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Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump’s administration announced a $600 million bidding contest late Friday night to kick off construction of The Wall, a towering physical barrier between the United States and Mexico.

The process will start with little walls — an unknown number of barriers of concrete and other materials that will serve as models for the bigger wall, which Trump made central to his political campaign.

Construction will proceed with unusual haste. Companies have just two weeks to submit proposals. Finalists will make a two-and-half hour long oral presentation to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which is overseeing the contest. Winners will be announced by late May.

Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University, tweeted that the process was “extremely/uniquely complicated (and confusing).”

But CBP officials said the approach was designed to get the best value for the government.

“Through the construction of prototypes, CBP will partner with industry to identify the best means and methods to construct border wall before making a more substantial investment in construction,” the agency said in a statement.

The bidding documents released Friday provide important clues as to what the Trump administration hopes to erect on the 1,200 miles of border with no physical barriers. Some 650 miles are already fenced.

The little walls are supposed to be tall. They should be “physically imposing in height” — 30 feet is preferred, though 18 feet is acceptable. However, the prototypes will be as little as 30 feet long, and cost as little as $100,000.

The little walls are supposed to be strong. They must be able to withstand attacks from “sledgehammer, car jack, pick axe, chisel, battery operated impact tools, battery operated cutting tools, Oxy/acetylene torch” for at least one hour, preferably four. They should also be able to span 45 degree slopes, and block tunneling. Contractors will build prototypes of concrete — Trump’s preferred material — but also other materials that will allow visibility between the two sides. Once the government has determined a model, the prototypes may be demolished.

Finally, the little walls are supposed to be pretty — at least on the U.S. side of the border. The agency wants the walls to be “aesthetically pleasing” so that the color and texture blends into the environment on the “north side of the wall.” There is no similar language for the Mexican side of the wall.

In addition to the tough building conditions, the agency clearly understands another difficulty will be political: Interested builders are urged to discuss their experience in “executing high profile, high visibility and politically contentious” construction projects.

Immigration activists are expected to protest construction of the wall, deploying tactics learned during the long, bitter protests over construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The bid calls for companies to hire their own private security contractors to protect their projects.

The final cost of the wall — and even whether it will be built — is a matter of debate. Trump has said he anticipates the final bill to be from $10 billion to $12 billion. The Department of Homeland Security has suggested a cost of around $21 billion. Trump’s proposed budget has called for $2.6 billion to begin construction.

In Congress, some Republicans and many Democrats have opposed spending billions for an untested and possibly ineffectual border barrier. Trump has said he will force Mexico to pay for the wall. The Mexican government has rejected the possibility.

What is clear is that the Trump administration’s methods will favor large, experienced government contractors with demonstrated experience in big construction projects. Companies such as KBR, Tutor Perini Corp., Parson Corp. and Fluor Corp. have all indicated an interest in building the edifice.

At the same time, the agency has asked bidders to explain how they will meet the agency’s goals to deliver contracts to small, minority and veteran owned companies. Customs and Border Protection aims to pay 38 percent of its contract to small business, 5 percent to woman-owned firms and 3 percent to companies owned by disabled veterans.

In practice, the likely outcome is a few large government contractors overseeing a small army of subcontractors to build the wall.

More than 700 companies signed up for notifications about the building the wall, including more than 140 minority-owned firms — about 20 percent of the total. It is unclear how many of the firms possess the necessary experience and ability to participate in the bid.

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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.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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