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.”

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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.

Appeals Court blocks purge of 200,000 voters from Wisconsin voter rolls

From today’s Washington Post:

An appeals court has temporarily halted the purge of more than 200,000 people from Wisconsin’s voter rolls, in a case that set off a bitter fight over voting rights in a swing state that will be fiercely contested during the 2020 presidential race.

The Tuesday order came one day after the state’s elections commission and its three Democratic members were found in contempt of court for not complying with a judge’s previous order to cancel the registrations of roughly 6 percent of its voters.

The case is largely split along partisan lines. Republicans argue that thousands of people who have changed addresses have not updated their voter registration status and should therefore be struck from the rolls to ensure election integrity, while Democrats and voting rights advocates say the move will unjustly disenfranchise swaths of the electorate — particularly low-income voters, young people and people of color, who tend to lean left.

A similar struggle has also played out in Georgia, where rolls were culled by more than 300,000 overnight last month, and in Ohio and Texas — spotlighting countrywide accusations of voter suppression in the run-up to the presidential election.

In Wisconsin, where President Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, party officials are following the legal saga closely, aware that their state may play a decisive role in November. If voters are removed from the rolls, state law allows them to re-register up to and on Election Day.

On Tuesday evening, Trump traveled to Milwaukee for a campaign rally and was still reveling in his victory as he took the stage, telling the crowd, “I’m thrilled to be back in Wisconsin, where we had a very big night a few years ago.”

But it was liberals, who had resolved to continue fighting the purge on Monday, that cheered Tuesday as news spread that the state’s rolls would remain intact. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty — a conservative law group that sued to have the registrations pruned — said the ruling doesn’t change its argument.

Read the complete article here.

Kentucky governor restores former felons’ voting rights

From CNN Online:

Newly sworn-in Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear restored voting rights for over 140,000 former felons in the state through an executive order, his office announced Thursday.

“My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness and that is why I am restoring voting rights to over one hundred forty thousand Kentuckians who have done wrong in the past, but are doing right now,” Beshear, a Democrat, said in a statement. “I want to lift up all of our families and I believe we have a moral responsibility to protect and expand the right to vote.”

Beshear also lamented the state’s voter access issues, asserting that Kentucky has the third highest voter disenfranchisement rate nationwide with nearly 10% of people, and nearly 25% of African-Americans, in the state not being allowed to vote.

The move fulfills a campaign promise after Beshear’s upset victory over former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in November. It was a key point in Beshear’s platform of progressive issues, including making Medicaid more accessible and replacing Bevin’s state board of education.

The order states that more than 140,000 Kentuckians were unable to vote despite completing their prison terms for non-violent felonies, and that Kentucky was one of two states that did not automatically restore voting rights to former felons. The order does not apply to those incarcerated for treason, bribery in an election and many violent offenses.

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.

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.