Iowa’s GOP governor pledges to restore voting rights to some felons

From today’s Reuters News Service:

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has committed to restoring voting rights to those with past felony convictions, according to a Radio Iowa report, potentially expanding the electorate in a state that could be competitive in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Most U.S. states restrict voting for some people with felony convictions, but Iowa is the last state where felons are barred from voting even after serving their sentences, unless they successfully apply to the governor for restoration.

The rule disenfranchised 2.2% of Iowa’s voting-age population and 9.8% of African Americans in 2016, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice.

Reynolds, a Republican, made the pledge on Tuesday, a day after she met with Black Lives Matter activists, who have held demonstrations in several Iowa cities since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

Reynolds told reporters she was consulting with “various groups,” but would issue an executive order on voting rights for felons before the November election, Radio Iowa reported.

She did not go into detail about the terms of the order, and her office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Earlier this month, Reynolds signed a bill that would require felons to pay financial damages owed as part of their sentence, as well as serving their prison time, before regaining the right to vote.

A similar rule on financial obligations in Florida was struck down by a federal court last month, after voting rights groups argued it constituted a poll tax. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has appealed the ruling.

Read the complete article here.

LeBron James to Push Voting Rights in Historically Significant Athlete-Led Political Campaign

From today’s Forbes Magazine:

It is fair to say LeBron James is launching one of the most important athlete political campaign in history. As Georgia’s primary elections this week turned into a voting meltdown, it’s become even more apparent one of the biggest unknowns heading into Election Day is if U.S. citizens will actually be able to vote. Those who are unable to vote cannot enact change at the ballot box, destroying our democracy.

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James is forming a voting rights organization along with several other prominent Black athletes and entertainers. The group, called More Than a Vote, will go beyond traditional get-out-the-vote campaigns. It will combat voter suppression, with James using his gigantic presence on social media to shed light on attempts to restrict voting access for minorities.

“Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” James told the New York Timesin an interview. “How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”

James and his longtime business partner, Maverick Carter, are putting up the initial funding for the group. Multiple former and current pro basketball players, including Trae Young, Draymond Green, Jalen Rose and WNBA guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Comedian Kevin Hart and Saints running back Alvin Kamara have reportedly committed to the group as well.

With a nation outraged over the killing of George Floyd and police violence against Black people, athletes are filling the leadership void. They are also being rewarded for their activism, with Converse signing Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud to a lucrative endorsement contract because of her outspokenness. Cloud, who is openly gay, published a poignant essay about white complicity in systemic racism, titled “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck.”

Labor council to Seattle police union: Address racism or get out

From today’s Crosscut Online:

The largest labor coalition in King County is giving the Seattle Police Officers Guild an ultimatum: acknowledge and address racism in law enforcement and in their union or risk being kicked out of the group.

In a vote Thursday, executive members of the King County Labor Coalition — a sort of union of unions — passed a resolution laying out tasks for the police guild, which represents over 1,000 rank-and-file officers.

SPOG must state that racism is an issue in law enforcement and within its own organization. The union must participate in workgroups focused on addressing racism in the union. It must commit to police contracts that do not evade accountability. And there must be consequences when professional standards are not followed and harm is done.

Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, said she wants to hear the head of the union, Mike Solan, say, “Black lives matter,” and to mean it.

The labor council is basically giving the police union one last opportunity to reform itself. SPOG has until June 17 to meet these demands, or the council will vote on whether to throw it out of the organization.

The resolution, which was brought forward by health workers’ SEIU1199 and grocery workers’ UFCW 21, also calls on Mayor Jenny Durkan to move swiftly and prioritize strong police accountability in the next round of labor negotiations with the union and to reconsider investments in law enforcement. It calls on City Attorney Pete Holmes to not prosecute protesters. 

The resolution is a dramatic turnaround for the labor council, which welcomed the police union into its ranks in late 2014 and had fought on its behalf ever since. Labor council representatives even hosted a press conference in 2018, calling on the Seattle City Council to ratify a new contract with the police union.

Read the complete article here.

Here’s how to hold police accountable: Don’t let their unions give money to prosecutors

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Amid reports from across the country about escalating clashes between protesters and law enforcement, it’s worth looking underneath the images for the roots of the outrage. It is the extrajudicial killings of unarmed people by police, and not the protests against them, that too often spark the cycle of violence and death in the United States. It is the cruel and unyielding knee on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and thousands of other police officer knees, fists and trigger fingers that undermine public safety and instill fear.

That’s why we need to demand accountability and change from law enforcement and the criminal justice establishment that too often shrugs at police violence.

The ties that bind elected officials to police unions must be broken. District attorneys and other elected prosecutors should reject campaign donations and endorsements from law enforcement labor groups, because union support compromises a prosecutor’s independence and clouds the decision over whether to criminally charge police who abuse their power. It diminishes a D.A.’s incentive to seek out and share with defense lawyers — as the 6th Amendment requires — the names of officers whose past misconduct undermines their value as prosecution witnesses. It undercuts a D.A.’s impulse to fight laws that hide from the public the names of problem officers.

Bar associations should revise their ethics rules to forbid candidates for district attorney (and city prosecutor and state’s attorney) to accept police union money. Lawmakers should adopt laws to likewise prohibit the practice — although they will find it easier to do if they, too, say no to police union largess.

Police unions have every right to advocate for the pay, benefits and working conditions of their members. But one of their tasks is to defend officers in misconduct cases, and that makes the conflict of interest readily apparent. An elected official considering whether to prosecute officers should not be, in essence, on the political payroll of the agency defending the very same people.

Read the complete article here.

Trump threatens funds for states that make it easier to vote in pandemic

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump on Wednesday threatened to hold up federal funds for two election battleground states that are trying to make it easier and safer to vote during the coronavirus pandemic.

The president’s tweets targeting Michigan and Nevada marked an escalation in his campaign against voting by mail, a practice that he has publicly worried will lead so many people to vote that Republicans will lose in November. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mail voting as a safe option during the pandemic, Trump has opposed the spread of the practice.

Wednesday marked the first time he has tried to use federal dollars to beat it back. Trump began by targeting Michigan, with a false description of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s announcement Tuesday that she would send applications for absentee ballots to every voter in the state and branding it as an invitation to voter fraud.ADVERTISING

“Michigan sends absentee ballots to 7.7 million people ahead of Primaries and the General Election,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, That brought strong criticism from Michigan and elsewhere, pointing out that the state was sending applications, not actual ballots.

About six hours after his original tweet, Trump corrected it to say “absentee ballot applications.” He kept the rest intact: “This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!”

Trump later made a similar threat against Nevada, which has sent ballots to voters for its June 9 state primary. A federal judge recently cleared Nevada’s decision to mail ballots, which were sent by the Republican secretary of state.

Read the complete article here.

The Legal Fight Over Voting Rights During The Pandemic Is Getting Hotter

From today’s NPR News Online:

The legal fight over how Americans will vote this year is rapidly turning into a war. That’s according to conservative “election integrity” advocates who accuse Democrats of using the current pandemic to push through changes that these groups say will undermine U.S. elections.

“We are watching as the Democrats and radicalized special interest groups are using this fog of COVID to fundamentally remake American elections,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, a group that says it is trying to protect against voter fraud. She spoke on Thursday during a webinar sponsored by a conservative nonprofit, the Committee for Justice.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups say that they’re actually trying to protect voters’ rights and to eliminate obstacles they believe are intended to suppress the votes of minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

Of immediate concern to both sides are efforts to expand mail-in voting in response to the pandemic. A number of states are loosening restrictions on absentee ballots so people can vote without having to go to the polls in person. More than a dozen court cases have been filed in recent weeks either challenging those changes or calling for states to do even more to make mail-in voting accessible.

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a request by True the Vote to block a Nevada plan to send absentee ballots to all active voters for the state’s June 9 primary. U.S. District Judge Miranda Du dismissed as “speculative” and “without any factual basis” the group’s claim that the plan would expose the election to fraud and thereby dilute the votes of legitimate voters.

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I’m the Judge Who Won in Wisc. This Principle Is More Important Than Winning.

From today’s New York Times:

On April 7, I was on the ballot in an election that should not have happened.

I was running for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against an appointed incumbent. I came to find out after the election that incumbents in Wisconsin have lost Supreme Court elections only twice in the last half-century — had I known that when I started, I might never have run.

The central theme of our campaign was a message of restoring the public’s trust in the judicial system. It was a winning message: We pulled in a resounding 55 percent of the vote.

And it will guide me as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. I will make decisions based on the law — we must get away from a partisan view of the law.

The election was a good example of what should not happen. Gov. Tony Evers had formally called on the Legislature to postpone it. Deadlines for returning ballots were extended.

But in a mad flurry of activity the day before the election — probably never seen before and hopefully never to be seen again — partisan court majorities in cases at the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts reinstated the election and removed the deadline extension for absentee ballots to be returned.

Scant hours before the polls opened, the people of Wisconsin were confused and worried: On one hand, their government was telling them clearly to stay away from one another. On the other, they were being told that if they wanted to continue having a democracy, they had to show up in person, stand in long lines and vote.

Read the complete article here.

Seven Wisconsin coronavirus cases linked to in-person voting

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Health officials in Wisconsin said they have identified at least seven people who appear to have contracted the coronavirus from participating in the April 7 election, the first such cases detected following in-person voting that was held despite widespread concern about the public health risks.

The cases involve six voters and one poll worker in Milwaukee, where a shortage of poll workers forced the city to pare nearly 200 voting locations back to just five, and voters — some in masks, some with no protection — were forced to wait in long lines for hours.

The conditions of the seven weren’t immediately available. City health commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she hopes to have more information later in the week. Kowalik’s office didn’t immediately respond to a question from the Associated Press asking how city health officials were able to trace the infections to the election.

The election, which included a presidential primary as well as races for a state Supreme Court seat and local offices, took place after a legal struggle between Democrats and Republicans. The day before the election, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers ordered that it be delayed and shifted to all-mail voting, only to be overturned when Republican legislative leaders won an appeal in the state’s conservative-controlled Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court’s five Republican appointees also blocked a judge’s order that would have given voters an extra week to submit their ballots by mail.

Read the complete article here.

Coronavirus Will Supercharge Election-Year Lawsuits Over Voting Rights

From today’s NPR News Online:

Election-year legal battles over voting procedures are nothing new. But their scope and intensity are growing this year amid deep partisan polarization and the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. The legal fights are expected to heat up in the coming weeks.

Exhibit A is a lawsuit filed by Democrats in Nevada on Thursday challenging the state’s plans to conduct a mostly all-mail primary on June 2 and to drastically limit in-person polling sites. Democrats say the moves — including automatically sending ballots only to voters who have taken part in recent elections, but not all registered ones — are an infringement of voter rights.

Republicans counter that Democrats want to overturn rules intended to protect the integrity of the state’s elections and would unnecessarily put voters’ health at risk.

Both Democrats and Republicans are turning to the courts to try to ensure that rules governing this year’s election don’t disadvantage their side. The litigation campaign has taken on a new urgency with the pandemic and its impact on people’s willingness and ability to go to the polls in person.

“I can assure you that we will not sit by and let Republican election officials, or the Republican Party, disenfranchise voters in a cynical effort to win elections at all costs,” said Marc Elias, the lead attorney for the Democratic Party effort. “I expect several additional voting rights cases to be filed in the coming weeks and months, all aimed at protecting the right of voters to participate in elections and have their votes counted.”

Read the complete article here.

Civil Rights Groups Push TX To Expand Absentee Voting In Face of COVID-19

From Houston Public Media/NPR Online:

Hundreds of civil rights organizations are calling on state governments to expand absentee voting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. In Texas, that may require an act of the governor.

Anthony Gutierrez, executive director with Common Cause Texas, said allowing widespread use of mail-in balloting is necessary to protect voters, who may fear to show up at the polls in large numbers and risk catching COVID-19.

But he said that’s not the only reason.

“I’m worried that election workers are simply not going to show up,” Gutierrez said, “because the vast majority of people who are working at our poll sites right now in Texas, and everywhere in America for that matter, they tend to be older Americans. They fall into that pool of people who are most at risk during this pandemic. Obviously if election workers don’t show up, poll sites don’t open. There’s nobody to operate the machines and check in voters.” 

Under Texas law, residents have to meet one of four conditions to vote absentee. They have to be over 65, overseas, in jail, or disabled. Gutierrez said that by itself should not provide a legal barrier to expanding the use of mail-in ballots.

“The Secretary of State can issue an advisory simply stating that any Texan who wants to vote by mail because of COVID-19 concerns is allowed to do so by just checking the disabled box on the form,” he said.

It’s the legislature, not the Secretary of State, that sets the criteria for eligibility for mail-in ballots. But Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said Governor Abbott has a lot of leeway on how to interpret that eligibility.

“This is an unprecedented emergency, and the governor has so far shown that he’s willing to extend a little executive muscle to make sure that people are safe,” Rottinghaus said. Abbott last week issued a proclamation allowing local governments to postpone scheduled May 2 elections to Nov. 3.

Read the complete article here.