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.

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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.

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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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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Beshear’s gubernatorial win in KY is also a win for ex-felon voting rights

From today’s Vox News:

In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of more than 100,000 people with felony records in Kentucky. But in December of that year, Beshear’s successor, Gov. Matt Bevin (R), undid the executive order — just as easily taking away from ex-felons what the former governor had given them.

On Tuesday, though, Bevin lost his reelection bid to Democrat Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son. And the new governor-elect is poised to sign another executive order that restores voting rights to at least some people with felony records after they’ve served their sentences — potentially increasing the voter rolls by more than 100,000.

Kentucky has one of the strictest laws disenfranchising people with felony records, banning ex-felons from voting for life — unless they get a special reprieve from the state government — even after they finish serving out their prison sentences, parole, or probation. It is only one of two states, along with Iowa, with such a strict lifetime ban.

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.