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Steven Miles and Arthur Caplan are my new heroes. They should be yours, too — if you hold the radical opinion that facts matter.

Dr. Miles, a University of Minnesota bioethicist, offered $1,000 to charity if Michele Bachmann can prove a link she suggested between vaccinations for human papillomavirus and intellectual disability. Dr. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, upped the ante on Miles’ offer, adding $10,000 of his own.

Bachmann, the frequently facts-challenged Minnesota congresswoman who wants to be president, wandered into this thicket during a recent GOP debate in Tampa, Fla. She attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for an executive order requiring girls in that state to be vaccinated for HPV or, as Bachmann put it, to receive “a government injection.”

It was an obvious attempt to tap that rich seam of anti-government ferment that runs through the body politic. Later, in interviews with Fox “News” and the “Today” show, she spoke of a woman who came up to her crying after the debate.

“She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She said her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”

And how difficult is it to imagine a scenario where that irresponsible remark pays off in tragedy? HPV causes cervical cancer. If some child now dies of that disease because her parents were made paranoid of “government injections,” much of the blame will lie with Bachmann.

When she found herself pilloried by doctors, pundits and even her own ideological soulmates, Bachmann responded that she wasn’t speaking as a doctor or scientist, but only as a mother. It’s a remarkably disingenuous excuse, reminiscent of Sen. Jon Kyl saying in April that an outlandish claim he made about Planned Parenthood “was not intended to be a factual statement.”

Still, it beat the usual strategy of doubling down on stupid, seeking some loophole through which the incorrect can be proven correct. You saw this when Bachmann was hammered on her ludicrous claim that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly” to end slavery.

As proof, she trotted out John Quincy Adams who did, indeed, work to abolish slavery. Too bad he was all of 8 years old when the nation began. He was a Founding Child, perhaps, but a Founding Father? No.

But the fact is, facts don’t matter much to Bachmann. She is the avatar of a slimy ethos newly prominent in American politics and life. It is the elevation of end over means, the binding of conscience and the gagging of integrity. It is permission to say whatever outrageous thing will give you advantage, to lie your natural backside off if it will win the argument.

Facts? True believers don’t need no stinking facts.

Or, as Stephen Colbert famously observed, it is no longer necessary that a thing be true. It is enough that it be “truthy.”

Except that it really isn’t enough. Facts don’t stop being facts just because you ignore them. So we are indebted to Miles and Caplan for putting their money where Bachmann’s mouth is, requiring her to put up or shut up. In failing to respond to their challenge, she has effectively chosen the latter.

And she says more by her silence than ever she did with words.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

(c) 2011 The Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

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