Coronavirus relief talks restart as jobless aid divides GOP and Democrats

From today’s CNBC News Online:

Democrats and Trump administration officials will sit down again Monday afternoon to try to hammer out an elusive deal on a fifth coronavirus aid bill. 

Negotiators House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows plan to meet at 1 p.m. ET as the sides find themselves far from an agreement. The discussions will follow Sunday’s staff-level talks on a package to help rein in a raging pandemic and jolt a flailing U.S. economy. 

The effort has gained urgency after a $600 per week federal unemployment benefit expired at the end of July. The extra aid has helped tens of millions of jobless people afford food and housing as the economy reels during the outbreak. 

Pelosi has indicated the sides made more progress in talks over the weekend than they did in discussions last week. Asked Monday how far apart Democrats and Republicans are, the speaker said she would wait to see how Monday’s talks go. 

“Well, let’s see when we meet today,” she told CNN. “It’s absolutely essential that we reach agreement.” 

Disagreements over how to structure unemployment insurance have stood in the way of a deal. Democrats have insisted on continuing the $600 weekly sum. They passed a House bill in May to extend the aid into next year.

Republicans, who questioned the need for more pandemic relief before they released a proposal last week, want to slash the extra benefit to $200 per week through September. They would then set the aid at 70% wage replacement.

Read the complete article here.

The Supreme Court just handed down some truly awful news for voting rights

From today’s Vox News Online:

The Supreme Court handed down two briefunsigned orders on Friday concerning what restrictions states may place on absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Though neither order is a final judgment — one grants a temporary stay of a lower court decision, the other denies expedited review of an important voting rights case — the practical impact of both orders is that voters in Alabama and Texas will find it harder to cast a ballot during the pandemic.

The Texas order is particularly ominous because it suggests that Texas will be able to apply election rules that ensure older, Republican-leaning voters have an easy time casting a ballot — while younger voters could be forced to risk infection in order to vote.

The Alabama case

The Alabama case is Merrill v. People First of Alabama. Alabama law allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot during the pandemic, but it also imposes certain restrictions on those voters. Among other things, absentee voters must provide a copy of their photo ID, and their ballot must be signed by either two witnesses or one notary public.

A lower court blocked these restrictions “for voters who cannot safely obtain the signatures of two witnesses or a notary public due to the COVID-19 pandemic” and “for absentee voters who are over the age of 65 or disabled and who cannot safely obtain a copy of their photo ID due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” But the Supreme Court stayed that lower court decision — ensuring that, at the very least, the restrictions will be in place for Alabama’s July 14 runoff primary election.

Notably, the Supreme Court’s order in Merrill was joined only by the Court’s five Republicans. All four Democratic appointees dissented. Neither side explained why they voted the way they did.

The Texas case

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

Read the complete article here.

California considers unprecedented $25 billion recovery fund and rental relief

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on Monday. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.”

The proposals are scheduled to be formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Sacramento, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom sends lawmakers a plan to erase a short-term budget deficit that could total more than $54 billion.

Neither the renter-assistance program nor the economic recovery fund would have a direct effect on the state budget in the coming weeks and months. Still, lawmakers believe both ideas could boost California’s shattered economy.

The unconventional effort to help renters would ask landlords to forgive rent payments in exchange for equally sized tax credits spread out over a 10-year period starting in 2024. The tax credits would be transferable, meaning the property owner could sell them to an outside investor and get cash immediately.

“This is a substantive proposal that protects those who are struggling to afford their rent and also keeps rental properties from going into foreclosure,” state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said. “This equitable strategy will keep people housed.”

Some local governments have already stepped up to address concerns about renters being evicted during the public health crisis, promoting a variety of rental assistance programs. Pending legislation at the state Capitol also seeks to prevent evictions during the coronavirus state of emergency, which was declared by Newsom in March and has no targeted end date.

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.

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.

Democrats must make voting reform nonnegotiable for the next stimulus bill

From today’s Vox News Online:

The political climate in the US is tumultuous. The Covid-19 pandemic hangs over everything even as a dozen other issues — an oil crisis, a divided Democratic Party, and a corrupt, impeached president — compete for our scant remaining attention.

Into that muddle, I would like to introduce what I hope is a note of clarity, a fixed point around which all Americans of good faith ought to be able to rally.

To wit: Americans need to have safe, free, and fair federal elections in November.

The date of the election can’t be moved; it’s in the Constitution. The country is in a fragile, distrustful place already, and a chaotic election viewed by large swathes of the population as illegitimate could tip it over into a full-fledged constitutional crisis or even violence. This is a make-or-break issue for the country.

There is no way to stop Trump from characterizing the election as compromised; he accuses opponents of fraud in all elections, whether he wins or not. He has already tried to cheat in the 2020 election — got impeached for it just a couple of months/centuries ago — and will undoubtedly continue trying, even as he ramps up accusations against Democrats. He assumes Democrats will do the exact same thing: cheat and accuse him of cheating.

His tweet Wednesday morning captured his argument succinctly:

Donald J. Trump✔@realDonaldTrump Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans. @foxandfriends

Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans. @foxandfriends128K5:20 AM – Apr 8, 2020Twitter Ads info and privacy69.2K people are talking about this

And where Trump goes, right-wing state media, led by Fox, dutifully follow. They will back him up with conspiracy theories about voter fraud that at least some large part of the core conservative base will believe.

But what happens around the margins matters. Committed partisans will line up the same way regardless of the fact that voting is not partisan (Utah, a red state, has a 100 percent vote-by-mail system.) But that leaves a large, fuzzy, semi-engaged class of voters whose opinion of the election will be shaped by their personal experience and the signals they receive from trusted sources about the validity of the process.

The best way for Democrats to ensure that November’s elections are viewed as free and fair amid a coronavirus pandemic is to make them so. The best way to make them so, in the time remaining, is to implement universal access to postage-paid mail-in ballots with extended deadlines, serviced by a funded and functional Postal Service. (This is not the only reform needed, but it is the backbone.)

Read the complete article here.

Federal government is weighing an infrastructure push to create jobs

From today’s New York Times:

Fears are growing that the global downturn could be far more punishing and long lasting than initially feared — potentially enduring into next year, and even beyond — as governments intensify restrictions on business to halt the spread of the pandemic, and fear of the virus impedes consumer-led economic growth.

“This is already shaping up as the deepest dive on record for the global economy for over 100 years,” said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a Harvard economist and co-author of “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly,” a history of financial crises. “Everything depends on how long it lasts, but if this goes on for a long time, it’s certainly going to be the mother of all financial crises.”

Stocks on Wall Street tumbled, with the S&P 500 closing down more than 4 4 percent, bringing its decline over two days to 6 percent, as investors braced for worsening economic conditions ahead.

The economic readings continue to worsen as well. On Wednesday, surveys of manufacturing and factory activity in the United States, Europe and Japan showed activity slowing to levels not seen in a decade or more. In the United States, factory orders and employment measures fell to their lowest since 2009, the Institute for Supply Management said.

In Washington, there was growing concern that the $2 trillion stimulus package enacted last week could be insufficient. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as President Trump, are increasingly looking toward enacting a huge new infrastructure plan that could create thousands of jobs.

Read the complete article here.

Stacey Abrams Spearheads ‘Fair Fight,’ A Campaign Against Voter Suppression

From today’s NPR News Online:

A few dozen volunteers are spending a Saturday morning in a hotel conference room in Macon, Ga., for a boot camp of sorts on fighting voter suppression.

“We are walking into a year that’s going to be exciting, a little bit stressful,” explains Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight Action. The group is waging a campaign against voter suppression in the 2020 election.

“We’re gonna be working a lot, but we’re ready for it,” she says.

Fair Fight is spearheaded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention in 2018 after losing a close race for governor in an election clouded by allegations of voter suppression.

“This is not a speech of concession,” she said at the time, after losing by fewer than 55,000 votes to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper.”

Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House, broke new ground with her gubernatorial campaign, driving up the share of Democratic voters in a state where Republicans have dominated.

There was record turnout for a midterm election but also hours-long waits at some polls, election server security breaches and allegations that strict adherence on signature matches dampened participation.

Abrams says the defeat galvanized her to launch Fair Fight.

“In the wake of the election, my mission was to figure out what work could I do, even if I didn’t have the title of governor,” Abrams says. “What work could I do to enhance or protect our democracy? Because voting rights is the pinnacle of power in our country.”

Read the complete article here.

For Some Iowa Voters, Caucuses Remain A Barrier To Participation

From today’s NPR News Online:

Marlu Abarca has lived in Iowa for a decade and says she now “identifies as an Iowan.” For the past few weeks, she has been attending training sessions to chair a satellite caucus site at the South Suburban YMCA in Des Moines.

She’ll have to miss work to participate. “I have to take vacation to chair the satellite caucus,” Abarca, 28, said during a lunch break from her job at a Des Moines library.

Abarca is far from the only Iowan who has to make special arrangements to participate in Monday’s caucuses or who may be unable to participate at all. To caucus, voters have to show up in person at 7 p.m. CT, at a specific location. They can expect to spend some time, multiple hours even, at that location.

That tends to pose problems for a lot of voters: parents who don’t have child care options; employees who work irregular schedules and can’t take time off; and people with disabilities who may struggle to navigate a process that demands a lengthy amount of physical presence, often in a crowded room.

Iowa is home to more than 3 million people, of which there are about 2 million registered voters, but the most that have participated in a presidential caucus was about 240,000 for the 2008 Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In 2016, slightly more than 171,000 people turned out for the Democratic caucuses.

“I think that there are more accessible ways to involve people in the democratic process. After being in Iowa for 10 years and identifying as an Iowan, I understand why being the first in the nation and having something like a caucus feels so special to Iowans,” Abarca said. “The Midwest is often left out in a lot of conversations nationally. So to get this type of attention is different … But we have to recognize that we inherently don’t have a society that’s inclusive and values people’s right to vote.”

With an eye toward making the caucuses more accessible for all voters, the Iowa Democratic Party has ushered in some changes, including early check-in and a streamlined process for voters to sort out their support for candidates. They’ve also expanded “satellite caucuses.”

Read the complete article here.

WA state Senate Democrats advance bill to restore felons’ voting rights faster

From today’s Tacoma News Tribune:

A bill that would make about 9,000 felons eligible to vote is moving ahead in the Washington state Legislature, as Democratic senators vow to expand democracy by removing a barrier they say is rooted in systemic racism.

Senate Bill 6228 would make felons automatically eligible to vote once they are released from state prison. Under current law, they are eligible once they have completed community custody — formerly known as probation — and that can take several years.

“The very essence of community custody is to get people back on the right track, to reintegrate them into society and to reduce the chances of re-offending,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Patty Kuderer, a Bellevue Democrat. “Restoring the right to vote and the right to participate in our democracy is an important tool for that reintegration process.”

Stressing that her bill addresses a “major equality and social justice issue,” Kuderer said blacks and Native Americans are overly represented in the criminal justice system. As a result, they are “disproportionately stripped of their voting rights, diminishing their representation,” she said.

A Senate committee on Friday approved the bill, putting it one step closer to a vote by the Democratic-controlled Senate. If it becomes law, the measure would take effect in 2021.

Read the complete article here.