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Photo by Senator Mark Warner/ CC BY 2.0

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Tom Michels worked 31 years at LTV's iron ore mine in northern Minnesota—and had already started making retirement plans—when the company's bankruptcy wiped out his job and most of his hard-earned pension.

Michels took a series of odd jobs to make ends meet until he became eligible for the Social Security benefits that now enable the 71-year-old to buy food, cover health care costs and even travel a little with his wife, Vicky.

Yet because of Donald Trump, Michels' retirement hangs by a thread. If Trump destroys Social Security, as he threatened to do, Michels and millions of other Americans will be cast into poverty with little hope of ever bouncing back.

Some will have no choice but to return to the workforce and toil until they die. Others, too frail to work and lacking other resources to pay mounting bills, would lose everything they spent their lifetimes building.

"I hate to even think about what's going to happen if he's reelected," observed Michels, a former member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4108 whose income, without Social Security, would fall to just several hundred dollars a month.

"Social Security is not an entitlement. It's something we bought and paid for. Every hour we worked, we were paying for Social Security," Michels said, adding Trump has no right to deprive retirees of benefits they earned.

Because of the country's aging population, in 2021 Social Security will spend more money on benefits for retirees than it takes in through workers' payroll taxes. Many beneficiaries already struggle because payment amounts set by the government fail to keep up with health care costs.

But instead of shoring up this popular and essential program, Trump wants to kill it.

He repeatedly proposed cutting Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provide crucial assistance to Americans no longer able to provide for themselves and their families.

This past winter, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Trump expressed his desire to take up so-called entitlement reform if reelected. Astute retirees like Michels understand that is code for cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Then, in August, Trump proposed eliminating payroll taxes under the guise of leaving a few more dollars in the paychecks of Americans struggling to weather the COVID-19 recession.

However, payroll taxes fund Social Security, and cutting off that revenue stream would destroy the program within just a few years. Trump tried to dupe Americans into thinking that abolishing the payroll tax would be good for them.

"It sounded attractive, the way he put it," noted Michels, who is also the president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 33-4. "But in reality, it's not very attractive. There'd be nothing left."

Trump's attacks on Social Security come as Americans depend on the program more than ever.

Greedy corporations no longer provide the pension programs that once supported retirees through their golden years. Even employers that promised pensions, like those employing Michels and fellow SOAR activist Scott Marshall, often abandon their obligations through bankruptcies or other sneaky maneuvers.

Marshall worked for a glass company, a rail car manufacturer, a steelmaker and a paper mill, each offering pension plans.

"They all shut down before I could qualify for a pension," explained Marshall, who lives in Chicago. "Social Security is the only retirement income I have."

Marshall, a vice president of SOAR, noted that another 1.3 million Americans belong to multiemployer pension plans facing insolvency because of investment losses, industry consolidation and other factors over which workers had no control.

The Democratic-controlled House passed a commonsense bill, the Butch Lewis Act, in 2019 that would make low-interest loans to these struggling plans and ensure they continue meeting their obligations to members. But Trump and his Senate Republican cronies refuse to support the measure, even though some of the troubled plans will run out of money in just a few years.

The uncertain future of these plans makes members' Social Security benefits all the more important.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to protect Social Security. If that were truly his goal, he would ensure that millionaires and billionaires, like himself, finally begin contributing their fair share to the program.

Americans pay 6.2 percent of their wages to Social Security. But the government only applies the tax to the first $137,700 of a person's income. That means millionaires and billionaires pay nothing on most of their fortunes and effectively slide by on a tax rate far below the 6.2 percent ordinary citizens pay.

Abolishing the income cap would ensure the long-term viability of Social Security. And that would only be fair because, as Marshall noted, workers created the wealth that America's rich enjoy. They earned dignified retirements in return.

But instead of providing for ordinary Americans, Trump gives handouts to the 1-percenters. While demanding cuts in the Social Security programs protecting disabled and ill workers, he signed the 2017 tax giveaway for millionaires and corporations.

"I know people who voted for Trump originally and are now backing off of him for just that reason," Marshall said. "They totally get what he's trying to do to Social Security. They're not going to put up with that."

After losing their livelihoods and pensions, Michels said, he and his colleagues looked in vain for jobs providing wages and working conditions comparable to what the USW ensured they received at LTV.

Only when they became eligible for Social Security did most of his coworkers regain a measure of financial stability. If Trump strips that away now, Michels said, many LTV retirees would be unable even to afford health care.

"It would be devastating," he said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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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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Michael Carvajal

Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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