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Trump visiting a manufacturing plant

Photo by The White House

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Kenny Overstreet scrounges every penny—and even sells the eggs his chickens lay—to make ends meet after Packaging Corporation of America (PCA) furloughed him and hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Alabama, site.

Before the COVID-19 recession struck, the 61-year-old saved a little whenever he could for the retirement he planned to take in a couple of years.

But now, he scrimps to pay monthly bills and prays PCA calls him back to work before he blows through the nest egg he spent decades building.

Millions of unemployed workers need strong, rational leadership to guide them through these perilous times. But instead of a sage and ardent champion in the White House, they're stuck with a president whose incompetence fueled the pandemic's spread and hastened the economy's collapse.

Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus until it overwhelmed the country, failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and blustered as unemployment soared to the highest level since the Great Depression.

But it wasn't enough for Trump to spectacularly fail at his job.

Trump tried to use the turmoil as cover for stealing Americans' Social Security benefits and consigning millions of workers to retirements of grinding poverty.

What he called a stimulus program is really one of his biggest cons. He proposed deferring payroll taxes and eventually eliminating them under the guise of leaving a little more money in Americans' paychecks.

Not only would that have provided no help to millions of unemployed workers like Overstreet, who don't have paychecks right now, but payroll taxes are what the nation uses to fund Social Security and Medicare. Cutting them would advance the Republicans' long-sought goal of eliminating the retirement safety net, forcing tens of millions of elderly and disabled retirees to scratch out a living on their own.

Workers love Social Security. Most happily pay into the system, considering it an investment in their future and that of their fellow Americans. Yet Republicans illogically denounce Social Security and Medicare as giveaways and repeatedly try to kill them.

That infuriates Overstreet, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9-361, who regards Social Security as a vital and hard-earned part of his retirement.

"We pay into Social Security for years," observed Overstreet, who has sweated out a living in roiling hot paper mills for nearly three decades. "It's not an entitlement, the way I see it. We bought it."

After the nation caught on to his snake oil salesman's scheme, Trump renounced it.

But while he played politics with Americans' futures, Trump frittered away an opportunity to provide real, immediate help to 30 million unemployed workers—including Overstreet—who lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own.

For months, these workers survived because of federal unemployment benefits provided through a stimulus program Congress passed in March.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other anti-worker Senate Republicans refused to extend the $600-a-week payments, letting them lapse in July.

An effective, compassionate president would have used his clout to preserve assistance that workers need while the COVID-19 death toll keeps climbing and the economy continues to struggle.

But desperate Americans can expect no help from a bungling impostor like Trump. Instead of fighting for the people who needed him most, Trump let them lose the only lifeline many of them had.

"If he was to tell McConnell to get something done, it would happen," insisted Overstreet, citing the senator's habitual groveling to Trump. "I believe that. I believe McConnell would walk off a cliff if he told him to."

While Trump turned his back on unemployed workers, he's been only too happy to loot the treasury on behalf of rich people and corporations. The March stimulus package, for example, handed billions to companies that failed to save jobs and contained a "millionaires' giveaway" enabling 43,000 of the wealthiest Americans to claim average tax breaks of $1.6 million this year alone.

Trump's apathy and ineptitude have dire consequences for the people of Jackson, a community of several thousand where PCA is the most important employer.

Without federal assistance, unemployed workers must rely on $275 in weekly benefits provided by the state of Alabama. And that isn't enough to cover basic expenses, like food and utilities.

"You can't make it without really looking at your finances and selling off the things that aren't necessities," said Local 9-361 President Luke Lankford. "You have to re-evaluate your whole life."

Lankford and some of his co-workers began traveling to other cities for non-union construction jobs lacking the decent pay, good benefits and dignified working conditions that the USW ensures members receive from PCA and other employers.

Overstreet decided he needed to stay close to home, even though job opportunities there are virtually nonexistent. His wife, Sheila, has health problems, and the couple help support a daughter and two grandchildren who live with them.

The family eats some of the eggs their chickens produce and sells others, raising enough money to help offset the cost of feeding the birds. Overstreet conserved more money by delaying the roof he planned to put on an outbuilding.

"Every little bit counts," he said.

It didn't have to be this way.

Three months ago, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to extend federal unemployment benefits through January 31, 2021, a measure intended to prevent the very interruption in payments now wreaking havoc on millions of households.

The House bill, called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, also allocates a second round of stimulus checks, protects millions of cash-strapped renters from eviction, and provides billions in aid to local governments struggling with COVID-19 budget shortfalls.

The HEROES Act isn't perfect. For example, a provision allowing corporations to more easily stop their payments to troubled multi-employer pension plans will have to be stricken from the final version.

Trump could have championed the bill's many sensible provisions and forced them through the Senate to ensure Americans meet their most basic needs during health and economic crises that might still get worse.

But he turned a blind eye when McConnell called the HEROES Act too generous to struggling Americans and refused to vote on it.

Republicans claim Americans eligible for extended unemployment benefits will want to stay home instead of returning to work or finding new jobs.

But that's ridiculous. The workers at PCA, for example, want to return to their jobs as soon as possible. Overstreet thinks of young co-workers juggling babies, car loans and mortgages, and he says, "I know they're hurting."

Before the pandemic, Overstreet thought about taking early retirement.

Now, he says, much will depend on the next election. If Trump gets another four years, he may keep working for fear America's grifter-in-chief will try to swindle Americans out of their Social Security, Medicare or other necessities yet again.

"I don't trust him," Overstreet 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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