TX governor orders only one mail ballot drop-off location allowed per county

From today’s The Hill Online:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a new proclamation allowing only one mail ballot drop-off location per county.

Starting Friday, mail ballots submitted in person by eligible vote-by-mail voters must be returned to a publicly designated county voting clerk’s office, a local NBC affiliate KXAN reported.

The proclamation allows early voters only one ballot drop-off location per county, and other drop-off satellite locations will be closed.

Abbott’s proclamation will also require early voting clerks to let poll watchers monitor the locations and “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office location related to the in-person delivery of a marked mail ballot.”

“As we work to preserve Texans’ ability to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take extra care to strengthen ballot security protocols throughout the state,” Abbott said. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

In Texas, mail-in voters who drop off their ballots must show a photo ID, sign a roster and deposit a sealed envelope into their designated county ballot box, the Statesman reported.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa blasted the move in a statement, saying, “Governor Abbott and Texas Republicans are scared.”

“Republicans are on the verge of losing, so Governor Abbott is trying to adjust the rules last minute,” Hinojosa added, saying, “Courts all over the country … have held that it is too late to change election rules.”

Read the complete article here.

GOP leaders ask U.S. Supreme Court to halt Pennsylvania voting extension

From today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

The two top Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Senate petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to put a halt to the three-day extension for counties to receive and count mail-in ballots this November.

At issue is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling this month that mail-in ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day and delivered to county offices by mail during the three days following the Nov. 3 election — as long as they’re received by 5 p.m. Nov. 6 — shall be counted.

Arguing that the state Supreme Court violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution by altering the rules of the election and superseding the legislature’s authority, Republicans are asking the nation’s highest court to restore the original received-by ballot deadline — 8 p.m. on Election Day — pending the outcome of their forthcoming request for the court to review the ruling. 

Lawyers for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, argue that the Pennsylvania court “rewrote” the state’s law governing federal elections and violated the constitution, “sowing chaos into the electoral process mere weeks before the already intricate November General Election.”

“This is an open invitation to voters to cast their ballots after Election Day, thereby injecting chaos and the potential for gamesmanship into what was an orderly and secure schedule of clear, bright-line deadlines,” the Republicans claimed, alleging that the state ruling mandates that county elections offices count ballots “even if they lack a legible postmark or any postmark at all.”

The Senate leaders claim that if the Supreme Court doesn’t act, it will open the door for lower federal and state courts across the country to change deadlines before the election.

“Absent a stay, the machinery of the election will continue inexorably towards Election Day,” they wrote in the petition. “With each passing day, more and more voters will learn that the deadline is not Election Day — as established by statute — but three days after Election Day.”

In its Sept. 17 ruling, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania determined that voters can’t exercise their right to vote if the deadline passes and their applications are stuck in a postal facility because of United States Postal Service delays.

Read the complete article here.

How Republicans Undermined Ex-Felon Voting Rights in Florida

From today’s New York Times:

Jeff Gruver voted for the first time ever in March, casting an enthusiastic ballot for Bernie Sanders in Florida’s presidential primary.

He was planning to vote for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in November until he found out on Friday he would not be voting at all. A federal appeals court ruled that Floridians with felony criminal records like himself would be ineligible to vote unless they paid back all their outstanding court fines and fees — in his case, at least $801.

He does not have the money. And he does not want to take any risk that his vote could be deemed illegal. Like more than a million other former felons, he has found that even an overwhelming 2018 vote in favor of a state referendum to restore voting rights to most people who had served their sentences does not necessarily mean that they will ever get to vote.

Instead, how a landmark vote to restore former felons’ rights in Florida ended up gutted last week is a cautionary tale about the messy process of citizen-led ballot initiatives and how a dominant political party can exert its power long after voters have spoken on Election Day.

“The political climate in Florida — it just kind of feels rigged by one group in power over the other,” said Mr. Gruver, 34, who runs a homeless shelter in Gainesville and more than a decade ago did a total of about 10 months in jail for cocaine possession and violating the terms of his probation.

The roller coaster for people like Mr. Gruver has played out like this: Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters approved amending the State Constitution to restore the franchise of former felons, excluding those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, but the state’s Republican lawmakers and governor severely restricted the effort. A 2019 law requiring the payment of court fines and fees was found unconstitutional in May, but the appeals court overturned that ruling less than two months before the presidential election. Five of the six votes to uphold the additional requirements for the restoration of voting rights came from judges appointed to the court by President Trump.

Read the complete article here.

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.

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.

Senate GOP, White House propose cuts to unemployment relief checks

From today’s ABC News Online:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new coronavirus relief plan on the Senate floor after Senate Republican leaders and the White House appear to have overcome their differences.

“I hope this strong proposal will occasion a real response, not partisan cheap shots. Not the predictable, tired old rhetoric as though these were ordinary times, and the nation could afford ordinary politics,” McConnell said Monday afternoon in a floor speech.

But Democrats already don’t agree with the Republicans’ plan, which includes a $200 flat-rate, short-term extension to federal unemployment benefits as opposed to $600 a week, a senior source familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News, since it will take time before states’ systems can shift to accommodate any federal benefit changes.

Following McConnell’s floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the Republican Party for “wasting precious time” in the months since Congress passed its first coronavirus relief package, arguing “the White House and Senate Republicans couldn’t get their act together” in the time since.

“Ten weeks after Democrats passed a comprehensive bill through the House, Senate Republicans couldn’t even agree on what to throw in on the wall,” Schumer said, adding that support for the plan presented Monday is still not clear. “Not only do we not know if the president supports any of these proposals, we don’t even know if Senate Republicans fully support.”

Republican sources familiar with the matter told ABC News later Monday that there could be as much as half the Senate GOP conference voting against the bill.

Read the complete article here.

McConnell says stimulus deal may take ‘a few weeks,’ putting millions with expiring jobless aid in limbo

From today’s Washington Post:

With days to go before enhanced jobless benefits expire, the White House and Senate Republicans are struggling to design a way to scale back the program without overwhelming state unemployment agencies and imperiling aid to more than 20 million Americans.

The hang-up has led to an abrupt delay in the introduction of the GOP’s $1 trillion stimulus package. The White House and Democrats have said they want a deal by the end of the month, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Friday that reaching an agreement could take several weeks, a timeline that could leave many unemployed Americans severely exposed.

“Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks,” McConnell said at an event in Ashland, Ky.

Part of the problem stems from a push by administration officials and GOP lawmakers to reduce a $600 weekly payment of enhanced federal unemployment benefits. The White House and the GOP disagree about how to do this, and talks remain highly contentious. They hope to release a proposal early next week.

After convulsing in March and April when the coronavirus pandemic shut down large parts of the United States, the economy showed signs of regaining its footing before sliding again in recent weeks. The effects of numerous stimulus programs appear to be wearing off, and the pace of layoffs has picked up again. Layoffs that many Americans thought would be temporary have dragged on and become permanent, particularly as new cases of the novel coronavirus surge in parts of the country.

This has put enormous pressure on state unemployment programs, which typically pay out about 45 percent of a worker’s prior wages. In March, Congress approved the $600-per-week emergency bonus for every unemployed worker on top of that traditional payment, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to newly jobless Americans as the pandemic hit the country.

That federal benefit, being received by more than 20 million people, is to expire at the end of this month. And the expiry comes as a federal eviction moratorium also is ending, creating a dynamic that could greatly stress cash-strapped families. In practice, the coming lapse in the jobless benefit means millions of workers are receiving their last enhanced benefit payment this week.

Read the complete article here.

Mnuchin says plan for unemployment extension will be based on 70% wage replacement

From today’s CNBC News Online:

The Republican coronavirus relief plan will extend enhanced unemployment insurance “based on approximately 70% wage replacement,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday. 

The Treasury secretary also said a payroll tax holiday, which President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed for, “won’t be in the base bill.” The president appeared to concede defeat on the issue in a tweet Thursday and blamed Democrats for sinking the proposal (though many Republicans on Capitol Hill also oppose a payroll tax cut). 

Mnuchin spoke to CNBC about the state of negotiations hours after Senate Republicans and the Trump administration said they reached a tentative deal on legislation they say will serve as a starting point in talks with Democrats. Congress faces pressure to pass an aid package, as Covid-19 case and death counts rise around the country and the critical extra $600 per week unemployment benefit expires at the end of the month. 

But Republican plans to release their plan as soon as Thursday appeared to hit a snag as they tried to craft legislative text, further adding to doubts about Congress’ ability to provide immediate relief. Democrats hammered the GOP for a lack of urgency for a second straight day, and rejected the possibility of breaking a coronavirus package into more than one bill if lawmakers cannot reach a broad agreement in July. 

“This is a package. We cannot piecemeal this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at a news conference with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. He added that “we’re not going to take care of one portion of suffering people and leave everyone else hanging.”

It is unclear how Republicans would structure the plan to provide 70% wage replacement. Lawmakers chose the $600 per week sum in the March rescue package because they decided outdated state unemployment systems could not handle processing payouts for 100% of a worker’s previous wages. 

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.