Will Upcoming U.S. Presidential Election Be Legitimate? 

Any country that claims to be a democracy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic should be taking steps to encourage maximum voter participation while protecting voters from risking their health. Such steps would include facilitating voter registration and maximizing the use of voting by mail. That seems self-evident. Yet it is not happening throughout the U.S., and, as is usual in our complex federal system, the rules governing this November’s U.S. election are complicated.[1]

Introduction

While every presidential election year brings an increase in voting rights litigation, the current pandemic has multiplied the number of lawsuits filed in the past 3½ months. Democrats and voting rights advocates are pursuing cases to make it easier to vote by mail, filing more than 60 lawsuits in 25 states.

These lawsuits “are now poised to shape the details of how roughly 130 million registered voters are able to cast ballots in upcoming contests.” However, “conflicting court decisions could exacerbate the differences in voters’ experiences at the ballot box in November. And as the fights play out, the uncertainty is further complicating election officials’ ability to prepare for the vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Dale Ho, who supervises its voting litigation, says, “I think it’s clear we have a potential disaster on our hands on Election Day if we can’t process as many votes as possible beforehand. The alarm bells are going off. It’s not just some sort of hypothetical as a problem — we’ve seen it as a problem multiple times. It will repeat in November. The question is how much and in how many places and how badly.”

A Democratic elections attorney, Marc Elias, agrees. “When the political branches fail to protect voting rights, it is left to the courts to do that. If the political branches were functioning the way they’re supposed to, you would have Republicans and Democrats agreeing to increase access to absentee voting. You’d be putting in place safeguards to make sure every eligible voter who casts a ballot has that ballot counted. . . . Unfortunately, the Republican Party is taking its cues from Donald Trump.”

Common Cause’s director of voting and elections, Sylvia Albert, said decisions about how to handle voting during a pandemic are not easy but “have to be made.” She added,“There is no waiting it out,” noting that as more time passes, the shorter the window for educating voters about any changes becomes. “As a state legislator, as a secretary of state, as a governor, you are responsible for ensuring that voters can access the ballot. By not moving ahead, they’re really abdicating their responsibility to the voters.”

President Trump’s Opposition to Mail Voting

The principal cause of the problem of this election is President Trump, who has made it clear that he is determined to curtail access to mail ballots, claiming without evidence that their use leads to widespread fraud. “My biggest risk is that we don’t win lawsuits,” the president said in June in an interview with Politico. “We have many lawsuits going all over. And if we don’t win those lawsuits . . . I think it puts the election at risk.” As a result, the GOP is pushing to limit the expansion of voting by mail, backed by a $20 million Republican National Committee effort and help from conservative groups.

However, there is no evidence that mail voting leads to the kind of massive fraud Trump has described. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that cases of potential fraud have been exceedingly rare in states that conduct voting exclusively by mail.

Nevertheless, with “Republican governors under pressure from President Trump not to expand voting by mail and many legislatures adjourned for the year or deadlocked along party lines, changes in the coming months are likely to come through court decisions.” As a result, this blogger fears that the Trump Administration will do anything and everything to try to steal this year’s presidential election.

Fortunately former Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, has come out against Trump on this (and other) issues. He says,“absentee voting has been around since the Civil War and . . ., increasingly, states both red and blue are not just allowing but also encouraging citizens to vote by mail.”[2]

Indeed, Weld says, “Public support for voting-by-mail was in place long before the novel coronavirus came along. In the past week, Colorado and Utah conducted successful, smooth primary elections almost entirely by mail, with strong turnouts and no need for voters to stand in unhealthy lines. For a highly contested June 23 primary, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to make absentee voting less cumbersome. It worked, and turnout was at near-record levels. . . . The only problems Kentucky encountered resulted from the covid-19-driven consolidation of in-person, Election Day polling places.”

Weld also notes that public opinion polls show nearly 80 percent of voters support giving all voters the option of voting in person or voting absentee. That includes a majority of Republicans — the president’s paranoia notwithstanding.”[3]

Therefore, Weld concludes, “To my fellow Republicans, I plead with you to not follow Trump off this cliff. A political party that brands itself as the party of exclusion, disregard for citizens’ safety and thinly veiled vote suppression is not a party with a future.”

 State Developments on Mail Voting

Here is an attempted analysis of where at least some of the states stand on rules for the November 3, 2020 election.

Alabama. Because of the virus, Alabama officials are allowing any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot in the upcoming election without having to cite a valid reason. In  a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups citing coronavirus dangers, Birmingham-based U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon on June 15 struke down a requirement for absentee voters to submit a copy of a photo ID and to have their ballots signed off by two witnesses or a notary public as well as lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting at polling places. The judge said he would permit willing counties to allow drive-up voting, but he stopped short of requiring such an accommodation. This order was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but on July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,  reversed that order for the July 14 primary runoff election for the U.S. Senate between Jeff Sesssions and Tommy Tuberville.[4]

California, Nebraska (counties < 10,000) and North Dakota provide counties the option to conduct all voting by mail. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (Dem.) ordered election officials to proactively send absentee ballots to all active registered voters in the state for the general election. This move drew fierce opposition from the right, including a lawsuit from the Republican National Committee, but the change subsequently was authorized by a new state law.[5]

Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington authorize all voting by mail. “For these elections, all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping it off.”[6]

District of Columbia. It will send absentee ballots to all registered voters.

Georgia. The GOP Secretary of State mailed absentee ballot request forms to voters for the June 9 primaries. The Republican House Speaker, however, warned that expanded absentee voting could lead to fraud, and a state House committee approved a measure that would bar the mailing of absentee request forms for the fall, but the bill failed to pass before the legislature adjourned. The Georgia Secretary of State, however, already had said his office lacked funds to send ballot request applications for the general election, even though,

“By a wide margin, voters on both sides of the political spectrum agree that sending absentee applications to all active voters was the safest and best thing our office could do to protect our voters at the peak of COVID-19.”

Illinois and Michigan. This year these states will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters.

Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Rep.) signed a bill into law that will require the secretary of state to seek legislative approval to send absentee ballot request forms to voters before November. This was seen as a rebuke to Iowa’s Republican Secretary of State, who mailed the forms to voters for the primary last month, resulting in a new turnout record for a June primary in the state.

Massachusetts. For the rest of this year this commonwealth has chosen to abandon its requirement for an excuse for an absentee ballot.

Missouri. As a result of an ACLU lawsuit, the Missouri Legislature adopted a statute expanding voting by mail during the pandemic, while retaining the statutory requirement for a notarization of the ballot with the legitimacy of that requirement still being litigated under a ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.[7]

Pennsylvania. The Trump campaign recently sued to stop voters from using drop boxes to return completed absentee ballots and block ballots from being counted if they do not arrive inside the provided secrecy envelope. The Complaint alleged that mail voting “provides fraudsters an easy opportunity to engage in ballot harvesting, manipulate or destroy ballots, manufacture duplicitous votes, and sow chaos.” The Democratic Party obviously is opposing this lawsuit

Tennessee. Last month a Nashville judge ruled that any eligible voter who is concerned about contracting covid-19 at a polling place may cast an absentee ballot this fall, even though state law would typically require that voter to qualify using an excuse. The state Supreme Court declined last week to stay that decision after a request from Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

Texas. The Texas Democratic Party and several voters sued in federal court to allow all eligible Texas voters to vote by mail, at least during the coronavirus pandemic, on the ground that the state’s over-65 age limitation for such voting allegedly was unconstitutional, which contention was upheld by a trial court’s injunction, but reversed by the appellate court with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th rejecting an emergency appeal by the plaintiffs and remanding the case to the appellate court. (Justice Sotomayor urged the appellate court to consider the case “well in advance of the November election”).[8]

Wisconsin. On June 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that after more than three years, Wisconsin must reinstate several Republican-backed voting restrictions, including limits on early voting. The original GOP policies were struck down in 2016 for discriminating against minority voters, a conclusion the appellate panel rejected this week.[9]

Guarding Legitimacy of this Year’s Presidential Election

Great concern over the integrity of this presidential election has been expressed by William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a Wall Street Journal columnist.  He said, “After a quarter-century of toxic division, our democracy is imperiled. A contested election could tip the U.S. into a devastating crisis of legitimacy, a prospect that every patriot must regard with dismay.”[10]

Therefore, Galston suggested four ways to minimize the risks in this upcoming election.

First, “To reduce pressure on the mail-in option, localities must provide the fullest possible opportunity to vote in person, as New York University law professor Richard A. Pildes has argued. This means increasing the number of polling places while expanding opportunities for early voting. Many elderly poll workers will be reluctant to do the job this year; large numbers of younger Americans should be recruited and trained to replace them. Schools should continue to serve as polling places, as they have for decades, and Election Day should be a school holiday.”

Second, “states should do what they can to facilitate the fastest possible count of mail-in ballots. Mr. Pildes recommends processing the mail-in ballots that arrive before Election Day so that they can be tallied in time for the results to be included in the count soon after the polls close, a procedure that California now employs. Other states—including Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—would have to change their laws to permit this, and they should.”

Third, “As Nathaniel Persily, a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project points out, the media have a crucial role to play as well. Reporters should educate themselves and the public about the all but certain delay in the vote count that the flood of mail-in ballots will entail. Above all, media organizations should resist the urge to call the election ahead of their competitors and instead wait until enough ballots have been tallied to know the result with confidence. In the past, ill-judged early calls of key states have sown confusion. This year, the consequences could be far worse.”

Fourth, “America’s elder statesmen must do all they can to ensure election integrity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush should spearhead the formation of a bipartisan committee including respected figures such as former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, along with lawyers and election experts from both parties who have served in previous presidential campaigns. Committee staff should be ready to investigate charges of fraud as soon as they arise and observe the counting of mail-in ballots if asked. Committee leaders should announce their findings as quickly as accuracy permits and stand united in their defense.”

Such a committee’s “most important tasks would be meetings soon after Labor Day with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These leaders should be asked for a public pledge to stand together against unsubstantiated claims that the election has been stolen and to do their utmost to persuade elected officials in their respective parties to stand with them.”

Conclusion

In addition to all of the above litigation, the Supreme Court still has to resolve two cases about so-called “faithless” electors in the Electoral College that actually elects the President. Presumably decisions in those two cases will come down this coming week and will be discussed in a future post.[11]

Another future post will examine ways to create stronger voting rights from Richard L. Hasen, Professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

Comments to this post for corrections and supplementation for new developments are earnestly solicited.

===================================1~

[1] See generally Viebeck, Voting rules changed quickly for the primaries. But the battle over how Americans will cast ballots in the fall is just heating up, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020).

[2] Weld, Please, Republicans don’t join Trump’s crusade against voting-by-mail, Wash. Post (July 3, 2020). See also Strauss, ‘We’ve got to do something’: Republican rebels come together to take on Trump, Guardian (July 2, 2020).

[3] See also Brennan Center for Justice, Americans of All Stripes Want a Mail Ballot Option.

[4] Liptak, Splitting 5-4, Supreme Court Grants Alabama’s Request to Restore Voting Restrictions, N.Y. Times (July 2, 2020); Gerstein, Supreme Court blocks judge’s order loosening Alabama voting requirements due to virus, Politico (July 2, 2020).

[5] National Conf. State Legislatures, All-Mail Elections (aka Vote-By-Mail).

[6] Ibid.

[7] ACLU, Press Release: Court Rules Lawsuit To Allow All Missourians to Vote By Mail Without a Notary During Covid-19 Can Proceed (June 23, 2020).

[8] Liptak, Supreme Court Turns down Request to Allow All Texans to Vote by Mail, N.Y.Times (June 26, 2020); Assoc. Press, Supreme Court doesn’t wade into mail-in voting battle, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020); Barnes, Supreme Court won’t force Texans to allow absentee ballots for all voters, Wash. Post (June 26, 2020).

[9] Earlier this year there was federal court litigation over the Wisconsin primary election that lead to counting of ballots that had been mailed no later than election day. (See these posts and comments to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin Primary Election (April 10, 2020); Comment: More Criticism of Republican Strategy of Limiting Voting (April 12, 2020; Comment: More Comments on Wisconsin Election (April 13, 2020); Comment: Surprising Results in Wisconsin Election (April 14, 2020); Commnet: George F. Will’s Opinion on Voting By Mail (VBM) (April 15, 2020); Comment: Emerging Battles Over Changing State Election Laws (April 15, 2020); Comment: New York Times Editorial on Wisconsin Election (April 20, 2020; Comment: Thousands of Wisconsin Absentee Ballots Counted After Election Day (May 3, 2020).

[10] Galston, How to Prevent an Electoral Crisis, W.S.J. (June 30, 2020).

[11] Liptak, Supreme Court Seems Ready to Curb ‘Faithless Electors,’ N.Y. Times (May 13, 2020); Wegman, The Electoral College Is a Confusing Mess, N.Y.Times (May 13, 2020).

 

 

 

Another Update on States’ Consents to Refugees Resettlement 

President Trump on September 24, 2019, issued Executive Order 13888, entitled “Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement” that required state and local governments to submit to the Department of State written consents for resettlement of refugees as a precondition for such resettlements.[1]

The deadline for providing those consents, however, has been confusing in the primary and secondary sources. But it now appears that the key date is January 21, 2020, which is the deadline for local refugee resettlement agencies to submit applications for funding of those efforts by the State Department’s Bureau of Population Refugees and Migrations (PRM) and that such funding applicants must submit to PRM such “consent letters from state and local officials on a rolling basis both before and after submission of their proposals.”  (Emphasis added.)  Thus, there is no explicit deadline for submitting the consents.[2]

List of Consenting State & Local Governments

PRM now is publishing on its website a list of state and local governments that have submitted letters of consent, copies of most of which are hyperlinked to the list.[3] However, there is no “as of” date for the PRM’s list which will be updated from time to time. In any event, here is the latest PRM list consolidated with lists from other sources identifying 34 states (15 Republican governors and 19 Democrat Governors)  that have consented.[4]

State PRM Other

Sources

Local

Entities

PRM Other

Sources

Arizona (Rep. Gov.)   X    X Phoenix (City), Tucson (City)

Maricopa (County), Pima (County)

   X
Arkansas (Rep. Gov.)    X
Colorado (Dem. Gov.)   X
Connecticut (Dem. Gov.)   X    X New Haven (City)   X
Delaware (Dem. Gov.)   X    X
Illinois (Dem. Gov.)   X    X DuPage County, Chicago (City)   X     X
Indiana (Rep. Gov.)    X
Iowa (Rep. Gov.)   X
Kansas (Dem. Gov.)   X     X
Louisiana (Dem. Gov.)     X
Maine (Dem. Gov.)   X
Massachusetts (Rep. Gov.)   X     X Easthampton (City)   X
Holyoke (City)   X
Northampton (City)   X
Salem (City)   X
West Springfield (City)   X
Michigan (Dem. Gov.)   X     X
Minnesota (Dem. Gov.)   X     X Minneapolis (City)    X
Montana (Dem. Gov.)   X     X
Nebraska (Rep. Gov.)     X
New Hampshire (Rep. Gov.)   X
New Jersey (Dem. Gov.)   X    X
New Mexico (Dem. Gov.)   X    X
North Carolina (Dem. Gov.)   X    X Durham County    X
North Dakota (Rep. Gov.)   X     X Burleigh County    X
Ohio (Rep. Gov.)     X
Oklahoma (Rep. Gov.)
Oregon (Dem. Giov.)   X    X
Pennsylvania (Dem. Gov.)   X     X
Rhode Island (Dem. Gov.)   X
South Dakota (Rep. Gov.)    X
Tennessee (Rep. Gov.)    X
Texas (Rep. Gov.)   X[i] Bexar County   X
Utah (Rep. Gov.)   X    X
Vermont (Rep. Gov.)    X
Virginia (Dem. Gov.)   X    X Alexandria (City)   X
Richmond (City)   X
Roanoke (City)   X
Washington (Dem. Gov.)   X    X
West Virginia (Rep. Gov.)    X
Wisconsin (Dem. Gov.)    X

Finally no state so far has affirmatively rejected such resettlements although there is no requirement to do so. Rejection is implicit if there is no affirmative consent.

Conclusion

Many of the current letters of consent contain inspiring words about welcoming refugees that will be discussed in a subsequent post while another post will cover religious justifications for welcoming refugees.

Now we wait to learn what the other 16 states (11 Republican (Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming) and 5 Democrat (California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada and New York ) will do.

It should be noted, however, that the official website of New York’s Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo on September 17, issued a statement criticizing the Trump Administration’s new lower cap on refugee admissions and saying, “We believe that our diversity is our greatest strength, and we are proud to be home to refugees across the state who are breathing new life into their communities as members of the family of New York. While President Trump undermines the values that built this state and this nation, New York will always welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms.”[6]

==================================

[1]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Sets 18,000 Quota for New Refugee Admissions to U.S. for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 4, 2019; U.S. Senators Oppose U.S.Reduction in Refugee Admissions for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 11, 2019);Latest U.S. Struggle Over Refugees (Dec. 11, 2019); Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees (Dec. 14, 2019); Updates on States’ Consents to Refugee Resettlement (Dec. 16, 2019);   https://dwkcommentaries.com/2019/12/16/update-on-states-consents-to-refugee-resettlement/  Tennessee Consents to Refugees Resettlement (Dec. 20, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), FY 2020 Notice of Funding Opportunity for Reception and Placement Program, Funding Opportunity Number: SFOP0006252 (Nov. 6, 2019) FY2020 R&P FINAL NOFO.

[3]  State Dep’t, State and Local Consents Under Executive Order 13888.

[4] See prior posts listed in footnote 1. See also Assoc. Press, Oklahoma governor give consent for refugee resettlement, koco.com (Dec. 22, 2019); Assoc. Press, GOP Governors Grapple With Whether to Accept Refugees or Not, N.Y. Times (Dec. 23, 2019); Assoc. Press, 15 GOP Govs Request Refugee Resettlement in Their States, NEWSMAX (Dec. 26, 2019); CBSChicago, Mayor Lightfoot Issues Letter To U.S. State Department Authorizing Refugee Resettlement in Chicago (Dec. 24, 2019); Assoc. Press, John Bel Edwards to Trump: Louisiana will keep taking refugees, Advocate (Dec. 23, 2019); Carson, Evers says Wisconsin is open to refugee resettlement in response to presidential order requiring states, counties to consent, Milwaukee Sentinel (Dec. 18, 2019); Stoddard, Gov. Pete Ricketts says he’ll consent to refugees continuing to resettle in Nebraska, Omaha-World Herald (Dec. 19, 2019).

[5] It appears that Texas is on the PRM list only because Bexar County has submitted a consent. On December 26, 2019, a Texas newspaper reported that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has not submitted such a consent letter and that his spokesman “did not return multiple calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.” On the other hand, “Mayors and county leaders of all Texas’ biggest cities —including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — sent letters opting in,” but those consents are effective only if the state consents.  (Kriel, Trump give states power to admit refugees. As other GOP governors sign on, Abbott is silent, Houston Chronicle (Dec. 26, 2019).)

[6]  Statement from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on the Trump Administration’s New Refugee Cap (Sept. 17, 2019).

 

 

 

 

U.S. Restrictions on Felon Voting Do Not Comply with International Law

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International law regarding voting is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR or Covenant) that was approved and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. The drafting of the treaty was the work of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, in which the U.S. participated.[1]

The Covenant’s Terms and Parties

This Covenant establishes an international minimum standard of governmental conduct for rights of self-determination; legal redress; equality; life; liberty; freedom of movement; fair, public and speedy trial of criminal charges; privacy; freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; family; and participation in public life. The Covenant forbids “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” slavery; arbitrary arrest; double jeopardy; and imprisonment for debt.

Article 25 (b) of this treaty states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour [sic], sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status] and without unreasonable restrictions: To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.” (Emphasis added.)

On June 8, 1992, the U.S. finally became a party to the treaty, nearly 26 years after the Covenant had been approved by the U.N. The U.S. accession to the treaty was subject to five reservations, five understandings, four declarations and one proviso. Potentially relevant to the issue of voting rights for felons are the U.S. understandings that (1) distinctions based on . . . other status [felon?] are permissible if rationally related to a legitimate governmental objective; . . . (3) certain practices concerning accused and convicted individuals were preserved; . . . and (5) the obligation of the U.S. federal government to enforce the Covenant in the federal system were limited.”[2]

Earlier (on March 23, 1976), the Covenant had gone into force, in accordance with its Article 49(1), after 35 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Now there are 168 states parties to the Covenant.

The Covenant’s Human Rights Committee

UN Human Rts

Article 28 of this treaty establishes a Human Rights Committee that is empowered under Article 40 to receive, analyze and comment on periodic reports from parties to the treaty regarding their compliance with its provisions, and the Committee may also issue authoritative “general comments” about the treaty.

The Committee’s General Comment No. 25 Regarding Voting Rights

On August 27, 1996, the Committee issued its General Comment No. 25: “The right to participate in public affairs, voting rights and the right of equal access to public service.”

It stated, in part, “The right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law and may be subject only to reasonable restrictions, such as setting a minimum age limit for the right to vote. It is unreasonable to restrict the right to vote on the ground of physical disability or to impose literacy, educational or property requirements. Party membership should not be a condition of eligibility to vote, nor a ground of disqualification.” (Para. 10) (Emphasis added.)

The Comment added, “In their reports, States parties should indicate and explain the legislative provisions which would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The grounds for such deprivation should be objective and reasonable. If conviction for an offence [sic] is a basis for suspending the right to vote, the period of such suspension should be proportionate to the offence [sic] and the sentence. Persons who are deprived of liberty but who have not been convicted should not be excluded from exercising the right to vote.” (Para. 14)

Proceedings Regarding the Most Recent U.S. Report to the Committee [3]

  1. The U.S. Report to the Committee.

The U.S. has submitted four periodic reports to the Committee, most recently on December 30, 2011, which stated the following with respect to voting rights:

  • “Criminal conviction and mental incompetence. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly recognizes the right of states to bar an individual from voting ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime.’ Accordingly, most states deny voting rights to persons who have been convicted of certain serious crimes. The standards and procedures for criminal disenfranchisement vary from state to state. In most states, this inability to vote is terminated by the end of a term of incarceration or by the granting of pardon or restoration of rights.” (Para. 457) (Emphasis added.)
  • Felony disenfranchisement is a matter of continuing debate in the states of the United States. It has been criticized as weakening our democracy by depriving citizens of the vote, and also for its disproportionate affects on racial minorities. As noted in the Second and Third Periodic Report, in August 2001 the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford, recommended that all states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences. At the time of the previous report, a number of states had moved to reduce the scope of felony disenfranchisement or otherwise to facilitate the recovery of voting rights for those who can regain them.” (Para. 458) (Emphasis added.)
  • “Since the submission of the Second and Third Periodic Report in 2005, modification of state laws and procedures has continued. For example, in 2005, the Governor of Iowa issued an executive order eliminating lifetime disenfranchisement for persons convicted of an “infamous crime” and making restoration of voting rights automatic for persons completing their sentences. This order, however, was revoked by a successor Governor in 2011. Also in 2005, the legislature in Nebraska repealed its lifetime ban on voting for all felons and replaced it with a 2-year post-sentence ban. In 2006, Rhode Island voters approved a referendum to amend the state’s constitution to restore voting rights to persons currently serving a sentence of probation or parole. In 2006, the Tennessee legislature amended its complex restoration system to provide a more straightforward procedure under which all persons convicted of felonies (except electoral or serious violence offenses) are now eligible to apply for a ‘certificate of restoration’ upon completion of their sentences. In 2007, the Maryland legislature repealed all provisions of the state’s lifetime voting ban and instituted an automatic restoration policy for all persons upon completion of a sentence.” (Para. 459)
  • “In 2009, the Washington state legislature enacted the Washington Voting Rights Registration Act, which eliminates the requirement that persons who have completed their felony sentences pay all fees, fines and restitution before being allowed to vote. Florida, however, toughened its laws in March 2011, banning automatic restoration of voting rights for all convicted felons. Currently 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felonies in some manner; further information on felony disenfranchisement can be found in the Common Core Document.” (Para. 459)
  • “In July 2009, a bill entitled the Democracy Restoration Act of 2009 was introduced in both the Senate (S. 1516) and the House of Representatives (H.R. 3335). This bill would establish uniform standards restoring voting rights in elections for federal office to Americans who are no longer incarcerated but continue to be denied their ability to participate in such elections. A hearing on H.R. 3335 was held in the House of Representatives on March 16, 2010, but the bills did not proceed further. This legislation has been reintroduced in the House in the 112th Congress (H.R. 2212).” (Para. 460)[4]
  1. The Committee’s List of Issues for the U.S.

On April 29, 2013, the Committee issued its “List of issues” for response by the U.S. Its paragraph 26(a) stated, “Please provide information on: (a) The rationale for prohibiting persons with felony convictions from voting in federal elections once they have completed their sentence. Please provide information on steps taken to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole. Please also provide information on the extent that the regulations relating to deprivation of votes for felony conviction impact on the rights of minority groups.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Replies to the Committee’s List of Issues

On July 5, 2013, the U.S. submitted its replies to the Committee’s list of issues. In paragraph 128, the U.S. stated, “The U.S. Constitution generally provides that governments of the individual states, not the U.S. Congress, determine who is eligible to vote in their state. Congress has the power to regulate elections for federal offices and has constitutional authority to eradicate discrimination in voting through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the Brennan Center of NYU Law School, 48 states restrict voting by persons convicted of felony offenses in some manner, although the majority of these states provide for restoration of voting rights to felons who have been released from prison and/or are no longer on parole or probation. A few states prohibit felons from voting for life. Legal challenges alleging that state felon disenfranchisement laws violate either the U.S. Constitution’s non-discrimination principle or other federal voting rights statutes have generally not succeeded absent proof of racially discriminatory purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

  1. U.S. Attorney General’s Statement About Felony Disenfranchisement
Attorney General                    Eric Holder
Attorney General       Eric Holder

Outside the context of the Committee’s review of the U.S. report, on February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive and powerful comments regarding felony disenfranchisement in his speech, “Criminal Justice Reform,” at Georgetown University Law Center. He said the following:

  • “[W]e’ve seen that maintaining family connections, developing job skills, and fostering community engagement can reduce the likelihood of re-arrest. And we know that restoring basic rights – and encouraging inclusion in all aspects of society – increases the likelihood of successful reintegration.  We’ve taken significant steps forward in improving reentry policies and addressing the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions.”
  • “Yet formerly incarcerated people continue to face significant obstacles.  They are frequently deprived of opportunities they need to rebuild their lives. And in far too many places, their rights – including the single most basic right of American citizenship – the right to vote – are either abridged or denied.”
  • “As the Leadership Conference Education Fund articulated very clearly in . . . [its] recent report, ‘there is no rational reason to take away someone’s voting rights for life just because they’ve committed a crime, especially after they’ve completed their sentence and made amends.’  On the contrary: there is evidence to suggest that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system.  As . . . [this] report further notes, a study recently conducted by a parole commission in Florida found that, while the overall three-year recidivism rate stood at roughly 33 percent, the rate among those who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that.”
  • “Unfortunately, the [Florida] re-enfranchisement policy that contributed to this stunning result has been inexplicably and unwisely rolled back since that study was completed.  And, in other states, officials have raised hurdles to be faced by those with past convictions seeking to regain their access to the ballot box.  And that’s why I believe that . . . [it] is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”
  • “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.  By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.  They undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies. . . . At worst, these laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
  • “The history of felony disenfranchisement dates to a time when these policies were employed not to improve public safety, but purely as punitive measures – intended to stigmatize, shame, and shut out a person who had been found guilty of a crime.  Over the course of many decades – court by court, state by state – Americans broadly rejected the colonial-era notion that the commission of a crime should result in lifelong exclusion from society.”
  • “After Reconstruction, many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.  The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was black.  And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives.  They could not vote.”
  • “Yet – despite this remarkable, once-unimaginable [civil rights] progress – the vestiges, and the direct effects, of outdated practices remain all too real. In many states, felony disenfranchisement laws are still on the books.  And the current scope of these policies is not only too significant to ignore – it is also too unjust to tolerate.”
  • “Across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – 5.8 million of our fellow citizens – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions.  That’s more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states.  And although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disenfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable.”
  • “Throughout America, 2.2 million black citizens – or nearly one in 13 African-American adults – are banned from voting because of these laws.  In three states – Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – that ratio climbs to one in five. These individuals and many others – of all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – are routinely denied the chance to participate in the most fundamental and important act of self-governance.  They are prevented from exercising an essential right.  And they are locked out from achieving complete rehabilitation and reentry – even after they’ve served the time, and paid the fines, that they owe.”
  • “Fortunately . . . in recent years we have begun to see a trend in the right direction.  Since 1997, a total of 23 states – including Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State – have enacted meaningful reforms.  In Virginia, just last year, former Governor McDonnell adopted a policy that began to automatically restore the voting rights of former prisoners with non-violent felony convictions.”
  • “These are positive developments.  But many of these changes are incremental in nature.  They stop well short of confronting this problem head-on.  And although we can be encouraged by the promising indications we’ve seen, a great deal of work remains to be done.  Given what is at stake, the time for incrementalism is clearly over.”
  • “Eleven states continue to restrict voting rights, to varying degrees, even after a person has served his or her prison sentence and is no longer on probation or parole – including the State of Florida, where approximately 10 percent of the entire population is disenfranchised as a result.  In Mississippi, roughly 8 percent of the population cannot vote because of past involvement with the criminal justice system. In Iowa, action by the governor in 2011 caused the state to move from automatic restoration of rights – following the completion of a criminal sentence – to an arduous process that requires direct intervention by the governor himself in every individual case.  It’s no surprise that, two years after this change – of the 8,000 people who had completed their sentences during that governor’s tenure – voting rights had been restored to fewer than 12.”
  • “That’s moving backwards – not forward. It is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values.  These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.  And so today, I call upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.”
  • “And I call upon the American people – who overwhelmingly oppose felony disenfranchisement – to join us in bringing about the end of misguided policies that unjustly restrict what’s been called the ‘most basic right’ of American citizenship.”
  • The “inconsistent patchwork of laws affecting felony disenfranchisement varies so widely between states – and, in some places, between cities and counties – that even those who administer the laws are sometimes unfamiliar with how to apply them. The New York Times noted in 2012 that this kind of confusion means that many who are legally allowed to vote erroneously believe that their rights are restricted.  And too often, those who do understand their rights are wrongfully turned away.”
  • “[P]ermanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.  It has never been shown to prevent new crimes or deter future misconduct.   And there’s no indication that those who have completed their sentences are more likely to commit electoral crimes of any type – or even to vote against pro-law enforcement candidates.
  • “What is clear – and abundantly so – is that these laws sever a formerly incarcerated person’s most direct link to civic participation.  They cause further alienation and disillusionment between these individuals and the communities . . . . And particularly at a time when our prisons are overflowing – and many who are serving sentences for nonviolent drug crimes find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration – it is counterproductive to exclude these individuals from the voting franchise once their involvement with the corrections system is at an end.  It is contrary to the goals that bring us together today.”
  • “Whenever we tell citizens who have paid their debts and rejoined their communities that they are not entitled to take part in the democratic process, we fall short of the bedrock promise – of equal opportunity and equal justice – that has always served as the foundation of our legal system.  So it’s time to renew our commitment – here and now – to the notion that the free exercise of our fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.”
  1. Committee’s Hearings

At a Committee hearing on March 14, 2014, an U.S. representative (Roy Austin, Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, Department of Justice) said, “Persons convicted of crimes were not necessarily informed before sentencing that they would lose their right to vote.“

Austin also stated later at that hearing, “There was no national guarantee ensuring that defendants and prisoners were made aware of the loss of the right to vote. However, in practice, whenever defendants took a plea or were sentenced, they were informed of the fact that they would lose certain constitutional rights. Furthermore, the American Bar Association had launched a website entitled the National Inventory on the Collateral Consequences of Conviction as part of an effort to help defence [sic] lawyers fully inform their clients of, inter alia, any rights they would lose as the result of a conviction for a crime.”

  1. Committee’s Concluding Observations

After reviewing all of the records regarding the U.S. report,[5] the Committee on March 26, 2014, adopted its Concluding Observations. Here is what it said in paragraph 24 about U.S. voting rights.

“While noting with satisfaction the statement by the Attorney General on 11 February 2014, calling for a reform of state laws on felony disenfranchisement, the Committee reiterates its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states. The Committee is further concerned that voter identification and other recently introduced eligibility requirements may impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters, including members of minority groups. Finally, the Committee reiterates its concern that residents of the District of Columbia (D.C.) are denied the right to vote for and elect voting representatives to the United States Senate and House of Representatives (arts. 2, 10, 25 and 26)”

“The State party should ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences; provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options; remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures; as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence. The State party should also take all necessary measures to ensure that voter identification requirements and the new eligibility requirements do not impose excessive burdens on voters and result in de facto disenfranchisement. The State party should also provide for the full voting rights of residents of Washington, D.C.” (Emphasis in original.)

This very polite language is the way the Committee was saying the U.S. was not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.[6]

Conclusion

The U.S. problem of felon disenfranchisement still persists. The previously mentioned proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act has not been adopted. Only two states (Maine and Vermont) do not have any restrictions on voting by citizens convicted of a felony. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting after completion of the term of incarceration; four states, after incarceration and parole; 20 states, after incarceration and parole and probation. The other 11 states permanently ban voting by felons under certain conditions. In addition 10 states restrict some people convicted of misdemeanors from voting.

Therefore, the  U.S. is not complying with the Convention’s provisions regarding voting.

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[1] Weissbrodt, Ni Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 141-43 (4th ed. LEXIS-NEXIS 2009). The Covenant is baed upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which states in Article 21(3), “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage . . . .”

[2] The long, convoluted history of the U.S. accession to the Covenant is discussed in a prior blog post.

[3] The most recent Committee’s consideration of the U.S. human rights record has been discussed in prior posts about the Committee’s hearings, its concluding observations and felon voting. The actual U.S. report, the list of issues, the U.S. replies to that list of issues, a summary of the hearings, the submissions from Civil Society Organizations and the concluding observations are available on the Committee’s website.

[4] The Democracy Restoration Act also was introduced in the Senate (S. 2017) in the 112th Congress, but it died in committees in both chambers.

[5] The record included several hundred submissions from Civil Society Organizations. Felony disenfranchisement was addressed by at least one such submission: the one from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the Leadership Conference, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Sentencing Project. It argued that U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws had a disproportionate impact on minorities, and it reviewed the history and rationale of such laws, the increasing international isolation of the U.S. on such laws, the terms of such laws and the legal challenges to such laws. This submission also criticized the U.S. reply to this issue on the Committee’s list of issues and suggested recommendations for the Committee to make to the U.S.

[6] Another treaty to which the U.S. is not a party–the Protocol 1 to the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms–has been interpreted to ban national laws that “applied automatically to convicted prisoners in detention, irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence [sic] and their individual circumstances.” This was the decision in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights, which said “the severe measure of disenfranchisement was not to be resorted to lightly and the principle of proportionality required a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned. “ (Hirst v. United Kingdom, 2005-IX Reports of Judgments & Decisions 195 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. 2005),}

 

 

President Abraham Lincoln’s Involvement in the Military Commission’s Convictions and Sentences of the Dakota Indians

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln

Before he participated in the U.S. Military Commission’s convictions and sentences of the Dakota Indians, President Abraham Lincoln was involved the U.S.-Dakota War itself in August-September 1862.[1]

Lincoln reentered this drama on October 14th at a Cabinet meeting when Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, read aloud a report from General John Pope that the War was over and that the Army held about 1,500 Dakota prisoners. “Many, Pope said, “are being tried by military commission for being connected in late horrible outrages and will be executed.”[2]

Lincoln and the Cabinet were upset with Pope’s apparent plan to execute many of the captives, and three days later Pope was directed that there be no executions without the President’s approval.

Roughly three weeks later (on November 8th), after the completion of the military commission trials, Lincoln received a telegram from Pope containing a list of the 302 Dakota men who had been convicted and ordered to be hung.[3]

Immediately (on November 10th) the President by a telegram put all of these convictions on hold pending his Administration’s review of these convictions. Lincoln instructed Pope to submit the “full and complete” trial records for these cases to the President along with any materials that might indicate which of the men were the most guilty along with a “careful statement” regarding the commission’s judgments.

This instruction annoyed Pope, who responded the next day not with a “careful statement,” but with a vehement objection to the order. According to the General, “the only distinction between the culprits is as to which of them murdered  most people or violated most young girls.” Moreover, Pope said, “The people of this State [of Minnesota] . . . are exasperated to the last degree, and if the guilty are not all executed, I think it nearly impossible to prevent the indiscriminate massacre of all the Indians–old men, women and children.”

Pope reiterated these sentiments on November 24th when he urged the President to make a speedy decision. He warned, “Organizations of inhabitants are being rapidly made with the purpose of massacring these Indians.”

Exactly what the presidential review would entail was not immediately clear. Lincoln contemplated setting guidelines for executing “only a part” of the 302 men and sending the cases back to Minnesota for an “officer on the ground” to make case-by-case designations. But on December 1st Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General, advised the President that the power of review could not be delegated.

Therefore, that same day (December 1st), the President asked two aides (George C. Whiting and Francis H. Ruggles) to make a “careful examination” of all the transcripts and identify those Dakotas who “had been proved guilty of violating females.” The aides soon responded there were only two who had been so convicted.

Lincoln was surprised so few rapists were among the 302 on death row. Therefore, the President asked his aides to make “a further examination” to identify “all who were proven to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles.” Whiting and Ruggles did just that and reported that 38 additional Dakota men had participated in massacres. The report contained a brief summary of the proof against each man plus the transcripts of their trials.

The first man on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey, the escaped black slave who had been the first to be tried by the military commission. The summary of his case by Whiting and Ruggles said, “Engaged extensively in the massacres, and, though sentenced to be hung, recommended to have his punishment commuted to imprisonment for ten years, because of the valuable testimony and information furnished the commission.”

On December 5th or 6th Lincoln reviewed his aides’ report and trial transcripts. He then personally penned his execution order to Colonel Sibley with the names and trial numbers of 39 men to be executed on December 19th.[4] They were the 2 convicted for rape and 37 of the 38 men convicted for participation in massacres. The only one on the latter list of 38 who was not included on the execution list was Joseph Godfrey.

On December 11th in response to a Senate resolution, the President forwarded to the Senate the Whiting-Ruggles report, the trial transcripts and related materials. In his cover letter Lincoln referred to his aides’ list of 38 men convicted for participation in massacres, but said, “One of the [38 men] . . .  is strongly recommended by the [military] commission which tried them, for commutation to ten years’ imprisonment.” Lincoln, however, did not mention the name of this individual (Godfrey) or his black race. This review, Lincoln added, was done “to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on the one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other.”

Throughout this period, the President and his Administration were under great pressure to approve all of the ordered executions in addition to the pleas from General Pope.

Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was running for election to the U.S. Senate in January 1863, urged the President to order the execution as soon as possible of all those condemned by the commission. “It would be wrong upon principle and policy to refuse this,” Ramsey said. “[Otherwise] private revenge would . . . take the place of official judgment on these Indians.”

Minnesota’s other public officials and newspapers echoed these sentiments as did letters, petitions and memorials submitted to the White House.

Virtually the only Minnesotans suggesting some mercy were Minnesota’s Episcopal Bishop Henry P. Whipple and other pastors.

Lincoln perhaps drew some comfort from a December 17th petition from 38 Dakota leaders that said “the bad [Dakotas] ought to be punished” and all “of the Indians who were engaged in killing the white men and women and children should be hanged.” The “good” Indians, on the other hand, should be “well treated” and permitted to return to their homes on the reservation.

On December 23rd, Lincoln directed the reprieve of one of the 39 to be executed as a result of a last minute plea by a Presbyterian missionary (Rev. Thomas Williamson) and his sister (and endorsed by Brigadier-General Sibley) on the ground that the certain evidence at the trial was unreliable.

Accordingly on December 26th, 38 Dakota men were hung to their death in Mankato, Minnesota.

The fate of the other 264 Dakota men (including Mr. Godfrey) who had been convicted and sentenced to death by hanging by the military commission was not addressed directly by President Lincoln. But they were not pardoned. Instead, they were transferred to a U.S. detention facility in Davenport, Iowa, where most of them spent the next three years. After they were released from detention, they were transferred to several reservations for the Dakota. Joseph Godfrey went to a Nebraska reservation where he lived until his death in 1903.[5]


[1]  As discussed in a prior post, On August 21, 1862, Lincoln’s focus on the worsening situation in the Civil War was interrupted by the news of the start four days earlier of the U.S.-Dakota War in southern Minnesota. About a week later the President reluctantly granted a de facto, indefinite extension of time for Minnesota to fulfill its quota for more troops for the Civil War so that the State could provide men to fight the Dakota War. In addition, on September 5th the President created a new military Department of the Northwest to be in charge of the Dakota War under the command of General John Pope.

[2] This post is based upon David A. Nichols, Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics Ch. VIII (Minn. HIst. Soc’y Press 1978, 2000, 2012) and Walt Bachman, Northern Slave Black Dakota:The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey at 221-22, 228-32, 239, 243-45, 252-56, 262-66,, 352-56 (Pond Dakota Press; Bloomington, MN 2013).

[3]  The commission had sentenced 307 Indians to be hung, but five were removed from the execution list before it was submitted to the President.

4 The original of the President’s order is at the Minnesota Historical Society. Davis, TWO Sioux War Orders: A Mystery Unraveled, Minn. History at 117 (Fall 1968). Through a  subsequent exchange of telegrams the date of the executions was postponed to December 26th. 

5 An evaluation of President Lincoln’s involvement in the U.S.-Dakota War and of legal issues relating to the commission trials and judgments will be the subjects of other posts.