- The Florida House of Representatives advanced a bill on Tuesday that would limit the number of former felons whose voting rights were restored under Amendment 4.
- The bill more strictly defines what kind of former felons can vote and requires them to pay all court costs before their voting rights can be restored.
- Critics have called the bill a “poll tax,” and said it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color.
Florida Republicans are facing backlash after a Florida House committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would limit the number of former felons whose voting rights were restored under Amendment 4.
Amendment 4 was a historic referendum on the Florida ballot during the last midterm elections that was overwhelmingly passed by voters with nearly 65% of the vote.
Prior to the amendment, Florida automatically prohibited all former felons from voting. In contrast, Amendment 4 automatically restored voting rights to felons who have completed the terms of their sentences, including jail time, probation, parole, and paying fines or restitution.
It is also important to note that the amendment does not apply to those who had murder or felony sex convictions.
Overall, the amendment was expected to restore voting rights to nearly 1.4 million former felons.
Amendment 4 was added to Florida’s constitution on Jan. 8, and many former felons have already registered to vote.
However, the amendment quickly received challenges from the state’s new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis said Florida lawmakers needed to outline guidance for evaluating voter eligibility, specifically so sex offenders do not “fall through the cracks.”
Bill Passes Committee
The bill passed in the Florida House committee on Tuesday essentially picks up where DeSantis left off. If enacted, the bill would limit the voting rights of felons in two key ways.
First, the bill defines what crimes would prevent someone from having their voting rights restored.
Specifically, it disqualifies anyone convicted of felonies with any kind of sexual component from having their rights restored. This includes having an adult entertainment store too close to a school, and certain prostitution crimes.
Second, the bill requires former felons to pay all court costs and fees before their sentence can be considered “complete,” even if those fees were not ordered by a judge as part of the person’s sentence.
Almost immediately the bill garnered significant backlash.
Critics of the bill said it targets lower-income citizens and goes against the will of Florida voters, who overwhelmingly passed the amendment back in November.
“What the barriers proposed in this bill do is nearly guarantee that people will miss election after election …because they cannot afford to pay financial obligations,” said Julie Ebenstein, a voting rights attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, “It’s an affront to the Florida voters.”
Ebenstein also said the financial obligations in the bill disproportionately affects two main groups: low-income felons, and former felons who committed property crimes and were sentenced to pay large restitution and put on payment plans to do so.
According to annual reports from the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers, more than $1 billion in felony fines were issued between 2013 and 2018, and an average of only 19 percent of that money was paid back per year.
Ebenstein added that the bill requires the victim or organization to whom the ex-felon owes fees to “consent” to the felons voting rights being restored, even if a court waives the repayment of fees in the first place.
Desmond Meade, a former felon who helped lead the initiative to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, said he and his organization Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) oppose the measure.
FRRC also started a petition to protect Amendment 4.
Some, including FRRC, have called the bill “unconstitutional overreach.” Other’s also compared the bill to a poll tax.
Florida State Rep. Adam Hattersley, who is a member of the committee that approved the bill, hit on both these points in a statement, saying: “It’s not only targeting the poor and is targeting minorities, but it’s blatantly unconstitutional as a poll tax […] The will of the voters is clear, and this bill is trying to circumvent that.”
The idea that the measure is functionally a poll tax was also evoked by politicians outside of Florida. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also referred to the bill as “A poll tax by any other name” in a tweet.
State Rep. James Grant who was one of the main architects of the bill disputed the claim and rebuked Rep. Hattersley, saying:
“To suggest that this is a poll tax inherently diminishes the atrocity of what a poll tax actually was […] All we’re doing is following statute. All we’re doing is following the testimony of what was presented before the Florida Supreme Court explicitly acknowledging that fines and court costs are part of a sentence.”
Rep. Grant also defended the more strict definition of “felony sex,” saying: “There is absolutely zero significance to the term ‘felony sex,’ […] Had the language said ‘sex offender,’ that would have meant something.”
Implications for 2020
With all this back and forth, many are wondering what happens next.
The current version of the bill has been approved by a House committee, which is the first step in moving the bill to a vote on the House floor.
Following the bill’s approval in the House committee, Politico reported that the president of Florida’s state Senate “said he expects his chamber to draw up a companion measure.”
Politico also reported that Gov. DeSantis said Tuesday that he had not yet seen the wording of the measure, but supported having the Florida Legislature outline how the amendment should be implemented, stating: “Do you want the executive branch to just unilaterally, by fiat, make these decisions […] or do you want it to be in a public debate?”
Both Florida’s House and Senate have Republican majorities and DeSantis is a Republican, giving the state a powerful trifecta. That means if the state House and Senate can agree on a bill, it seems likely that DeSantis will sign it.
With this bill, the voting rights of more than a million Floridians at stake. However, there are also broader implications beyond Florida that could possibly impact the U.S. presidency.
Florida is a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential race.
Voters backed both Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections. In the last midterm elections, the races for U.S. Senate and Governor of Florida were so close that both forced automatic recounts.
Republican-controlled state legislatures have been criticized since the midterm elections for attempts to change or undo election results where Democrats or progressive causes triumphed.
For example, Republican lawmakers tried to pass legislation to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Neil Volz, political director for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, criticized the actions in Florida, saying: “Today, we saw the beginning of the politicization of Amendment 4 […] We think we can do better than that.”
Whether or not the bill is simply a political ploy is unclear, but regardless it would have significant implications for the state of Florida and beyond.
See what others are saying: (NBC) (Politico) (Miami Herald)
Evelyn Yang, Andrew Yang’s Wife, Says Gynecologist Sexually Assaulted Her
- Evelyn Yang, the wife of presidential candidate Andrew Yang, went public with her sexual assault allegations against a New York gynecologist.
- Yang said Robert Hadden, who practiced through Columbia University, sexually abused her during a medical appointment when she was pregnant in 2012.
- After Yang and several other women’s allegations brought charges against Hadden, he pleaded guilty to two counts in 2016 and lost his medical license, but did not go to prison.
- Hadden and Columbia University are facing a lawsuit for abuse allegations and coverups, respectively, filed by at least two dozen women.
- Hadden has denied all allegations except the two counts he pleaded guilty to several years ago.
Evelyn Yang’s Story
Evelyn Yang, the spouse of 2020 presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, said she was sexually assaulted by a gynecologist who is also facing abuse allegations from more than two dozen other former patients.
In a CNN interview released Thursday, Yang publicly spoke for the first time about her alleged assault by Robert Hadden, a former medical professional with Columbia University.
Yang said she started seeing Hadden in 2012, when she was pregnant with her first child, and described the visits as routine at first. But she said eventually the gynecologist’s behavior grew more and more inappropriate.
The mother claimed the worst case of assault was when she was seven months pregnant.
“I was in the exam room and I was dressed and ready to go,” she told CNN. “And then, at the last minute, he kind of made up an excuse. He said something about ‘I think you might need a C-section’ and he proceeded to grab me over to him and undress me and examine me internally, ungloved.”
Yang revealed that she didn’t tell anyone about what happened for awhile — not even her husband — even though she knew what the doctor did was wrong. It wasn’t until months later, after she found out that another woman had reported a sexual assault by Hadden, that she told her spouse.
Legal Battles Against Robert Hadden
After telling her husband about what happened to her in the gynecologist’s office, Yang hired a lawyer and discovered that the Manhattan District Attorney had an open case against the doctor as several other women came forward with similar stories.
In early 2016, after agreeing to a plea deal that saw him admitting to two out of nine charges against him, Hadden was convicted of sex crimes. However, the charges Yang accused him of weren’t among them. In that deal, Hadden had to surrender his medical license and register as the lowest level sex offender, but he did not have to spend any time behind bars.
Yang was disappointed by the verdict and thought the punishment was not large enough for the crime.
“They said that the punishment was the same, regardless of how many counts he plead guilty to, that the punishment would’ve been the same, so it didn’t matter,” Yang said. “And I thought, well, it matters to me.”
“The DA’s office is meant to protect us, is meant to serve justice,” she added. “And there was no justice here.”
Now, there are at least 30 women that now accuse Hadden of sexual assault. The majority of them, Yang included, are part of a civil suit against Columbia University, its affiliates, and Hadden.
The lawsuit claims that the university “concealed Robert Hadden’s abuse for decades” and continued to allow his access to patients.
Hadden has denied all allegations against him, save for the two counts he pleaded guilty to prior to his 2016 conviction.
Justification for Going Public Now
Yang chose to bring her story into the public eye now because she felt empowered by the people she met as she accompanied her husband along his campaign trail.
“Meeting people and seeing the difference that we’ve been making already has moved me to share my own story about it, about sexual assault,” Yang said.
After the CNN interview came out, Andrew Yang posted support for his wife on his Twitter page.
“I’m so proud of Evelyn for sharing her story on behalf of so many women who have had similar experiences, most of whom will never have the same opportunity,” he wrote. “She is the source of strength for our family and she demonstrates it every day.”
I’m so proud of Evelyn for sharing her story on behalf of so many women who have had similar experiences, most of whom will never have the same opportunity. She is the source of strength for our family and she demonstrates it every day.— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) January 17, 2020
In her interview, Evelyn also expressed wanting to use her unique position to speak up about these issues.
“My experience with the sexual assault… is such a powerful and upsetting example of the truth that women are living with every day,” she said. “And I just happen to be able to have a platform to talk about it. I need to use that voice.”
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (CNN) (BBC)
Virginia Governor Declares State of Emergency Prior to Pro-Gun Rally
- The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency on Wednesday ahead of a pro-gun rights demonstration next week, banning firearms from the Capitol grounds of Richmond for several days.
- Gov. Ralph Northam warned of “credible threats” from outside groups that are planning to disrupt the assembly with violence.
- The demonstration, organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is scheduled to take place Monday, Jan. 20 on the state’s Capitol grounds.
- Lobbyists plan to protest gun control bills that are being pushed by the state’s government, which Democrats have recently taken control of for the first time in a generation.
State of Emergency Declared
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a temporary state of emergency on Wednesday in preparation for the pro-gun rights rally set to take place in the capital early next week.
“We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday,” Northam said at a press conference. “This includes out-of-state militia groups and hate groups planning to travel from across the country to disrupt our democratic process with acts of violence.”
“They are not coming to peacefully protest,” he added. “They are coming to intimidate and to cause harm.”
In preparation for this possibility, Northam released an executive order detailing the state of emergency that will be set in place from Friday evening until Tuesday evening. Throughout this stretch of time, firearms and other weapons will be prohibited from the Capitol grounds in Richmond.
Northam said that state intelligence analysts have identified rhetoric and threats similar to what was seen prior to the 2017 deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one person dead directly from the violence and dozens more injured.
“No one wants another incident like the one we saw in Charlottesville in 2017,” Northam said. “We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here.”
The rally that Northam is preparing for is being organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) and will take place on Monday, Jan. 20 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Northam asked the organizers of Monday’s event to “disavow” any groups who threaten violence, according to NPR.
On their frequently-asked-questions page, the VCDL writes that their annual Lobby Day is intended to be a “peaceful event” and encourages attendees to disengage if faced with any kind of harassment.
The VCDL emphasizes the sole purpose of the demonstration is for gun rights supporters to protest gun control bills that are moving forward under a new slate of lawmakers.
Earlier this month, Democrats took over as the majority group in both houses of Virginia legislature, a dynamic that hasn’t been seen in over 25 years. Many of these lawmakers have pledged to support Gov. Northam’s proposed measures to regulate and restrict firearms.
Philip Van Cleave, the president of the pro-gun group, told CNN on Wednesday that he “doesn’t believe the governor has the right to ban weapons.”
Later on Monday, the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention will also be assembling at the capital for their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigil to honor victims of gun violence. A coordinator for the vigil was advised to push back the start time to avoid the big crowds from the pro-gun rally, according to a local news outlet.
Student Expelled From Christian School After Rainbow-Filled Photo
- A 15-year old girl was expelled from a private Christian school after her mother, Kimberly Alford, shared a photo of her wearing a rainbow-striped sweater next to a colorful cake.
- Alford said the color scheme was a coincidence with no LGBTQ meaning, but the school interpreted the post that way and said it contradicts its beliefs.
- The school later clarified that the teen was not expelled for the photo alone but also for repeated student conduct violations.
- While Alford admitted her daughter had made previous violations, she still argued that the repercussions for the photo were unjust.
A private Christian school in Louisville, Kentucky expelled a student last week after her mother posted a photo of the teenager wearing a rainbow shirt posing next to a colorful cake.
Fifteen-year-old Kayla Kenney celebrated her recent birthday with a small gathering out at a restaurant at the end of December. Her mom, Kimberly Alford, set up the event and posted a photo of Kenney to Facebook shortly after.
The image shows the girl grinning to the camera with a frosted rainbow birthday cake sitting before her. The cake’s decor matches the striped rainbow design on Kenney’s sweater.
On Jan. 6, Alford said she received an email from Bruce Jacobson, the head of Whitefield Academy where her daughter is a student. In it, Jacobson allegedly said that Kenney was being expelled over the post and attached the image in his message.
“The WA Administration has been made aware of a recent picture, posted on social media, which demonstrates a posture of morality and cultural acceptance contrary to that of Whitefield Academy’s beliefs,” Jacobson wrote, according to Alford.
“We made it clear that any further promotion, celebration or any other action and attitudes counter to Whitefield’s philosophy will not be tolerated.”
The school’s reaction to the birthday image baffled the family. Although a rainbow is widely recognized and used as a symbol of LGBTQ pride and support, Alford said the color scheme was just a coincidence with no deeper meaning for her daughter.
“Rainbows don’t mean you’re a certain gender or certain sex or sexuality,” Alford told The Washington Post. “I’m not saying she’s this or that — she’s just Kayla to me… I ordered the cake, she didn’t.”
In a later statement, Whitefield Academy clarified that this was not Kenney’s first breach of their protocol. The school condemned “inaccurate media reports” for making it seem like the expulsion was solely based on the cake photo and said that the teenager had “unfortunately violated our student code of conduct numerous times over the past two years.”
Alford acknowledged that her daughter had misstepped in the past, and cited instances of Kenney being found with e-cigarette paraphernalia and ditching class one day after lunch. She said that in October, after an e-cigarette incident, her daughter had been put on probation.
But the cake picture being the last straw made no sense to Alford or her daughter.
“She was really hurt. She was very upset because she thought, ‘All my friends are going back to school in the morning, and I don’t have anywhere to go,’” Alford told The Washington Post.
She added that her daughter told her, “‘Mom, I didn’t do anything wrong.’”
Whitefield Academy, which serves as a ministry of the Highview Baptist Church, disagreed. According to the school’s parent/student handbook, the Biblical role of the school is to work with families to “mold students to be Christ-like.”
“On occasion, the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home may be counter or in opposition to the Biblical lifestyle the school teaches,” the handbook states. “This includes, but is not limited to, sexual immorality, homosexual orientation, or the inability to support Biblical standards of right and wrong.”
The handbook notes that the school reserves the right to refuse admission or discontinue enrollment of any students who may go against its religious beliefs. According to a local Kentucky news outlet, The Courier-Journal, exemptions for faith-based schools in Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance grant Whitefield Academy the authority to do this.
Alford appealed her daughter’s expulsion but reported that she was denied. She said that administrators did agree to change the expulsion to a “voluntary withdrawal” as to not reflect poorly on Kenney’s record.
The mother said her daughter is now attending a public school and has received overwhelming support from friends at her former school, though she still thinks Kenney was treated “unjustly” and that is why she’s chosen to make the story known.
“I just want to defend her in a graceful way,” Alford told NBC. “I want to stand up for my child,” she said. “Just treat people with kindness and love, and don’t be judgmental.”