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Republican legislators around the country seek to strip governors and officials of emergency election powers

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By Fredreka Schouten and Kelly Mena, CNN
Updated 7:54 AM ET, Fri February 26, 2021

(CNN) — Republican legislators around the country are moving aggressively to strip governors and other officials of their power to change election rules — after states made it easier to vote last year during the coronavirus pandemic and turnout surged to record levels.

The measures have been introduced in at least eight states with Republican-controlled legislatures — including the key battlegrounds of Georgia and Arizona. Some bills would give more authority to lawmakers to establish the ground rules for voting, in an escalation of the already bitter partisan fights that have erupted following the 2020 presidential contest.
The fresh showdowns over who should run elections come as allies of former President Donald Trump continue to try to cast doubt on his loss — by arguing that election officials and the courts usurped state laws when they relaxed voting rules to overcome challenges posed by the pandemic. And they represent the latest front in the ongoing political warfare over voting rules.
    As of this month, state legislators in 43 states had introduced 253 bills to restrict voting access, according to an updated tally by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
      The proposals to curtail officials’ powers are “consistent with the pattern that is happening across the country in Republican-dominated legislatures,” Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel for voting rights at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “They are trying to corner the market on running elections and make it more difficult to expand the right to vote.”
          The bill, he said, is his answer to a decision by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, to give counties the choice to conduct voting entirely by mail last year.
          “I don’t believe there was any fraud that occurred in Montana,” Jones told CNN. “That being said, perception is reality in this world.”
          “The more vetted and the more transparent the process is,” he said, “the more likely there is to be belief that the process has validity and integrity.”

          New measures in battleground states

          In Georgia, where Republicans in the state legislature have sponsored a flurry of bills to restrict voting after Biden’s win there, a measure introduced this week would eliminate the secretary of state’s voting powers on the five-member state elections board.
          The current secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, faced Trump’s wrath for not pursuing unfounded conspiracy theories of widespread fraud in the election.
          A Fulton County prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation into a January call during which Trump urged Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat in Georgia.
          A companion bill in the Georgia legislature would give the state election board the right to assume temporary control over the administration of local elections and voter registration.
          “The intent here is to help out when there is a problem and after a very thorough investigation has taken place, and go in and help that county,” said Georgia state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, a Republican who helped sponsor both bills. Blackmon said the bill that would allow the election board temporary control of local elections would add “checks and balances” to the state’s voting process to increase confidence in the system.
          Another proposal in Georgia would curb the ability of the state election board and the secretary of state to “enter into certain consent agreements.” It appears to stem from a settlement that state officials reached with Democrats in federal court last year that set out procedures for signature-matching on absentee ballots. It also required officials to quickly notify voters when their absentee ballots had been rejected, giving Georgians enough time to correct problems and still have their votes count.
          On Thursday, Raffensperger called the proposal from Georgia legislators “misguided” and said it wasn’t needed.
          “As secretary of state, I’m a constitutional officer,” he said during an online discussion organized by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and cosponsored by CNN. “I’m not appointed by anyone. I’m elected by the people of Georgia, and therefore, we have our constitutional powers.”
          In Arizona, another battleground state that swung to Biden last fall, a pending bill would make it a felony for any official in the state to “modify any deadline, filing date, submittal date or other election-related date that is provided for in statute.”
          The bill’s supporters say it’s necessary after legal challenges resulted in an extension of the voter registration deadline in 2020. Two advocacy groups had gone to court to move the deadlines, arguing that pandemic restrictions had led to a dramatic dropoff in people registering to vote. After several legal skirmishes, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, crafted an agreement with the advocates on a registration cutoff date — which some Republicans cast as subverting state law.
          At a hearing this month, state Rep. Jake Hoffman, a Republican who sponsored the measure, argued it’s “not good policy for those deadlines to be moved on a whim.”
          By considering criminal penalties for officials who alter deadlines, “the legislature is saying: ‘We are the only people in the world that can be trusted with elections,’ ” Alex Gulotta, Arizona state director of All Voting is Local, told CNN.” ‘Election officials who are the professionals, can’t be trusted. The governor can’t be trusted. The secretary of state can’t be trusted.’ “
          The measure is among a raft of election-related bills the Republican-controlled legislature in Arizona has considered this year. They range from a bill that would require voters to obtain notarized signatures on their mail-in ballots to a proposal that would grant the legislature the power to pick the state’s presidential electors.

          Clashes over control

          The clashes over the control of elections come against a broader backdrop of mostly Republican state legislatures moving to curb the authority that governors exercised during the pandemic to limit gatherings and shutter schools and businesses to prevent the virus’ spread.
          Lawmakers in at least 40 states and two territories have introduced more than 200 bills or resolutions this year that would limit or impose greater oversight on governors’ powers or spending decisions during an emergency, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
          “There’s always been a tension between the branches of government, and when an emergency comes up, those tensions come to the surface,” said Wendy Underhill, who oversees the elections and redistricting programs at NCSL.
          One of biggest battles is playing out in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has gone to court to challenge a package of laws from the Republican-controlled legislature that limit his emergency powers. One measure strips the ability of the governor and secretary of state to change election procedures.
          Last year, as the pandemic raged, Beshear and Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams forged an agreement that expanded mail-in and early voting in the state.
          Months after Election Day, Trump’s allies continue to push the argument that the sole power to set election rules rests with state legislatures — rather than with governors, election supervisors or the judges who interpret state constitutions that enshrine voting rights.
          Over the weekend, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise declined to concede the presidential election was not stolen, insisting that disputes still linger because “a few states … did not follow their state laws” in administering elections. “Once the electors are counted, yes, he is the legitimate president,” the Louisiana Republican said of Biden on ABC’s “This Week”
          “But if you’re going to ignore the fact that there were states that did not follow their own state legislatively set laws,” Scalise added. “That’s the issue at heart, that millions of people are still not happy with.”
          The US Constitution empowers state legislatures to set the “times, places and manner” for congressional elections, subject to Congress’ authority to make its own changes.
          But Rick Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, said some Republicans are advancing a more “muscular version” of a doctrine that argues state legislators have broad authority to oversee even minute details in administering elections.
          “If you can’t make the fraud argument because you can’t point to instances of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, you need another argument,” Hasen said.
          Whether courts endorse the so-called “independent state legislature doctrine,” he said, remains an open question.
          Just this week, the US Supreme Court declined an appeal that centered on the question of who has final say on election decisions. In that case, Republicans challenged a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that allowed the counting of ballots received up to three days after Election Day to accommodate the difficulties imposed by the pandemic. The plaintiffs argued that the state court exceeded its authority and should have let stand an Election Day deadline passed by the state legislature.
            Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito dissented, saying the court should have heard the case to clarify rules for future elections.
            This story has been updated to reflect additional comments by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

            Politics

            Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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            By Kevin Liptak, CNN
            Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

            (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

            The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
            But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
              Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
                Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
                    The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
                    The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                    Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
                    Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
                    That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
                    But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
                    “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
                    “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
                    While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
                    Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
                    The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
                    Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
                    And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
                    “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
                    As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                      Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                      This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                      Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                      By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                      Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                      (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                      The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                      “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                        “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                          The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                              Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                              “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                              “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                              Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                              “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                                “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                                Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                                Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                                By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                                Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                                If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                                “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                                  Longtime ATF special agent

                                    Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                      He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                      In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                      The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                      In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                      According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                      “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                      Gun control advocacy

                                      After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                      Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                      It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                      “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                      The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                      More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                      “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                        And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                        This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                        Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                        By Devan Cole, CNN
                                        Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                        Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                        “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                        Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                          “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                            “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                                  Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                                  “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                                  Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                                  By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                                  Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                                  (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                                  In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                                  “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                                    Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                      “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                        Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                        “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                        Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                          Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                          Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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