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.

Over 1 million former felons still face hurdles after being given right to vote

From today’s ABC News Online:

It’s been more than 10 years since ​Gary Daughtry Sr., 66, had the right to vote and since he was released from prison. Previously in the state of Florida, anyone who committed a felony ​lost his or her right to vote ​and had to petition the governor to become re-enfranchised.

“I don’t think it’s fair that I had to pay my debt to society, and they won’t let me vote,” Daughtry told ABC News.

More than a decade ago, Daughtry committed grand theft in Florida, a third-degree felony. He served 16 months in prison and the court ordered him to pay an array of fees as part of his sentence, of which he still owes almost $1,000. He told ABC News he’s unable to pay because he’s disabled and cannot work, ​and he says all he wants to do is help re-elect President Donald Trump.

“I support him in every way,” Daughtry said.

Under a new state law, passed last year with the​ stated aim​ to not re-enfranchise a felon who had not completed all terms of his or her sentence, former felons are required to either pay the fees and fines that they owe or get their sentence modified in order to register to vote. The process itself is also relatively complicated so that despite some counties implementing procedures to help former felons along, advocates say it still represents a tremendous hurdle to enfranchisement.

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.

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.

Florida loses appeals court ruling on felon voting law ahead of 2020 elections

From Politico News:

A legal and political battle over voting rights in Florida reached another milestone on Wednesday when a federal appeals court ruled that a law limiting the voting rights of people with felony convictions was unconstitutional.

Delivering a defeat to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a lower court decision that found the state could not deny ex-felons the right to vote just because they can’t afford to pay outstanding court fines, fees and restitution, as required by the 2019 law.

“These plaintiffs are punished more harshly than those who committed precisely the same crime — by having their right to vote taken from them likely for their entire lives,” states the ruling issued by a three-judge panel. “And this punishment is linked not to their culpability, but rather to the exogenous fact of their wealth.”

It’s not clear if the legal battle will get resolved ahead of this year’s presidential election in the battleground state, which could decide whether President Donald Trump wins a second term.

DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré said the governor’s office disagreed with the ruling and will seek a review from the full court.

In October, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction against the law, a move that applied to only the 17 people who had challenged it in court. That lawsuit, brought by a coalition of left-leaning and civil rights groups, along with people with felony convictions, is scheduled for a non-jury trial in April.

“This is a great win for voting rights,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The 11th circuit told the state of Florida what the rest of America already knows. You can’t condition the right to vote on a person’s wealth.”

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.

Op-Ed: The Acquittal Will Come Back to Haunt Trump and His Enablers

From today’s New York Times:

The vote to acquit President Trump was a dark day for the Senate. Uninterested in hearing from witnesses (and likely scared by what they would say), uncritical of outrageous legal arguments made by the president’s lawyers and apparently unconcerned about the damage Mr. Trump has done to the integrity of America’s elections, a majority of senators insisted on looking the other way and letting him off the hook for a classic impeachable offense: abuse of public office for private gain.

But while the Senate got it wrong, the American people learned what’s right. This impeachment was about much more than the final vote of 100 senators. It was a process, and that process yielded a public education of extraordinary value. While the Senate may emerge from the process weakened, the American people, on the whole, emerge from it strengthened by a sharpened sense of what’s right and what’s wrong for an American president; of what it means for a political party to show moral courage; of what it looks like when dedicated public servants speak truth no matter the consequences; and of the importance of whistle-blowers for ensuring accountability.

The past few months have shown Americans a president who abused the public trust for his personal benefit. Before this process, we suspect, few Americans had dwelled on the question of when it crosses the line for a president to exploit for private political gain the tools of national power placed in his or her hands.

But impeachment has forced Americans to confront it — a question, it turns out, that was central to the framers’ decision to include impeachment in our Constitution. And Americans overwhelmingly reject what Mr. Trump did, with 75 percent saying in December that his Ukraine extortion scheme was wrong (a view that even some Republican senators have endorsed). That’s huge: For all that divides Americans today, this is a dominant consensus on what it means to abuse public office and distort American democracy.

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.

With Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Barber evokes comparisons to MLK

From today’s Charlotte Observer:

When Democratic presidential candidates met for their final debate in Iowa, more than a hundred protesters gathered just outside on the snowy grounds of Drake University.

Their goal: to urge the candidates to debate poverty. Holding signs, they carried a coffin representing the tens of thousands of people they said die every year from its effects.

Leading them was Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina pastor who co-chairs the national Poor People’s Campaign. Coming days before the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., the rally was the latest in a series of events designed to carry King’s legacy into the 21st Century.

“I believe Dr. King would be right beside us,” Barber told the Observer. “He would say nothing would be more tragic than to turn back now.”

Barber, 56, is in the middle of a 25-state tour that will culminate in June with a mass march in Washington, where thousands are expected to call for an end to poverty and inequality and for greater access to health care and education.

Barber, who was born two days after King’s historic march on Washington, frequently invokes the civil rights leader in rallies and sermons even as he himself has invited comparisons with King.

“Brother William Barber is the closest thing we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in American culture,” said Cornel West, a Harvard professor and political activist.

Read the complete article here.