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Sometimes it is better to be wrong, and this election is definitely one of those times.

More than a year ago, I posted a column that inquired whether Donald Trump is “a real live fire-breathing fascist.” Based on what we had seen from him and his campaign even by then — his appeals to racial and religious bigotry, his xenophobic and truculent attitude toward other nations, his endorsements of violence, and his extremist “solution” to illegal immigration — the direction was disturbingly clear if not yet conclusive.

We have seen much more since then, of course. Trump has undermined the integrity of the democratic process itself, while suggesting he will refuse to accept the election result if he doesn’t win. He has urged his supporters to commit acts of violence, to intimidate opposition voters based on race or ethnicity, and he has publicly promised to imprison his opponent. He has questioned the independence of the judiciary and repeatedly menaced the media, bullying individual reporters and fulminating about harsher libel laws. And he has appointed a leading exponent of the “alt-right,” a man known for anti-Semitic outbursts and paranoid politics, to run his campaign.

The conclusion is inescapable: Whether or not Trump consciously considers himself a fascist, like the unsavory “alt-right” thugs who lionize him, he represents a fascistic current in American politics. If empowered on Election Day, that force is certain to inflict grave and perhaps irreparable damage to democracy as well as the future of this country and the planet. Already his movement has done the nation serious harm.

But the upwelling of authoritarian attitudes in and around the Republican Party anticipated Trump’s own rise by well over a decade. The polarizing anger, paranoid ideology, and uncompromising extremism that he has come to personify were all first exploited by Newt Gingrich, now a Trump adviser and surrogate.

In the years that followed 9/11, incursions against democracy quickly ensued as the United States government declared its will to discard constitutional guarantees and international treaty obligations in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Now those themes are amplified by Trump — who provokes a potential rupture with NATO, threatens a return to waterboarding “and worse” forms of torture, and warns that as president he would “have to do things that were frankly unthinkable” in the past.

During George W. Bush’s second term, I wrote It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril In The Age of Bush, a book outlining the dangers of that government’s violations of civil liberties, its alliance with repressive corporate and religious elements, its contempt for the Constitution, and its attempt to establish permanent partisan dominance over all three branches, “in a time of war.” The American electorate eventually dispensed with that regime’s most alarming attitudes and ambitions. But the political elements that yearned for authoritarian solutions remained active, and eventually reappeared, first as the Tea Party and then in the Trump movement.

My book derived its title and inspiration from It Can’t Happen Here, the 1935 anti-fascist bestseller by Sinclair Lewis, a long-forgotten work that is once again highly relevant with the rise of Trump. (So relevant that at a recent Clinton fundraiser in New York, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jon Hamm performed a scene from the eponymous Broadway play, based on the book, that Lewis opened to overflow audiences in 1936.)

 It Can’t Happen Here starts with the election of President Buzz Windrip, a charismatic politician with little intellectual curiosity but a great appeal to the regular guy; he is a man who “believes firmly in the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars” and considers almost all foreigners to be degenerate. He hates science and academia, flatters the ignorance of his followers, and presents himself as a defender of traditional values, righteousness, and godliness.

Windrip regularly and loudly expresses his contempt for the press (except the ultra-right Hearst media empire, precursor of the Murdoch machine), excoriating journalists for “plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions, and fill their greedy pocketbooks…” He often mentions that he has read the Bible at least a dozen times, although his religiosity is bogus. He regards himself as the only man who can solve the country’s dire problems, even if that means discarding constitutional procedures and protections. His populist rherotic is empty; his economic policy drives wages downward while his government implements a regressive tax system and a gigantic military buildup. To unite the country behind him, he plots a preemptive war against Mexico. After his election, there are no more, and his opponents are systematically imprisoned, exiled, or worse.

If the campaign of 2016 echoes many of the themes that Lewis embodied in Windrip, that’s because his book satirized fascist modes of thought — along with the deceptions and demagogy that might contrive to bring fascism to power in a democracy. Facing the election of 1936, and the perils of extremism at home and abroad, the great author, America’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was deeply worried for democracy — just as we worry, 80 years later.

For this country’s sake, I wish I had been wrong last year about Trump and fascism, but I wasn’t. Today we must hope that the majority of Americans still cares enough for our institutions and freedoms to safeguard them from this vain, vengeful, and dangerous figure.

IMAGE: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a rally with supporters at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, U.S. September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

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As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template

In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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