetary concerns. The move eliminated satellite voting locations in downtown and South Richmond, where many of the city’s Black and Hispanic voters reside.

Reprinted with permission from American Independent.

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Janet Protasiewicz

Judge Janet Protasiewicz

Judge Janet Protasiewicz was sworn in on Tuesday afternoon as the ninth justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, cementing a five–member liberal majority that could hear major cases on issues such as abortion and gerrymandering, potentially reshaping the legal landscape of the state.

Protasiewicz took the oath of office at the state Capitol rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin. The liberal Justice Ann Walsh Bradley administered the oath in front of hundreds of observers.

“We all want a Wisconsin where our freedoms are protected; we all want a Wisconsin with a fair and impartial Supreme Court; we all want to live in communities that are safe, and we all want a Wisconsin where everyone is afforded equal justice under the law,” Protasiewicz said. “That’s why I don’t take this responsibility lightly.”

Protasiewicz’s swearing-in marks the end of 15 years of conservative control of the court.

The new majority on the court is predicted to strike down the state’s abortion ban, which was passed in the mid-19th century but was rendered unenforceable for decades by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling, and throw out the state’s legislative maps. Critically, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin’s liberal majority will be a bulwark against Republican attempts to limit voting access.

In an election held in April, Protasiewicz, formerly a prosecutor and a Milwaukee County judge, defeated conservative former Justice Daniel Kelly by an 11-point landslide. Protasiewicz’s campaign for the open seat centered on abortion — it said in one of her first campaign ads that she supported “a woman’s freedom to make her own decision on abortion” — and the state’s legislative maps, which she called rigged.

Interest groups and donors were aware of the stakes. During the election, powerful pro- and anti-abortion rights groups broke along ideological lines to support Protasiewicz and Kelly, while labor unions and business groups, political parties, and wealthy in-state and out-of-state donors spent heavily to back their favored candidate. The race between Kelly and Protasiewicz was by far the most expensive state supreme court election in modern history, costing at least $56 million. Even that figure, according to WisPolitics, is likely an undercount.

Voter turnout also broke records. Nearly 2 million Wisconsin residents voted in the election. In the last race for Supreme Court, in 2020, 1.5 million Wisconsinites cast a ballot.

“The election of Janet Protasiewicz changed the balance of power, breaking what has for years been an extreme conservative stranglehold on Wisconsin’s State Supreme Court,” state Rep. Lisa Subeck, a Democrat, said in an email sent to the American Independent Foundation. “This opens the door to a new era of fairness on the court, and this gives us great hope on a number of issues.”

“With a case challenging Wisconsin’s criminal abortion ban already filed and expected to make its way to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, flipping the conservative majority on the court was vital to ensuring our case is given fair consideration,” she added. “Protasiewicz’s presence on the court means abortion could again be available in Wisconsin in the not-so-distant future.”

On June 28, 2022, days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul, both Democrats, filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion ban in the Dane County Circuit Court. In July of this year, Dane County Circuit Judge Diane Schlipper rejected arguments from state Republicans that the case should be thrown out and allowed the lawsuit to continue.

Also in play are Wisconsin’s legislative maps, which determine how voters are grouped into districts. By strategically creating electoral districts, Republican map drawers have divided voters so as to give the GOP an advantage in the state’s elections for the General Assembly and Senate, a strategy called gerrymandering. Under the current maps, Democrats would have to win by landslide margins to have a chance of securing even a narrow majority in the Assembly.

Right now, despite Democrats having won the last statewide election, Republicans in Wisconsin are two Assembly seats from a supermajority in the Legislature that would allow them to impeach elected state officials and override the governor’s veto.

“If the court were to rule our legislative maps — considered by experts to be the most politically gerrymandered in the nation — unconstitutional, voters could finally have their say in choosing their representatives,” Subeck said. “This comes after more than a decade of unfair maps drawn to ensure a large Republican majority and a decade later redrawn to expand and bake in that majority for another ten years, even as the voters of the state elect Democrats in nearly every statewide election.”

A challenge is already in the works. Subeck noted that Law Forward, a progressive nonprofit law firm, has announced that it plans to file a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s legislative maps later this year.

Law Forward declined to comment for this story.

“I think there’s general agreement that the legal action that will be filed will result in a reopening of the redistricting that occurred … in 2021, and a revisiting of the maps,” Jay Heck, the director of the nonpartisan good government group Common Cause Wisconsin, told the American Independent Foundation in an interview.

Originally, during the 2021 redistricting cycle, the conservative majority on the state Supreme Court selected maps drawn by Evers. However, after Republicans in the Legislature filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court, the six-justice conservative majority overturned the state court’s decision. Conservatives on the state Supreme Court then adopted gerrymandered maps that gave Republicans a significant advantage.

Heck said that in their dissent, the three progressive justices “said that those maps were too partisan, that they disenfranchised lots of voters who don’t really have the opportunity to be able to have their votes count as much as someone voting for a Republican because of the way some districts were drawn. And so I would assume that that would be the basis of the lawsuit.”

If the maps are ruled unconstitutional the court could take a variety of steps to replace them, as redistricting fights in other states show. For example, in 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Republican-drawn congressional maps on the grounds that they were gerrymandered and asked the state to provide new, less partisan maps, but then-Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Legislature couldn’t come to an agreement. The court ultimately imposed maps of its own.

Heck said he doesn’t think that the court would draw its own maps, but that it would instead solicit maps from elected officials and make a selection from among them, as the conservative majority on the court did in 2021.

“Evers did a very good job of submitting maps that were less partisan and less Republican-leaning than the maps that the Republican Legislature gave to the Supreme Court, which they accepted and ultimately chose 4-3,” he said. “I think that would be the leading candidate as an alternative.

“Now they might decide to select other maps that are there,” Heck added. “Here’s the thing: Maps can be drawn relatively quickly by lots of different entities. And they may say, Well, we will, in the next month, look at some other maps. And so you can imagine the scrambling that I’m sure is already happening to do that.”

In the 2021 round of redistricting, Common Cause Wisconsin supported the maps drawn by Evers’ office. Heck said that, barring unforeseen circumstances, the group would do the same if the Republican maps were thrown out.

Looking ahead to 2024, Heck said, “I think the state Supreme Court majority will be more kindly towards voting, as opposed to the conservative majority that was less friendly.”

Heck pointed to two decisions handed down by the court’s conservatives: one last year to end the use of ballot drop-boxes and another barring election clerks from adding minor details, such as an omitted zip code, on ballots that would otherwise not be counted. Heck called the rulings “death by a thousand cuts to voting in Wisconsin.”

“Under 30,000 separat[ed] the winner and the loser in four of the six elections for president in Wisconsin since 2000, and that’s out of 3.5, 3.6 million votes cast. So it’s infinitesimal, the separation. So every vote literally does matter here,” Heck said.

Reprinted with permission from American Independent.