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By Dustin Volz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The San Bernardino shootings are reviving a debate about Washington’s digital surveillance effort to find and capture violent extremists, with the recent shutdown of a U.S. cellphone spying program coming under renewed criticism.

The debate is long-running and pits a huge and powerful national security apparatus against privacy and civil rights activists, who prevailed recently on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of cellphone metadata.

Just days before the shooting deaths of 14 people at an office party in California by a husband and wife with radical Islamist views but no extensive online profile, NSA bulk metadata collection was halted, replaced by a narrower program.

With Democratic President Barack Obama set to address the nation about counterterrorism on Sunday evening, some Republicans were saying the bulk metadata program’s shutdown diminished national security.

Obama has “weakened our ability to gather intelligence against potential adversaries,” Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio said on Sunday on CNN.

On Web content more generally, Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday that the volume of material to be monitored is massive.

“You just can’t stop it all when you have 200,000 ISIS tweets per day on the Internet coming into the United States to kill. … The volume is so high and the chatter is so high that it’s almost impossible to stop it all.”

Some lawmakers were expected to revive controversial legislation that would require social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to inform the government about posts that are deemed to promote “terrorist activity.” (http://reut.rs/1IJM8kV).

There have also been calls to weaken phone encryption to make it easier for the government to listen in. This idea has met fierce opposition from technology companies and privacy advocates, who warn weaker encryption would expose data to malicious hackers and undermine the Internet’s integrity.

Rubio said in his CNN remarks that the government now cannot access cellphone records more than two years old.

Supporters of the USA Freedom Act, which was approved six months ago and forced the NSA to adopt a more targeted phone spying program, dispute Rubio’s interpretation of it.

The new law, a result mainly of the Edward Snowden disclosures, was backed by senior members of the intelligence community, and replaced a system that two independent review boards appointed by Obama concluded was ineffective.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)

A police officer picks up a weapon from the scene of the investigation around the area of the SUV vehicle where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

Targeting Battleground States

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Former president Donald Trump

By Rami Ayyub and Alexandra Ulmer

(Reuters) -The prosecutor for Georgia's biggest county on Thursday requested a special grand jury with subpoena power to aid her investigation into then-President Donald Trump's efforts to influence the U.S. state's 2020 election results.

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