Progressives Every Day: Texas's Absentee Ballot Saga Goes Supreme

Plus, LGBTQ ruling fallout and COVID numbers

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Texas Democrats Push Voting Rights to Supreme Court:

Whereas many states granted voters the right to no-excuse absentee ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic and local shelter-in-place orders, Texas’s GOP leadership has spent the last few months waging an all-out war on mail-in-voting. With primary elections looming, that battle may be headed to the Supreme Court, as Texas Democrats and voting rights activists have asked the nation’s top court to step in to settle an increasingly complicated skirmish.

This has been quite the saga, so you might want to take notes or sketch out a timeline as you read what follows.

A few months back, when it was obvious that the pandemic would make showing up at polling sites risky, Democrats and civil rights activists requested that the state loosen the very restrictive laws governing absentee ballot eligibility. Right now in Texas, only people who are 65 or older, have a disability or illness, or can prove they’ll be out of their voting jurisdiction on election day can request an absentee ballot.

Long story short, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that the risk of contracting coronavirus at crowded polling locations did not qualify as a disability. Paxton also threatened to arrest anyone who applied for a ballot using the fear of coronavirus as a justification or helped someone to do so. The threat came as a state district judge ruled that Texas must expand absentee ballot eligibility, a decision that was upheld a month later by a higher state court. A few days later, in a different case, a U.S. District Court also ruled that Texas must expand the absentee ballot eligibility, which for the moment made Paxton’s threat pretty moot.

A few weeks later, the Texas Supreme Court overturned the lower state court ruling. But curiously, the court denied the Attorney General’s request that it block local officials from sending absentee ballots out to people who applied for them based on fears of the virus.

Although the court sided with Paxton's interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated that it is up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they meet the state's definition.

"We agree, of course, that a voter can take into consideration aspects of his health and his health history that are physical conditions in deciding whether, under the circumstances, to apply to vote by mail because of disability," the court ruled.

Things were pretty unclear at that point, but the uncertainty didn’t last long. Just a day later, a three-judge panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on the District Court ruling while Paxton readied his appeal and extended it earlier this month. Now, with early voting in the upcoming primary less than two weeks away, Democrats and voting rights advocates are trying to skip any more hearings and go straight to the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, conservative Justice Samuel Alito oversees the 5th Circuit and he has not proven particularly amenable to voting rights in the past. The primary may well be a lost cause, but with Texas now looking like a swing state, a positive ruling from Alito could be a huge boon for the general election.


The First Coronavirus Wave Never Ended:

Early on, Republicans and conservative talkers made their priorities very clear: Human life is precious, but not nearly as precious as the bottom lines of the corporations that pay for their campaigns and lavish lifestyles. After all, death is inevitable, but another term in office and then a seat on several hedge funds and pharmaceutical companies is not.

That calculus, backed by anxious privileged white people who didn’t know anyone dying from the virus and a president terrified of responsibility, led to most GOP-controlled states reopening far too early, which has, in turn, led to a slow-moving train wreck of rising infection and mortality rates.

This weekend, Oklahoma hit its all-time high, as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Today, Arizona has climbed to new heights.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services on Tuesday, there are 39,097 cases and 1,219 deaths of COVID-19, up 2,392 and 25, respectively, from Monday.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health reports 20,670 cases and 540 deaths in Arizona’s most populous county. State and county numbers may different depending on when data was reported.

Things are pretty bad in Texas, too!

The number of people sickened with Covid-19 across Texas’ hospitals continues to rise, with coronavirus hospitalizations now up more than 66% since Memorial Day as the state continues to reopen.

There are currently 2,518 patients hospitalized with a coronavirus infection, marking the seventh new high in the state in a little over a week, according to updated data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s also up roughly 66% since Memorial Day when there were 1,511 hospitalized Covid-19 patients, state data shows.

Oh, yeah, Florida, which also reopened super early, is in increasing trouble as well!

“On [Friday] … the state hit a daily record of 1,902 new cases. The following day, another record was set, with 2,581 new cases, before falling to 2,016 on Sunday and 1,758 on Monday. For the first time since the coronavirus struck, the state has seen almost two weeks of new daily cases that exceed 1,000. That’s partly a function of increased testing, but the average weekly positivity rate in the state is now 6.4 percent — more than double what it was when it bottomed out a week after the state began opening back up.”

You may recall that on Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump minion, announced that Jacksonville would host August’s Republican National Convention. He swooped in after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declined to promise Trump that he’d put his citizens in mortal peril so that the president could spew incoherent racism at a crowd of his most devoted and vile supporters. I work in an industry that relies on major conventions every month for a large chunk of its revenue and just about every one of those confabs has been canceled for 2020.

To this point, it’s been mostly people of color and poor people who have suffered from COVID-19. The sad-but-true reality is that it’s going to take a mass amount of white people contracting the disease for there to be any real pressure on these states to resume precautionary measures.

Considering the pressure from the White House, which fears the economic fallout of sheltering-in-place far more than any number of American deaths (we’re at 116,000 now), as well as the number of GOP senators up for re-election this year, it’s hard to imagine anything substantive being done in the next few months regardless.


SCOTUS LGBTQ Victory Fallout:

On one hand, the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm civil rights protections for LGBTQ people is the judiciary effectively catching up to where most of the American public has been for years now. On the other hand, it’s going to have an immediate ripple effect on state laws and campaigns across the country, which will make for some interesting decisions and compelling storylines as we get closer to the end of legislative sessions and election season.

Yesterday, I wondered how the organizers of a ballot initiative to include LGBTQ rights in Michigan’s major civil rights law might adjust to the SCOTUS decision. Would they push forward with the effort to codify rights in the state statute? Or decide to drop their campaign, given the difficulties they’ve faced gathering signatures during the pandemic?

Turns out, the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign is trying to figure that out, as well. With Democrats in office, the state has been processing complaints about discrimination by LGBTQ people, a change from when the state was under GOP control. The SCOTUS decision focuses on employment discrimination, but given both the sheer number of areas in which people can be discriminated and the possibility that Republicans could win office again, it would be preferable to get LGBTQ protections on the ballot nonetheless:

Since 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has processed complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity after releasing an interpretive statement that said such discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. State Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, told the panel last year it was not bound by her Republican predecessor's opinion that Michigan law does not ban LGBT discrimination and that it would be up to legislators to change the statute to include such protections.

“We are gratified that, at least in the area of employment, the court has now ruled that the same interpretation applies to federal law,” said Stacie Clayton, chairwoman of the commission. She noted that the Trump administration on Friday overturned Obama-era protections for transgender people against sex discrimination in health care.

“Until courts at all levels recognize and affirm the rights of LGBTQ individuals to be free of discrimination in every aspect of their lives, we have work to do,” Clayton said.

The conundrum is not just limited to Michigan. In Florida, lawmakers have been trying for years to get non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people passed, and the SCOTUS decision on Monday gave politicians, businesses, and editorial boards a rallying point to encourage their passage.

Democratic State Rep. Jennifer Webb, the first openly lesbian lawmaker elected in Florida, celebrated the decision but called on the state to go further, including ratifying the bipartisan Competitive Workforce Act, which she co-sponsored this year:

“This 6-3 Supreme Court ruling makes discrimination against LGBTQ workers illegal across the entire nation. I am grateful to those at the federal, state, and local levels who fought to make this victory possible. And, in my house we are celebrating,” Webb said.

“Yet, we know it can take a real effort in the wake of winning a SCOTUS battle to ensure that the impacted community is actually protected. So, while I am fortified by this victory, I am also redoubling my commitment to make explicit in Florida law what the Supreme Court has made clear: Discrimination against the LGBTQ community is illegal.”


We’re all getting ripped off:

The big financial interests have been able to keep their hold on power for decades by buying off politicians from both parties, making huge returns on those investments, and then buying off more politicians. They’ve also benefitted from the Republican Party’s efforts to stoke the social issues that have ripped the working class apart over the last 40 years.

(I don’t say this to damn everyone in the financial industry — there are plenty of good people working on Wall Street and in related fields. But over the last 25 years, corporate responsibility has gone out the window with every demolished regulation, allowing the rich to get much, much richer without contributing their fair share to the betterment of society.)

The Trump era has supersized both of these trends; GOP officials are just nakedly corrupt, while the president and his far-right maniac followers foment more hatred, street riots, and media outrage than ever. This piece from David Sirota’s new site walks you through how the latest Wall Street swindle, completed amidst the coronavirus pandemic and the beginning of the Black Lives Matters protests, could screw about 100 million Americans.

In practice, private equity firms will now be allowed to access -- and skim fees off of -- the $9 trillion in 100 million workers’ 401k plans and IRAs. 

“If just 5 percent of the money in these retirement funds were available to private equity, it would be a windfall of $435 billion -- real money even to private equity millionaires and billionaires,” wrote Eileen Appelbaum of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. 


Blue Lives Splatter:

When we look back at this tumultuous era years from now, I can only hope that we see it as an inflection point in history, when the shameful corruption and systemic racism in our country became so intolerable that a great progressive uprising led to top-to-bottom changes in nearly every aspect of our lives. And I hope that we can comfortably laugh at the abject stupidity of so much of what is happening right now.

Take the saga of the Shake Shack cops, for example.

Late last night, this was posted on the website of The Detectives’ Endowment Association, one of the many NYPD unions:

It was pretty obviously a privileged, paranoid panic attack from the start, but I’m grateful that the NYPD was gracious enough to continue the public meltdown for the rest of the evening and deep into the night before admitting that uh, no Shake Shack employees were trying to spike their concrete shakes:

Now, if cops are willing to lie about the reason they got diarrhea from notoriously stomach-melting fast food shakes, it makes you wonder what else might they be willing to lie about…

Jokes aside, this is actually a perfect example of what we’re up against right now and how out-of-touch police officers have become, as well as an indictment of a media system that tends to take cops at their word, no matter how absurd the assertion. I shudder to think of the number of innocent people jailed, injured, or even killed under false police pretenses over the last few decades.


Not Choking Is Not Enough:

A number of cities and states, including New York, have passed a raft of mostly minor police reforms in response to the nationwide protests over systemic racism and police violence. Given how cops choked both Eric Garner and George Floyd to death, most of these jurisdictions have included bans on chokeholds in their laundry list of bare minimum new laws. While that sounds like a great victory, it’s likely not going to do much at all unless paired with significant changes to loopholes and, crucially, actual enforcement.

Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and author of the book 'Chokehold: Policing Black Men,' says part of the problem is a lack of accountability.

"If we look at the ban in New York City, it's kind of like a rule in an employee handbook. 'Don't use a chokehold.' We shouldn't expect those kinds of light bans to work," he says.

In fact, when the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board studied its use in 2014, it found hundreds of complaints a year alleging that police officers used the technique — and even concluded that the usage of chokeholds at the time appeared to be rising despite a decades-long ban.


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