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Back in 2000, I interviewed the late Rev. Jerry Falwell on camera in connection with a documentary film of Joe Conason’s and my book The Hunting of the President. It took place at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, VA. We were surprised he agreed to speak with us, as an entire chapter of the book dealt with The Clinton Chronicles, a bizarre video Falwell promoted on his syndicated TV program The Old Time Gospel Hour.

A near-delusional concatenation of preposterous falsehoods and conspiracy theories, the video presented the then-President (and his wife) as an embezzler, drug smuggler, and serial killer. Supposedly, Bill Clinton routinely had his political rivals murdered, which in a small state like Arkansas, you’d think local reporters might have noticed.

Almost needless to say, the fool thing sold like gangbusters. It was reportedly shown in evangelical churches. As H.L. Mencken used to say, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Alas, to many voters, the real world give and take of democratic politics isn’t exciting enough. They require End Times melodrama: salvation vs. damnation, good vs. evil. Your candidate’s a savior; his opponent’s satanic.

Anyway, when Falwell brought his road show to Arkansas, the pastor of Little Rock’s largest Baptist church denied him its pulpit. He explained that by promoting a scurrilous video filled with falsehoods about the Clintons and many other Arkansans, the portly televangelist had violated the Ninth Commandment against bearing false witness.

So I asked Falwell, on camera, if the Ninth Commandment was more or less important, theologically speaking, than the Sixth Commandment forbidding adultery. Somewhat to his credit, he acknowledged that they were the same. Falwell added that he’d had no idea how many of the video’s crackpot claims were true, but that the American people deserved to hear them.

 At $40 a pop, including $3 for shipping and handling.

And with that the interview ended. Rev. Falwell suddenly had somewhere else he needed to be.

Ancient history, I know. Pre-Fox News, pre-Breitbart, pre-Internet even. I mean, VHS videotapes. Who even remembers what those were?

 Falwell died in 2007, although his son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Liberty University to that exemplary Christian, President Donald J. Trump.

A controversial Fox News report about the death of a Democratic National Committee employee last summer a story that had fueled a conspiracy theory that rocketed across right-wing media, but reportedly embarrassed some of the networks staffers was retracted by the network Tuesday afternoon. Fox News host Sean Hannity has featured the story heavily and tweeted about it Tuesday afternoon. Newt Gingrich also spoke of the story over the weekend.

But one thing that hasn’t changed over the ensuing decades is the seeming need of a substantial proportion of the American electorate to believe that Democrats named Clinton are satanic killers.

Hence the appearance, after all these years, of yet another make-believe murder tale—this one championed by Fox News, Breitbart, and online conspiracy sites, with a substantial boost from WikiLeaks and Russian state news media.

Oh, and Newt Gingrich. Because it wouldn’t be a serious hoax without Newt. Also because, believe it or not, defending the honor of wrongly accused Kremlin intelligence agencies appears to be the whole point.

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel documented Newt’s recent appearance on Fox and Friends,  where the former Speaker breathlessly announced that “it wasn’t the Russians” that leaked thousands of embarrassing Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks.

No, it was supposedly a young DNC staffer named Seth Rich, who was shot to death on a Washington street at 4 a.m. in what DC police think was a botched robbery attempt last July.

Russian “fake news” operatives went right to work, charging that “a top American Democratic Party staffer preparing to testify against Hillary Clinton was assassinated this past Sunday during a secret meeting in Washington D.C. he believed he was having with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, but who turned out, instead, to be a ‘hit team’—and who, in turn, were captured yesterday after a running gun battle with US federal police forces just blocks from the White House.”

Got that? A team of professional assassins hired by Hillary Clinton got into a firefight with Federal agents, and were taken down just outside the White House. And you never heard about it. Total media blackout.

Whoever wrote that has seen far too many spy thrillers, where epic car chases and gun battles take place in picturesque parts of major cities all the time. Of course, Jason Bourne rarely sticks around to read the newspapers. But if you’re the kind of person who believes that such things are possible…

Well, you’re either a gullible hayseed who also believes that Hillary Clinton ran a child-molesting ring at a Washington pizza joint while simultaneously conducting a presidential campaign… Or else you’re a Kremlin imagineer whose only knowledge of American life derives from Clint Eastwood movies.

For the record, apart from Seth Rich’s tragic death, there’s zero evidence for a single alleged “fact” supporting this absurd fable. No leaked emails, no pending testimony, no hit team, no nothing. It’s sheer make-believe. The victim’s bereaved parents have repeatedly begged these cruel hoaxers to stop besmirching their son’s memory.

But that’s not how they roll, Fox News apparatchiks.

Editor’s note: Fox News Channel retracted its online version of the Seth Rich fake news story on Tuesday. Fox News host Sean Hannity continued to promote the falsehoods, however.

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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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