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Outside the Beltway

WHO SHOULD VOTE? Roughly six million Americans are barred from voting because they committed a felony. And 1 in every 13 Africans Americans has forfeited their right to vote because they have committed serious crimes.

These statistics via The Sentencing Project, however, along with some nuance, were lost in the discussion this week surrounding “felony disenfranchisement” when Democratic presidential candidates were confronted with the question of allowing prisoners the right to vote, even violent ones like the Boston marathon bomber. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders offered disparate answers: 

  • “This is a democracy and we have got to expand that democracy, and I believe every single person does have the right to vote,” Sanders told the Harvard student who posed the question, adding that voting is a right “even for terrible people.” 
  • “Part of the punishment when you were convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” Buttigieg told the audience, firmly disagreeing with Sanders. 

The exchange marked a new phase in the long-running fight over voting rights. Democrats have always accused Republicans of working to limit the ability of people of color from participating in elections because minorities tend to vote against them. But those fights have generally revolved around voter ID requirements and registration drives.

There's some evidence that following the 2018 elections, the fight is moving onto Democratic turf with states controlled by Democrats hoping to expand ballot access. And now that fight is bleeding over into the 2020 race over the voting rights of felons and people who formerly committed violent crimes.

Foes of felon disenfranchisement say asking Sanders and Buttigieg such a pointed question was designed to evoke an emotional reaction but unrepresentative of reality. 

  • " . . . while disenfranchisement policies generally affect people of color disproportionately, this is even more true in regard to disenfranchisement of incarcerated people since the racial/ethnic disparities in prison are the most extreme within the criminal justice system,” Marc Mauer, the Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, writes in a 2011 Howard Law Journal article. " . . . to the extent that felony disenfranchisement reduces the scale of the black electorate in particular, it also reduces the political impact of the larger black community, including those who have never been convicted of a felony themselves.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) weighed in on Twitter: 

The Backstory: Ex-felons cannot vote in Massachusetts until after they are released from prison, a change made in 2001 after Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) signed legislation prohibiting serious offenders from casting ballots while in jail. Cellucci moved to pass a 1997 constitutional amendment in response to reports that Massachusetts prisoners at MCI-Norfolk were planning to form a politcal action committee in prison. 

  • On Aug. 2, 1997, Cellucci stated that “[p]rison is supposed to mean punishment, not some opportunity to form a political group.” 

As it currently stands, Vermont and Maine are the only two states in the country where there are no laws that prohibit felons from voting while in prison.

  • “It's pretty well recognized that any connection you can keep with your community is helpful,” Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, told the Burlington Free Press
  • “Even death-row inmates retain a broad array of constitutional rights, including access to due process, the right to sue, and the right to appeal. Why is the right to vote excluded?," Vann Newkirk wrote in a piece for The Atlantic in 2016
  • “Is there some other reason to exclude people? No,” Daniella Lang, a voting rights lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, told Power Up. “Being a citizen means you have an obligation and opportunity to have a voice in this system and we extend that to all folks, regardless of whether we think they are the best voters — and when we start to go down a road where we’re deciding who is a good voter and who is a bad voter, we’re straying outside of our constitutional democracy. The Supreme Court has already said that states cannot be in the business of sussing out voters we don’t like.” 
Here's how the rest of the country handles voting rights for those who have committed felonies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures:
  • In 14 states and D.C., felons generally lose their voting rights only while incarcerated and they are automatically restored upon release.
  • In 22 states, including the key states of North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado and Minnesota, felons lose their voting rights during their incarceration, and for a period of time afterward.
  • Note: California allows people in county jails to vote while incarcerated, but not while they're in federal or state prison. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order removing restrictions on voting for people on parole.
  • In 12 states, including Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin and Arizona, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require either an additional action to restore them, like a governor's pardon, or additional wait time after their release from jail.
A Poll Tax?: In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for felons after they completed their sentences -- a step that could affect up to 1.4 million people in a state whose close elections are notoriously close. (Three different statewide races went to a recount in 2018 alone.) But Republican lawmakers have proposed narrowing the scope of that amendment, which they say is too vague.
  • On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled statehouse passed a bill allowing former felons (not including those convicted of murder and felony sexual offenses) to vote in Florida if they pay all fees, fines and court costs first. Democrats have slammed the move as akin to a modern poll tax.
  • “Supporters of November’s amendment that repealed felony voting prohibitions say it is acceptable to require people to pay restitution ordered by a judge or fines and fees that are part of a sentence,” per HuffPost's Sam Levine. “But they say the amendment does not allow the state to require fines and fees on top of that before they can vote.”

Bottom Line: This issue is not going away and is likely to spark even more contentious fights as the 2020 election heats up.


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The People

BIDEN IS FINALLY IN: In a field of 19 other candidates, Joe Biden showed on Thursday how he is going to stand out.

  • “His 3½-minute video was an effort to move the nomination battle to a different level, to raise the stakes for the country and his party,” our colleague Dan Balz writes.
  • “By beginning his campaign as he did, Biden played what he believes is the strongest card in his hand — that whatever Democratic voters might feel about aspects of his record, he hopes they will see him as the candidate best equipped to win a general election.”


… If Biden’s launch confronted Trump with one of the most infamous moments in his widely panned response to Charlottesville, the political world soon learned the former vice president was still grappling with one of his own problems. Earlier this month, Biden called Anita Hill to express regret over what the law professor endured when she testified during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. But to hear Hill recount the conversation, Biden’s words of regret were not enough.

  • I cannot be satisfied by simply saying I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Hill told the New York Times. “I will be satisfied when I know there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”

An interesting observation from the Times’s Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin:

  • “There are few modern examples of a man of Mr. Biden’s age assuming the leadership of a Western democratic power. The precedents that exist have tended to arise from moments of military conflict or social turbulence: Georges Clemenceau becoming France’s premier during World War I at the age of 76, or Winston Churchill returning as prime minister in the 1950s, also at 76.”

Also, notable: “Joe Biden did not tell Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, that he would be invoking her daughter’s murder in Charlottesville in August 2017 in his presidential campaign launch video focusing on “the battle for the soul” of America,” reports The Daily Beast's Tim Teeman. 

From a Times national political reporter:

At the White House

"THIS WAS A COUP”: Calling into Sean Hannity's show on Thursday night, President Trump called the FBI probe into his 2016 campaign and the following investigations "a coup." 

Trump issued a not-so veiled threat regarding the Justice Department inspector general's pending investigation of the FISA surveillance process in the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign. 

  • “I think a lot of information is coming out and it’s coming out fast, much faster than anybody would’ve thought. There’s a lot of people very nervous about things going on,” he said.

Armchair pundit:

  • He also told Hannity that he is “rooting for” Buttigieg in the 2020 race to challenge him, “though he's not going to make it.” He repeated his reference to Biden as “sleepy,” called Beto O'Rourke a “fluke” and said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as a “little bit of a nasty wit.”

TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL: Meanwhile in New York, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein “unleashed his sharpest critique yet of those who have attacked his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigative report into Russian election interference and President Trump’s conduct,” per my colleagues Philip Bump and Devlin Barrett. 

  • “The rule of law is our most important principle,” Rosenstein said. “As President Trump pointed out, ‘We govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather [than] … the whims of an elite few or the dictates of collective will.’”
  • “I did pledge to do it right and take it to the appropriate conclusion. I did not promise to report all results to the public, because grand jury investigations are ex parte proceedings. It is not our job to render conclusive factual findings,” he said. “We just decide whether it is appropriate to file criminal charges.”

PAGING JARED KUSHNER: Rosenstein also said that the Mueller reports documentation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign "is only the tip of the iceberg”: 

  • “The bottom line is, there was overwhelming evidence that Russian operatives hacked American computers and defrauded American citizens, and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a comprehensive Russian strategy to influence elections, promote social discord, and undermine America, just like they do in many other countries,” Rosenstein said.


On The Hill

@JACK CALLED OMAR AFTER TRUMP TWEET: Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey called Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Tuesday following a meeting in the Oval Office with Trump,defendeding his “company’s decision to permit a tweet from President Trump that later resulted in a flood of death threats targeting the congresswoman,” our colleague Tony Romm scooped.

  • “Omar pressed Dorsey to explain why Twitter didn’t remove Trump’s tweet outright, according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the call was private. Dorsey said that the president’s tweet didn’t violate the company’s rules, a second person from Twitter confirmed,” Tony reported.

  • Trump's tweet caused a firestorm by included footage of the Twin Towers burning interspersed with Omar's comments about 9/11 and taking her remarks about the attacks out of context. 

  • “Dorsey also pointed to the fact that the tweet and video already had been viewed and shared far beyond the site, one of the sources said. But the Twitter executive did tell Omar that the tech giant needed to do a better job generally in removing hate and harassment from the site, according to the two people familiar with the call.”

The takeaway: Trump is the platform’s most-watched user, and critics have decried Twitter for failing to step in when the commander in chief crosses the line. But that may be changing.

  • “Company leaders recently said they are planning to institute a new approach that would provide more context around tweets that its rules would have prohibited but were permitted to remain on the site anyway because of the speaker. Such a policy could result in public notations on Trump’s own tweets,” Tony writes.


In the Media