Florida Faces Rocky Rollout To Restore Voting Rights For Convicted Felons

From NPR News Online:

Florida passed an amendment in 2018, promising to restore voting rights for over a million Floridians with felony convictions. But that hope turned to confusion soon after.

The state Legislature followed up with a law clarifying that in order to get their voting rights back, felons needed to pay off all fines and fees related to their convictions. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines are owed across the state, including $278 million in Miami-Dade County alone.

But the same law also offers a way out. It allows the courts to modify the original criminal sentences to “no longer require completion” of things that were originally required. Under that law, money owed can be waived or lowered, and other requirements like community service hours can be reduced.

Now, the implementation is playing out in very different — and partisan — ways across the state.In counties under Democratic control, more people are getting their voting rights back. And in counties under Republican control, many potential voters are missing out.

Out of the four counties across the state that have launched similar programs, every one of them is Democratic-leaning. Those include Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, which together include more than a third of the state’s total population. All of those counties voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and for Democrat Andrew Gillum in the 2018 governor’s race.

There is no corollary for Republican-leaning counties.

Read the complete article here.

The House Has Impeached President Trump. Here’s What We Learned.

From FiveThirtyEight:

The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump on Wednesday, making him just the third president ever to be impeached. The two votes fell almost perfectly along party lines, with 229 members supporting both articles of impeachment against Trump, all of them Democrats except for Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who is an independent, and 197 members opposing both articles, including every Republican and two Democrats. (Jared Golden of Maine, a Democrat, voted for the article accusing Trump of abusing his office but against the obstruction of Congress charge. He was the only member of the House who didn’t vote the same way on both articles.1)

At least right now, as the House vote suggests, there’s no indication that there are anywhere close to the 67 votes in the Senate that would be needed to remove Trump from office. (Republicans have a 53-47 advantage2 in the upper chamber.) At the moment, impeachment appears likely to end up serving mostly as a stern condemnation of Trump’s actions by House Democrats.

Still, the impeachment of a president is a monumental event, so it’s worth looking at what we learned from these votes, and from the three-month process that led up to them.

Read the entire article here.

Trump ‘Ignored and Injured’ the National Interest, Charge Impeachment Articles

From today’s New York Times:

House Democratic leaders on Tuesday formally called for President Trump’s removal from office, asserting that he “ignored and injured the interests of the nation” in two articles of impeachment that charged him with abusing his power and obstructing Congress.

In nine short pages, the draft articles accused Mr. Trump of carrying out a scheme “corruptly soliciting” election assistance from the government of Ukraine in the form of investigations that would smear his Democratic political rivals. To do so, Democrats charged, Mr. Trump used as leverage two “official acts”: the delivery of $391 million in security assistance and a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president.

“In all of this, President Trump abused the powers of the presidency by ignoring and injuring national security and other vital national interests to obtain an improper personal political benefit,” according to a draft of the first article. “He has also betrayed the nation by abusing his office to enlist a foreign power in corrupting democratic elections.”

A second article charges that by ordering across-the-board defiance of House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to the Ukraine matter, the president engaged in “unprecedented, categorical and indiscriminate defiance” that harmed the House’s constitutional rights.

Read the complete article here.

Rep. Duncan Hunter pleads guilty in campaign finance scandal, will resign from Congress

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After years of denials and claims that he was the target of a political witch hunt, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday morning to plead guilty in a sweeping campaign finance investigation.

The announcement was posted on the U.S. District Court docket Monday morning, then KUSI aired an interview with Hunter in which he said he would plead guilty to one of the 60 criminal charges against him. He suggested that he is likely to spend time in custody.

“The plea I accepted is misuse of my own campaign funds, of which I pled guilty to only one count,” Hunter told the station. “I think it’s important that people know that I did make mistakes. I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money. I justify my plea with the understanding that I am responsible for my own campaign and my own campaign money.”

The reversal comes nearly six months after Hunter’s wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, admitted to her role in a widespread scheme that saw the couple allegedly spend more than $200,000 in campaign donations on family expenses like vacationsgas, groceriesschool lunches and oral surgery. Such spending is prohibited to prevent undue influence by contributors.ADVERTISING

Hunter did not explicitly say he would be stepping down — often an outcome in any such plea agreement — but he answered a question about what would happen to his seat in Congress.

“I’m confident that the transition will be a good one,” he told KUSI. “My office is going to remain open. We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes this seat next. I think it’s important to keep the seat a Republican seat.”

The trial, which already was pushed back twice as defense attorneys challenged various claims in the federal indictment, was scheduled to begin Jan. 22.

“Congressman Hunter has shown a blatant disregard for the law and engaged in one of the most egregious congressional spending scandals we have ever seen,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the left-leaning advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “We are glad to see Congressman Hunter will finally face the consequences of his actions. Given that he will now be a convicted criminal for abusing his office, Congressman Hunter must resign immediately.”

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: The right to vote should not fall victim to partisan battles

From today’s Chicago Sun-Times:

The right to vote is fundamental to any democracy. Protecting that right — and making it easier to exercise it — ought to be a priority across partisan lines.Instead, in states across the country — particularly in the five years since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act — it has become a pitched battle.

The basic reality is clear: Republicans, increasingly a party of older, white voters, have chosen not to reach out to Hispanics, African Americans or the young, but instead seek ways to make it harder for them to vote — or for their votes to count. Backed by right-wing think tanks, Republican state legislators and governors push a slew of measures to suppress the vote of targeted populations. These are increasingly challenged in courts and protested on the streets.

Alabama, for example, is a state that is over one-fourth African American. Yet it has had all white appellate court justices for a quarter-century. This was locked in by requiring at-large statewide elections for both appellate and Supreme Court judges instead of district elections where African American candidates would have a good chance of being elected in some areas. This practice — followed in Texas against Hispanic voters — is now being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.

At-large elections are only one of the tactics tried by the Republican power structure in Alabama.

Since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision that ended federal pre-approval of voting rights changes, Alabama has passed measures to require a photo ID to vote while seeking to close driver’s license offices disproportionately in black areas. They sought to impose a “proof of citizenship” mandate to register to vote in state and local elections. Dozens of polling places were closed, disproportionately in areas with large African American populations. Get-out-the-vote efforts were made more difficult with the passage of a ban on financial transfers from one PAC to another, an act aimed at the leading organizations working on African American turnout, which got much of their revenue from other political entities. Alabama has also begun the process of purging the voting rolls. When the state legislature passed a measure giving felons who had served their sentences the right to vote, the state government refused to do anything to inform people that their rights had been restored. Some of these measures have been stalled by judicial decisions, but the effort to constrict the vote continues.

Read the complete article here.

Diplomats accuse Trump as impeachment hits Americans’ TVs

From today’s Associated Press Online:

For the first time, the Democrats’ case for President Donald Trump’s impeachment streamed from Americans’ TVs Wednesday, including a new contention that he was overheard asking about political “investigations” that he demanded from Ukraine in trade for military aid.

On Day One of extraordinary public U.S. House hearings — only the fourth formal impeachment effort in U.S. history — career diplomats testified in the open after weeks of closed-door interviews aimed at removing the nation’s 45th president.

The account they delivered was a striking though complicated one that Democrats say reveals a president abusing his office, and the power of American foreign policy, for personal political gain.

“The matter is as simple and as terrible as that,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, as he opened the daylong hearing. “Our answer to these questions will affect not only the future of this presidency but the future of the presidency itself.”

Career diplomat William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Kyiv, offered new testimony that Trump was overheard asking on the phone about “the investigations” of Democrats that he wanted Ukraine to pursue that are central to the impeachment inquiry.

Trump said he was too busy to watch on Wednesday and denied having the phone call. “First I’ve heard of it,” he said when asked.

All day, the diplomats testified about how an ambassador was fired, the new Ukraine government was confused and they discovered an “irregular channel” — a shadow U.S. foreign policy orchestrated by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that raised alarms in diplomatic and national security circles.

The hearing, playing out on live television and in the partisan silos of social media, provided the nation and the world a close-up look at the investigation.

At its core, the inquiry stems from Trump’s July 25 phone call when he asked Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for “a favor.”

Trump wanted the Ukraine government to investigate Democrats’ activities in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden — all while the administration was withholding military aid for the Eastern European ally that is confronting an aggressive neighbor, Russia.

Read the complete article here.

‘A Proud Day’: Ex-Felons Clear Final Hurdle to Vote In Florida

From today’s New York Times:

One by one, they came before the judge in Miami, confident that in a few moments they would get a precious document clearing the way for them to get the right to vote.

The signed court order confirmed that, for the purposes of voter registration, they did not owe any court fines, fees or costs from their past felony convictions. The 18 people on the docket, some of them previously disenfranchised for decades, were clearing the final hurdle imposed by the state of Florida to restore their voting eligibility.

The packed courtroom burst into applause when Judge Nushin G. Sayfie told Carmen Brown, the first person called to the lectern, that she was granting her motion. Ms. Brown, 64, had served time for multiple felony convictions, including armed robbery with a deadly weapon. She put her hands to her mouth as tears welled in her eyes.

“Thank you so much,” she said through sniffles. “Thank you, your honor.”

A year ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure known as Amendment 4, restoring the voting rights of up to 1.5 million people with felony records. But earlier this year, the Republican-controlled State Legislature imposed restrictions requiring former felons — some of whom prefer to be called “returning citizens” — to first pay back outstanding legal financial obligations. In some cases, those amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Read the complete article here.

Beshear’s gubernatorial win in KY is also a win for ex-felon voting rights

From today’s Vox News:

In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of more than 100,000 people with felony records in Kentucky. But in December of that year, Beshear’s successor, Gov. Matt Bevin (R), undid the executive order — just as easily taking away from ex-felons what the former governor had given them.

On Tuesday, though, Bevin lost his reelection bid to Democrat Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son. And the new governor-elect is poised to sign another executive order that restores voting rights to at least some people with felony records after they’ve served their sentences — potentially increasing the voter rolls by more than 100,000.

Kentucky has one of the strictest laws disenfranchising people with felony records, banning ex-felons from voting for life — unless they get a special reprieve from the state government — even after they finish serving out their prison sentences, parole, or probation. It is only one of two states, along with Iowa, with such a strict lifetime ban.

Read the complete article here.

GOP Blocks Voting Rights Bill Requiring Candidates to Disclose Tax Returns

From today’s Newsweek Online:

Republican senators have blocked an effort by Democrats to vote on a voting rights and election ethics bill.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blocked a request that the For the People Act of 2019 be voted on Wednesday. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) launched the latest attempt to bring the bill to the senate floor.

“The For the People Act repairs our broken campaign finance system, opens up the ballot box to all Americans, and lays waste to the corruption in Washington,” said Udall. “These are all reforms that the American people support. Why won’t the Senate Majority Leader let us vote on them?”

The bill was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in January. It passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 234–193 in March. The bill has been repeatedly blocked by Senate Republicans since then.

One of the bill’s many provisions attempts to increase voter participation by making Election Day a federal holiday. Another provision is aimed at eliminating so-called “dark money” from campaign funds by requiring that super PACs and other organizations disclose the identity of their donors.

Merkley claimed that the failure to pass the bill was symptomatic of a “corrupt system” and that the senate was controlled by “powerful special interests.” After blocking the bill, Blunt countered that the bill represents an overreach of power that would allow the federal government to take control away from states.

One of the bill’s major hurdles for Republicans is an ethics provision that would require candidates for president and vice president to disclose the last 10 years of their income tax returns. President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to disclose his tax returns, and is currently embroiled in a legal fight to keep the information secret.

Read the complete article here.

The Student Vote Is Surging, And So Are Efforts to Suppress It In Key States

From today’s New York Times:

At Austin Community College, civics is an unwritten part of the curriculum — so much so that for years the school has tapped its own funds to set up temporary early-voting sites on nine of its 11 campuses.

No more, however. This spring, the Texas Legislature outlawed polling places that did not stay open for the entire 12-day early-voting period. When the state’s elections take place in three weeks, those nine sites — which logged many of the nearly 14,000 ballots that full-time students cast last year — will be shuttered. So will six campus polling places at colleges in Fort Worth, two in Brownsville, on the Mexico border, and other polling places at schools statewide.

“It was a beautiful thing, a lot of people out there in those long lines,” said Grant Loveless, a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and political science who voted last November at a campus in central Austin. “It would hurt a lot of students if you take those polling places away.”

The story at Austin Community College is but one example of a political drama playing out nationwide: After decades of treating elections as an afterthought, college students have begun voting in force.

Their turnout in the 2018 midterms — 40.3 percent of 10 million students tracked by Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education — was more than double the rate in the 2014 midterms, easily exceeding an already robust increase in national turnout. Energized by issues like climate change and the Trump presidency, students have suddenly emerged as a potentially crucial voting bloc in the 2020 general election.

And almost as suddenly, Republican politicians around the country are throwing up roadblocks between students and voting booths.

Not coincidentally, the barriers are rising fastest in political battlegrounds and places like Texas where one-party control is eroding. Students lean strongly DemocraticIn a March poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 45 percent of college students ages 18-24 identified as Democrats, compared to 29 percent who called themselves independents and 24 percent Republicans.

Read the complete article here.