California steps into national fight over ballot restrictions, voting rights

From today’s San Diego Union-Tribune:

Earlier this year, state Sen. Tom Umberg pointed to an often-overlooked confluence of events amid discussion about California’s efforts to make it easier to vote in 2020 — something typically thought to favor Democrats.

“Democrats lost four seats (in Congress) this past election and we had the highest voter turnout since 1952,” the Santa Ana Democrat said. “I think more people voting, irrespective of what happened to Democrats, is a good thing for democracy.”

Lots of Republicans in other state legislatures aren’t buying that and launched a methodical drive to restrict voting access not long after the 2020 votes were officially tallied — along with seeking to overturn the results in some states where then-President Donald Trump lost.

There are a lot of reasons why Republicans gained some California congressional seats last year, just as there were when they lost several in 2018. How much — or how little — California’s voting rules had to do with that is open to debate. But greater access didn’t seem to hinder them.

Umberg’s comments came in February as the Legislature was passing his bill to extend last year’s California vote-by-mail system to special elections this year, which includes the Sept. 14 recall election for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The bill was drafted long before it was certain the recall would qualify and there already were two other special elections scheduled to fill legislative vacancies, according to The Associated Press.

Several states expanded the use of mail ballots last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, including some that sent a ballot to every registered voter whether they requested it or not, as California did. That was opposed by Trump and many Republicans, contending it was designed to boost Democratic prospects.

Regardless, the mail-ballot system was widely viewed as a success last year, not just because of turnout, but because it gave everyone an automatic option to skip voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic. There were still polling places available and opportunities for early voting in addition to the mail ballots. That will be the case next month.

In February, the COVID-19 outbreak was lingering, but appeared to be winding down when the Umberg bill was passed. Now the action seems prescient, given the pandemic resurgence with the Delta variant.

California is such a blue state that Democrats would seem certain to dominate regardless of how accessible voting is here. The national balance of power lies mostly in red states where political and demographic trends aren’t favoring the GOP, such as Georgia. And those are the states where voting laws are becoming more restrictive.

California’s accessible mode of voting may not be threatened, but the state is entering the fight over restrictive laws elsewhere. On Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he was joining nearly two dozen other attorneys general in filing an amicus brief supporting a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit challenging a new Georgia law passed as Senate Bill 202.

Read the complete story here.

SCOTUS questions need for restrictive voting laws in Voting Rights Act case

From NBC News Online:

Supreme Court justices asked skeptical questions Tuesday about Arizona election laws in a case that has emerged as an important test of the Voting Rights Act.

The case is about whether two state laws violate Section 2 of the act: One blocks the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct, and another prohibits anyone other than a family member or caregiver from collecting and delivering a voter’s absentee ballot.

On one side is the state of Arizona and Republicans, who want to keep the strict laws on the books and argue they prevent fraud. And on the other side are Democrats, who want the laws stricken and argue the rules prevent voters, particularly minorities, from accessing the ballot.

The voting restrictions are being fought in a state where Republicans have dominated local and national races for generations but where recently Democrats have gained traction and won both U.S. Senate seats and the presidential contest last year. The outcome of the case could have far-reaching implications for voting laws in other states, too.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, two Republican appointees and potentially pivotal votes in the case, appeared to be wrestling with the arguments as they asked tough questions of lawyers on both sides.

Roberts asked the Arizona GOP lawyer, who is defending the laws, why it’s “a bad thing” for election procedures to seek “racial proportionality.”

Later, he pressed the Democrats’ lawyer to define what it would take in their opinion to make a law unacceptable. “What if the provision results in a 1 percent decline in participation by minority voters — is that substantial enough?” he asked.

Barrett told Arizona’s state lawyer that there were “some contradictions” in his argument and that his task was to show why the changes in laws preserved equal “opportunity” for white and nonwhite voters.

But later, she appeared torn about whether Arizona’s laws cross the line. “There’s a difficulty that the statutory language and its lack of clarity presents in trying to figure out when something crosses from an inconvenience to a burden,” Barrett said.

Read the complete article here.

Advocates Say New Georgia GOP Voting Bill Targets Black Voters

From today’s CNN Online:

Georgia voting rights groups are denouncing a sweeping voting bill introduced this week by Republican state legislators as a “direct attack on democracy” and on Black voters.

The bill comes as Georgia has become ground zero for election law changes in the wake of the 2020 election. Republicans in the state, citing baseless allegations of voter fraud pushed by former President Donald Trump and other GOP officials, have moved to roll back access to mail-in voting and early voting.

The Republican House bill would give counties less time to send out absentee ballots and do away with Sunday voting, among other measures.

“After stunning losses in the general election and January runoffs, it’s no mystery why Georgia Republicans have rushed to enact restrictions on early, absentee and weekend voting. They know their only hope for winning elections is to restrict the right to vote and silence Black voices,” said New South super PAC founder Nsé Ufot in a press release. “Georgia Republicans saw what happens when Black voters are empowered and show up at the polls, and now they’re launching a concerted effort to suppress the votes and voices of Black Georgians.”

The new voting bill is the latest effort by the GOP to clamp down after the record turnout in the state for the November election and Senate runoffs that turned the state blue.

Georgia state senate Republicans just two weeks ago introduced their own sweeping voting bill including measures that would repeal no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration. Both bills look to limit the use of drop boxes, impose a voter ID requirement and expand poll watcher access.

“These new burdens will disproportionately fall on communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups. Eliminating Sunday early voting blatantly targets a mobilizer of voters of color: Black churches that run Souls to the Polls operations,” Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Fund, said in a statement.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS denies GOP bid to stop an extended deadline for PA mail-in ballots

From today’s Washington Post:

The Supreme Court on Monday night allowed Pennsylvania election officials to count mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day, refusing a Republican request to stop a pandemic-related procedure approved by the state’s highest court.

The justices’ action involved an arcane voting practice but carried outsize importance because of Pennsylvania’s pivotal role in the presidential election. It prompted a fierce battle between the state’s Democrats and Republicans.

It also showed a precariously balanced Supreme Court, which has only eight members after the death last month of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the potential importance of President Trump’s nominee to replace her, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

The court was tied on the Republican request, which means the effort failed.

The court’s four most conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh — said they would have granted the stay.

But that takes five votes, which means Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. sided with liberal Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Neither side explained its reasoning, which often is the case with emergency requests. But the outcome underscored the decisive role Barrett could play if she is confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate — with a vote there expected as soon as next week. Trump has said he wants his nominee on the court in case it is split on litigation arising from the election.

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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.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Read the complete article here.

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.”

Read the complete article here.

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.

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.