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“Mass Voter Disenfranchisement”: GOP Ramps Up Assault on Voting Rights Across U.S. Ahead of Election

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With just seven weeks to go before the U.S. presidential election, the battle for the White House is increasingly being fought in courts across the country. From Wisconsin to Florida, Pennsylvania to Colorado, judges are making major rulings deciding who gets on the ballot, how a record number of mail-in ballots are handled and distributed, and who ultimately gets to vote on November 3. Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” says Republicans are carrying out a nationwide attack on voting rights aimed at keeping a shrinking white minority in power. “This is the Republican Party’s game: Don’t do anything for the American people, make it as hard as you can to vote, and then put in place judges who will then uphold those new voter suppression laws.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Monday marked 50 days until the November election, and we begin today’s show looking at the attack on voting rights across the United States.

In a pivotal decision that could give Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden a big boost in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Green Party’s candidate, Howie Hawkins, to invalidate thousands of already-mailed ballots so that they could be reprinted with his name on them. In a 4-to-3 decision Monday, a conservative justice split with the right-wing majority and allowed Wisconsin’s voting process to proceed as planned. The ruling comes just days before the start of mail-in voting in the state. Hawkins called it a, quote, “travesty of justice.”

Meanwhile, in Iowa, a judge sided with Republican incumbent Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and voided more than 90,000 absentee ballot requests in the state’s most Democratic-leaning county. Johnson County is now the third Iowa county to have its ballot request forms voided because county election officials mailed the forms to voters with personal information filled in to simplify the process. Affected voters will either have to fill out a new blank form to request an absentee ballot or vote at the polls on Election Day in the midst of the pandemic.

In Colorado, a federal judge just upheld a temporary restraining order that stops the U.S. Postal Service from sending out mailers that the state’s attorney general says have incorrect election information on them.

The list of major developments goes on, from Pennsylvania, where election officials are not able to send out ballots due to a slew of lawsuits and other issues, to Florida, where a court on Friday blocked hundreds of thousands of people with fees and fines from past felony convictions from registering to vote.

For more on all of this, as well as concerns about a sabotaged census, we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His latest piece is titled “Conservative Judicial Decisions Keep Boosting GOP Voter Suppression.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ari. Let’s start in Florida. Can you talk about what has happened there?

ARI BERMAN: Good morning, Amy, and good morning, Juan.

It was a really pivotal decision in Florida, because in 2018 64% of Floridians approved a law restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions. Before that, Florida prevented one in 10 people, including one in five African Americans, from voting. Then, the GOP Legislature said that people with past felony convictions have to pay off all fines, fees and restitution to be able to vote, which the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which now has a Trump majority because Trump appointed five justices to that court, upheld that law.

What it means in practice is that, according to studies, 775,000 people in Florida still owe money on their sentences and might not be able to vote. And remember, Amy, this was a state decided by 537 votes in 2000. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people maybe not being able to vote in Florida, who should have had their rights restored, in a state that’s been decided by only a few hundred votes in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Desmond Meade, who is the one who really was the author of Amendment 4, that was overwhelmingly passed. We spoke with him yesterday — he’s president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and chair of the Floridians for a Fair Democracy — about his response to the ruling.

DESMOND MEADE: We are definitely viewing the recent decision by the 11th Circuit as a blow to democracy. I think democracy is the biggest loser here. You know, at the end of the day, now we’re forced to live in a state where a United States citizen will have to choose between putting food on their kids’ plate or voting, you know, choose between paying rent or their mortgage and voting. And this is not what democracy is all about.

And so, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, we as an organization remain committed, in spite of this recent ruling, to continue our efforts to engage as many returning citizens as possible, through our Fines and Fees Fund, where we’ve had patriots, defenders of democracy across the country, donating money so we are able to help people pay off their legal financial obligations and get them registered to vote so they can be able to participate in what we feel to be the most important presidential election this country has ever seen.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Desmond Meade, the force behind Amendment 4, that was overwhelmingly passed in Florida, that gave over a million people who had served time in prison for felonies the right to vote. Can you talk about the significance of him say millions of dollars are available? How do people find out about this, Ari?

ARI BERMAN: That’s right. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, led by Desmond Meade, has a fund that’s raised $3 million to pay off people’s fines and fees. So, people can go to their website and donate to that.

The big problem in Florida right now, Amy, is this law passed by the Legislature is kind of like a poll tax meets a literacy test. And I’ll explain why. It’s like a poll tax because you have to pay to be able to vote now. You have to be able to pay off all the fines, fees and restitution you owe to be able to vote, which could be tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars. It’s like a literacy test because Florida can’t actually tell you how much money you owe. There is no centralized database in Florida for someone with a past felony conviction to go to to see whether they still owe money.

So, this is really incomprehensible to people. Florida set up a law that it actually can’t enforce. And that’s why it’s going to lead to mass voter confusion, potentially mass voter disenfranchisement. And it’s just incredible to me that a court would uphold something like this, just a few months before the election, that so brazenly overturns the will of the voters who approved this historic ballot initiative in 2018.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ari, has there been any — is there any data about how many people have had their right to vote restored, of former convicted felons?

ARI BERMAN: Yes, there has been, Juan. Eighty-five thousand people have had their rights restored so far, and they are still eligible to vote. So that is one good thing about the decision, is that it still allows those 85,000 people that have had their rights restored to be able to vote. But we’re talking about 1.4 million people were set to have their rights restored. So you’re talking about 85,000 people have had their rights restored, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people that have not had their rights restored.

And the question is: Will they be eligible to vote? Will they decide to vote? Or even if they don’t owe money, will they be dissuaded from voting because of what the Legislature did and what the courts upheld?

So, it’s just a really unfortunate situation, because I think that Florida voters made it very clear that they wanted people to be able to vote if they’ve paid their debt to society. The Legislature added this crazy new wrinkle, saying you had to pay off all your fines, fees and restitution.

And the only reason it was upheld was because Donald Trump flipped the 11th Circuit with five Trump judges. And this is why Mitch McConnell in the Republican Senate is so intent on confirming judges and doing nothing else. This week, McConnell is going to confirm eight more judges to the federal bench, but they’re not doing anything else to help the American people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ari, can we switch to Wisconsin and the situation there with the court decision on the Green Party? Could you explain why it went down to the wire for even the court to consider this case, given that the election is only 50 days away?

ARI BERMAN: It went down to the wire in Wisconsin because the Green Party filed late to try to get on the ballot. So, there was a dispute, first, with the Wisconsin Elections Commission of whether they should be on the ballot. And then the question was: Should they delay sending hundreds of thousands of ballots to put the Green Party on the ballot?

And the Wisconsin Supreme Court basically said, “We’re not deciding this on the merits of whether they should be on the ballot. It’s just too late to add them to the ballot.” Tens of thousands of ballots have already gone out. Hundreds of thousands of more are going out this week. There’s been over a million absentee ballot requests in Wisconsin. And this week is the day that they start sending them out en masse.

So, I think this decision adding the Green Party to the ballot would have led to major voter confusion in Wisconsin, in that a lot of people who got a ballot would have had to then get another one. And there was a risk that they would be very confused, that some people might vote twice, or some people might not vote at all. So, irrespective of the merits of whether the Green Party should be on the ballot, I think election officials in Wisconsin are breathing a sigh a relief that they don’t have to print new ballots and they can send the ballots that have already been requested out on time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the situation in Iowa, with — there, what was the personal information that the court felt — I mean, that officials felt should not have been on the ballot? Could you talk about that? And why specifically in Democratic counties?

ARI BERMAN: What happened was, in Iowa, the Democratic counties, in particular, decided to, on their own, send absentee ballot requests to voters. So, in places like Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the Democratic auditors decided to send these ballots. To make it easier, they filled in personal information, because Iowa passed a new voter ID law, and one of the provisions of that law is you have to have a PIN for your driver’s license on your absentee ballot, and a lot of people don’t know what that number is. So, the auditors tried to make this process easier for voters by filling in the information, including their driver’s license PIN number, which nobody knows what that is.

And instead of saying, “Hey, thank you for making it easier for people to vote,” in response to a lawsuit by the Trump campaign, the courts have now invalidated absentee ballot requests in the most Democratic counties in the state. So, this is very confusing for voters, because imagine that you requested an absentee ballot, and now you think you’re getting one in the mail, and now you’re going to have to get a — do that whole process over again, 50 days or less before the election. And so, it just adds more uncertainty into the process. And people are already confused about how to vote in this election, and these court decisions making it harder to vote are not helping things right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Ari, talk also about Pennsylvania. I mean, it seems like, across the country, if the Republican Party sues, it simply delays absentee ballots from going out, even if they’re going to ultimately lose. So, talk about what’s happening in Pennsylvania. Then, in Colorado, if you could explain what’s happening there, a federal judge ordering the U.S. Postal Service to immediately stop sending mailers that contain false information? And then talk about McConnell and the U.S. Postal Service.

ARI BERMAN: So, first off, in Pennsylvania, there’s a ton of litigation right now. The Trump campaign is litigating, for example, to try to prevent voters from dropping off their ballots at drop boxes to avoid postal delays. There’s disputes over whether you should be able to start counting mailed ballots before the election. Right now you can’t, which means it could take longer for the votes to count. And actually, Republicans are refusing to allow votes to be counted earlier, because they want uncertainty in terms of the process. So, there’s a lot of litigation in Pennsylvania. Ballots have not gone out there, either. And this is, of course, a really pivotal swing state.

In Colorado, what happened was the post office sent mailers to all 50 states, basically telling people, “If you request an absentee ballot, request it early.” The problem in Colorado is that you don’t have to request an absentee ballot, that they actually automatically send ballots to all registered voters. They also can turn around ballots quicker because it’s a vote-by-mail state. So, what election officials were angry about in Colorado and other states is that the post office sent this one-size-fits-all mailer to all voters, as opposed to making it state specific, because the voting laws in Colorado are very different than the voting laws in New York. And election officials told the post office this is going to confuse voters, this is going to end up being a form of voter suppression. The post office didn’t listen. Now there’s an injunction against them.

In terms of what Mitch McConnell is doing, the only thing he is doing in Washington right now is confirming more federal judges for Donald Trump. He has confirmed over 200 federal judges for Donald Trump. He has been blocking $25 billion for the post office for over 120 days. He has been blocking legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act for over 280 days. He has been blocking legislation to prevent foreign election interference for over 320 days. He is not doing anything for the American people. The only thing Mitch McConnell is doing right now is confirming more extreme-right-wing judges for Donald Trump, because that’s the way Republicans rig the electoral system. If they get the judges they want, they can uphold things like modern-day poll taxes in Florida. So, this is the Republican Party’s game: Don’t to anything for the American people, make it as hard as you can to vote, and then put in place judges who will then uphold those new voter suppression laws.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ari, I wanted to ask you about the bigger picture of this national move, because — especially because of the pandemic, toward mail-in voting. You know, those of us who have covered elections in this country for decades know that the old system had many, many problems in terms of being able to deliver a clear count on Election Day. But clearly, the move to mail-in balloting, especially given that every jurisdiction, every state, sometimes every county have their own methods, will mean, inevitably, that we’re going to have many, many more problems in terms of being able to actually count votes, not to mention the fact that there will be a lot of people whose ballots will be discounted because they didn’t properly fill out the mail-in ballots. I’m wondering if you could step back and give us a big picture of what to expect come Election Day.

ARI BERMAN: Well, it makes sense that in a pandemic a lot of people would want to vote by mail. But people have to be careful about mail voting. There were over 500,000 mail ballots rejected in the primaries, which was a major increase from 2016, because ballots arrived too late or people didn’t sign them correctly or they didn’t sign them at all. And so, there is a lot of concern with mail voting that while it is a safe way to vote in a pandemic, if you’re not careful, these ballots can be rejected at a higher rate than in-person voting.

So, I think if you vote by mail, you have to do it early. You have to send it back early or drop it off, if possible. You have to sign it, and sign it carefully. I think if people are proactive about mail voting, there won’t be problems. But if everyone decides to vote by mail at the last minute and election officials are overwhelmed, if the post office, which has been sabotaged by Donald Trump, is overwhelmed, there could be real problems with mail voting and a real chance of major voter disenfranchisement.

What Republican legislatures are also doing, in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota and Pennsylvania, is they are not allowing the officials to start counting the ballots before Election Day, which means that it’s going to take longer to count the ballots. And Donald Trump is going to say, “Oh, only the Election Day votes should count. Let’s disqualify all of the mail ballots.” But if you want to avoid that kind of situation, what the Republican legislatures need to do, in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, is say that people should start counting the votes earlier. Then it won’t take weeks to certify the winner. We’ll know who won the election, maybe not on election night, but in a relatively quick period of time. So, Republicans are trying to capitalize on the uncertainty and fear around mail voting to try to boost their efforts to make it harder to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch the issue to the census. And we only have a minute to go, but a federal court in New York blocked the Trump administration from excluding undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census, ruling undocumented people, quote, “qualify as 'persons in' a 'state'” who must be counted. Advocates called the ruling a victory for voting and immigrant rights. This comes as a federal judge in California has temporarily halted the Trump administration from ending its census collection efforts a month early, pending a court hearing later this month. The Census Bureau is being challenged by a coalition of rights groups, local governments and Native American communities, after it announced it would end its collection efforts at the end of September instead of the end of October, which could lead to a vast undercount of immigrants and communities of color. If you could talk about the significance of this, Ari Berman?

ARI BERMAN: The Trump administration has been trying to sabotage the census from day one. Luckily, federal courts and the Supreme Court have pushed back on this. The problem is that there’s a lot of fear among people, particularly immigrant communities, that they shouldn’t respond to the census. And if you look at the numbers, the response rate in 2020 is lower than the response rate in 2010 and 2000, and very low in some immigrant communities, very low on tribal reservations, where fewer than 20% of people have responded. So, time is running out. The count is either going to end at the end of this month or the end of next month.

And the implications are huge. We’re talking about $1.5 trillion in federal funding for the next decade. We’re talking about how state and federal voting districts are drawn. We’re talking about how much electoral votes and representation states receive. So, we only get a chance to do this once every decade. And it would be a real shame if we had a deliberate undercount of certain communities, particularly immigrant communities and communities of color, to try to benefit the Trump administration’s aims as opposed to it benefiting all of society, which is what the census is supposed to do. It’s supposed to count everyone and serve everyone, not just a shrinking white minority represented by Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, we want to thank you for being with us, senior writer at Mother Jones, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Conservative Judicial Decisions Keep Boosting GOP Voter Suppression.”

Then, as fires continue to devastate the West Coast, Trump rejects climate science. We’ll go to California to speak with an Indigenous fire expert about how return to Indigenous ways of caring for the land could foster greater climate resiliency. Stay with us.

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