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By Don Lee and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After a lengthy debate, the Senate approved a contentious bill Friday that would grant President Barack Obama the power to speed up passage of trade deals, but a tougher battle is expected in the House.

The 62-37 vote to give the president so-called fast-track authority is a big boost for his top economic priority, bringing him closer to his goal of forging an ambitious Pacific free-trade accord known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“Today’s bipartisan Senate vote is an important step toward ensuring the United States can negotiate and enforce strong, high-standards trade agreements,” Obama said. “I want to thank senators of both parties for sticking up for American workers by supporting smart trade and strong enforcement, and I encourage the House of Representatives to follow suit.”

The hard-fought legislation, which Senate Democrats initially blocked in an unusual rebuke of the president, now moves to the House where there appears to be considerably greater resistance from both Democratic leaders and some conservative Republicans.

Many Democratic lawmakers face enormous pressure to vote against fast-track, from constituents in their districts, organized labor and a hodgepodge of consumer groups representing doctors, the environment and an open Internet, among others.

The Republican leadership, while traditionally favoring free trade, has found itself in a rare position of cooperating with Obama, but some GOP members are still loath to give the president a greater hand on anything, let alone one that would help him seal America’s biggest-ever trade deal.

“The real game is in the House,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which like other business associations is strongly behind fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Frankly, the bigger problem is how many Republicans we’re going to lose than how many Democrats we get.”

At this point, congressional insiders and analysts trying to handicap the House vote — which could come as soon as early June — say 17 Democrats have firmly come out in favor of fast-track. About 190 Republicans, meanwhile, are known to be backing it, but where the remaining 55 House Republicans stand on the issue isn’t entirely clear. If all of the latter vote against fast-track and Obama doesn’t win about a dozen more Democrats to his side, the president will fall short of the majority vote needed to succeed.

Fast-track, more formally known as trade promotion authority, is seen as essential to concluding the TPP. The authority would allow the president to submit a negotiated pact knowing that Congress must vote it up or down with no amendments. The White House says trading partners have been reluctant to show their final hand when there’s risk the deal could be changed by American lawmakers.

The Pacific trade negotiations involve the U.S., Japan and 10 other nations that combined make up 40 percent of the world economy. Their purported aim is to craft a comprehensive package that would not only remove tariffs but also devise rules and standards on things like intellectual property and cross-border data flows.

Obama has argued that expanding trade and investment opportunities in the Pacific Rim is crucial to American economic and geopolitical interests, especially in the face of a rising China. But many Democrats are concerned that freer trade will hurt U.S. industries and jobs, and some high-profile opponents such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have sharply criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership for both the secrecy in which negotiations have been conducted and certain elements of the proposed pact that have been shared with lawmakers under strict confidentiality rules.

Obama’s fast-track victory in the Senate was practically assured after a bloc of pro-trade Democrats ended a one-day filibuster earlier this month after bipartisan leaders agreed to add expanded worker retraining assistance to the bill and take up separately a measure to punish nations that manipulate currency values to boost trade.

The Senate earlier easily passed the currency manipulation bill, but experts agree it was largely a symbolic action as it has almost no chance of clearing the House.

A separate currency measure, offered Friday as an amendment to the fast-track bill, brought a veto threat from the White House and prompted Obama to personally lobby senators against it. It was narrowly rejected.

How quickly the House will act on the fast-track legislation depends on when the GOP leadership thinks it has enough votes for passage. With control of both chambers of Congress, Republican leaders will have little trouble moving things along speedily.

Time is pressing on Obama. Assuming fast-track is approved in June, analysts say, negotiators could wrap up the Pacific trade deal in July. The fast-track legislation calls for the president to wait 90 days for people to review the agreement before he signs it. Then it could take another two to three months for U.S. trade officials to prepare an economic-impact assessment of the deal, pushing a vote on the trade agreement by Congress into late this year at the earliest.

The longer it takes, the more it will bump up against the 2016 presidential campaign and election-year politics, when sensitive issues like trade can complicate legislation. So while getting fast-track through Congress may be the biggest hurdle for Obama in his bid to finish the trade pact, analysts say, a successful House vote doesn’t necessarily mean a smooth path ahead.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jonathon Coleman 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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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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