California Eases Off Legal Threats Over GOP Unauthorized Ballot Drop Boxes

From today’s NPR News Online:

The state of California appears to be backing off legal threats against the California Republican Party over its use of unauthorized ballot drop boxes.

On Monday, California’s secretary of state and attorney general sent a cease-and-desist order to the California GOP and several county party offices, ordering they remove unauthorized boxes to collect ballots, some of which were labeled “official.”

At a press conference Friday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, both Democrats, didn’t announce any additional enforcement action against the party, saying the California GOP agreed to modify how they were collecting.

But while the California Republican Party agreed not to place unauthorized ballot drop boxes outdoors, leave drop boxes unattended or present them as official, the party said it will continue to accept ballots delivered by voters to local party offices and secure them in boxes attended by staff or volunteers.

Becerra and Padilla said they would continue to monitor the party’s activities closely and proceed with an investigation.

“The Republican Party’s deployment of these unofficial and deceptive ballot drop boxes were in violation of state law, and they created voter confusion,” Padilla said.

In a statement Friday on Twitter, the party’s spokesperson, Hector Barajas, said the California Republican Party made no concessions to the attorney general or secretary of state and denied doing anything wrong in the first place.

Friday’s press conference left a lot of ambiguity about how the party is continuing to deploy ballot collection boxes and whether or not using unauthorized drop boxes in any form violates California law.

Padilla and Becerra reiterated that while ballot collection is allowed, state rules require that whoever assists with delivering a ballot sign the envelope to record a chain of custody. But they also said ballots without that signature would not be rejected either.

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Signature errors could disenfranchise a record number of voters in the election

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in the November general election because of the pandemic — and a record number may have their ballots rejected over signature issues.

In nearly 40 states, election officials check the signatures on the ballot envelopes that voters send back against the ones on file — usually from voter registration forms or motor vehicle departments. A handful of states require voters to fill out their ballot in front of a witness, who must also sign.

If a signature doesn’t appear to match, or the necessary signatures are missing, what happens next depends on the state — and even the county — a voter lives in. Some states require county election officials to give the voter a chance to verify their identity or fix a mistake; others don’t, and their ballots are tossed out.

“There are more opportunities to get tripped up and to have your ballot not counted in mail voting than in in-person voting, said Wendy Weiser, the vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice. “That said, it’s not going to happen to most people.”

Nearly 1% of absentee ballots cast — 318,000 of 33 million — were rejected in the 2016 general election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Of those, nearly half weren’t counted because of a missing signature or a mismatch.

This election, 74 million mail ballots have already been requested by voters in 37 states and the District of Columbia, with deadlines for requesting ballots still weeks away in most states, according to a count by Michael McDonald, an elections specialist at the University of Florida, of states that have reported those data.

The risk of voter disenfranchisement has led to a flurry of legal challenges. Democrats argue there’s a larger than usual chance that valid ballots won’t count because of voter laws that haven’t adjusted to the circumstances of the pandemic. Republicans accuse Democrats of using the coronavirus crisis to rewrite election rules.

The outcome of those legal cases — over whether or not election officials need to help voters fix signature issues, how long voters have, and whether they need witness signatures — could affect thousands of ballots.

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CA Republican Party Admits It Placed Misleading Ballot Boxes Around State

From today’s New York Times:

The California Republican Party has admitted responsibility for placing more than 50 deceptively labeled “official” drop boxes for mail-in ballots in Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange Counties — an action that state officials said was illegal and could lead to voter fraud.

The dark gray metal boxes have been popping up over the past two weeks near churches, gun shops and Republican Party offices, mostly in conservative areas of a deep-blue state, affixed with a white paper label identifying them as either an “Official Ballot Drop off Box” or a “Ballot Drop Box.”

To the average voter, they are virtually indistinguishable from drop-off sites sanctioned by the state, which are governed by strict regulations intended to prevent the partisan manipulation of ballots.

The actions of the largely marginalized state party come at a moment when Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a bitter national struggle over voting rights, with President Trump’s allies accusing Democrats in Minnesota and elsewhere of undermining the integrity of the electoral process by expanding absentee voting and other measures to increase ballot access.

On Monday, California’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra sent a cease-and-desist order to the state- and county-level Republican parties, ordering them to remove the boxes. They also urged voters who might have unknowingly dropped off their ballots in the receptacles to sign up with the state’s voter tracking website to ensure their vote is counted.

“Misleading voters is wrong regardless of who is doing it,” Mr. Padilla said in a conference call with reporters, adding that the boxes “are not permitted by state law.”

Mr. Becerra called the boxes “fake,” adding that it was “illegal to tamper with a citizen’s vote.” He warned that anyone “engaging in this activity” could be subject to criminal prosecution or civil action.

Hector Barajas, a spokesman for the California Republican Party, said the party would continue to distribute the boxes, without adding any label identifying them explicitly as Republican ballot drops.

Mr. Barajas — who disclosed that Republicans were responsible for the boxes only after being bombarded by questions by reporters on Monday — said the party’s actions were legal because state law did not restrict “ballot harvesting,” a practice that allows businesses or other organizations to collect batches of completed ballots.

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SCOTUS clears the way for sending mail-in ballots to Montana voters

From today’s CNN News Online:

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Thursday denied a request from Republicans to block Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive last month allowing counties to send mail-in ballots to all registered voters amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Kagan, who has jurisdiction over the lower court involved in the case, turned down the request without referring the petition to her colleagues or asking the other side for its views.The suit was brought by Joe Lamm of the Ravali County Republican Central Committee as well as several voters.”

While Covid is a national tragedy, it poses no emergency,” James Bopp, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, wrote in court papers. Bopp noted that the Montana legislature already allowed any qualified voter to obtain a no-excuse absentee ballot by merely applying.

Lower courts have upheld Montana’s directive. Bullock, a Democrat, issued a similar directive in the primary, and all of the state’s counties opted to send out mail-in ballots to voters. Montana already allowed voters to request and submit absentee ballots without providing an excuse.

Bullock will appear on the ballot as a candidate for Senate in November. He is running against Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a competitive race that could help Democrats flip the Senate.

The case that Kagan acted on Thursday isn’t Montana’s only voting battle playing out in the courts. In September, a federal judge in Montana rejected the Trump campaign’s effort to stop an expansion of mail-in voting in the state after the campaign and the Republican National Committee filed suit following Bullock’s directive.

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SCOTUS takes up Arizona voting rights law that will be heard after the election

From today’s CNN Online:

The Supreme Court said Friday it will review two provisions of an Arizona voting rights law that a federal appeals court said could have a discriminatory impact for American Indian, Hispanic and African Americans in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

One provision concerns an “out of precinct policy” that does not count provisional ballots cast in person on Election Day outside of the voter’s designated precinct. Another concerns the “ballot collection law” which permits only certain persons — family and household members, caregivers, mail carriers and elections officials — to handle another person’s completed ballot.

The dispute will not be resolved before the election because the argument calendar is already full through December.In January, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state’s policy of “wholly discarding” rather than counting or partially counting out of precinct ballots and the criminalization of the collection of another person’s ballot has a “discriminatory impact on American Indian, Hispanic and African American voters in the state in violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

The court also held that the ballot collection provision was enacted with discriminatory intent. The court agreed to put its decision on hold pending appeal. Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s attorney general, called the provisions “commonplace election administration provisions” used by Arizona and “dozens of states.” Over the dissent of four judges, the majority invalidated two commonplace election administration provisions used by Arizona and dozens of other states to prevent multiple voting, protect against voter intimidation, preserve the secrecy of the ballot, and safeguard election integrity.

But Marc Elias, a lawyer for the Democratic National Committee, argued that Supreme Court precedents and the law compelled the lower court to conclude that Arizona’s wholesale rejection of ballots cast out of precinct and its criminalization of ballot collection violated Voting Rights Act.

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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.”

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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.

Voters need an urgent update on mail-in ballots. The media should help.

From today’s Washington Post:

For weeks, President Trump has lied about mail-in ballots. He has falsely claimed they are prone to widespread fraud despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. He has wrongly claimed they are a “scam,” while suggesting he would use their existence to dispute the presidential election results. And most worryingly, he pointed to mail-in ballots as justification for his refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the November election.

Trump’s critics have been right to seize upon his remarks as further evidence of his dangerously authoritarian impulses. Yet we can’t leave it at that.

In this unprecedented election, reporters, producers and editors need to go back to basics. They need to educate voters on how mail-in voting works, demonstrate why it’s not prone to fraud, as Trump wrongly claims, and explain the precise steps voters need to take to ensure that their votes are counted. In the Trump era, none of that can be taken for granted.

It’s worth noting that mail-in ballots are confusing. My absentee ballot came with eight pages of supplemental documents, including five pages of instructions on how to vote. It shouldn’t be so complicated, but it is. The free press has a duty to help make the process as simple and understandable as possible for the millions of Americans who will cast a ballot from their home this year for the first time.

The media can play a vital role in protecting democracy during this unprecedented pandemic election. Traditional coverage of the electoral horse race isn’t enough. Broadcasters and print journalists urgently need to supplement their reporting with tutorials and background on voting procedures. That could help ensure that hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — more ballots are counted.

In Pennsylvania, for example, election officials have warned that they will reject any so-called “naked ballots” that do not arrive in a “secrecy envelope” that ensures anonymity for each vote. Some have said that up to 100,000 votes could be tossed out. That is an alarming possibility, particularly given that Pennsylvania is likely to prove pivotal in this year’s election.

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.

Federal appeals court blocks felons from voting in Florida who owe fines and fees

From today’s Washington Post:

A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that hundreds of thousands of felons in Florida who still owe fines and fees may not register to vote, making it unlikely that they will be able to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta agreed with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that the payment of fines and fees by ex-felons is part of their “terms of sentence” and must be satisfied before they can vote.

The decision comes less than a month before the presidential swing state’s Oct. 5 deadline to register to vote for November’s general election.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision,” said Paul Smith, vice president at the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that had sued over the rule. “Nobody should ever be denied their constitutional rights because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees.”

The groups that filed suit say they are still deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this summer, the high court declined to overturn a lower-court decision that also went against felons seeking to register.

A spokesman for DeSantis lauded the decision. “Second chances and the rule of law are not mutually exclusive,” Fred Piccolo said in a statement Friday.

The decision in the populous swing state could have implications for the presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by about 1.3 percentage points, or fewer than 120,000 votes, and a recent NBC-Marist poll found that Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are neck-and-neck in the state, each at 48 percent.

About 28 percent of the felons affected by the issue in Florida are Black. Expanding voting rights to historically disenfranchised groups is typically believed to benefit Democrats, but there is no statewide partisan breakdown of which party the newly registered felons selected, if any. Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law, said on Fox News last year that “we’ve had more ex-felons register as Republicans than Democrats,” but the research is unclear on that.

The legal fight stems from a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by Florida voters in 2018 that allowed most felons to register to vote. The amendment overturned decades of practice in Florida, where felons had to petition the governor to have their rights restored.

Read the complete article here.