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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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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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.

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New TN law penalizes protesters with felony and loss of voting rights

From today’s CNN Online:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation on Thursday that will increase penalties for individuals caught camping on state property.

Bill HB 8005 increases the punishment for camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a class E felony that is punishable by up to six years in prison.

Signing of the bill comes as protesters have been camping outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, demanding a meeting with the Republican governor to discuss racial inequality and police brutality since June, according to the Washington Post. Protesters are also asking for the removal of a Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the State Capitol. Forrest was a slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader.

Campers would first be given a warning and those who refuse to leave would then be charged with a felony. Notably, convicted felons in Tennessee lose their right to vote, which could be a major blow to protesters amid a high-stakes election year.

Lee’s signing of the bill comes just one week after the GOP-controlled General Assembly first passed the legislation. At the time, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally, a Republican, touted the bill as a preventative measure against the forming of autonomous zones like the ones in other major cities.

“It is to prevent what has happened in other cities like Portland and Washington, DC,” McNally said at a news conference after the measure passed. “If people, knowingly violate the law, knowingly thumb their nose at authority and don’t do what authorities have requested they do, they should be charged with a serious crime.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth, said at the same news conference that the bill was to crack down on “criminal elements” and protect law enforcement officers.

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Trump to pardon women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony on 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment

From today’s Denver Post:

President Donald Trump said Tuesday he will pardon Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, who was arrested for voting in 1872 in violation of laws permitting only men to vote.

Anthony is best known for her role in the movement to secure voting rights for women, but she also was a strong anti-slavery and voting rights pioneer.

Trump’s pardon, which he said he’ll issue later Tuesday, comes 100 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which ensured women the right to vote. It’s also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

His move also comes amid an outcry over Postal Service disruptions that Democrats say endanger the voting rights of millions of Americans who would vote by mail in November amid the pandemic. Trump has denied asking for the mail to be delayed even as he leveled fresh criticism on mail-in voting.

Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicized trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, the authorities declined to take further action.

The 19th Amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Congress passed it in 1919, and the amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

Visiting Anthony’s grave site in Rochester on Election Day has become a popular ritual in recent years. Thousands turned out in 2016 for the presidential match-up between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In 2018, voters showed up by the dozens to put their “I Voted” stickers on her headstone.

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Trump changes tune on voting by mail, urging Florida to cast ballots remotely

From today’s CBS News Online:

President Trump seemingly flipped his position on voting by mail, at least in Florida, after spending months bashing the practice as ripe for potential fraud. Florida is a key battleground state, from which the president and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, have voted remotely in the past. 

“Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True,” Mr. Trump wrote in a tweet. “Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail! #MAGA”

In a press briefing minutes after that tweet, McEnany claimed the president’s position has not changed, and insisted absentee voting for a reason is different from mass mail-in voting. McEnany also said the campaign recently had a court victory in Florida regarding ballots, “so I believe that’s what he was referencing.” 

But the president’s language says “whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure…” 

Mr. Trump has railed against voting by mail in tweets and in press conferences in the last several months, insisting without evidence that such a practice opened the door for widespread fraud. Only days ago, the president tweeted the election will be “totally rigged” if mail-in voting is allowed.

“The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it,” Mr. Trump tweeted last week. “So much time is taken talking about foreign influence, but the same people won’t even discuss Mail-In election corruption. Look at Patterson, N.J. 20% of vote was corrupted!”

The president’s own voter fraud commission, which disbanded in 2018, found no evidence to support claims of widespread voter fraud. 

A record number of Americans are expected to vote by mail in 2020, given the coronavirus pandemic that continues to plague the nation. Mr. Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in most credible polls. 

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Voting by Mail Is Popular. So Is the False Idea That It’s Ripe for Fraud.

From today’s New York Times:

President Trump on Thursday railed against expanding access to mail-in voting, and even floated the idea that the election could be postponed, something he has no legal authority to do.

Top Republicans were quick to dismiss the suggestion of putting off Election Day — but Democrats went further, calling it evidence that the president would stop at nothing to throw doubt on the validity of an election that he currently appears likely to lose.

At this moment of coronavirus-driven insecurity, where do Americans stand on voting by mail? And how many might be persuaded, as the president argues, that the election’s very legitimacy is in doubt?

Recent polling shows that Americans now overwhelmingly support universal access to mail-in voting. In national surveys from the past few months, all taken after Mr. Trump began attacking the idea as dangerous, upward of six in 10 respondents have said that they would favor making absentee voting universally available.

But surveys also reflect how susceptible many people’s opinions can be to misinformation, when it comes to matters of fraud and vote security. For instance, 49 percent of Americans said in an ABC News/Washington Post poll in mid-July that mail-in voting was “vulnerable to significant levels of fraud.” That lines up cleanly with a Gallup poll from April that showed 49 percent of Americans thought expanding access to mail-in ballots would increase the prevalence of voter fraud.

This despite the fact that studies have consistently proved voter fraud to be exceedingly rare — including in the five states that now conduct all their voting by mail.

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CA Initiative to restore voting rights to parolees heads to November ballot

From the Sacramento Bee:

Voters will decide this November whether to restore voting rights for Californians on parole after state lawmakers approved a proposal Wednesday to place that question on the ballot.

On a 28-9 initial vote, the state Senate sent Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 to the Nov. 3 ballot, opening a possibility for more than 40,000 formerly incarcerated residents to regain their voting ability before they finish their probationary period.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said ACA 6 would allow people on parole to reintegrate into and become a “contributing member to society.”

“People on parole are our family members, our colleagues, our neighbors, our friends,” Bradford said. “They go to work every day. They pay taxes. They do their part to successfully reintegrate themselves back into society, yet the stigma exists for them.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there’s been an emerging trend to lift voting restrictions on formerly incarcerated people, though policy shifts vary by state.

Maine and Vermont allow both parolees and currently incarcerated people to vote, while 16 states and D.C. only prohibit voting for those currently serving a sentence. Twenty-one states, including both conservative and liberal regions, revoke those rights both incarcerated people and those on parole, and may require payment of fees or fines before regranting that right. Another 11 states ban formerly incarcerated people from voting “indefinitely,” according to the conference.

“The removal of the right to vote is not based in an interest in public safety,” said Taina Vargas-Edmond, executive director of Initiate Justice, an advocacy group sponsoring the bill. “Rather, it is rooted in a punitive justice belief system that intentionally attempts to rob marginalized people of their political power.”

Dozens of other organizations — many focused on racial equity — and individuals also support the measure, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, and the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

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Iowa’s GOP governor pledges to restore voting rights to some felons

From today’s Reuters News Service:

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has committed to restoring voting rights to those with past felony convictions, according to a Radio Iowa report, potentially expanding the electorate in a state that could be competitive in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Most U.S. states restrict voting for some people with felony convictions, but Iowa is the last state where felons are barred from voting even after serving their sentences, unless they successfully apply to the governor for restoration.

The rule disenfranchised 2.2% of Iowa’s voting-age population and 9.8% of African Americans in 2016, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice.

Reynolds, a Republican, made the pledge on Tuesday, a day after she met with Black Lives Matter activists, who have held demonstrations in several Iowa cities since the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

Reynolds told reporters she was consulting with “various groups,” but would issue an executive order on voting rights for felons before the November election, Radio Iowa reported.

She did not go into detail about the terms of the order, and her office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Earlier this month, Reynolds signed a bill that would require felons to pay financial damages owed as part of their sentence, as well as serving their prison time, before regaining the right to vote.

A similar rule on financial obligations in Florida was struck down by a federal court last month, after voting rights groups argued it constituted a poll tax. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has appealed the ruling.

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