New TN law penalizes protesters with felony and loss of voting rights

From today’s CNN Online:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation on Thursday that will increase penalties for individuals caught camping on state property.

Bill HB 8005 increases the punishment for camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a class E felony that is punishable by up to six years in prison.

Signing of the bill comes as protesters have been camping outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, demanding a meeting with the Republican governor to discuss racial inequality and police brutality since June, according to the Washington Post. Protesters are also asking for the removal of a Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the State Capitol. Forrest was a slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader.

Campers would first be given a warning and those who refuse to leave would then be charged with a felony. Notably, convicted felons in Tennessee lose their right to vote, which could be a major blow to protesters amid a high-stakes election year.

Lee’s signing of the bill comes just one week after the GOP-controlled General Assembly first passed the legislation. At the time, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally, a Republican, touted the bill as a preventative measure against the forming of autonomous zones like the ones in other major cities.

“It is to prevent what has happened in other cities like Portland and Washington, DC,” McNally said at a news conference after the measure passed. “If people, knowingly violate the law, knowingly thumb their nose at authority and don’t do what authorities have requested they do, they should be charged with a serious crime.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth, said at the same news conference that the bill was to crack down on “criminal elements” and protect law enforcement officers.

Read the complete article here.

Florida fight over felon voting rights playing out at US Supreme Court

From the South Florida Sun-Sentiel:

A battle over voting rights in Florida is playing out at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the ability of hundreds of thousands of felons to cast ballots in this year’s elections at stake.

Attorneys for the state and voting-rights groups filed briefs this week at the Supreme Court as they continue wrangling over a challenge to a 2019 state law requiring felons to pay “legal financial obligations” — fees, fines, costs and restitution — to be eligible to vote. Voting-rights groups argue that linking voting rights and finances amounts to an unconstitutional “poll tax.”

The state law was aimed at carrying out a 2018 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons “upon completion of all terms of sentence, including parole or probation.”

The voting-rights groups went to the Supreme Court last week after an Atlanta-based appeals court put on hold a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who said the state cannot deny voting rights to felons who cannot afford to pay court-ordered financial obligations associated with their convictions.

The plaintiffs are challenging the hold, saying it would block felons from voting in the August primary elections and could prevent them from casting ballots in November.

But in a response filed Tuesday at the Supreme Court, lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the stay on Hinkle’s decision issued July 1 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals should remain intact.

Hinkle’s May decision, which said that depriving poor felons of the right to vote is unconstitutional wealth-based discrimination, laid out a process for state elections officials to use to determine voters’ eligibility. Under the procedure, hundreds of thousands of felons who have served their time behind bars would be able to register and vote in the Aug. 18 and Nov. 3 elections without taking any additional action.

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.

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.

‘Lives Were Lost’ as Warnings Went Unheeded, Whistle-Blower Tells House

From today’s New York Times:

The whistle-blower who was ousted as the head of a federal medical research agency charged on Thursday that top Trump administration officials failed to heed his early warnings to stock up on masks and other supplies to combat the coronavirus, and that Americans died as a result.

“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Dr. Rick Bright, who was removed in April as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, told a House subcommittee as he warned, “The window is closing to address this pandemic.”

Over nearly four hours of testimony, Dr. Bright told lawmakers that the outbreak would “get worse and be prolonged” if the United States did not swiftly develop a national testing strategy. He also predicted vaccine shortages if the administration did not draft a distribution plan now.

After holding back for nearly a month, President Trump and his health secretary, Alex M. Azar II, hit back at Dr. Bright, elevating the confrontation. Mr. Trump dismissed Dr. Bright as a “disgruntled employee” while Mr. Azar insisted officials followed through on the scientist’s ideas.

Dr. Bright’s testimony was the first time a federal scientist — or any federal official — had gone before Congress and openly accused the administration of endangering American lives by bungling its coronavirus response. He said Americans would face “the darkest winter in modern history” if the administration did not move quickly, as people become “restless” to leave their homes.

That came two days after Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, contradicted Mr. Trump by warning of “needless suffering and death” if states reopened too quickly, amounting to a one-two punch for the administration.

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.

Trump says Roger Stone has ‘very good chance of exoneration’ after sentencing

From today’s NBC News Online:

President Donald Trump said his former adviser Roger Stone has “a very good chance of exoneration,” hours after the GOP operative was sentenced to 40 months behind bars for obstructing a congressional investigation of Russia’s 2016 presidential election meddling.

“I’m following this very closely, and I want to see it play out to its fullest, because Roger has a very good chance of exoneration, in my opinion,” Trump said Thursday in a speech in Las Vegas, where he also blasted the jury forewoman in Stone’s criminal trial.

“It’s my strong opinion that the forewoman for the jury is totally tainted,” Trump said, calling the woman “an anti-Trump person” with “a horrible social media account.”

He said the forewoman is a “very dominant person” who likely convinced other jurors to follow her lead. “How can you have a jury pool tainted so badly?” Trump asked.

Lawyers for Stone, 67, had filed a motion asking for a new trial. Stone’s supporters have said it’s based on comments made by the jury forewoman, Tomeka Hart.

Hart ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2012, a fact she disclosed during jury selection. Asked by Judge Jackson if she could fairly evaluate the evidence during the trial, she said yes, and Stone’s lawyers did not seek to have her removed from the jury pool.

The judge who presided over the trial, Amy Berman Jackson, pointedly praised jurors for their “integrity” at Stone’s sentencing.

Read the complete article here.

North Dakota, Sioux tribes to settle voter ID lawsuit against vote suppression

From today’s NBC News Online:

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm election, Native American groups in North Dakota scrambled to help thousands of tribal citizens obtain a proper identification card if they wanted to lawfully vote.

That requirement, which activists said amounted to a form of voter suppression, had been challenged in the courts.

On Thursday, North Dakota officials announced a proposed settlement agreement with two of the tribes involved in a lawsuit, addressing many of the lingering concerns that the state is enabling “mass disenfranchisement” of tribal members.

“This settlement, if finalized, will make it easier for Native Americans to vote,” Tim Purdon, a lawyer for the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, said Friday.

To vote in the last election, tribal members had to obtain either a new state-issued or tribal ID showing their street address. That affected an estimated 5,000 tribal citizens with IDs showing a post office box instead — used more commonly than home addresses.

Some of those tribal residents live in rural areas with no proper street signage or obvious address.

North Dakota doesn’t require residents to register before voting, and since 2004, voters have had to provide their IDs at the polls. State officials said the home address rule was meant to combat potential voter fraud.

Read the complete article here.