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.

One Million Primary Ballots Were Mailed Late, Postal Service Watchdog Says

From today’s New York Times:

More than one million mail-in ballots were sent late to voters during the 2020 primary elections, an internal Postal Service audit found, underscoring deep concerns about whether the agency has the ability to process what is expected to be a major increase in mail-in votes for the presidential election in November.

In a survey of mail-in ballots sent during primaries from June 2 to Aug. 13, the agency’s inspector general found that election boards across the country had sent more than one million ballots during the final week of the election, putting those votes at “high risk” of not making it back to officials in time to be counted. Hundreds of ballots were mailed after elections were over — meaning they could not be counted — and only a small percentage used the proper tracking procedures, the audit found.

With at least three-quarters of Americans eligible to receive a ballot in the mail in 2020 — the most in history — and about 80 million mail ballots expected to flood election offices this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, the findings raised questions about whether the Postal Service would be able to handle the crush of votes.

“While the Postal Service has made progress in preparing for the 2020 general election, there are concerns surrounding integrating stakeholder processes with Postal Service processes to help ensure the timely delivery of election and political mail,” the auditors wrote.

The audit largely blamed local elections officials for mailing the ballots at the last minute in response to requests from voters, but it noted that the Postal Service should build “strong relationships” with local elections officials to ensure that they adjust their deadlines.

The findings come at a time of heightened scrutiny of the Postal Service, as President Trump claims without evidence that voting by mail is fraudulent and Louis DeJoy, the new postmaster general and an ally of Mr. Trump’s, has made operational changes that have coincided with a slowdown in mail deliveries. The situation has prompted widespread concern among Democrats that the president is seeking to interfere with the mail to bolster his re-election chances or sow distrust about the ultimate result.

Read the complete article here.

I’m the Judge Who Won in Wisc. This Principle Is More Important Than Winning.

From today’s New York Times:

On April 7, I was on the ballot in an election that should not have happened.

I was running for a 10-year term on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against an appointed incumbent. I came to find out after the election that incumbents in Wisconsin have lost Supreme Court elections only twice in the last half-century — had I known that when I started, I might never have run.

The central theme of our campaign was a message of restoring the public’s trust in the judicial system. It was a winning message: We pulled in a resounding 55 percent of the vote.

And it will guide me as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. I will make decisions based on the law — we must get away from a partisan view of the law.

The election was a good example of what should not happen. Gov. Tony Evers had formally called on the Legislature to postpone it. Deadlines for returning ballots were extended.

But in a mad flurry of activity the day before the election — probably never seen before and hopefully never to be seen again — partisan court majorities in cases at the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts reinstated the election and removed the deadline extension for absentee ballots to be returned.

Scant hours before the polls opened, the people of Wisconsin were confused and worried: On one hand, their government was telling them clearly to stay away from one another. On the other, they were being told that if they wanted to continue having a democracy, they had to show up in person, stand in long lines and vote.

Read the complete article here.

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.

A brutal year: how ‘techlash’ caught up with Facebook, Google and Amazon

From The Guardian Online:

What goes up must come down, and in 2019, gravity reasserted itself for the tech industry.

After years of relatively unchecked growth, the tech industry found itself on the receiving end of increased scrutiny from lawmakers and the public and attacks from its own employees.

Facebook and Instagram ads were linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.
Social Media, Fake News, and the hijacking of democracy by reactionary forces at home and from abroad.

“The whole year has been brutal for tech companies,” said Peter Yared, chief executive officer and founder of data compliance firm InCountry. “The techlash we have seen in the rest of the world is just now catching up in the US – it’s been a long time coming.”

From new privacy legislation to internal strife, here are some of the major hurdles the tech industry has faced in the past year.

As the 2020 presidential race intensified, tech companies faced a growing backlash over the campaign-related content they allow on their platforms.Advertisement

In October, Facebook quietly revised its policy banning false claims in advertising to exempt politicians, drawing fierce criticism from users, misinformation watchdogs, and politicians. Following the change in policy, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took out advertisements on Facebook purposely making false statements to draw attention to the policy.

Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, over the policy change in a congressional hearing in October. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of factchecking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, as Zuckerberg struggled to answer. “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?”

Meanwhile, other tech companies took the opposite stance.TikTok, whose reported 500 million users makes it one of Facebook’s largest rivals, made clear in a blogpost in October it would not be hosting any political advertisements.

And Facebook rival Twitter banned almost all political advertising in October. Google stated in November it would no longer allow political advertisers to target voters based on their political affiliations.

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.

Montana Gov. Bullock eyes public financing for 2020 run

From today’s AP News Online:

Steve Bullock will apply to be the first — and perhaps only — Democrat in the presidential primary who accepts public financing for his campaign, a potentially risky move that could give his struggling fundraising a boost but would also require the Montana governor to abide by a cap on the amount of money he can spend.

Top presidential contenders for years fueled their campaigns using the public financing system, which was established to reduce the influence of big donors in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But that’s waned ever since George W. Bush rejected the assistance in 2000. And the trend has become even more pronounced following a series of court rulings and regulatory changes that allowed even more cash to course through elections.

Bullock, who filed legal challenges to reverse those rulings when he was Montana’s attorney general, says his turn to public financing demonstrates that he is “walking the walk” at a time when rejecting big money in politics has become an animating issue for party activists. He will submit his application to the Federal Election Commission after the close of the third fundraising quarter, which ends Monday.

“As the only candidate for President who is choosing to participate in the public finance process, Governor Bullock is leading with his values and defending our shared belief that our democracy should never be for sale to the highest bidder,” campaign manager Jennifer Ridder says in a memo provided to The Associated Press that outlines his rationale.

Yet Bullock’s decision comes as he has trailed far behind the leading fundraisers in the race. While he is touting it as a demonstration of his commitment to campaign finance reform, he also has little to lose in doing so and would have to see a dramatic increase in fundraising to hit an estimated $60 million spending cap triggered by his acceptance of the money.

Read the complete article here.