Photo by Christian Gooden for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- Eight states voted Tuesday in the biggest primary since the pandemic started and what many considered a “dry-run” for November.
- Despite issues here and there, election officials said the biggest problems leading up to Election Day were related to the large increase in demand for mail-in ballots, which were requested in record numbers in multiple states.
- Rep. Steve King (IA), who has a long history of making racist remarks, lost the Congressional seat he has held for nearly 18 years.
- Ferguson, Missouri, where large protests erupted six years ago that helped propel the Black Lives Movement to national standing, elected its first black mayor.
Cues for November
Eight states and Washington D.C. held primary elections on Tuesday as protests over the killing of George Floyd continued all across the country.
Tuesday’s elections marked the biggest day of voting since the pandemic began, and served as the first large-scale test of what voting might look like in November.
All of the states holding primaries either encouraged or expanded mail-in ballots, and many significantly reduced the number of in-personal polling locations.
But both of those precautions created some major problems.
Numerous polling locations reported long-lines and poor social distancing. In, Washington D.C., where only 20 of the usual 143 polling places were open, people reported wait times of more than an hour at 7:30 p.m in all locations.
Videos posted to social media showed lines that stretched on for blocks, even as the city’s curfew took effect.
There were also reports of confusion in some places over which polling places were open and where mail-in ballots needed to be dropped off.
Deadlines for mail-in ballots also created problems in some states like Indiana, where the clerk of the state’s most populous county said last week that thousands of ballots might not be counted because they would not reach their office by the noon deadline on Election Day.
Issues With Mail-In Ballots
However, in general, election officials have said that most of the major issues were related to a huge increase in demand for mail-in ballots, which was reportedly up by 1,000 in some places.
Tuesday’s elections saw record numbers of mail-in ballots both requested and cast in a lot of the states. Those requests, however, were also accompanied by numerous complaints about delayed ballots.
According to reports, a judge in one Pennsylvania county ordered the mail-in deadline to be extended for as many as 500 people who had requested their ballots but not received them. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also extended the mail-in ballot deadline by a week in six counties hit hardest by the coronavirus and protests.
People in D.C., Maryland, and Rhode Island also reported that they did not receive their mail-in ballots or had a hard time submitting requests.
In D.C. election officials reportedly resorted to hand-delivering ballots and even accepting emailed ballots. Security experts have warned that emailed ballots are incredibly vulnerable to hacking, because there is no way for voters to verify that they were accurately recorded.
But those problems could just be a small taste of what could happen in November if more states do not prepare for the massive surge in mail-in voting.
Some states are used to only 10% of voters or even less casting mail-in ballots, and experts say it us absolutely essential that they immediately start preparing to receive a lot more.
“These decisions need to be happening now. It’s a June kind of thing, and July is even pushing it,” Amber McReynolds, the chief executive of the National Vote at Home Institute told the Washington Post.
High Costs and Partisan Barriers
Unfortunately, expanding mail-in voting is an incredibly expensive feat, and currently, there are a lot of questions about whether or not states have enough money to do so.
In March, Congress appropriated $400 million for elections in the stimulus bill, but experts have said the cost of operating safe elections during the pandemic could be up to $2 billion.
While Congressional Democrats have pushed for another $3.6 billion for election funding for the next stimulus bill, it is unclear if Republicans, who have been hesitant to even discuss any new legislation concerning pandemic stimulus, will support the idea.
Leaders in Washington are also facing pressure from President Donald Trump, who has been increasingly vocal about his opposition to mail-in voting.
Trump has repeatedly insisted that expanding mail-in voting will lead to more voter fraud, despite the fact that his claims have been repeatedly debunked and he himself voted by mail in the last two elections.
But Trump’s efforts to undermine expanding vote-by-mail, at least at the national level, are still going strong. Recently, his campaign teamed up with the Republican National Committee to dump millions of dollars into lawsuits against states that are trying to expand mail-in voting.
However, at the state level, the debate is a lot less partisan. In fact, multiple states with Republican governors or top election officials have started the process of expanding mail-in voting.
Steve King Voted Out, Ella Jones Voted In
In addition to serving as a test-run for the general election in November, Tuesday’s primaries also brought about some other newsworthy moments.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who has a long history of making racist remarks, was voted out of Congress after nearly 18 years after losing his seat to State Senator Randy Feenstra by nearly 10% of the vote.
While King’s loss is significant, it was not entirely unexpected. After the 2018 midterms, it was clear that King’s seat was in jeopardy when he almost lost his seat to a Democratic challenger in an incredibly conservative district.
While Democrats have long criticized King for openly voicing and promoting racist views, he finally crossed the line with his own Republican party in January 2019, when he told the New York Times in an interview: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”
Those remarks sparked backlash within the party, and King was stripped of all his committee assignments. Even though he decided to run for re-election, he did so without the backing of the mainstream Republican establishment both in DC and Iowa, which chose to throw its support behind Feenstra, his leading opponent.
On a very different note, another major highlight from the night came from Ferguson, Missouri which elected its first black mayor, a City Council member named Ella Jones, who is now also the first woman to lead the city.
Ferguson was thrust into the national spotlight in 2014 when massive protests broke out in the city after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black teenager. Those protests and the activism surrounding them was one of the major catalysts that pushed Black Lives Matter to become the national movement it is today.
And now, nearly six years later, Jones’ election comes as protests over the death of George Floyd, police brutality, and justice for black communities are being held all over the country— many of which are organized and led by BLM.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (NPR)
Supreme Court Rules High School Football Coach Can Pray on Field
All of our rights are “hanging in the balance,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissenting opinion.
Court’s Conservatives Break With 60 Years of History
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field at the end of games.
Joseph Kennedy, who was hired at Bremerton High School in Washington State in 2008, kneeled at the 50-yard line after games for years and prayed. He was often joined by some of his players, as well as others from the opposing team.
In 2015, the school asked him not to pray if it interfered with his duties or involved students.
Shortly after, Kennedy was placed on paid administrative leave, and after a school official recommended that his contract not be renewed for the 2016 season he did not reapply for the position.
Kennedy sued the school, eventually appealing the case to the Supreme Court.
The justices voted 6 to 3, with the liberal justices dissenting.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” he added.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion.
“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” she said.
“In doing so, the court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”
The defense in the case argued that the public nature of Kennedy’s prayers put pressure on students to join him, and that he was acting in his capacity as a public employee, not a private citizen.
Kennedy’s lawyers contended that such an all-encompassing definition of his job duties denied him his right to self-expression on school grounds.
“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said in a statement following the decision. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys … I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”
Religious Liberty or Separation of Church and State?
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court decided that the government cannot organize or promote prayer in public schools, and it has since generally abided by that jurisprudence.
But the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts has been increasingly protective of religious expression, especially after the confirmation of three conservative Trump-appointed judges.
Reactions to the ruling were mostly split between liberals who saw the separation of church and state being dissolved and conservatives who hailed it as a victory for religious liberty.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton school district, said in a statement that the ruling “gutted decades of established law that protected students’ religious freedom.”
“If Coach Kennedy were named Coach Akbar and he had brought a prayer blanket to the 50 yard line to pray after a game,” one Twitter user said, “I’ve got a 401(k) that says this illegitimate, Christofascist SCOTUS rules 6-3 against him.”
“The people defending former Coach Kennedy’s right to kneel on the field after the game to pray – are the ones condemning Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel on the field to protest police brutality against Black Americans,” another user wrote.
Others, like Republican Congressmember Ronny Jackson and former Secretary of State for the Trump administration Mike Pompeo, celebrated the ruling for protecting religious freedom and upholding what they called the right to pray.
“I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom,” Pompeo wrote.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Fox News)
Rep. Schiff Urges DOJ to Investigate Trump for Election Crimes: “There’s Enough Evidence”
“When the Justice Department finds evidence of criminal potential criminal wrongdoing, they need to investigate,” the congressman said.
Schiff Says DOJ Should Launch Inquiry
Rep. Adam Schiff (R-Ca.) told Rogue Rocket that he believes there is “certainly […] enough evidence for the Justice Department to open an investigation” into possible election crimes committed by former President Donald Trump.
Schiff, who took the lead in questioning witnesses testifying before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Tuesday, said that it will be up to the DOJ to determine whether “they have proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of criminal activity, but added that an investigation must first be launched.
“Donald Trump should be treated like any other citizen,” the congressman said, noting that a federal judge in California has already ruled that Trump and his allies “likely” engaged in multiple federal criminal acts. “When the Justice Department finds evidence of criminal potential criminal wrongdoing, they need to investigate.”
“One of the concerns I have is it’s a year and a half since these events. And while […] there’s an investigation going on in Fulton County by the district attorney, I don’t see a federal grand jury convened in Atlanta looking into this, and I think it’s fair to ask why,” Schiff continued, referencing the ongoing inquiry into Trump’s attempts to overturn the election in Georgia.
“Normally, the Justice Department doesn’t wait for Congress to go first. They pursue evidence and they have the subpoena power. They’re often much more agile than the Congress. And I think it’s important that it not just be the lower-level people who broke into the Capitol that day and committed those acts of violence who are under the microscope,” he continued. “I think anyone who engaged in criminal activity trying to overturn the election where there’s evidence that they may have engaged in criminal acts should be investigated.”
Schiff Takes Aim at DOJ’s Handling of Committee Subpoenas
Schiff also expressed frustration with how the DOJ has handled referrals the committee has made for former Trump officials who have refused to comply with subpoenas to testify before the panel.
“We have referred four people for criminal prosecution who have obstructed our investigation. The Justice Department has only moved forward with two of them,” he stated. “That’s not as powerful an incentive as we would like. The law requires the Justice Department to present these cases to the grand jury when we refer them, and by only referring half of them, it sends a very mixed message about whether congressional subpoenas need to be complied with.”
As far as why the congressman thought the DOJ has chosen to operate in this manner in regards to the Jan. 6 panel’s investigation, he said he believes “the leadership of the department is being very cautious.”
“I think that they want to make sure that the department avoids controversy if possible, doesn’t do anything that could even be perceived as being political,” Schiff continued. “And while I appreciate that sentiment […] at the same time, the rule of law has to be applied equally to everyone. If you’re so averse, […] it means that you’re giving effectively a pass or immunity to people who may have broken the law. That, too, is a political decision, and I think it’s the wrong decision.”
On the Note of Democracy
Schiff emphasized the importance of the American people working together to protect democracy in the fallout of the insurrection.
“I really think it’s going to require a national movement of people to step up to preserve our democracy. This is not something that I think Congress can do alone. We’re going to try to protect those institutions, but Republicans are fighting this tooth and nail,” he asserted. “It’s difficult to get through a Senate where Mitch McConnell can filibuster things.”
“We don’t have the luxury of despair when it comes to what we’re seeing around us. We have the obligation to do what generations did before us, and that is defend our democracy,” the congressman continued. “We had to go to war in World War II to defend our democracy from the threat of fascism. You know, we’re not called upon to make those kinds of sacrifices. We see the bravery of people in Ukraine putting their lives on the line to defend their country, their sovereignty, their democracy. Thank God we’re not asked to do that.”
“So what we have to do is, by comparison, so much easier. But it does require us to step up, to be involved, to rally around local elections officials who are doing their jobs, who are facing death threats, and to protect them and to push back against efforts around the country to pass laws to make it easier for big liars to overturn future elections.”
“We are not passengers in all of this, unable to affect the course of our country. We can, you know, grab the rudder and steer this country in the direction that we want.”
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (CNN)
Senate Passes Bill to Help Veterans Suffering From Burn Pit Exposure
For Biden, who believes his son Beau may have died from brain cancer caused by burn pits, the issue is personal.
Veterans to Get Better Healthcare
The Senate voted 84-14 Thursday to pass a bill that would widely expand healthcare resources and benefits to veterans who were exposed to burn pits while deployed overseas.
Until about 2010, the Defense Department used burn pits to dispose of trash from military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations, dumping things like plastics, rubber, chemical mixtures, and medical waste into pits and burning them with jet fuel.
Numerous studies and reports have demonstrated a link between exposure to the toxic fumes emitted by the pits and health problems such as respiratory ailments and rare cancers. The DoD has estimated that nearly 3.5 million veterans may have inhaled enough smoke to suffer from related health problems.
For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs resisted calls to recognize the link between exposure and illness, arguing it had not been scientifically proven and depriving many veterans of disability benefits and medical reimbursements.
Over the past year, however, the VA relented, awarding presumptive benefit status to veterans exposed to burn pits, but it only applied to those who were diagnosed with asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis within 10 years of their service.
The latest bill would add 23 conditions to the list of what the VA covers, including hypertension. It also calls for investments in VA health care facilities, claims processing, and the VA workforce, while strengthening federal research on toxic exposure.
The bill will travel to the House of Representatives next, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to push it through quickly. Then it will arrive at the White House for final approval.
An Emotional Cause for Many
Ahead of a House vote on an earlier version of the bill in March, comedian John Stewart publically slammed Congress for taking so long to act.
“They’re all going to say the same thing. ‘We want to do it. We want to support the veterans. But we want to do it the right way. We want to be responsible,’” he said. “You know what would have been nice? If they had been responsible 20 years ago and hadn’t spent trillions of dollars on overseas adventures.”
“They could have been responsible in the seventies when they banned this kind of thing in the United States,” he continued. “You want to do it here? Let’s dig a giant fucking pit, 10 acres long, and burn everything in Washington with jet fuel. And then let me know how long they want to wait before they think it’s going to cause some health problems.”
For President Biden, the issue is personal. He has said he believes burn pits may have caused the brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer applauded the fact the long-awaited benefits could soon arrive for those impacted.
“The callousness of forcing veterans who got sick as they were fighting for us because of exposure to these toxins to have to fight for years in the VA to get the benefits they deserved — Well, that will soon be over. Praise God,” he said during a speech on Thursday.
A 2020 member survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of respondents were exposed to burn pits or other toxins.
Although burn pits have largely been scaled down, the DoD has not officially banned them, and at least nine were still in operation in April 2019.