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By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — The worst-kept secret on Capitol Hill? Senators miss committee hearings and meetings. All the time.

Unless the senator wields the gavel, he or she may only show up for five minutes, or when it is their turn to ask questions. The results include guffaw-inducing scenes where even senior lawmakers enter the wrong hearing room, misidentify a witness and question the wrong person on the other side of the dais.

But out on the campaign trail, a less-than-stellar attendance record has become the political ammo in a number of Senate races, with criticism of incumbent lawmakers flying in Alaska, Kentucky, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa.

This cycle, much of the fodder has come from committee attendance records, at least compared to floor votes. It might look bad back home, but consistent committee attendance defies a reality on Capitol Hill.

“It might make for a compelling campaign ad to whack an incumbent for missing a committee hearing or markup, but the truth is that most legislating gets done outside of the hearing room,” one former Senate committee aide said in an email. “Obviously, it’s impossible for any senator to attend every meeting of the committees to which they belong, which is why staffers exist: to cover the hearing or ensure that the member can vote by proxy.”

After a Tuesday evening debate, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) conceded she had missed a delayed hearing for a fundraiser. Hagan faces state Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, in one of the most competitive races of the cycle.

“There was one, and what had happened at that hearing is that it was scheduled earlier in the day. Votes were scheduled and that hearing had to be postponed to later that day,” Hagan told reporters, according to a video clip of the news conference. “So yes, I did miss that one.”

Hagan’s campaign noted she also turned the attack back on Tillis, pointing to the Charlotte Observer editorial board’s criticism from last year in which they called for him to step aside from the legislature.

Politifact, in responding to an ad against Hagan, went through the public records of the Armed Services open hearings to tabulate attendance, finding a number of senators present less than half the time. The website noted the difficulty getting an accurate read because of the large number of closed meetings.

In the New Hampshire Senate race, former Sen. Scott P. Brown (R-MA) launched a new round of ads against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) this week, pointing out in a new ad that she missed a hearing about the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.

“As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she skipped a key hearing, where a top official gave an early warning about a new terrorist group known as ISIS,” says an announcer in the Brown campaign spot.

Shaheen’s campaign looked back at Brown’s own tenure in the Senate when he represented the neighbor state to the south, and they found numerous incidents of missed immigration and border policy hearings. Brown served on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee during his Senate tenure.

“The fact is that it was Scott Brown who missed every single one of his border security hearings while in the Senate, despite now campaigning on securing the border as a cornerstone of his campaign,” Shaheen campaign spokesman Harrell Kirstein said. “Jeanne Shaheen has participated in 16 hearings, briefings, classified meetings on ISIL and terrorist threats from Iraq and Syria, dating back to before Scott Brown even moved to New Hampshire.”

A new ad from GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), claims the senator has been absent from public emerging-threat hearings at the Armed Services panel. Those records can be derived, but they aren’t kept by the committee itself, a committee aide said.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee does not keep an attendance record. However, committee transcripts list the senators that attended each hearing, so it would be possible to compile such records by searching the hearing transcripts,” the aide said.

Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat running for the Iowa seat being vacated retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, has faced criticism for attendance at the Oversight and Government Reform, and Veterans Affairs Committees.

In Kentucky, the campaign of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, took aim at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over his attendance at the Senate Agriculture Committee during the drafting of the most recent farm bill and at other meetings on appropriations bills.

“First we learn Mitch McConnell skipped hundreds of committee meetings. Where was he? He didn’t show up to vote on troop funding, the farm bill and the VA … on days he found time for a lobbyist fundraiser and was on two TV shows,” one such Grimes ad said.

The McConnell operation rebutted those attacks, pointing to McConnell’s role as leader, which included appointment of Republican conferees that negotiated the final farm bill deal.

“More times than not, a low attendance record isn’t nearly as bad as it is made out to be,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, who studies congressional operations.

Huder noted that in an average senator’s schedule, there may be 12 to 15 assignments at the subcommittee level alone, and that’s not including any other responsibilities of the job.

“Having a competent staff makes up for the lack of time and overlapping responsibilities. They are legislative equivalent of a central nervous system. They attend hearings the member cannot, research the issues, often know the issue and background better than the member themselves, and can fill in the workload gaps,” Huder said. “Frankly, having a good staff is far more important than showing up to a hearing.”

Staffers, of course, do most of the grunt work on major legislation too.

Photo: Mark Udall via Flickr

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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

Screenshot from azaudit.org

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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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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