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By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved President Barack Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against Islamic State militants, giving the administration a much-needed endorsement of its strategy to defeat the extremist group.

But though the Senate was expected to give its approval Thursday, deep personal and political misgivings of lawmakers in both parties exposed more doubt than resolve over the president’s approach.

Republicans and Democrats are skeptical that the proposal to train and arm Syrian opposition forces will work. Training will take months, and the fighters’ battlefield abilities and trustworthiness remain untested.

Some Republican hawks wanted bolder action, but many lawmakers, particularly anti-war Democrats, fear that the administration is moving toward another protracted Mideast war that could ultimately require American ground troops.

Obama reiterated Wednesday that U.S. combat forces would not be deployed, a day after his top military adviser told a Senate panel that ground troops could be necessary in certain circumstances.

Despite the 273-156 House vote by an unusually bipartisan mix of lawmakers, passage came only after several days of heated debate on Capitol Hill. A rare unity emerged from top leaders in both parties who closed ranks to back the president’s strategy, even as they acknowledged it was the best among imperfect options for a war-weary country.

“It is not pleasant. It is not easy. It’s hard,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). “But it really is necessary for the House to approve this.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) expressed frustration with the president’s approach, but said that “we must support this amendment and take this first step towards a comprehensive strategy to combat these brutal terrorists.” Although the House speaker rarely votes, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-OH) backed the president and voted in favor.

The White House welcomed Wednesday’s vote. “Today’s vote is another step closer to having the authorization to train and equip vetted elements of the moderate Syrian opposition so they can defend themselves against, and ultimately push back on, ISIL forces in Syria, while creating the conditions for the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all,” Obama said in a statement, referring to Islamic State by a commonly used acronym. He urged the Senate to pass the bill as well.

The resolution authorizes the arming of moderate Syrian forces who oppose President Bashar Assad and does not approve Obama’s broader strategy of using airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, a Qaida offshoot that has seized large swaths of territory in the two countries and has beheaded three Westerners.

Obama has maintained he doesn’t need further authorization from Congress to bomb Islamic State forces, but he said he wanted a congressional “buy-in” for his strategy to send a message of unity to allies and enemies abroad.

The White House bet that the narrowly crafted resolution on arming Syrian rebels would be easier to pass for lawmakers reluctant to vote on such a sensitive issue during an election campaign.

But passage proved much more difficult than anticipated, spurring a last-minute flurry of White House lobbying and pressure. Both parties held extensive closed-door sessions on Capitol Hill as administration officials presented its case, with the president personally calling some leaders.

The White House initially requested $500 million for the training program, but the funding was left out of the resolution. Money will be initially available from the Pentagon’s existing accounts.

House Republicans bolstered the resolution to require 15-day advance notice to Congress before any training begins, and follow-up reports every 90 days.

The resolution was attached to a must-pass spending bill that is required to fund the government and avert another shutdown by the end of the month. The spending package also cleared the House on Wednesday by a vote of 319-108, including a provision to temporarily renew the authorization for the Export-Import Bank, which some lawmakers have tried to shut down.

Linking the Syria resolution to the funding bill made it more difficult for lawmakers to refuse, but the tactic drew scorn from those who saw it as political gamesmanship on a vote that many see as one of conscience.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV) denounced the parliamentary move, and tea party conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who voted against both measures in the House, called it “immoral” to use a budget bill to pressure members to support the military action.

Congress initially had been reluctant to vote on any authorization of the administration’s military strategy. But when polls showed public opinion supportive of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers embraced a more active role.

Both the stopgap spending bill and the authority to arm Syrian rebels are effective only until December, all but guaranteeing another debate on Syria in the postelection lame-duck session of Congress.

Lawmakers from both parties vowed to return from the November election to force a debate — and vote — on whether the president should be able to engage in broader military action.

Although the administration maintains that the United States is conducting airstrikes under previous War Powers Resolution authority granted by Congress in 2001 and 2002, lawmakers increasingly argue that those resolutions do not cover this effort.

“What in the world are we doing?” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) who voted against the resolution. “Congress should be examining all of the solutions to this crisis, not just the military ones.”

AFP Photo

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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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