This week, states continued to adapt their primary elections to address the challenges of coronavirus. Milwaukee implemented a new drive-up early voting program, and voting rights activists sued the state of Wisconsin to ease prohibitive barriers to absentee voting. Iowa will mail every registered voter an absentee ballot request form, and Kansas committed to transition fully to mail-in voting as well. Meanwhile, Ohio is facing a lawsuit over how the state is handling its vote-by-mail transition. Additionally, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Seattle’s public campaign finance system, and in Florida, a federal judge has strongly urged officials to “fix felon voting rights, or I will.”
In national news, President Trump refused to commit to transparency measures for the $500 billion-dollar corporate bail-out fund in the coronavirus relief package, underscoring the need for transparency and anti-corruption reform. And Democrats in Congress, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, continue to advocate for more funding for states to implement accessible voting measures during the pandemic.
National News Vox – Trump says he won’t comply with key transparency measures in the coronavirus stimulus bill
President Donald Trump said on Friday that he will not adhere to a portion of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that would authorize an inspector general to oversee how $500 billion in business loans will be spent.
In a statement released early Friday evening, Trump announced that he had signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act, a relief package aimed at mitigating some of the economic fallout caused by efforts to allay the spread of Covid-19.
That bill also establishes a Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) within the Treasury Department to audit and investigate half a trillion dollars in loans for large businesses. In his signing statement, Trump said that this provision raises “constitutional concerns,” adding that his administration would not comply with such an official’s request for documents.
“I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause,” part of Article II Section 3 of the Constitution that states a sitting president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This seems to suggest the administration believes it is the president’s duty and not that of an inspector general to ensure the funds are distributed as the law intends.
The special inspector general, as authorized within the bill, would be able to request information from government agencies and report on failures to comply with those information requests. In his signing statement, Trump essentially stated that he will not let such reports reach Congress without his approval, which many fear directly undermines the provision’s goal of maintaining transparency in how that fund is handled.
The $500 billion loan program was the biggest point of contention between Democratic and Republican lawmakers throughout the relief bill’s negotiation process. Democrats called this a “slush fund” that would give Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin broad authority to disburse the funds as he saw fit. The IG provision was intended as an accountability effort to alert Congress if the Trump administration was not complying with auditing measures. It was also meant to help ensure the president and his family did not directly benefit from the emergency funds through their businesses.
Politico – Pelosi: Mail-in voting will protect ‘integrity of the election system’ amid coronavirus
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday suggested vote-by-mail capabilities should be scaled up ahead of 2020’s remaining elections, shielding voters from the threats in-person voting could pose amid a pandemic.
“In terms of the elections, I think that we’ll probably be moving to vote by mail,” Pelosi told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” adding that congressional Democrats had pushed to allocate more funding in the recent $2 trillion relief package “to get those resources to the states to facilitate the reality of life: that we are going to have to have more vote by mail.”
The speaker also advocated for more government dollars to be directed to the U.S. Postal Service so the independent agency could better implement a broad-based vote-by-mail system as well as deliver sorely needed personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to state and local authorities fighting the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Politico – Pandemic threatens monster turnout in November
Time is running out to allow millions of Americans to vote this fall without fear of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Mail voting — the voting method that best preserves social distancing — is infrequently used in many states, and those that don’t have extensive mail voting might be unable to implement systems before November. And while 33 states, including most 2020 presidential battlegrounds, already allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail who wants to, a number of those states aren’t prepared to handle the crush of mailed-in ballots that could be coming their way in November.
In interviews with POLITICO, eight election administrators and voting rights advocates said it is still too difficult for many voters to cast absentee ballots, even as two-thirds of American adults say they would be uncomfortable going to a polling place to vote, according to a new Pew Research Center survey — and as local, state and federal governments encourage or require Americans to stay home.
The consequences could shake the 2020 elections: Turnout had been expected to break modern records but instead could turn sharply downward, based on the path the coronavirus pandemic takes over the next few months. The patchwork system has thrown a wrench into every 2020 campaign, from the
presidential hopefuls down to state and local candidates, as they navigate different state laws and emerging policy changes to make sure their voters can cast ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
State Updates Wisconsin – TMJW – City of Milwaukee launches drive-up early voting program
Pull up and vote.
That’s what many people did from the safety of their cars Saturday morning. The City of Milwaukee Election Commission opened its drive-up early voting Saturday. Lines were long as Milwaukeeans finally got another chance to cast early ballots.
“I said. ‘I had to vote today,” said voter Doris Cunningham. Cunningham said the wait was long, but worth it.
Many voters TMJ4 spoke with said the wait for them was roughly about 45 minutes. The election commission said it is working to get that number down.
“Obviously, I’d like to see what we can do about the wait time but cars are moving. People are voting, I think we’re achieving our goal,” said Neil Albrecht, Executive Director of the Milwaukee Election The long lines eventually led up to the Zeidler Municipal Building where poll workers could be seen sanitizing equipment through a glass window.
“In terms of democracy this is an unprecedented time where people have to think about their safety and ability to cast a ballot,” Albrecht said.
Ballots will be open seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. through April 5.
Des Moines Register – Iowa secretary of state will mail every registered voter a ballot request form
The Iowa Secretary of State’s office will mail every registered voter in Iowa an absentee ballot request form ahead of the state’s June 2 primary, it announced Tuesday.
The plan to send ballot request forms to 2 million Iowans comes as concerns about in-person voting have mounted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other states have moved their primary dates back out of fear of spreading the virus.
Iowa’s June 2 primary is scheduled to go forward as planned, but Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is encouraging Iowans to vote by mail to reduce the spread of the virus. Last week, Pate extended the early voting period for mailed ballots to 40 days, up from 29. That means Iowans will be able to cast mailed ballots beginning on April 23.
“The safety of voters while casting their ballots is our top priority,” Pate said in a news release Tuesday. “The June 2 primary election will go on as scheduled because it’s important for Iowans to make their voices heard by voting. The safest way to vote will be by mail.”
Ohio – The Columbus Dispatch – Voting rights groups sue state over extended Ohio primary
Voting rights advocates sued the state Monday over a new primary election plan state lawmakers adopted last week after polls were closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The League of Women Voters, A. Philip Randolph Institute and four individual voters filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging the plan violates the National Voter Registration Act and the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Immediate action is needed from the court “to prevent the state from compounding the current public health crisis into a crisis for democracy in Ohio,” the lawsuit said.
Among the remedies they are seeking is to push the completion of the election to a later date.
“Under the General Assembly’s undemocratic election scheme, thousands, if not millions, of Ohioans will not get to vote through no fault of their own,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, in a prepared statement. “Ohio’s inefficient absentee voting system wasn’t designed for this massive scale, especially under such an impossible time frame. We call on the justice system to ensure that Ohio’s primary is constitutional and accessible.”
The Ohio General Assembly last week unanimously adopted a bipartisan plan to extend absentee voting until April 28, with limited opportunities for in-person voting that day. The first sheet of the 26-page lawsuit says lawmakers “ignored the pleas of bipartisan state and local elections officials, and imposed a cumbersome multi-step, multi-mailing process that will be impossible for elections officials and voters to complete in the time left before the election concludes.”
Research indicates that these changes “may hit Black and brown voters the hardest,” the lawsuit said.
Wisconsin – Wisconsin State Journal – Lawsuit seeks to bar signature requirement for absentee ballots during COVID-19 pandemic
A state law that requires absentee voters to have a witness sign mail-in ballots violates the rights of older, medically vulnerable voters who are self-quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lawsuit filed Thursday claims.
The law requires absentee mail-in ballots be signed by the voter and by a witness who is an adult U.S. citizen. The lawsuit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, seeks orders barring the state from rejecting absentee ballots that do not contain a witness signature during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This requirement poses a significant barrier to absentee, mail-in voting for any self-quarantining eligible voter who lives alone or who does not have an adult U.S. citizen in their household,” the lawsuit states. It says the requirement forces voters who live alone and cannot leave their home to be “caught in an unconstitutionally burdensome and unnecessary choice between their life and their liberty.”
The lawsuit is the third related to Wisconsin’s April 7 election spurred by a global health crisis. A federal judge recently ruled the state must allow online voter registration through March 30 in response to a lawsuit filed by the state and national Democratic Party.
Earlier this week the city of Green Bay filed a federal lawsuit seeking to cancel in-person voting and provide more time for counting mail-in absentee ballots. The Republican Party of Wisconsin argued
Thursday in a conference call with U.S. District Judge William Griesbach that the lawsuit should be dismissed, saying cities don’t have jurisdiction to bring such a suit and most cities are moving ahead with the election anyway.
Vanessa Chavez, Green Bay’s city attorney, insisted that the new coronavirus has made in-person voting too dangerous. Mailing ballots would ensure everyone gets one before the crisis deepens even further.
Kansas – FOX4 – Kansas Democrats will vote by mail only in presidential primary
Kansas Democrats have scrapped plans for polling sites for their May 2 presidential primary and are having the election entirely with mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.
State Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt said Monday that polling sites are “going to be too risky” and some were at public schools and community colleges that have closed. The party on Monday began mailing ballots to almost 390,000 people registered as Democrats as of early March.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kansas has more than tripled in less than a week, to 319 reported by the state health department.
Seven COVID-19-related deaths have been reported.
Washington – Seattle’s public funding for candidates survives Supreme Court challenge
A constitutional challenge to Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, the only system of its kind for subsidizing political campaigns with taxpayer funds, has fallen on deaf ears at the Supreme Court.
Two property owners in the city maintained the unique system violates their First Amendment rights by compelling them, through their tax payments, to support candidates they oppose. The justices turned down their appeal Monday without comment.
It was a rare bit of good news for advocates of reducing the influence of big money on politics, who have been disappointed by almost every campaign finance decision by the high court in the past decade.
By declining to hear the case, the justices let stand a decision in July by the Washington Supreme Court. It unanimously rejected the argument that taxpayers’ free speech rights had been violated and allowed Seattle’s program to continue — not an insignificant win for those who view expanded public financing of elections as potentially transformational to the cause of good governance.
With 63 percent support, Seattle voted to create the program in 2015 and vouchers were first distributed two years later. With about $3 million in dedicated local tax revenue every year, each voter receives four $25 vouchers they may donate to candidates — but only those who agree to exclusively accept small-dollar donations in addition to the scrip, and to limit their spending.
Last year, 36 candidates received a combined 98,000 voucher donations worth almost $2.5 million. Seven of the nine council seats were up for election in 2019 and all but one of the winning candidates used vouchers to fund their campaigns. And that was even though Amazon, labor unions and other businesses spent almost $4 million to oppose many of them because of their support of a local tax increase on businesses.
Florida – Orlando Sentinel – Federal judge warns Florida: Fix felon voting rights process or ‘I will’
A federal judge delivered an ultimatum Thursday to attorneys representing Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration in a lawsuit challenging a 2019 law that implemented a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle warned the state’s attorneys to come up with a process to determine whether felons have paid “legal financial obligations” as required by the law and whether those felons have the ability to pay the court-ordered fees and fines. He said that work needs to be done before an April 27 trial in the case — or else.
“If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle snapped during a telephone hearing Thursday afternoon.
Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction in October and ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny the right to vote to felons who are “genuinely unable” to pay financial obligations. A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Hinkle’s ruling, but DeSantis has requested what is known as an “en banc,” or full court, review.