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Court Rules Florida Can’t Bar Felons From Voting Over Unpaid Fines and Fees

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  • On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Florida upheld an injunction on a law that bans felons from voting if they haven’t paid their legal fees. 
  • In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. 
  • Then, in 2019, Florida’s legislature and Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law mandating former felons to pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
  • With the help of voting rights groups, 17 felons sued DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn this law.
  • The latest ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, but it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons who wish to vote.

Injunction Upheld

A federal appeals court in Florida said on Wednesday that for now, felons can no longer be barred from voting if they haven’t paid fines or fees from their cases. 

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction of a state law that requires convicted felons to settle all legal fines and fees before they are able to get reinstated to vote. The panel agreed to suspend the law until there’s a final ruling on it. 

The decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 felons who sued Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn the law. The plaintiffs and the voting rights groups that represent them argued that the legislation equates to an unfair poll tax.

The appeals court judges agreed, and said that the legal financial obligations (LFOs) law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons. A trial for the plaintiffs is still pending but slated to begin in April, and that’s when the overall constitutionality of the LFO law will be decided.

“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, told NBC.

Background on Felon Voting Restrictions

Until recently, Florida automatically prohibited all felons from the right to vote ever again. This changed in late 2018 when an overwhelming majority of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. Those with murder or felony sex convictions were exempt from this change. 

The passing of Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people. 

Last year, the Republican-led legislature and Gov. DeSantis passed the law that mandated that former felons pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.

Supporters of the LFO law argued that Amendment 4 was not meant to restore voting rights for all felons, but only those who have “paid their debt to society,” including monetary fees.  

Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Communications Director for DeSantis, responded to the Wednesday decision in a tweet.

“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Ferré said. 

Looking Ahead to 2020 Election

The recent ruling is especially significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Wednesday’s decision means that the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential primary next month, though other felons with outstanding legal fines or fees are still not.

However, it is possible that by the end of the upcoming April trial, the legal financial requirement law will be deemed unconstitutional, which will allow all Florida felons to vote whether or not they’ve paid the fines and fees from their cases. But if that’s the case, DeSantis and the defendants are still likely to appeal that ruling as well to a higher court.

It is unclear how this is all going to end. Some believe that the courts will move quickly to get it settled before the 2020 election, but the timeline is not fully set. Many expect that this particular case could be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately be decided on there. 

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC) (Wall Street Journal)

Politics

Jan. 6 Committee Prepares Criminal Charges Against Steve Bannon for Ignoring Subpoena

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The move comes after former President Trump told several of his previous aides not to cooperate with the committee’s investigation into the insurrection.


Bannon Refuses to Comply With Subpoena

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced Thursday that it is seeking to hold former White House advisor Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena.

The decision marks a significant escalation in the panel’s efforts to force officials under former President Donald Trump’s administration to comply with its probe amid Trump’s growing efforts to obstruct the inquiry.

In recent weeks, the former president has launched a number of attempts to block the panel from getting key documents, testimonies, and other evidence requested by the committee that he claims are protected by executive privilege.

Notably, some of those assertions have been shut down. On Friday, President Joe Biden rejected Trump’s effort to withhold documents relating to the insurrection.

Still, Trump has also directed former officials in his administration not to comply with subpoenas or cooperate with the committee. 

That demand came after the panel issued subpoenas ordering depositions from Bannon and three other former officials: Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, and Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel.

After Trump issued his demand, Bannon’s lawyer announced that he would not obey the subpoena until the panel reached an agreement with Trump or a court ruled on the executive privilege matter.

Many legal experts have questioned whether Bannon, who left the White House in 2017, can claim executive privilege for something that happened when he was not working for the executive.

Panel Intensifies Compliance Efforts

The Thursday decision from the committee is significant because it will likely set up a legal battle and test how much authority the committee can and will exercise in requiring compliance.

It also sets an important precedent for those who have been subpoenaed. While Bannon is the first former official to openly defy the committee, there have been reports that others plan to do the same. 

The panel previously said Patel and Meadows were “engaging” with investigators, but on Thursday, several outlets reported that the two — who were supposed to appear before the body on Thursday and Friday respectively —  are now expected to be given an extension or continuance.

Sources told reporters that Scavino, who was also asked to testify Friday, has had his deposition postponed because service of his subpoena was delayed.

As far as what happens next for Bannon, the committee will vote to adopt the contempt report next week. Once that is complete, the matter will go before the House for a full vote.  

Assuming the Democratic-held House approves the contempt charge, it will then get referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the matter before a grand jury.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)

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Senate Votes To Extend Debt Ceiling Until December

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The move adds another deadline to Dec. 3, which is also when the federal government is set to shut down unless Congress approves new spending.


Debt Ceiling Raised Temporarily

The Senate voted on Thursday to extend the debt ceiling until December, temporarily averting a fiscal catastrophe.

The move, which followed weeks of stalemate due to Republican objections, came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) partially backed down from his blockade and offered a short-term proposal.

After much whipping of votes, 11 Republicans joined Democrats to break the legislative filibuster and move to final approval of the measure. The bill ultimately passed in a vote of 50-48 without any Republican support.

The legislation will now head to the House, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said members would be called back from their current recess for a vote on Tuesday. 

The White House said President Joe Biden would sign the measure, but urged Congress to pass a longer extension.

“We cannot allow partisan politics to hold our economy hostage, and we can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,’’ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Under the current bill, the nation’s borrowing limit will be increased by $480 billion, which the Treasury Department said will cover federal borrowing until around Dec. 3.

The agency had previously warned that it would run out of money by Oct. 18 if Congress failed to act. Such a move would have a chilling impact on the economy, forcing the U.S. to default on its debts and potentially plunging the country into a recession. 

Major Hurdles Remain

While the legislation extending the ceiling will certainly offer temporary relief, it sets up another perilous deadline for the first Friday in December, when government funding is also set to expire if Congress does not approve another spending bill.

Regardless of the new deadline, many of the same hurdles lawmakers faced the first time around remain. 

Democrats are still struggling to hammer out the final details of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending agenda, which Republicans have strongly opposed.

Notably, Democratic leaders previously said they could pass the bill through budget reconciliation, which would allow them to approve the measure with 50 votes and no Republican support.

Such a move would require all 50 Senators, but intraparty disputes remain over objections brought by Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.), who have been stalling the process for months.

Although disagreements over reconciliation are ongoing among Democrats, McConnell has insisted the party use the obscure procedural process to raise the debt limit. Democrats, however, have balked at the idea, arguing that tying the debt ceiling to reconciliation would set a dangerous precedent.

Despite Republican efforts to connect the limit to Biden’s economic agenda, raising the ceiling is not the same as adopting new spending. Rather, the limit is increased to pay off spending that has already been authorized by previous sessions of Congress and past administrations.

In fact, much of the current debt stems from policies passed by Republicans during the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax overhaul. 

As a result, while Democrats have signaled they may make concessions to Manchin and Sinema, they strongly believe that Republicans must join them to increase the debt ceiling to fund projects their party supported. 

It is currently unclear when or how the ongoing stalemate will be resolved, or how either party will overcome their fervent objections.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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California Makes Universal Voting by Mail Permanent

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California is now the eighth state to make universal mail-in ballots permanent after it temporarily adopted the policy for elections held amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 


CA Approves Universal Voting by Mail

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill Monday requiring every registered voter in the state to be mailed a ballot at least 29 days before an election, whether they request it or not.

Assembly Bill 37 makes permanent a practice that was temporarily adopted for elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The law, which officially takes effect in January, also extends the time mail ballots have to arrive at elections offices from three days to seven days after an election. Voters can still choose to cast their vote in person if they prefer.

Supporters of the policy have cheered the move, arguing that proactively sending ballots to registered voters increases turnout.

“Data shows that sending everyone a ballot in the mail provides voters access. And when voters get ballots in the mail, they vote,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), said during a Senate committee hearing in July.

Meanwhile opponents — mostly Republicans — have long cast doubts about the safety of mail-in voting, despite a lack of evidence to support their claims that it leads to widespread voter fraud. That strategy, however, has also faced notable pushback from some that a lot of Republicans who say it can actually hurt GOP turnout.

Others May Follow

The new legislation probably isn’t too surprising for California, where over 50% of votes cast in general elections have been through mail ballots since 2012, according to The Sacramento Bee. Now, many believe California will be followed by similar legislation from Democrats across the country as more Republican leaders move forward with elections bills that significantly limit voting access.

Newsome signed 10 other measures Monday changing election and campaign procedures, including a bill that would require anyone advocating for or against a candidate to stand farther away from a polling place. Another bill increases penalties for candidates who use campaign funds for personal expenses while a third measure increases reporting requirements for limited liability corporations that engage in campaign activity.

“As states across our country continue to enact undemocratic voter suppression laws, California is increasing voter access, expanding voting options and bolstering elections integrity and transparency,” Newsom said in a statement.

“Last year we took unprecedented steps to ensure all voters had the opportunity to cast a ballot during the pandemic and today we are making those measures permanent after record-breaking participation in the 2020 presidential election.”

The news regarding California came just in time for National Voter Registration day today, giving Americans another reminder to make sure they’re registered in their states. For more information on how to register, visit Vote.gov or any of the other resources linked below.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (Los Angeles Times) (The Sacramento Bee)

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