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Stephen Wolf, Daily Kos

New report reveals the staggering impact of felony disenfranchisement

LEADING OFF

Felony Disenfranchisement: The Sentencing Project has released a report with updated estimates on the number of Americans disenfranchised for a felony conviction in every state, finding that more than 5 million people overall are barred from voting. Many of these laws have their origins in the Jim Crow era, and 6% of Black Americans are banned from voting compared to 2% of Americans overall. Laws on felony disenfranchisement vary widely by state, with Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia not barring anyone from voting while several mostly Southern states impose lifetime bans for at least some offenders.

Thanks to a lifetime ban on voting for a large number of felony offenses that can only be remedied by the state legislature and governor passing a bill to individually restore a voter's rights—something the GOP state government almost never does—Mississippi leads the way with more than 1 in every 10 voters banned from voting, including one in every six Black voters, three times the rate of whites. But Tennessee leads the way with Black disenfranchisement, with more than one in four Black citizens banned from voting there.

Should Democrats retake the Senate and Joe Biden become president, Congress may be poised to restore voting rights to millions of citizens who aren't currently incarcerated by ending the bans on voting that many states enforce against citizens on parole, probation, or who owe outstanding court debts even though they have completely served their sentences. The report estimates that 43% of those disenfranchised nationally have served any prison, parole, or probation sentence, and 75% are no longer incarcerated and could regain their rights if Congress adopts Democrats' proposal.

BALLOT MEASURES

Florida: With the support of Democratic state Sen. Janet Cruz and GOP state Rep. Chris Sprowls, who would become speaker if the GOP maintains their majority this November, a new lawsuit has been filed with Florida's conservative-dominated Supreme Court asking it to invalidate an initiative that will appear on the ballot this year and would amend Florida's constitution to create a "top-two primary" for state-level races if at least 60% of voters adopt it. The lawsuit contends that the measure violates the Florida constitution by undermining existing protections for Black and Latino representation.

If voters adopt the ballot measure, Florida would eliminate its traditional primaries closed to voters registered with a particular party and replace them by having all candidates run on the same ballot in the first round regardless of party. From there, the top-two finishers would advance to the November general election regardless of party, meaning two candidates from the same party could advance. As we've noted before, this system is highly flawed because one party can get shut out of the general election simply for having too many candidates in the first round even if they collectively won more votes than the other party, which has happened in California and Washington.

The lawsuit focuses on how top-two reduces existing opportunities for voters of color to elect their chosen candidates for state legislature, particularly since Black voters are heavily Democratic while whites lean GOP. Currently in a district capable of electing a Democrat, Black voters don't need to form an overall majority so long as they can form a majority of the Democratic primary electorate and can count on enough support from a minority of whites in the general. But under top-two, white Republicans who can't elect a Republican on their own might support a candidate backed instead by white Democrats to defeat a candidate preferred by Black Democrats.

Back in 2010, Florida voters passed two previous ballot initiatives that added protections against both partisan gerrymandering and the dilution of voters of color in existing districts that were capable of electing the preferred candidates of such voters. The plaintiffs therefore argue that this 2020 proposal violates the latter provision because it would almost certainly dilute the existing voting strength in several districts of Black voters and to a lesser extent Latinos (who are more internally diverse both in terms of their ethnic identity and partisanship).

VOTER REGISTRATION AND VOTING ACCESS

New York: Voting advocacy organizations are appealing a recent state lower court ruling that declined to extend New York's voter registration deadline from 25 days before Election Day to just 10 days prior.

2020 CENSUS

2020 Census: The Supreme Court has stayed a lower court ruling that had blocked the Trump administration from ending the census' counting operations weeks before the original Oct. 31 deadline, enabling Trump to stop counting on Thursday. Trump has pushed to short circuit the census in a likely effort to produce an undercount that would disproportionately harm communities of color, which in turn would undermine those communities' clout in redistricting for the coming decade.

While the Census Bureau reports that they already had a 99.9% completion rate in nearly every state before the Supreme Court issued its ruling, reporting from the New York Times details how those numbers are misleading. That 99.9% figure doesn't cover the number of households that have filled out the census forms and instead covers those checked off the list by any means, even via estimates.

For instance, the Times notes that instead of interviewing every individual household in a major apartment complex, enumerators may have instead entered data given to them by the apartment manager just on those individuals who signed leases, which could fail to include everyone living in each unit with more than a single occupant. Furthermore, the statewide completion rates don't add light to variations within states, and certain populations that are the hardest to count could thus be more incomplete.

Meanwhile in a federal lawsuit over the Trump administration's attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from census data that determines the reapportionment of congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states after 2020, the Supreme Court has agreed to fast-track Trump's appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked Trump's effort earlier this year. The high court set oral arguments for Nov. 30.

ELECTION CHANGES

Please bookmark our litigation tracker for a complete summary of the latest developments in every lawsuit regarding changes to elections and voting procedures as a result of the coronavirus.

Alabama: The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling blocking Alabama's requirement that absentee voters have their ballots witnessed or notarized. However, the panel upheld another part of the ruling that barred the state from banning curbside voting. Republican Secretary of State John Merrill has said he will appeal that portion of the decision to the Supreme Court.

Alaska: The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld a lower court ruling blocking the state's requirement that absentee voters have their ballots witnessed. Separately, voting rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in state court asking that voters whose mail ballots are rejected be given the chance to fix any problems.

Arizona: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling that extended Arizona's voter registration deadline from Oct. 5 to 23. However, the judges did order officials to accept new registrations from voters who submitted applications by Oct. 15. Meanwhile, a separate panel on the 9th Circuit has upheld a lower court ruling that rejected a request by the Navajo Nation that mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within 10 days be counted.

Delaware: A Delaware state court has rejected a suit requesting that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within 10 days be counted. Separately, voting rights advocates have filed a suit in state court asking that voters who have been displaced from their homes because of the pandemic be allowed to receive ballots electronically and return them by printing them out and mailing them in.

Georgia: In a long-running case, a federal judge has declined to order Georgia officials, whose polling places have long been plagued with lengthy lines due to difficulties with electronic voting equipment, to use hand-marked paper ballots instead of new electronic voting machines. In a separate ruling, the same judge also declined to order that officials provide paper backup ballots equivalent to 40% of registered voters. Under state law, officials are required to maintain backups for only 10% of voters.

In a separate Democratic-backed lawsuit that was also seeking paper ballot and poll book backups among other measures to prevent long voting lines, a different federal judge has dismissed the case.

Indiana: The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court ruling requiring that Indiana officials count absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within 10 days. Instead, ballots must be received by noon on Election Day in order to count.

Iowa: The Iowa Supreme Court has overturned a lower court ruling that said that Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate exceeded his authority in barring county election officials from sending out absentee voter applications with information pre-filled.

Separately, the court said it would hear a challenge from Democrats against a law passed earlier this year by the state's Republican-run legislature prohibiting officials from using their databases to fill in missing information on applications they receive from voters, which they've done in past years. Under the new law, officials are required to contact voters by phone, email, or regular mail.

Louisiana: A state court has blocked Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin's attempt to limit officials in New Orleans to just two ballot return drop box locations.

Michigan: The state Court of Appeals has sided with Republicans and overturned a lower court ruling that had required mail ballots to count if postmarked by the day before Election Day and received up to two weeks afterward.

Minnesota: A federal judge has rejected a Republican challenge to an agreement made between Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon and voting rights advocates to allow ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within seven days to count, saying the plaintiffs had failed to show they were injured by the law. Plaintiffs say they will appeal.

Missouri: A federal judge has stayed his own ruling allowing the in-person return of mail ballots pending an appeal by Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

North Carolina: Two separate federal court rulings have resulted in a mixed outcome for voting advocates regarding absentee voting procedures. In one case, a district court blocked part of a settlement in a separate state lawsuit that would have allowed voters to sign an affidavit in case a witness signature was missing, thus requiring a witness signature for all such ballots.

However, a district court in a separate case refused to overturn an agreement by the state to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 12 while also allowing voters to fix certain other problems on mail ballots regarding voter signatures or incomplete witness information. Additionally, the second federal ruling means dropping off mail ballots at polling places remains allowed.

Republicans are appealing that second federal ruling as well as the settlement in the state lawsuit, which saw the state Court of Appeals issue a short-term stay of the settlement and give the parties until Monday to respond on whether to more permanently block it.

Ohio: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked a lower court ruling that forbade Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose from preventing county election officials from providing more than one drop box for ballot returns. LaRose's directive that each county may only set up one drop box is now back in effect.

Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to take up Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar's request for it to clarify whether state law allows counties to reject mail ballots based on signatures purportedly not matching the ones on file without notifying voters and giving them a chance to correct the problem. Boockvar had issued a directive last month telling counties that they were required to give voters a chance to fix problems, but the Trump campaign contested it in a separate federal lawsuit.

Meanwhile in that same federal case, a district court has rejected Trump's request to ban dropboxes and allow voters to serve as poll watchers outside their home county, which opponents argued was an attempt to encourage voter intimidation in cities with large Black populations. Trump is appealing to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

(Note: Daily Kos Elections contributing editor Arjun Jaikumar is representing a party in this case. He took no part in the production of this writeup.)

Tennessee: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling refusing to require that Tennessee officials allow mail voters a chance to fix problems with their ballots that would otherwise result in their votes being rejected.

Texas: Latino voter advocates announced they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court after three Trump-appointed judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that had blocked a limitation on counties having more than one location for returning mail ballots regardless of population size. The 5th Circuit's ruling came down even though federal courts across the country have been blocking efforts to change election rules too close to the election and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott issued the limitation only on Oct. 1.

Regardless of the federal litigation, a separate state lawsuit has seen a lower court block Abbott's limitation on mail ballot return locations, though Republicans quickly vowed to appeal.

In two separate state court lawsuits over voting access, the first saw the all-GOP state Supreme Court reject right-wing activists' challenge to Abbott's order extending early voting by six days, leading to it beginning this week. In the second case, a panel on the state Court of Appeals has rejected the state GOP's request to ban curbside voting in Harris County, which is home to Houston and is the state's most populous at 4.7 million people, but the state Republican Party will appeal to Texas' high court.

Wisconsin: Democrats have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court asking it to reverse a recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had blocked a lower court's order to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 9.

Overseas Voters: A federal district court has rejected a request by voters from Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin who currently reside abroad and were seeking to be able to receive and return their ballots electronically, a process that is already available to the military and even some civilians in other states.

Voting Rights Roundup: Using Jim Crow logic, federal court greenlights age discrimination in voting

LEADING OFF

Indiana: A panel of three Republican-appointed judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against plaintiffs who were challenging a GOP-backed restriction that Indiana voters must present a non-COVID excuse to vote by mail this fall. Plaintiffs had argued that an exemption for voters aged 65 and above violates the 26th Amendment's ban on age discrimination in voting, but the appellate court disagreed in a manner that has potentially far-reaching consequences.

In their ruling, two of the three judges would effectively eviscerate any real protection from age discrimination. The plaintiffs argued that a law restricting the right to vote based on race or sex would violate the 15th Amendment or 19th Amendment, respectively, which the 26th Amendment mirrors with almost-identical language. But the majority wrote that those amendments themselves don't subject suspect voting laws to heightened judicial scrutiny, saying instead that such scrutiny comes from the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause.

The majority's position, in other words, is that the four amendments expanding voting rights—the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th—don't actually provide protections without the 14th Amendment backing them up. These four amendments, however, all contain the phrase "the right to vote ... shall not be denied or abridged on account of" the category they cover. But since age is not a protected class like race and gender under equal protection jurisprudence, the 26th Amendment would become almost meaningless in practice under this view.

This line of reasoning is almost indistinguishable from the jurisprudence advanced by judges during the Jim Crow era to deny the plain intent of the 15th Amendment when upholding laws that prevented Black citizens from voting in all but name, on the flimsy basis that they didn't explicitly ban African Americans from voting.

These Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests, generally did not make it impossible for Black voters to exercise their rights in theory, much like the absentee excuse requirement doesn't prevent younger voters from voting in person in theory. In practice, however, Jim Crow rules did make voting impossible for Black voters, just as the pandemic has made in-person voting impossible for many voters.

The 7th Circuit's ruling also opens the door to laws that roll out the red carpet for older voters—a Republican-leaning demographic—and impose additional burdens on younger voters, who typically favor Democrats. It could even let GOP legislators pass laws with illicit racial intent by claiming their motives are based on age instead, since young voters tend to be much more diverse than older ones.

The plaintiffs have not yet indicated if they will appeal further. The possibility of an adverse ruling by the Supreme Court could stay their hand, as such a decision would have the effect of making the 7th Circuit's logic binding on the entire country.

In a separate case, a federal district court has temporarily stayed its ruling for a week after ordering that ballots must count if postmarked by Election Day and received a few days afterward in order to give the 7th Circuit time to consider the GOP's appeal.

VOTER SUPPRESSION

Arizona: In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would take up Arizona Republicans' appeal in a case that could strike a crippling blow against the last remaining pillar of the Voting Rights Act.

This case involves two Republican-backed laws in Arizona that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found had both the effect and intent of discriminating against Black, Latino, and Native American voters. If both findings are overturned, it may become impossible to challenge such laws in the future.

Earlier this year, the 9th Circuit blocked the two laws: one that bars counting votes cast in the wrong precinct but in the right county, and another that limits who can turn in another person's absentee mail ballot on a voter's behalf.

Arizona had largely transitioned to mail voting even before the pandemic, but the 9th Circuit observed that only 18% of Native American voters receive mail service, and many living on remote reservations lack reliable transportation options. That has led some voters to ask others in their community to turn their completed ballots in, which Republicans have sought to deride as "ballot harvesting" in an attempt to delegitimize the practice. The law the court struck down had restricted who could handle another person's mail ballot to just a close relative, caregiver, or postal service worker.

The 9th Circuit's ruling also invalidated a separate provision prohibiting out-of-precinct voting, in which a voter shows up and casts a ballot at the wrong polling place but in the right county on Election Day. Under the invalidated law, voters in such circumstances could only cast a provisional ballot, which were automatically rejected if it was later confirmed that the voter had indeed showed up at the wrong polling place.

This ruling relied on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that have a discriminatory effect against racial minorities regardless of whether there was an intent to discriminate. The finding of a discriminatory effect is critical because it's often much more difficult if not impossible to prove that lawmakers acted with illicit intent, whereas statistical analysis can more readily prove that a law has a disparate negative impact on protected racial groups.

Consequently, it's this so-called "effects test" that is the key remaining plank of the Voting Rights Act following the notorious 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Some legal observers remain optimistic that the worst may not yet happen, since Arizona Republicans are not challenging the constitutional grounds for the VRA's effects test. However, others have noted that even if the effects test isn't formally struck down, the Supreme Court could make it so difficult to comply with the requirements to prove discrimination that the VRA would nevertheless become meaningless.

Chief Justice John Roberts has spent his entire career fighting to destroy the Voting Rights Act, beginning with his service as a young lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department. If Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court, hard-right appointees would have a solid majority. Should that come to pass, the Voting Rights Act's days could very well be numbered, whether this case or another is the vehicle.

U.S. Territories: Plaintiffs originally from Hawaii, including a civilian contractor with the military assigned to Guam, have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a federal law that prohibits them from voting for president and Congress solely because they reside in American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. The plaintiffs note that U.S. citizens originating from the 50 states retain the right to vote for federal offices in their former state if they live in a foreign country or the Northern Mariana Islands but not in the other four territories. They argue that the system is unconstitutional by privileging citizens who move to one territory above the other four.

This lawsuit is similar to one that unsuccessfully tried to extend voting rights to U.S. citizens who moved to one of the first four territories above and became disenfranchised. In that case, the Supreme Court in 2018 declined to take up the plaintiffs' appeal after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiffs. Additionally in that case, the Trump administration proposed disenfranchising citizens in the Northern Mariana Islands as a solution to the purported equal protection violation.

ELECTORAL REFORM

Maine: The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the GOP's request to stay a state Supreme Court ruling that authorized the use of instant-runoff voting for the presidency this fall.

2020 CENSUS

2020 Census: The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to block an order that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued requiring census counting efforts to continue through Oct. 31 as originally scheduled instead of letting Trump cut them short by nearly a month.

ELECTION CHANGES

Alaska: An Alaska state court has blocked a requirement that absentee voters have their ballots witnessed. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is possible.

Arizona: A panel of three judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily rejected the state GOP's appeal of a recent lower court ruling that extended Arizona's voter registration deadline from Oct. 5 to Oct. 23, expressing doubt that the state Republican Party had the standing to appeal and instead inviting GOP state Attorney General Mark Brnovich to file his own appeal. Brnovich had filed a motion to intervene as defendant after Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs declined to appeal, but the court has not yet ruled on his motion.

In a separate case, a panel on the 9th Circuit has sided with Brnovich and the GOP by staying a lower court ruling that had allowed voters up to have up to five days after Election Day to "cure" problems with a missing signature on their mail ballots instead of requiring such corrections be done by Election Day. Plaintiffs had challenged the law by noting that voters whose signature purportedly didn't match the one on file already had five days after the election to fix the problem but not if the signature was missing entirely.

Georgia: A federal court has rejected a lawsuit seeking to require Gwinnett County, a large and diverse county in the Atlanta suburbs. to send out absentee ballot applications in Spanish, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing even though the county is the lone one in the state subject to the Voting Rights Act's language-minority protections due to its large Latino minority.

Iowa: An Iowa state court has blocked a directive from Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate forbidding local election officials from sending out absentee ballot applications with voter information pre-filled. Pate has asked the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court to stay the ruling.

Maine: A Maine state court has rejected a lawsuit by voting rights advocates seeking to have ballots postmarked by Election Day counted. Plaintiffs also wanted voters whose ballots are rejected for alleged signature mismatches the opportunity to fix any problems and have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Separately, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills says she will not issue an executive order requiring that ballots postmarked by Election Day be counted.

Michigan: Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed a bill allowing election officials to begin processing mail ballots the day before Election Day. Previously, officials were only allowed to start doing so the morning of Election Day.

Missouri: The Missouri Supreme Court has rejected voting advocates' appeal of a lower court ruling that dismissed their challenge to a GOP-backed requirement that absentee ballots cast by voters under the age of 65, who are typically less Republican than elderly voters, be notarized. In a separate federal lawsuit, a district court has ruled against the GOP and blocked a state law that prohibits voters from returning their mail ballots in-person; Republicans announced they will appeal.

Montana: The Supreme Court has rejected an attempt by Republicans to block a directive by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock allowing county election officials to decide whether to conduct next month's election by mail; counties home to 94% of Montana residents have opted to do so.

Nevada: The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected a challenge by Republican Sharron Angle to the state's plan to hold next month's election by mail.

New Hampshire: A New Hampshire state court has largely rejected a lawsuit seeking to have election officials count mail ballots postmarked by Election Day, prepay postage, provide drop boxes, and allow third-party ballot collection.

New Jersey: A federal judge has rejected a Trump campaign challenge to New Jersey's plan to conduct next month's election by mail. Plaintiffs had specifically challenged provisions that allow election officials to start counting ballots up to 10 days before Election Day, and to accept ballots that lack a postmark up to two days after Election Day.

North Carolina: A federal judge has temporarily blocked a settlement approved by a North Carolina state court between voting rights advocates and the state Board of Elections requiring that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within nine days be counted. The agreement also effectively waived a requirement that absentee voters have their ballots witnessed.

Ohio: A federal district court has overruled Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose's recent directive barring counties from setting up more than one location for voters to drop off their absentee mail ballots, which LaRose instituted shortly after a state appellate court ruled last week that he was allowed but not required to let counties operate multiple locations. LaRose immediately appealed the federal ruling to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

LaRose's attempt to limit mail ballot dropoff options to just one per county regardless of population size would disproportionately hurt Democrats if allowed to go forward, since Ohio's biggest counties lean Democratic while the smallest ones overall favor Republicans. It would also harm Black voters, since most live in large urban counties.

South Carolina: The Supreme Court has overturned a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had suspended the witness requirement for absentee mail ballots, ruling that it was too close to Election Day to make such changes under a principle designed to avoid voter confusion, but this ruling may just do that very thing.

In its Oct. 5 decision, the court held that those who had already voted by mail—more than 150,000 ballots had already been mailed out and an unknown number returned—could still have them count if they lacked a witness signature but were received by election officials no later than Oct. 7. However, in light of the Trump administration's effort to sabotage postal delivery service to stymie mail voting, voters could have legally mailed a valid vote days before the ruling only for it to arrive after the Oct. 7 deadline and thus be rejected.

Three of the most right-wing justices on the court—Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas—would have gone even further and thrown out even votes cast before the ruling came down if they lacked a witness signature.

Separately, voting rights advocates have filed two additional federal lawsuits seeking to expand voting access. The first one aims to require officials to notify voters and give them a chance to fix purported problems with their mail ballot signature. The second seeks an extension of South Carolina's Oct. 4 voter registration deadline, noting that the pandemic has upended normal avenues for voter registration activity.

Tennessee: A federal district court has temporarily blocked a GOP-backed law that required certain newly registered voters to present a photo ID in-person to be able to vote by mail, ordering GOP officials to allow such voters who registered by mail to include a photocopy of their ID with their mail ballot instead. This law was likely to make it more burdensome for groups such as college students, who may not be on campus due to the pandemic, to exercise their right to vote.

Texas: Texas' all-Republican state Supreme Court has issued a ruling blocking officials in Harris County, the state's largest, from sending mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters. The court ruled that the county couldn't mail applications to those beyond just voters age 65 and up, who had already been sent an application and are the only ones allowed to vote by mail without a non-COVID excuse.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates have filed a second federal lawsuit and a new state-level lawsuit over GOP Gov. Greg Abbott's recent order prohibiting counties from setting up more than one drop box to receive mail ballots. That decision may make it disproportionately harder for Democrats and voters of color to vote since they are heavily concentrated in a handful of massively populated counties such as Harris; Texas' smaller counties are overall much whiter and more Republican. Plaintiffs argue that the order violates equal protection and the state constitution's right-to-vote guarantee.

Wisconsin: A panel of three Republican-appointed judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled 2-1 to reverse its earlier position and grant the GOP's request to stay a lower court decision that had ordered ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 9 and extended the deadline from Oct. 14 to Oct. 21 to register online or by mail (Wisconsin still allows in-person registration on Election Day).

Previously, this same panel had unanimously rejected the GOP's appeal on the grounds that Republican legislative leaders lacked the standing to represent the state on the basis of a prior state Supreme Court ruling. However, plaintiffs subsequently asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to clarify that they did have standing, which the court's conservative majority did in a 4-3 ruling along ideological lines.

Consequently, the 7th Circuit panel sided with the GOP by saying it was too close to the election to change voting rules. However, Judge Ilana Rovner, a George H.W. Bush appointee, dissented by saying the majority's decision will cause "many thousands of Wisconsin citizens [to] lose their right to vote." She concluded her dissent, "Good luck and G-d bless, Wisconsin. You are going to need it." Democrats have not announced if they will appeal.

Overseas Voters: Civilian voters residing abroad who retain the right to vote in federal races in their last state of residence have filed a federal lawsuit against officials in Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin seeking the right to vote electronically due to the pandemic and delays with postal delivery, which may be exacerbated by the Trump administration's efforts to sabotage the Postal Service.

Active duty military service members stationed abroad already have the ability to cast their ballots electronically via fax or email. Civilians abroad, meanwhile, can obtain but not return their ballots electronically. Plaintiffs argue that there's a considerable risk that their ballots will not arrive in time and that the significantly higher cost of sending mail from a foreign country can be prohibitive. While extending electronic voting to overseas civilians would be one way to ensure they aren't disenfranchised, election security experts have widely warned that internet voting presents critical security risks.

Voting Rights Roundup: Texas GOP launches attack on Dems and voters of color by limiting mail voting

LEADING OFF

Texas: On Thursday, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that prohibited Texas' 254 counties from setting up more than one location for voters to drop off their absentee mail ballots regardless of population size, sparking a firestorm of condemnation and drawing a federal lawsuit from voting rights advocates seeking to block the move for discriminating against voters of color. With the Trump administration attempting to sabotage postal delivery and causing delays that risk ballots not arriving on time, in-person dropoff locations are a key alternative for ensuring mail ballots count.

Abbott's move is a thinly veiled attack on voting access for the state's rapidly growing Black, Latino, and Asian American populations and the Democrats they support, since those groups are largely concentrated in just a handful of massively populated counties. Harris County (home to Houston) alone has nearly 5 million residents and would have only one location in a jurisdiction roughly the size of Delaware, and together with several other counties with populations over 1 million containing cities such as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, they hold a disproportionate share of the state's Democrats and voters of color.

By contrast, well over one hundred of the state's smallest counties have electorates that are overwhelmingly white and therefore strongly Republican, leading to vast partisan and racial disparities in the number of dropoff locations per capita—though this order will require GOP voters in sprawling rural counties to also travel larger distances to drop off their mail ballots if they vote that way. However, because Democrats may be much likelier to vote by mail thanks to Trump's demagoguery discouraging Republicans from doing so, Democrats will likely face much more difficulty than Republicans with casting their ballots thanks to this order.

Texas has been ground zero for voter suppression in 2020 just as it finally becomes a key battleground state for the first time in decades, and Democrats have a critical chance to flip the state House this fall and block Republicans from passing the most important congressional gerrymander of any state after the 2020 census. Republicans have so far successfully fought back lawsuits and preserved a requirement that voters under age 65 have a non-COVID excuse to vote by mail—elderly voters, of course, are much whiter and therefore more conservative than the electorate overall.

Houston and Harris County have been the focus of much of the GOP's efforts to restrict voting, and a state appeals court has rejected a separate GOP challenge to a plan by officials there to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. However, the county remains barred from mailing out ballots due to an earlier preliminary ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. A final ruling from the high court is expected soon.

Relatedly, Republican activists have filed an additional lawsuit asking the all-Republican state Supreme Court to limit in-person voting in Harris County by shortening the start of early voting from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19, even though Abbott himself had added the additional six days of early voting statewide, and they want to bar the county from accepting mail ballots in-person before Election Day instead of throughout the early voting period as is currently allowed. These same activists are also challenging Abbott's early voting order in a case that was filed last month and is pending before the state high court.

REDISTRICTING

Arkansas: A federal district court has refused to issue a preliminary injunction that would have blocked a state law that Republican officials and the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court had used to disqualify all of the signatures that redistricting reformers had submitted for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. The federal court dismissed the case with prejudice, prompting proponents to give up on winning a 2020 ballot measure battle. Although the measure remains on the ballot, its votes won't be valid.

While redistricting reformers vowed to pursue another ballot initiative in a future election, this ruling means Republicans will get to gerrymander the state after 2020 for the first time since Reconstruction (if not ever). Even worse, it's a potentially fatal setback for the reform movement going forward because of a measure Republicans have themselves referred to November's ballot to effectively make it impossible to attempt future ballot initiatives without supermajority support that includes many white conservative voters.

The GOP's November ballot measure would amend Arkansas' constitution to require supporters meet the signature threshold in 45 of 75 counties instead of the current 15. However, because Democrats, Black voters, and a majority of the state's population overall are heavily concentrated in a minority of counties, this requires initiative proponents to obtain signatures in heavily white and therefore conservative counties, making it harder for progressives but not conservatives to put initiatives on the ballot.

VOTER SUPPRESSION

Arizona: The Supreme Court has agreed to take up Republicans' appeal of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had determined Republicans had intentionally discriminated against Native American, Latino, and Black voters by enacting restrictions on counting votes cast in the wrong precinct but in the right county, as well as limitations on who can turn in another person's absentee mail ballot on their behalf. These two consolidated cases have potentially enormous and dire implications for the future of the Voting Rights Act, which we will further detail in a future Roundup.

Michigan: A federal district court has ruled partially in favor of Democrats by temporarily blocking a lone-in-the-nation law prohibiting the use of paid transportation to the polls such as ride-hailing services and hired drivers, but the court refused to block another limitation preventing most third-parties from collecting voters' completed absentee ballots and delivering them to officials on those voters' behalf.

North Carolina: A GOP-majority panel of state Court of Appeals judges has ruled 2-1 along party lines to overturn a lower court ruling and uphold two constitutional amendments that Republicans had placed on the ballot in 2018, which were approved by voters, rejecting the NAACP's argument that the GOP legislature had lacked the authority to amend the state constitution because they had relied on unconstitutional gerrymanders that had been struck down and redrawn. The NAACP is appealing to the state Supreme Court, which has a 6-1 Democratic majority, to overturn the two amendments, which required voter ID and capped the maximum income tax rate.

Regardless, the voter ID requirement was already not in effect for 2020 due to separate federal and state litigation that temporarily blocked the implementing statute itself while those cases proceed on the merits.

Texas: The conservative-dominated 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed a recent lower court ruling that would have blocked the GOP's repeal of the straight-ticket voting option for November, dealing a blow to voting access for Black and Latino voters, who are disproportionately likely to use the option, since the lack of the option means it will take much longer to fill out Texas' unusually long ballot and thus exacerbate voting lines.

Wisconsin: A federal district court has said it won't rule before the election on whether to curtail the GOP's limitation on the use of college IDs for satisfying the voter ID law, saying there is too little time left to resolve the issue without disrupting the election process.

Post Office: Three separate federal lower courts have issued rulings in recent weeks blocking the Trump administration from implementing changes to the U.S. Postal Service unilaterally in a manner that undermined service speed and reliability across the country over the summer. The courts ordered the post office to cease implementing changes such as limits on delivery trips and the removal of mailboxes and sorting machines. Additionally, one court ordered that election mail be prioritized and overtime requests be pre-approved for the two weeks surrounding Election Day.

Trump's postmaster general, major GOP donor Louis DeJoy, had ordered changes intended to sabotage the post office's ability to handle a historic surge in mail voting as a way to disenfranchise mail voters, who are largely Democratic thanks to Democratic concerns about the pandemic and Trump's demagoguery discouraging GOP voters from following suit at a similar rate. TIME reported that one of those changes was the post office's failure to update 1.8 million address changes, meaning thousands of voters may not receive their ballots at the correct address.

It's unclear, though, whether these court rulings will eliminate the service delays that began appearing after DeJoy's appointment earlier this year. Consequently, voters should strongly consider wearing a mask to go vote early in-person if they deem it safe enough, but if they plan to vote by mail, they should return their ballot by mail no later than two weeks before Election Day. Better yet, voters should return their mail ballots in-person at a drop box, polling place, or their local elections office where allowed by state law to avoid mail delivery delays entirely.

FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT

Florida: Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his allives have fundraised $16 million to pay off the fines of nearly 32,000 Black and Latino voters with felony convictions in response to Florida Republicans passing a modern-day poll tax by requiring people with felony convictions to pay off court fines and fees before regaining their voting rights, even though the state can't even tell countless affected individuals how much money they owe. The plaintiffs' expert witness estimated that roughly 43% of the 775,000 people barred from voting were Black, meaning this group likely leans decidedly Democratic compared to those who don't owe court costs.

The ultra-wealthy Bloomberg has committed $100 million to helping Joe Biden win Florida, and his effort is intended to blunt the racial and partisan discrimination behind the GOP's poll tax by only focusing on Black and Latino voters, since they're much likelier to lean Democratic than whites. In response, Republican state Attorney General Ashley Moody asked federal law enforcement to investigate Bloomberg's group for potential election law violations, making this whole ordeal further harken back to the ugliness of the Jim Crow era, when law enforcement was routinely wielded as a cudgel against Black voting advocates.

North Carolina: Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to block a state law making it a serious crime for people with felony convictions that render them disenfranchised to impermissibly vote before their rights are restored, even if it's unintentional, a move that comes after a state court recently struck down a law that required the payment of court fines and fees for certain people to be able to regain their voting rights.

2020 CENSUS

2020 Census: Late on Friday, the Justice Department announced it would go all the way to the Supreme Court if needed to overturn a flurry of recent lower court orders blocking the Trump administration's attempt to cut short the census' in-person counting operations. Earlier in the week, both the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a district court had ordered the census to continue counting up through its originally planned Oct. 31 deadline instead of ending operations at the end of September, leading to the Census Bureau making an announcement that it would comply on Friday shortly before the DOJ vowed to appeal.

ELECTION CHANGES

Alabama: A federal judge in Alabama has blocked the state's witness and photo ID requirements for mail-in voting this year for voters at higher risk from COVID-19. Republicans say they will appeal.

Alaska: Republican election officials, who previously sent absentee ballot applications to all voters 65 and older, have agreed to email voters who didn't receive applications as part of this mailing with instructions on how to vote by mail. Separately, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said it would not have time to resolve a challenge to the state's decision to favor seniors before the election, which a lower court previously rejected.

Arkansas: Voting rights advocates have filed a suit in federal court challenging the state's lack of signature cure options for mail voters.

Arizona: A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit asking that ballots from the Navajo Nation be counted if they are received after Election Day so long as they are postmarked by that date. Separately, voting rights group have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to extend Arizona's voter registration deadline from Oct. 5 to Oct. 27

Delaware: A state judge has ruled against a Republican lawsuit seeking to block Delaware's decision to conduct the November elections largely by mail.

Georgia: Two Trump-appointed judges on the 11th Circuit Court of appeals have reversed a ruling over the dissent of the panel's lone Democratic appointee to reinstate a requirement that mail ballots be received by officials no later than Election Day, overturning the lower court's decision that had allowed ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward.

In a separate case, a federal district court judge has ruled that Georgia election officials must maintain paper backups of voter registration data at every polling site in order to prevent the sort of problems that plagued the state's June primary, when many electronic data systems failed and caused long lines in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Republicans asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that ruling on Friday, too.

Illinois: A federal judge has rejected a Republican lawsuit seeking to block the state's expansion of mail voting for the November general election.

Indiana: A federal court has ordered Indiana to accept mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 13. Republicans are reportedly expected to appeal. Separately, voting rights advocates say they will appeal a lower federal court ruling that rejected their request that all Indiana voters be allowed to request absentee ballots without an excuse instead of only elderly voters, who typically favor Republicans.

Finally, a federal judge has struck down a state law that allowed only county election boards the ability to seek longer voting hours in the event of problems at polling places. Now individual voters will have the power to seek redress in the courts over such issues.

Iowa: Iowa's conservative-dominated Supreme Court has sided with the Trump campaign against Democrats and let stand decisions that invalidated tens of thousands of absentee mail ballot request forms that voters had already submitted in populous Linn and Woodbury Counties, while a lower court tossed thousands of such applications from heavily Democratic Johnson County. The courts found that these applications, which local officials had sent with partially pre-filled information, violated state law and had to be re-sent to voters blank.

Relatedly, a lower state court has ruled against Democrats and Latino voter advocates by refusing to block the GOP's underlying law that makes it more difficult for election officials to administer absentee mail voting by prohibiting them from using the state's voter database to fill in missing information such as PIN for a voter's ID. Instead, officials must waste their limited time by having to contact potentially tens of thousands of such voters or more, risking some voters not getting mail ballots in time if at all.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the GOP's restriction that only allows county election boards to set up ballot collection drop boxes on site at their offices. Plaintiffs want election officials to be able to establish drop boxes anywhere they see fit.

Louisiana: A federal judge has ordered Louisiana to reinstate the limited expansions to mail voting it established before the state's summer primaries for the November general election, which allowed those at greater risk for COVID-19 to request absentee ballots instead of only elderly voters and those with limited other excuses. Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin says he will not appeal.

Maine: Maine's state Supreme Court, which is heavily composed of Democratic appointees, has rejected the GOP's request to suspend its late-September decision approving the use of instant-runoff voting for the presidency this November, meaning Maine will be the first state in history to use it for the Electoral College.

Michigan: A state court judge has ruled that Michigan must count mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within two weeks. The judge also blocked a law limiting the class of persons who can assist a voter in returning mail ballots; voters can now ask anyone to return their ballots.

Republicans are appealing the extension of the mail ballot return deadline, and they've also filed a separate suit in federal court challenging the ruling. In addition, they've filed a suit in state court challenging the ballot return assistance ruling.

Minnesota: Republican state Rep. Eric Lucero has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state's decision to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received a week later.

Mississippi: The conservative-heavy Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may not request absentee ballots. Separately, leaders in the state's Republican-run legislature say they will not take action to permit no-excuse absentee voting. Mississippi is one of just five states where voters need to present an excuse to request an absentee ballot for the November general election, and all five states exempt elderly voters from the requirement, a demographic that typically leans GOP.

Missouri: Voting rights advocates have filed a suit in federal court challenging a ban on returning mail ballots in person. They also want voters to be given the chance to cure any problems with mail ballots after they're cast. Separately, a state court judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Missouri GOP's requirement that voters have their mail ballots notarized if they are under the age of 65. Two other lawsuits challenging the law are still pending.

Montana: The Montana Supreme Court, which lacks a reliable liberal or conservative majority, has blocked a law prohibiting third parties from collecting and returning mail ballots from voters. However, the justices overturned a lower court ruling that allowed ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward, and another that would have given voters the opportunity to cure any problems with their ballots, ruling that it was too close to the election to make such changes without potentially confusing voters and creating administrative problems.

Separately, a federal court has rejected a Republican challenge to an order by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock allowing local election officials to conduct the November election by mail. Counties that are home to 94% of Montana's population have chosen this option. Republicans are appealing.

Nevada: A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign challenging Nevada Democrats' decision to hold the November election largely by mail.

New Jersey: A group of local Republicans have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging New Jersey Democrats' decision to hold the November election largely by mail.

New York: New York City's Board of Elections had to recently send out a hefty 100,000 replacement mail ballots after the vendor it used to supply ballot materials misprinted the envelopes sent to voters for them to place their ballots in. Numerous voters reported receiving envelopes with the wrong name and return address. While it was unclear how many erroneous envelopes were actually sent to voters or whether the problem extended beyond Brooklyn, the board went ahead with sending replacement ballots and envelopes to the up to 100,000 voters who may have been affected.

For voters who receive two ballots, only the second one should be sent in, and if a voter has already sent in the first ballot, only the second one would count if both are mailed. The replacement ballots also have a red mark that will be noted by the machines used to process them, and officials said they would try to contact voters by phone and email to alert them of the problem

The New York City board has been plagued by problems hurting voting access for years, and while Democrats have passed numerous reforms after gaining control of the state Senate in 2018, the long-troubled board (and its counterparts elsewhere in the state) is one area where they have yet to make major progress. Critics have long derided the system whereby the two major political party organizations select election board members as rife with corruption and patronage instead of encouraging apolitical professionalism.

Meanwhile, a state court judge has rejected a request from voting rights advocates that New York's voter registration deadline be shortened from 25 days before Election Day to just 10 days.

North Carolina: A state court has approved a settlement allowing officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 12, leading GOP legislators to announce they would appeal. The agreement also makes it easier for voters to cure problems with their ballots and expands the availability of ballot return drop boxes. Separately, a federal court has blocked the Democratic-controlled state Board of Elections from issuing instructions saying election officials should count mail ballots received without a witness signature.

Ohio: A panel of judges on the state Court of Appeals has ruled that Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is allowed but not required to let counties set up more than one location for voters to drop off their absentee mail ballots this fall, reversing a recent lower court decision that had ordered LaRose to allow more than one location in each county. LaRose had claimed that state law prevented him from allowing more than one site per county, but Democrats have blasted him for misinterpreting the law to suppress votes, since more populous counties are disproportionately Democratic compared to smaller ones.

LaRose now faces a decision of whether to prove Democrats right by refusing to allow additional locations or work with the counties to set up extra drop boxes, though separate federal litigation remains ongoing that had been on hold until the state appeals court ruled. The federal court in that case had recently ordered LaRose to work with heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, to set up additional ballot return locations.

Meanwhile, a state appeals court has rejected a request from Democrats in another lawsuit that Ohio officials allow voters to request absentee ballots online. Separately, the Republican-run legislative panel has voted down a proposal from LaRose to have the state pre-pay postage for mail ballots.

Oklahoma: A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Democrats challenging Oklahoma's GOP-backed requirement that mail voters have their ballots notarized or include a photocopy of their ID.

Oregon: Oregon election officials have issued advice on how to vote for those displaced by the recent wildfires that have ravaged the states. Most importantly, voters have until Oct. 13 to designate a temporary address at which they will be sent a mail ballot.

Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, has ruled that election officials must count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the Friday after. In addition, the court ruled that local officials may set up ballot return drop boxes and also affirmed a ban on poll-watchers working in counties other than those they are registered to vote in. Republicans are appealing.

The court also ruled that so-called "naked" mail ballots wouldn't count, leading election officials are warning that up to 100,000 voters could be disenfranchised without adequate voter outreach. Such ballots are mail ballots contained only inside the outer envelope that contains the return address information, but the court's ruling requires that all mail ballots be inserted into a second "privacy envelope" that goes inside the larger return-address envelope. During the primary, such "naked ballots" were counted, risking further voter confusion this fall.

Consequently, Democrats launched TV ads in Philadelphia to warn voters about how to avoid the problem there, and three women running for state and county legislative offices in the Pittsburgh area used photos of themselves "naked" (the photos were censored with graphics of ballot materials) in a public service announcement that went viral on social media to raise awareness about the problem.

Separately, Democratic Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar has informed election officials that they may not reject mail ballots solely based on alleged signature mismatches, settling a suit with voting rights advocates.

South Carolina: The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, has blocked South Carolina from requiring that absentee ballots be signed by a sitness. Republicans have asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the ruling.

Separately, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has signed a bill allowing all voters to request an absentee ballot for the November election, much as the state did for its primaries earlier this year.

Wisconsin: A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling ordering Wisconsin election officials to count mail ballots so long as they are postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 9. Republicans are seeking an en banc review by the full 7th Circuit.

Additionally, Republicans and the 7th Circuit judges separately made requests asking the state Supreme Court to clarify a July ruling that limited the ability of Republican lawmakers to intervene in litigation, which the state court on Friday agreed to do. The 7th Circuit had relied on the state court's prior ruling in rejecting the GOP's challenge.

Separately, voters in the heavily Democratic state capital of Madison have filed a lawsuit asking a state court judge to affirm the validity of a recent event where city officials received more than 10,000 mail ballots in public parks across the city. Officials plan to hold similar events again, but Republicans have threatened litigation of their own to block them.

Vermont: A federal court has dismissed a Republican lawsuit challenging Vermont's plan to conduct the November election largely by mail.

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