CDC warns residents in eight U.S. states of cut-fruit Salmonella outbreak

Under a very high magnification of 12000X, this colorized scanning electron micrograph shows a large grouping of Gram-negative Salmonella bacteria. REUTERS/Janice Haney Carr/CDC/Handout

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sunday urged residents of eight U.S. states to check for recalled pre-cut melon that is linked to an outbreak of Salmonella.

The FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control are investigating an outbreak linked to 60 illnesses and at least 31 hospitalizations in five states. No deaths have been reported and the agencies urged residents in the eight states to throw out any melon that may have been recalled.

On Friday, Caito Foods LLC, a unit of SpartanNash Co, recalled fresh-cut watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe and fresh-cut mixed fruit products containing one of those melons produced at a Caito Foods facility in Indianapolis.

The recalled products were distributed to Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio and sold in clear, plastic containers at stores including Costco Wholesale Corp, Kroger Co, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart Inc, and Whole Foods, a unit of Amazon.com Inc.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a Twitter post late on Sunday urged people in the eight states to check the “fridge and freezer for recalled pre-cut melon linked to Salmonella outbreak.”

Of the 60 cases reported to date, 32 were reported in Michigan.

“Reports of illnesses linked to these products are under investigation, and Caito Foods is voluntarily recalling the products out of an abundance of caution,” the company said in a statement, adding it “has ceased producing and distributing these products as the company and FDA continue their investigation.”

Salmonella can result in serious illness and produce significant and potentially fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems the company said.

The CDC said evidence suggested that melon supplied by Caito Foods “is a likely source of this multistate outbreak.”

The investigation is ongoing to determine if products went to additional stores or states, the agencies said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Crash of U.S. military plane in Georgia kills all nine on board

The site of a military plane crash is seen in Savannah, Georgia. JAMES LAVINE/via REUTERS

By Phil Stewart

(Reuters) – All nine people on board were killed when a Puerto Rico Air National Guard cargo plane crashed on Wednesday near Savannah, Georgia, scattering fiery debris over a highway and railroad tracks, authorities said on Thursday.

Officials said the plane, a Hercules WC-130, was believed to be around 50 years old but was in good mechanical condition, and was making what had been scheduled to be its last flight. Officials said it was too soon to speculate about the cause of the crash. The WC-130 is a transport workhorse of the U.S. military.

The plane went down at about 11:30 a.m. (1530 GMT), shortly after takeoff from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, about 175 miles (280 km) southeast of Atlanta, officials said.

All nine crew members died, Brigadier General Isabelo Rivera, assistant general of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, said in a statement, adding their names will not be released until their relatives have been notified.

Rivera said the National Guard and U.S. Air Force had launched an investigation, and that it was too early to talk about what may have caused the crash.

The plane, which was on a training mission, was headed to the Aerospace Regeneration and Maintenance Group in Tucson, Arizona and was going to be essentially retired after Wednesday’s flight, Major Paul Dahlen, spokesman for the Puerto Rico National Guard, told Pentagon reporters.

“It was basically its last flight,” Dahlen said. “Although it was an older aircraft, it was in good mechanical condition. I think it was 50-plus years old, but it was still, with all of the modern updates of a regular (WC-130).”

Of the nine people on board, five were crew members and four were passengers who were military maintenance and operations personnel, all from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard.

The four-engine plane sent up a towering cloud of black smoke, with a tail wing coming to rest on a highway median, television images showed. A witness, Michael Garrett, told WSAV-TV on Wednesday the plane was upside down before it crashed.

“That plane really flipped over on its back, slowly, like it was in slow motion,” Garrett said.

Gena Bilbo, spokeswoman for the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department, told reporters it was “an absolute miracle” that no vehicles were hit in the busy intersection at the crash site.

The crash was at least the fifth fatal accident involving a U.S. military aircraft since early April.

In July last year 16 service members were killed in a WC-130 crash in Mississippi.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney and Frances Kerry)

Missing hyphens will make it hard for some people to vote in U.S. election

FILE PHOTO: South Cobb High School senior Fabiola Diaz, 18, carefully double-checks the details on her driver's license as she registers to vote during a registration drive by voting rights group New Project Georgia in Austell, Georgia, U.S. February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

By Tim Reid and Grant Smith

ATLANTA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Fabiola Diaz, 18, sits in the food court of her Georgia high school and meticulously fills out a U.S. voter registration form.

Driver’s license in one hand, she carefully writes her license number in the box provided, her first name, last name, address, her eyes switching from license to the paper form and back again to ensure every last detail, down to hyphens and suffixes, is absolutely correct.

Diaz, and the voting rights activists holding a voter registration drive at South Cobb High School in northern Atlanta, know why it is so important not to make an error.

A law passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature last year requires that all of the letters and numbers of the applicant’s name, date of birth, driver’s license number and last four digits of their Social Security number exactly match the same letters and numbers in the motor vehicle department or Social Security databases.

The tiniest discrepancy on a registration form places them on a “pending” voter list. A Reuters analysis of Georgia’s pending voter list, obtained through a public records request, found that black voters landed on the list at a far higher rate than white voters even though a majority of Georgia’s voters are white.

Both voting rights activists and Georgia’s state government say the reason for this is that blacks more frequently fill out paper ballots than whites, who are more likely to do them online. Paper ballots are more prone to human error, both sides agree. But they disagree on whether the errors are made by those filling out the forms or officials processing the forms.

Democrats and voting rights groups say the “exact match” law could make the difference in a tight congressional election, like the one in Georgia’s 6th congressional district in November, as blacks tend to vote for the Democratic Party. If Democrats can gain 24 seats they will be able to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives and block President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda.

A few thousand votes could decide the race in the 6th district. In a special election there last year, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by just over 9,000 votes, out of about 260,000 cast. Trump won the northern Atlanta district by 1 percent of the vote in 2016.

DISPARITY

The Democratic Party has said that changes to voting laws in Republican-controlled states are part of a concerted effort to reduce turnout among particular groups of voters on election day. Republicans deny that the voting laws are discriminatory and say they are intended to reduce fraudulent votes.

In Georgia, exact match was state policy for several years. The state was sued over the policy and settled the case in February 2017. Later in the year the Republican-controlled statehouse made it law, with some changes. That new law will be in effect for the first time in statewide elections this November.

Ohio and Florida are the only other states to implement exact match provisions since 2008, according to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which advocates for voting rights and fair elections.

More than 82 percent of the roughly 56,000 voter registrants given “pending” voter status in Georgia between August 2013 and February 2018 were there because they had fallen foul of the exact match policy, according to state data reviewed by Reuters. (Graphic https://tmsnrt.rs/2H9ZFZ7)

In a state where roughly 31 percent of residents are African American, nearly 72 percent of those on that list were African American. Just under 10 percent of the people on the list were white although, according to 2016 U.S. Census data, 54 percent of Georgia’s population are white non-Hispanics.

Voting rights groups say based on their experience of previous elections, the practice of exact match sows confusion, suppressing turnout, and that overstretched county workers are more likely to add a voter to a pending list to save time and meet deadlines.

Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, manages the state’s elections. He argues the state’s exact-match law is fair. Candice Broce, a spokesperson for Kemp, said more blacks end up on the pending voter list than whites because black voters used paper registrations more often than white voters.

Georgia contends that more than twice as many black residents registered to vote by paper than did white residents, and that substantially all of the pending voters came from paper registrations.

Broce blamed voter registration groups such as the New Georgia Project, which held the registration drive at Diaz’s high school, for registering voters predominately with paper forms, and then turning in “incomplete, illegible, or fraudulent forms,” which skews the data.

Broce added there was no significant racial disparity in voters landing on the pending list when they registered online. She said the issue “is limited to paper applications.”

Nse Ufot, executive director of New Georgia Project, called Broce’s comments “ridiculous” and said the problem was most likely caused by human error during the state’s transcription of the data on the paper forms to a computer. Errors occur because the counties, who record registrations, are short-staffed, workers are improperly trained, and often in a hurry to make election deadlines, she said.

FIXING ERRORS

Under the new law, voters placed on the list do have 26 months to rectify any error, and if they present a valid ID card at a polling place, they can vote. But voting activists like those at the Brennan Center say many people may not realize they are on the pending list in the first place.

When a voter on a pending list checks their personal voter page on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, it tells them to check their status with county officials. Nowhere does it inform the voter that they have been placed in pending status.

Voting groups say some minority voters don’t have access to the state’s website as they do not own computers. Additionally, based on past experiences with exact match, they say temporary poll workers sometimes do not know how to fix errors or what pending status actually means.

Voting rights could become a flashpoint in this November’s race for governor in Georgia.

Kemp, the secretary of state, is running for office, as is Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic House minority leader in Georgia’s state assembly and the founder of the New Georgia Project. The two have clashed in the past, with Kemp accusing the group of voter fraud, and Abrams accusing Kemp of voter suppression.

(Reporting by Tim Reid and Grant Smith; Editing by Damon Darlin and Ross Colvin)

With paper and phones, Atlanta struggles to recover from cyber attack

By Laila Kearney

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Atlanta’s top officials holed up in their offices on Saturday as they worked to restore critical systems knocked out by a nine-day-old cyber attack that plunged the Southeastern U.S. metropolis into technological chaos and forced some city workers to revert to paper.

On an Easter and Passover holiday weekend, city officials labored in preparation for the workweek to come.

Police and other public servants have spent the past week trying to piece together their digital work lives, recreating audit spreadsheets and conducting business on mobile phones in response to one of the most devastating “ransomware” virus attacks to hit an American city.

Three city council staffers have been sharing a single clunky personal laptop brought in after cyber extortionists attacked Atlanta’s computer network with a virus that scrambled data and still prevents access to critical systems.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating,” said Councilman Howard Shook, whose office lost 16 years of digital records.

One compromised city computer seen by Reuters showed multiple corrupted documents with “weapologize” and “imsorry” added to file names.

Ransomware attacks have surged in recent years as cyber extortionists moved from attacking individual computers to large organizations, including businesses, healthcare organizations and government agencies. Previous high-profile attacks have shut down factories, prompted hospitals to turn away patients and forced local emergency dispatch systems to move to manual operations.

Ransomware typically corrupts data and does not steal it. The city of Atlanta has said it does not believe private residents’ information is in the hands of hackers, but they do not know for sure.

City officials have declined to discuss the extent of damage beyond disclosed outages that have shut down some services at municipal offices, including courts and the water department.

Nearly 6 million people live in the Atlanta metropolitan area. The Georgia city itself is home to more than 450,000 people, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

City officials told Reuters that police files and financial documents were rendered inaccessible by unknown hackers who demanded $51,000 worth of bitcoin to provide digital keys to unlock scrambled files.

“Everything on my hard drive is gone,” City Auditor Amanda Noble said in her office housed in Atlanta City Hall’s ornate tower.

City officials have not disclosed the extent to which servers for backing up information on PCs were corrupted or what kind of information they think is unrecoverable without paying the ransom.

Noble discovered the disarray on March 22 when she turned on her computer to discover that files could not be opened after being encrypted by a powerful computer virus known as SamSam that renamed them with gibberish.

“I said, ‘This is wrong,'” she recalled.

City officials then quickly entered her office and told her to shut down the computer before warning the rest of the building.

Noble is working on a personal laptop and using her smartphone to search for details of current projects mentioned in emails stored on that device.

Not all computers were compromised. Ten of 18 machines in the auditing office were not affected, Noble said.

OLD-SCHOOL ANALOG

Atlanta police returned to taking written case notes and have lost access to some investigative databases, department spokesman Carlos Campos told Reuters. He declined to discuss the contents of the affected files.

“Our data management teams are working diligently to restore normal operations and functionalities to these systems and hope to be back online in the very near future,” he said. By the weekend, he added, officers were returning to digital police reports.

Meanwhile, some city employees complained they have been left in the dark, unsure when it is safe to turn on their computers.

“We don’t know anything,” said one frustrated employee as she left for a lunch break on Friday.

FEEBLE

Like City Hall, whose 1930 neo-Gothic structure is attached to a massive modern wing, the city’s computer system is a combination of old and new.

“One of the reasons why municipalities are vulnerable is we just have so many different systems,” Noble said.

The city published results from a recent cyber-security audit in January, and had started implementing its recommendations before the ransomware virus hit. The audit called for better record-keeping and hiring more technology workers.

Councilman Shook said he is worried about how much the recovery will cost the city, but that he supports funding a cyber-security overhaul to counter future attacks.

For now his staff are temporarily sharing one aging laptop.

“Things are very slow,” he said. “It was a very surreal experience to be shut down like that.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who took office in January, has declined to say if the city paid the ransom ahead of a March 28 deadline mentioned in an extortion note whose image was released by a local television station.

Shook, who chairs the city council’s finance subcommittee, said he did not know whether the city is negotiating with the hackers, but that it appears no ransom has been paid to date.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is helping Atlanta respond, typically discourages ransomware victims from paying up.

FBI officials could not immediately be reached for comment. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman confirmed the agency is helping Atlanta respond to the attack, but declined to comment further.

Hackers typically walk away when ransoms are not paid, said Mark Weatherford, a former senior DHS cyber official.

Weatherford, who previously served as California’s chief information security officer, said the situation might have been resolved with little pain if the city had quickly made that payment.

“The longer it goes, the worse it gets,” he said. “This could turn out to be really bad if they never get their data back.”

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; additional reporting by Jim Finkle; editing by Daniel Bases and Jonathan Oatis)

Twenty states sue federal government, seeking end to Obamacare

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

(Reuters) – A coalition of 20 U.S. states sued the federal government on Monday over Obamacare, claiming the law was no longer constitutional after the repeal last year of its requirement that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, the lawsuit said that without the individual mandate, which was eliminated as part of the Republican tax law signed by President Donald Trump in December, Obamacare was unlawful.

“The U.S. Supreme Court already admitted that an individual mandate without a tax penalty is unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “With no remaining legitimate basis for the law, it is time that Americans are finally free from the stranglehold of Obamacare, once and for all,” he said.

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the Trump administration would defend the law in court.

The individual mandate in Obamacare was meant to ensure a viable health insurance market by forcing younger and healthier Americans to buy coverage.

Republicans have opposed the 2010 law formally known as the Affordable Care Act, the signature domestic policy achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, since its inception.

Paxton and Schimel, both Republicans, were joined in the lawsuit by 18 states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Utah and West Virginia. It was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Texas.

(Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington)

Thaw on the way in southern United States

National Weather Service High and Low Temperature Map 1-19-18

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the southern United States will wake up to more frigid temperatures and slick roads Friday, but a thaw is expected by the weekend, forecasters say.

Many schools in Atlanta, northeastern Georgia and western North Carolina remained closed Friday after a mid-week storm dumped snow across the region, whipped up winds that snapped power lines and led to at least a dozen deaths.

Sub-freezing temperatures overnight left many roads with ice that is difficult for drivers to detect, but that’s expected to melt soon, said Laura Belanger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Atlanta.

“We’re looking at a warm-up for the southeast and mid-Atlantic with daytime temperatures up in the 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit) and hitting the low 60s in some areas by Saturday,” Belanger said.

Areas as far north as Boston will inch up to the low 40s (Fahrenheit) but dip below freezing at night, she said adding, “This is still winter.”

Through the early morning hours, NWS freeze warnings remained in effect over much of the Deep South as far as Tampa, Florida.

The winter storm sent blasts of cold air as far south as Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

In Houston, 22-year-old Cynthia Chavez said she walked on ice for the first time in her life on Wednesday, and fell on her second step.

“I was, like, coming out of our house and there was a little step and what I thought was water,” Chavez said by phone from Olde Towne Kolaches in Houston where she is a cashier. “Two steps and I was on my butt. At first, I was nervous but then I was like, ah, THIS is ice.”

More than 9 inches (23 cm) of snow have fallen this week in Durham, North Carolina, since Monday, with 7 inches (18 cm) or more in various places across southern Virginia, the NWS said.

In Virginia on Thursday, a six-year-old boy on a sled slid onto a road and was struck and killed by a car, CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reported.

On Thursday in North Carolina’s Washington County, a 26-year-old man was killed when his vehicle went off a snowy road and overturned in a canal, officials said.

In Oklahoma, two people died on Wednesday in a fire apparently caused by the use of electrical space heaters, media reported.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Larry King)

Commuters in U.S. South face tough trek after deadly storm

Snow cover in the U.S. 1-18-18 - National Weather Service

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Commuters in the U.S. South faced frigid temperatures and dangerously slick roads on Thursday after a winter storm, responsible for at least eight deaths, thrashed the region with heavy snow and winds that snapped power lines.

Schools in New Orleans, Charlotte and Atlanta and across the region canceled classes on Thursday as winter weather advisories from the National Weather Service (NWS) remained in effect from eastern Texas to Florida and north into southeast Virginia.

“Motorists are urged to use extreme caution, or avoid travel if possible,” the NWS said in an advisory, warning that freezing temperatures would keep roads icy.

Wind chill advisories were in effect as temperatures will feel like they have fallen below zero Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) in parts of the Carolinas, Alabama and Virginia.

More than 14,000 households and businesses in North Carolina and Louisiana and in various parts of the South were without power early on Thursday, utility companies said online.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency because of severe conditions that made traveling treacherous.

“We cannot stress it enough for everyone to stay off the roads unless you have no choice,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement, adding the storm had caused 1,600 traffic accidents.

More than 9 inches (23 cm) of snow have fallen in Durham, North Carolina since Monday, with 7 inches (18 cm) or more measured at various locations across southern Virginia, the NWS said.

The storm has caused at least eight deaths.

In Austin, Texas, a vehicle plunged more than 30 feet (9 meters) off a frozen overpass on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

An 82-year-old woman who suffered from dementia was found dead on Wednesday behind her Houston-area home, likely due to exposure to cold, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office said. Another woman died from cold exposure in Memphis, police said on Twitter.

In Georgia, two people were fatally struck by a car that slid on an ice patch near Macon, local media reports said.

A man was killed when he was knocked off an elevated portion of Interstate 10 in New Orleans and an 8-month-old baby died in a car crash in suburban New Orleans, local news reports said.

A woman died in West Virginia in a car crash, local reports said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Edmund Blair and Bernadette Baum)

Flights canceled, schools closed across snowy U.S. South

Snow falls through a picture frame in the Boston Public Garden during a winter storm in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., January 17, 2018.

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A bitter winter storm gripped much of the South on Wednesday, prompting schools to close and causing thousands of flight delays and cancellations as snow, ice and record-breaking cold hit the region.

The storm led to a least one death when a vehicle in Austin, Texas, plunged more than 30 feet off a frozen overpass late on Tuesday, killing a man in his 40s, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service said on its Twitter feed.

Winter weather advisories were in effect from the Northeast to the Mid-Atlantic states and Southeast, as well as over the central Gulf Coast of Texas, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). Winter storm warnings were also in effect for portions of the Carolinas, southern Virginia and the New England area.

More than 360 outgoing flights at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were canceled or delayed on Wednesday, according to Flightaware.com, and another 60-plus were canceled or delayed at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana declared states of emergency due to severe winter weather conditions, which caused multiple car accidents during rush-hour traffic, officials said.

NWS meteorologist Dan Petersen said snowfall in central and north Georgia had ended, and the arctic cold front would now bring snow, frigid temperatures and frozen roadways across central North Carolina on Wednesday.

“The rain in central North Carolina will eventually turn into snow later today and is predicted to dump 6 to 8 inches of snow over central North Carolina and about 1 to 3 inches over east North Carolina,” he said.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper warned at a news briefing that cold temperatures Wednesday night would make travel conditions even more hazardous.

“The snow is pretty, but don’t be fooled,” Cooper said.

In Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, most freeways were closed on Wednesday morning after icing over, the city’s Office of Emergency Management said.

“Not a good idea to be out on the roads. Conditions are still unsafe,” the Texas Department of Transportation Houston Division said on its Twitter feed.

New Orleans had record-breaking cold temperatures Wednesday morning with 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the area, beating its previous record 23 degrees set in 1977, according to the NWS. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, also broke temperature records with 12 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday, beating its 14 degrees also set in 1977.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

Supreme Court divided over Ohio voter purge policy

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of arguments in a key voting rights case involving a challenge to the OhioÕs policy of purging infrequent voters from voter registration rolls, in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative and liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared at odds on Wednesday in a closely watched voting rights case, differing over whether Ohio’s purging of infrequent voters from its registration rolls — a policy critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — violates federal law.

The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote.

Conservative justices signaled sympathy to the state’s policy while two liberal justices asked questions indicating skepticism toward it. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Ohio’s policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not ruled against the state.

Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. They argued that voting should not be considered a “use it or lose it” right.

Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as “Every vote counts” and “You have no right to take away my right to vote.”

“This is about government trying to choose who should get to vote. We know that’s wrong,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the rally.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio’s policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act contained language that permitted the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Storms slam U.S. Southeast as bitter cold drags on

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Winter storms swept up the U.S Southeast toward New England on Wednesday as snow, freezing rain and strong winds added to record-shattering cold that had much of the eastern United States in its grip.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

The service said travel in northeastern Florida was likely to be difficult and dangerous.

Two to 3 inches of snow was expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

“So a #SnowDay in #Florida. We know hurricanes. Snow? Not sure what to do here. How do you luge?,” wrote one Twitter user, @thejalexkelly.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott urged residents in the north of the state to brace themselves for the cold. He said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow, along with an accumulation of ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

Late on Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 28 of the state’s 159 counties.

As the storm bears down, an arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the country through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

A large swath of the Midwest was under a wind chill warning on Wednesday as places like Cleveland and Indianapolis had temperatures in the wind of 5 to 20 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit (minus 20 to minus 29 degrees Celsius), while the Deep South faced deep-freeze temperatures that threatened crops and pipes, the weather service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)