What Just Happened? A Weekly Roundup of Politics

04.26.2019 Arts & Culture
Ann Lewis
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In November Florida voters passed a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who had served their time. This constitutional amendment was self-implementing and would automatically allow those with prior convictions to cast their votes in the next election, barring murderers and sex offenders. It was seen as a massive win for criminal justice reform and affected 1.4 million people in Florida who were not previously allowed to vote.

All of this however, may be in limbo after Wednesday when Florida’s Republican-controlled House voted to require people with past convictions to pay all fines and fees levied by the state to have their voting rights restored. The ballot initiative which was approved by 64% of voters stated nothing about restitution.

Many of these court-related costs are carried by convicted people for years, decades, or sometimes entire lifetimes due to their inability to secure well-paying jobs because of their convictions. Ultimately, it comes down to what defines the “terms of a sentence?” The amendment stated that those who had completed “all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” would be eligible to vote.

While Republicans argue that these restitution payments are part of someone’s sentence, others say this is an attempt at suppressing voters who are unlikely to support Republican candidates. If this tweak to the amendment is passed by both the State House and Senate it begs the question: will those with extensive restitution fines ever be allowed to vote? Doesn’t this slip into the poll tax territory? In addition to this challenge, Senate Republicans are suggesting to take $2 million from the state budget and allocate it to hiring more people to track restitution payments. This move seems to overcomplicate the will of the people to restore voting rights to many who have lost them.

Two Saudi women who escaped the country and their abusive families are urging Apple and Google to remove a state-run app in Saudi Arabia called Absher from their app stores. The app (which translates to “at your service”) is considered a productivity app that helps Saudi citizens — okay, let’s be honest, Saudi men — renew their passports, pay parking tickets, grant a power of attorney, and a number of other government-related tasks. It also allows male guardians to track the location of their female family members and alerts them when the passports of these women are scanned at border crossings or airports. The permission preferences on the app allow men to grant — or revoke — authorization for travel of those under their guardianship.  

Maha and Wafa al-Subaie, two Saudi sisters who are currently seeking asylum in Georgia, have been imploring the leaders of Google and Apple to require Absher to remove the tracking elements within the app. The sisters only escaped Saudi Arabia after stealing their father’s cell phone and have shared that there are countless women in abusive families within Saudi Arabia whom are being controlled through the app.

This comes as 11 women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have been jailed without charge for nearly a year, many of whom claim they have been tortured and sexually abused in police custody. While the world knows that Saudi Arabia has a long way to go in the women’s rights category, it’s imperative to realize that American tech giants like Google and Apple have a significant opportunity to challenge the country’s sexist policies. In February Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote an open letter to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai condemning the app and the companies’ inactions. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also requested the removal of the app months ago, but it still remains available for download.

Last week the redacted Mueller Report was released to the public. It, of course, did not exonerate the president completely of all crimes related to Russian interference, though it also did not charge him with specific crimes. After Attorney General William Barr stated that he did not believe a sitting president could be indicted by the Justice Department, the Mueller Report offered no direct indictment of the president.

Congress has been investigating Trump since he took office and has issued him more than 100 subpoenas. They have requested his taxes, documents relating to questionable security clearances, and various officials within his administration to testify before Congress, with Trump proving to be defiant in his rejection of most of the requests. His administration is slow to respond and when it does it often does not answer the demands in full or directly.

All of this challenges the oversight power that Congress has on the president. The structure of our democracy is about checks and balances, and currently the Trump administration is working hard not to allow for such checks. If any former president had even half the list that Trump carries, the American public would be very eager to learn the truth. We currently live in the post-truth era where few people care about such things if it doesn’t benefit their own political point of view. I’m just glad that at least some of our representatives are seeking it… whether it benefits their party or not.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.  

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