The election is over. The fight over voting rules and gerrymanders isn’t.
By Michael Wines
With Raphael Warnock’s victory in the Georgia Senate race on Tuesday, the major midterm elections are over.
But the battles over voting rules, restrictions and political boundaries that will help determine who wins the next ones barely paused for ballot-counting before resuming in force.
Indeed, the day after Warnock’s election, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a potentially seismic case brought by Republicans in North Carolina that could give state legislatures significantly expanded power over election laws — and virtually unlimited authority to draw gerrymandered maps.
The landscape is familiar. Democrats who took control of state legislatures in Michigan and Minnesota are preparing legislation to broaden voting access, including measures in Michigan that would mandate absentee ballot drop boxes.
Republicans, who control a majority of legislatures across the country, are proposing new restrictive legislation they say would combat election fraud, though it remains exceedingly rare. And though both parties have benefited from gerrymanders, Republicans are far more likely to make it a centerpiece of their electoral strategy.
In the Ohio Legislature, Republicans are poised to pass bills that would stiffen the ID requirement for casting a ballot, limit the use of drop boxes and end automatic mailings of absentee-ballot applications to voters.
In North Carolina, a Republican sweep of state Supreme Court races last month makes it likely that the state Legislature will be able to gerrymander existing nonpartisan maps of congressional and legislative districts before the 2024 elections.
In Wisconsin, both parties are girding for an April election that will determine partisan control of the state’s already politicized Supreme Court — and either open or shut the door on a legal challenge to an impregnable Republican gerrymander of the state Legislature.
Some of that jockeying for power always goes on beneath the radar of most voters. But in the wake of more direct attacks on democracy by insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol and by election deniers in last month’s vote, the divergent legislative priorities of the two parties — and particularly Republican reliance on restrictive voting measures and supercharged gerrymanders — reflect what has become a ceaseless tug of war over the rules of American politics and governance.
“It’s not the same thing as throwing out the vote count and putting in the wrong count,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “But it’s a form of unfair gaming of the system to gain electoral advantage, in a way that shuts out legitimate voters.”
Among the states, Ohio has become a prime battleground, with fights underway over both gerrymandering and election rules. Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate seem ready to approve bills that voting rights advocates say would limit access to voting, even as the bills address bipartisan complaints about the voting process.
One example: House legislation would allow counties to operate drop boxes at a single election office during limited hours, settling any argument over their legality. But the one-location rule would apply equally to tiny Vinton County, with barely 13,000 residents, and Franklin County — home to the state capital, Columbus — with 1.3 million. Democrats said that disparity makes it much harder for urban residents, primarily Democrats, to reach a drop box.
State Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican and the chief sponsor of the bill addressing drop boxes and absentee ballots, said Democratic complaints were more knee-jerk than serious.
“Many of my colleagues want to totally eliminate drop boxes, and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t think I can do that,’” he said. “Some of the ideas on the right are not being incorporated, and the left is not going to be happy until precinct officials come to your home and give you breakfast in bed.”
Jen Miller, executive director of the Ohio chapter of the League of Women Voters, said what is at stake is anything but trivial.
“We’re talking about longer lines, more provisional ballots, a longer time processing election results and more confusion for voters,” she said. “And confusion is, by far, the number one enemy to voter turnout.”
More than a dozen bills filed for the coming session of the Texas Legislature would stiffen penalties for election violations, punish local prosecutors who decide not to file charges for them and strengthen the state’s power to investigate election results and officials.
In North Carolina, where elections flipped control of the state Supreme Court to Republicans, the GOP-dominated Legislature appears to have free rein to substitute gerrymandered maps of state legislative and congressional districts for the current, nonpartisan ones.
That would shift at least two, and possibly three, of the state’s 14 House seats from Democratic to Republican control, said Dallas Woodhouse, a former North Carolina Republican Party official who now heads the conservative South Carolina Policy Council.
“I can’t imagine a scenario where any map in North Carolina is not challenged,” he said. But “on redistricting, aside from rhetoric, I think the Democrats in North Carolina have run out of room.”
In the Wisconsin State Legislature, Republicans drew extreme gerrymanders of the state’s House and Senate in 2011 and again in 2021, locking in control of both chambers. This month, Democrats captured more than 46% of the two-party vote in races for the state Assembly, yet they won only 35 of the chamber’s 99 seats.
That control by the Republicans will be the overriding issue in an election this spring for a Supreme Court seat that will determine whether Republican justices keep their majority on the court.
Redistricting disputes in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states could hinge on the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court case heard Wednesday. In Moore v. Harper, North Carolina Republicans argue that state courts have no authority over the state Legislature’s maps of political districts — or other election procedures — even if those violate state constitutions.
Should the justices agree, judicial oversight of elections could be upended nationwide, and lawsuits over gerrymandered maps would become moot.
In Minnesota and Michigan, Democrats who won control of both chambers of both legislatures in November are planning to implement their own voting agenda.
Minnesota’s Legislature will consider measures to quickly restore voting rights to former felons, who face exceptionally long parole and probation periods before casting ballots. Automatic voter registration and preregistering of 16- and 17-year-olds also will be priorities, said Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat.
In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, is likely to ask the Democratic-run Legislature next year to allot $100 million annually to underfunded local election offices, said Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for her office.
Michigan legislators also will write bills implementing a constitutional amendment approved by voters last month that broadly expands voting rights, including allotting days for early in-person voting and requiring absentee ballot drop boxes.
The Michigan amendment followed a 2020 ballot initiative establishing an independent redistricting commission, which dismantled gerrymandered districts that had locked in Republican control of the state Legislature since 2010.
Republicans point out, accurately, that tilting the electoral map is a bipartisan sport. Some Democratic states, led by Illinois, New York and Maryland, drew their own extreme gerrymanders in the last redistricting cycle, although state courts in Maryland and especially in New York reined in those maps’ excesses.