Exclusive: U.S. officials fear ransomware attack against 2020 election

FILE PHOTO: A woman wears an "I Voted Today" sticker at a polling place during the midterm election in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government plans to launch a program in roughly one month that narrowly focuses on protecting voter registration databases and systems ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

These systems, which are widely used to validate the eligibility of voters before they cast ballots, were compromised in 2016 by Russian hackers seeking to collect information. Intelligence officials are concerned that foreign hackers in 2020 not only will target the databases but attempt to manipulate, disrupt or destroy the data, according to current and former U.S. officials.

“We assess these systems as high risk,” said a senior U.S. official, because they are one of the few pieces of election technology regularly connected to the Internet.

The Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, a division of the Homeland Security Department, fears the databases could be targeted by ransomware, a type of virus that has crippled city computer networks across the United States, including recently in Texas, Baltimore and Atlanta.

“Recent history has shown that state and county governments and those who support them are targets for ransomware attacks,” said Christopher Krebs, CISA’s director. “That is why we are working alongside election officials and their private sector partners to help protect their databases and respond to possible ransomware attacks.”

A ransomware attack typically locks an infected computer system until payment, usually in the form of cryptocurrency, is sent to the hacker.

The effort to counter ransomware-style cyberattacks aimed at the election runs parallel to a larger intelligence community directive to determine the most likely vectors of digital attack in the November 2020 election, according to current and former U.S. officials.

“It is imperative that states and municipalities limit the availability of information about electoral systems or administrative processes and secure their websites and databases that could be exploited,” the FBI said in a statement, supporting the Homeland Security initiative.

CISA’s program will reach out to state election officials to prepare for such a ransomware scenario. It will provide educational material, remote computer penetration testing, and vulnerability scans as well as a list of recommendations on how to prevent and recover from ransomware.

These guidelines, however, will not offer advice on whether a state should ultimately pay or refuse to pay ransom to a hacker if one of its systems is already infected.

“Our thought is we don’t want the states to have to be in that situation,” said a Homeland Security official. “We’re focused on preventing it from happening.”

Over the last two years, cybercriminals and nation state hacking groups have used ransomware to extort victims and create chaos. In one incident in 2017, which has since been attributed to Russian hackers, a ransomware virus was used to mask a data deletion technique, rendering victim computers totally unusable.

That attack, dubbed “NotPetya,” went on to damage global corporations, including FedEx and Maersk, which had offices in Ukraine where the malware first spread.

The threat is concerning because of its potential impact on voting results, experts say.

“A pre-election undetected attack could tamper with voter lists, creating huge confusion and delays, disenfranchisement, and at large enough scale could compromise the validity of the election,” said John Sebes, chief technology officer of the OSET Institute, an election technology policy think tank.

The databases are also “particularly susceptible to this kind of attack because local jurisdictions and states actively add, remove, and change the data year-round,” said Maurice Turner, a senior technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology. “If the malicious actor doesn’t provide the key, the data is lost forever unless the victim has a recent backup.”

Nationwide, the local governments that store and update voter registration data are typically ill-equipped to defend themselves against elite hackers.

State election officials told Reuters they have improved their cyber defenses since 2016, including in some cases preparing backups for voter registration databases in case of an attack. But there is no common standard for how often local governments should create backups, said a senior Homeland Security official.

“We have to remember that this threat to our democracy will not go away, and concern about ransomware attacks on voter registration databases is one clear example,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos. “We’re sure the threat is far from over.”

(Reporting by Christopher Bing; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

The Deciders: Meet the voters defining America’s politics

John Lenges, 65, a resident of Pinellas County, who changed parties to vote Republican in 2016, and his sister Jeanne Coffin talk at the conclusion of U.S. President Donald Trump's re-election campaign kick off rally in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 18, 2019. I'd like to give him at least another four years." Before Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics and had never voted for a Republican president. "It was a wakeup call," he said. "Our country needed a turn." Lenges' framed ticket to Trump's inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to NASCAR. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Letitia Stein

(Reuters) – A retiree worried about his granddaughter’s future in Pinellas County, Florida. A factory worker in Racine County, Wisconsin, who doubts politicians will improve her life as a single mother.

A Boy Scout leader willing to cross party lines to revive his blue-collar town in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. A gay, Latino college student in Maricopa County, Arizona, preparing to cast his first presidential ballot.

These voters live in some of the most competitive counties in America’s presidential battleground states, places set to play an outsized role in the 2020 presidential election. All four counties were decided by four percentage points or less in 2016 and ultimately won by Donald Trump.

Trump’s path to a second term will test an electoral map he realigned. He must hold the strong support of the white, working-class voters who helped him capture Florida and Pennsylvania.

He will aim to build on his narrow victory in Wisconsin, which saw a decline in turnout among predominately Democratic black voters. And he is fighting to keep the onetime Republican stronghold of Arizona in his column as population shifts have put the state in play for Democrats.

Reuters will report from four critical counties in these states through the election for a better understanding of the people and places defining the presidential race.

The series starts with the stories of four people whose voting decisions – often driven by personal experiences, they said, rather than by party affiliation – continue to upend politics as usual.

JOHN LENGES IN PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA: “I’D LIKE TO GIVE HIM AT LEAST ANOTHER FOUR YEARS.”

John Lenges held four fingers in the air, cheering as a Florida crowd chanted “four more years” at this month’s opening rally for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Four years earlier, when Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics. He had never voted for a Republican president. Trump was different – a businessman and political outsider.

“It was a wakeup call,” said Lenges, 65, a retired maintenance supervisor. “Our country needed a turn.”

Lenges worries about his granddaughter’s future as he hears daily news reports of violence. He hates seeing the removal of statues honoring Confederate soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War, saying it trashes history.

Trump may not solve every problem, Lenges said, “but I think he’s a start.”

Friends called him crazy when he started waving handmade Trump signs around Pinellas County, where retirees, suburbanites and urban hipsters share sugar-sand beaches, and the electorate swings between the two major political parties in presidential contests.

He collects Trump memorabilia. His framed ticket to Trump’s inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to auto racing.

Lenges joined the Democratic Party when his father’s job as an assistant fire chief in Indiana depended on the party’s patronage. He remained loyal after moving to Florida and throughout his years raising his two sons to appreciate American eagles, motorcycles and the proper technique for skinning hogs.

To support Trump, Lenges became a Republican. He continues to root for the president’s agenda. On a recent vacation to the Grand Canyon, he added a day to visit the U.S.-Mexico border and the wall Trump has vowed to finish.

Posing for a photo, Lenges held a poster that read: “The silent majority stands with Trump.”

STACY BAUGH IN RACINE COUNTY, WISCONSIN: “IT’S GOING TO TAKE A LOT OF THOUGHT AND A LOT OF PERSUASION THIS TIME.”

Stacy Baugh would like a president attuned to the goals she sketched out in a planner in the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her cousin and their six children.

She wants job options. Ones that pay a wage she can live on, not the $13 per hour she has been earning on a hot factory line making air fresheners. She wants better schools for her children. She wants steady employment for their father despite his criminal record.

In 2016, she did not trust Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton to deliver. So the 31-year-old Democrat skipped the presidential contest even as she cast her ballot in other races.

“Either one of them in office, there wouldn’t have been any change,” Baugh said. “So why?”

Baugh was part of an unexpected drop-off in Democratic votes in heavily African-American wards of Racine, the beleaguered Rust Best city where she is raising her four young children.

Black, bisexual and too often broke, she knows the statistics on discrimination that have some experts calling her region one of the nation’s worst for African-Americans. She has nightmares about her two sons ending up in a place like the youth prison built on a shuttered factory site near her home.

Baugh is behind on her rent. She is focused on paying her bills, interviewing for jobs, securing daycare. For now, she says, these priorities leave little time to parse the policy positions of two dozen Democrats vying to oppose Trump.

Looking for a career path, she plans to complete an information technology support program. She attended a jobs training boot camp promising decent pay at the Foxconn technology plant under construction nearby. Those jobs have not materialized, she says, leaving her to question Trump’s plan to revive American manufacturing.

Baugh cannot see herself supporting Trump in next year’s election, calling his language and actions “classless.”

An activist with get-out-the-vote groups that advocate for workers, she had more faith in politics when Barack Obama was elected America’s first black president. He disappointed her by not pardoning more non-violent offenders.

She feared worse from Clinton in 2016 given the harsh criminal sentencing law signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

In 2020, she hopes to go door-to-door rallying votes for a Democrat she can believe in.

“I always go with the candidate who reaches me and touches me the most,” Baugh said. “But then nothing changes.”

KURT ZUHLKE IN NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA: “TRUMP LOOKS LIKE HE’S HOLDING HIS OWN.”

Kurt Zuhlke keeps an open mind about presidential politics.

He gave Obama two chances to make good on his promise to bring hope and change to America. When neither reached Zuhlke’s small town in Pennsylvania, the businessman switched allegiances to Trump.

“I wanted to throw the wrench into the gears and make sure that everybody realized that something is really wrong in this country,” Zuhlke said.

He remains inclined to vote for Trump again, describing the 2020 Democratic candidates as “too old” or “too socialist.”

A Boy Scout leader, Zuhlke, 63, wishes the president would tone down his brash comments. But he gives Trump high marks for his willingness to upset the ways of Washington. He is pleased with Trump’s touch on a national economy seeing unemployment at 50-year lows. And he admires how Trump has executed his pledges to reduce industry regulations.

He wants to see people employed and making things again in Northampton County’s Slate Belt, a swath of white, working-class towns that never recovered from the demise of slate quarries and textile mills.

When Zuhlke moved here three decades ago, local Italian immigrant families welcomed him and his young family at their Sunday spaghetti dinners. “Everybody knew everybody and took care of everybody,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Zuhlke, a Republican, has come to view Washington politicians from both parties as “ambulance chasers” who have lost touch with his community. In 2016, he said, Clinton epitomized that conceit when she called Trump’s supporters an offensive “basket of deplorables.”

Zuhlke respects the value of hard work. At age 13, he started cutting lawns. As a young adult, he washed dishes and sold insurance. He quit college upon learning he made more money than his economics professor.

He built a family-owned company into a global supplier of produce containers. He employs nine people locally, and has no interest in getting too big to keep up his golf game.

A sign with Zuhlke’s name is taped to a bunk bed in the cabin for Boy Scout Troop 36, where he volunteers as a way to guide the next generation. He said he will keep voting for those who offer the strong representation his community needs.

“I can go either way,” Zuhlke said. “I wanted somebody in there that could shake things up.”

ALEXIS RODRIGUEZ IN MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: “I FEEL EMPOWERED.”

When he casts his first presidential ballot next year, Alexis Rodriguez will be thinking about his Mexican mother, who works two custodial shifts a day without a vote in the country she has called home for decades.

Rodriguez was too young to participate in 2016. Now 19, he came of age politically as Trump’s conservative presidency seemed to take aim at his identities as young, gay and Latino.

“It scares me to this day, just knowing that I may be under attack,” he said.

Rodriguez has never known a home beyond Phoenix, the diverse anchor of Maricopa County and population center of historically Republican Arizona. Democratic expectations for the state are rising alongside the new homes and condos remaking its desert landscape.

In 2016, Trump won Maricopa by the smallest margins of any Republican presidential candidate in years. Voters at the same time ousted their longtime sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whose anti-immigration rhetoric became a national platform for Trump.

Rodriguez, then in high school, joined classroom political discussions. He became an intern at Promise Arizona, a local nonprofit, where he helped immigrants apply for citizenship and voting rights.

Last year, he registered to vote as a Democrat, drawn to the party’s inclusive message, and cast his first ballot in the midterm congressional elections.

Emboldened by his “I voted” sticker, Rodriguez came home and rallied his older brothers to the polls, filling the household car with voters who had skipped the 2016 election. Their votes helped narrowly elect Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual woman, as the first Arizona Democrat to win a U.S. Senate contest in three decades.

Rodriguez has now finished his freshman year studying social justice and human rights at Arizona State University, the first in his family to go to college.

On election night, he wants to watch the results arrive at home with his father, a Mexican-American veteran who shares his son’s enthusiasm for voting.

“We’re going to make sure that this country is for us,” he said. “Our voice matters.”

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith, Chris Kahn and Brian Snyder; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Paul Thomasch)

Facebook boots 115 accounts on eve of U.S. election after tip

A voter fills out her ballot at an early voting polling station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Paresh Dave and Philip George

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Facebook Inc blocked about 115 user accounts after U.S. authorities tipped it off to suspicious behavior that may be linked to a foreign entity, the company said in a blog post on Monday, hours before U.S. voters head to the polls.

The social network said it needed to do further analysis to decide if the accounts are linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency or another group. The United States has accused the Russian government body of meddling in U.S. politics with social media posts meant to spread misinformation and sow discord.

Eighty-five of the removed accounts were posting in English on Facebook’s Instagram service, and 30 more were on Facebook and associated with pages in French and Russian, the post said.

Some accounts “were focused on celebrities” and others on “political debate,” it added.

The tip came from U.S. law enforcement on Sunday night, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, wrote in the post.

The company announced its actions earlier in its investigation than typical “given that we are only one day away from important elections in the U.S.,” he added.

This year’s contest has been portrayed as crucial by both Republicans and Democrats because both chambers of Congress, and the accompanying ability to pass or reject President Donald Trump’s agenda, are up for grabs.

“Americans should be aware that foreign actors, and Russia in particular, continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord,” including through social media, federal authorities said in a statement on Monday.

Social media companies say they are now more vigilant against foreign and other potential election interference after finding themselves unprepared to tackle such activity in the U.S. presidential election two years ago.

(This story corrects headline, paragraph 5 to show tip came from U.S. law enforcement, not FBI)

(Reporting by Philip George in Bengaluru and Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots despite concerns

FILE PHOTO: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the "SEC primary" involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A federal judge will not force Georgia to use paper ballots for the November election, citing the potential for last-minute confusion, but expressed concern that the state’s electronic machines could be vulnerable to hacking.

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg said in a ruling late on Monday that while it is important for citizens to know their ballots are properly counted, voters also must rely on a smooth process, especially in a fast-approaching election race.

“Ultimately, any chaos or problems that arise in connection with a sudden rollout of a paper ballot system with accompanying scanning equipment may swamp the polls with work and voters – and result in voter frustration and disaffection from the voting process,” Totenberg said in a 46-page decision.

The state’s November contests include a gubernatorial race that is among the most high-profile in the country. Democrat Stacey Abrams faces Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is responsible for the state’s elections and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

If elected, Abrams would be the first black female governor in the United States.

Georgia is one of five states that use touchscreen machines with no paper record.

Voting rights groups and individual voters sued Georgia officials in 2017, alleging that the electronic machines are highly vulnerable to hacking and cannot be audited or verified. The judge’s decision to reject their request to require paper ballots in November does not affect the underlying lawsuit, which will continue.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, David Cross, said that while they were disappointed the judge had not imposed paper ballots for November, her decision was nevertheless a victory because she agreed the current election system is “woefully inadequate and insecure.”

Georgia has used direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines exclusively since 2002. The machines have drawn criticism from various advocacy groups and federal agencies, including U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials who called the systems a “national security concern” in March, according to Totenberg.

“Plaintiffs shine a spotlight on the serious security flaws and vulnerabilities in the state’s DRE system,” Totenberg said in the court order.

A representative from Kemp’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Kemp on Monday said that Georgia’s electronic voting machines are secure and that switching to paper ballots would cause “chaos,” according to the Atlantic Journal-Constitution newspaper.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Joseph Ax and Susan Thomas)

Facebook data scandal widens as Canadian company accused of helping target U.S. voters

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie at a news conference in central London. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Alistair Smout and Costas Pitas

LONDON (Reuters) – A scandal engulfing Facebook over the use of its data by political consultants widened on Tuesday when a whistleblower said Canadian company Aggregate IQ had developed a program to target Republican voters in the 2016 U.S. election.

Christopher Wylie, who previously revealed that consultancy Cambridge Analytica had accessed the data of 50 million Facebook users to build voter profiles on behalf of Donald Trump’s campaign, said AggregateIQ (AIQ) had built software called Ripon to profile voters.

Wylie was giving evidence to a British parliamentary committee over the scandal, minutes after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined to appear before the legislators to discuss what went wrong.

The head of the committee called Zuckerberg’s decision “astonishing” and urged him to think again.

CNN said Zuckerberg had decided to testify before the U.S. Congress.

The revelations around Facebook data have hammered the stock price of the world’s biggest social network and raised investor concerns that any failure by big tech companies to protect privacy could deter advertisers and lead to tougher regulation.

“There’s now tangible proof in the public domain that AIQ actually built Ripon, which is the software that utilized the algorithms from the Facebook data,” Wylie told the British Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Facebook is facing intense scrutiny after Wylie’s revelations about improper use of personal data and the role that could have played in the 2016 U.S. election.

Zuckerberg apologized last week for the mistakes Facebook had made and promised tougher steps to restrict third-party access to such information.

Ripon, the Wisconsin town where the Republican Party was founded in 1854, was the name given to a tool that let a campaign manage its voter database, target specific voters, conduct canvassing, manage fundraising and carry out surveys.

AggregateIQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the remarks. The company previously told Reuters that it had never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica nor ever entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica said it had not shared any of the Facebook profile data with AggregateIQ.

The Canadian federal agency charged with protecting privacy rights of individuals said on Tuesday that it has contacted its counterpart in British Columbia to discuss the provincial office’s review of AggregateIQ.

ABSOLUTELY ASTONISHING

With the scandal around Facebook widening, Britain’s cross-party media committee had invited Zuckerberg to parliament to explain how personal data had ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, the London-based political consultancy which was working on the Trump campaign.

The company said he had asked one of his deputies to attend the hearing in London, suggesting that Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer or Chief Product Officer Chris Cox had the expertise to answer questions on the complex subject.

“These issues must be addressed at the most senior levels of the company by those in an authoritative position,” wrote Rebecca Stimson, head of public policy, Facebook UK.

Figurines are seen in front of the Facebook logo in this illustration taken March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvi

Figurines are seen in front of the Facebook logo in this illustration taken March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

“As such Mr Zuckerberg has personally asked one of his deputies to make themselves available to give evidence in person to the committee.”

Damian Collins, the head of Britain’s media committee, asked the company to rethink. “Given the extraordinary evidence that we’ve heard so far today… it is absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself to questioning,” he said.

Wylie was also quizzed on the use of data in the 2016 Brexit referendum, which has become a hot topic in Britain.

Whistleblowers have has said the main campaign for leaving the EU broke the law on spending limits by spending money with another Brexit campaign group that it was closely affiliated with, a claim denied by senior Brexit campaigners.

Vote Leave denies any wrongdoing.

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Adrian Croft)

Russia looms large as U.S. election officials prep for 2018

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ten months before the United States votes in its first major election since the 2016 presidential contest, U.S. state election officials huddled in Washington this weekend to swap strategies on dealing with an uninvited guest: Russia.

A pair of conferences usually devoted to staid topics about election administration were instead packed with sessions dedicated to fending off election cyber attacks from Russia or others, as federal authorities tried to portray confidence while pleading with some states to take the threat more seriously.

“Everyone in this room understands that what we are facing from foreign adversaries, particularly Russia, is real,” Chris Krebs, a senior cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), told an audience of secretaries of state, who in many states oversee elections. Russia, he added, is “using a range of tools against us.”

The department said last year that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers and that a small number of networks were compromised. Voting machines were not directly affected and there remains no evidence any vote was altered, officials say.

While virtually all 50 states have taken steps since the 2016 election to purchase more secure equipment, expand the use of paper ballots, improve cyber training or seek federal assistance, according to groups that track election security, some officials at the conferences expressed an added sense of urgency.

That is because the meetings came immediately after U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed an indictment accusing 13 Russians and three Russian companies of conducting a criminal conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election.

The charges alleged a sophisticated multi-year operation carried out by a Russian propaganda factory to use false personas on social media to boost Donald Trump’s campaign. Russia has repeatedly denied it attempted to meddle.

“Loud and clear I hear that the biggest threat is this campaign of disinformation as opposed to the election process itself,” said Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of state, a Democrat.

DHS has taken the lead on working with states to improve voting machine security, but no federal agency is specifically responsible for combating online propaganda.

Several secretaries of state said they needed more rapid notification from federal partners about not just attempts to breach voting systems but disinformation campaigns as well.

“I don’t want to find out about propaganda two years later, after I elect my congressman,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, in an interview while clutching his own printed copy of the 37-page indictment.

Frustration boiled over at times among the secretaries of state, some of whom criticized a classified briefings U.S. intelligence agencies held with them over the weekend as largely unhelpful.

Federal officials, they said, continued to provide inadequate information to states about the nature of the Russian cyber threat and how to protect against it.

“I would have thought that behind closed doors, I would have heard, ‘This is why this has to be classified.’ And I heard none of it,” said West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican. Still, other secretaries of state and election directors said relationships with DHS had improved dramatically compared with a year ago.

Speaking on a panel and attempting to quell frustration, Robert Kolasky, another DHS cybersecurity official, stressed that U.S. intelligence officials were genuinely worried about how Russia or others may attempt to interfere in 2018.

“There are reasons we are worried that things could become more serious,” Kolasky said. “The Russians got close enough, and we anticipate it could be different, or worse, the next time around,” he said.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

By Andy Sullivan

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Reuters) – Voters in Alabama were headed to the polls on Tuesday in a hard-fought U.S. Senate race in which President Donald Trump has endorsed fellow Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign has been clouded by allegations of sexual misconduct toward teenagers.

Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is battling Democrat Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney who is hoping to pull off an upset victory in the deeply conservative Southern state.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) in the Alabama special election for the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration.

The Alabama contest has divided the Republican Party on whether it is better to support Moore in order to maintain their slim majority in the U.S. Senate or shun him because of the sexual allegations.

Trump has strongly backed Moore but several other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the candidate.

“Roy Moore will always vote with us. VOTE ROY MOORE!” Trump said in a Twitter post in which he criticized Jones as a potential “puppet” of the Democratic congressional leadership.

Moore has been accused by multiple women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, including one woman who said he tried to initiate sexual contact with her when she was 14. Moore has denied any misconduct. Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.

On the eve of Tuesday’s election, Moore was joined on the campaign trail by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and an executive at the right-wing Breitbart News site. Bannon framed the Alabama election as a showdown between establishment elites and populist power and excoriated Republicans who declined to support Moore.

“There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better,” he said.

COURTING EVANGELICALS

Moore has made conservative Christian beliefs a centerpiece of his campaign and sought to energize evangelicals in Alabama. He has said homosexual activity should be illegal and has argued against removing segregationist language from the state constitution.

Moore told the rally on Monday: “I want to make America great again with President Trump. I want America great, but I want America good, and she can’t be good until we go back to God.”

Without mentioning Moore by name, Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who grew up in Alabama, issued a statement on Monday calling the special election “one of the most significant in Alabama’s history.”

She urged Alabama voters to “reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance.”

A Fox News Poll conducted on Thursday and released on Monday put Jones ahead of Moore, with Jones potentially taking 50 percent of the vote and Moore 40 percent. Fox said 8 percent of voters were undecided and 2 percent supported another candidate.

An average of recent polls by the RealClearPolitics website showed Moore ahead by a slight margin of 2.2 percentage points.

No Democrat has held a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama in more than 20 years. In 2016, Trump won the state by 28 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Jones has touted a record that includes prosecuting former Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed.

He spent the past week rallying African-Americans, the most reliably Democratic voters in the state, and hammering Moore in television ads. He has told supporters that his campaign is a chance to be on the “right side of history for the state of Alabama.”

If Jones wins on Tuesday, Republicans would control the Senate by a slim 51-49 margin, giving Democrats momentum ahead of the November 2018 congressional elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be at stake.

Moore’s campaign has cast Jones as a liberal out of step with Alabama voters, seizing on the Democrat’s support of abortion rights.

Moore, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by federal law, may find a chilly reception in Washington if he wins. Republican leaders have said

Moore could face an ethics investigation if Alabama voters send him to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have signaled they may use Moore’s election to tar Republicans as insensitive to women’s concerns at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have caused many prominent men working in politics, entertainment, media and business to lose their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Julia Harte and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)

Iran reformists to back Rouhani re-election, though some voters grow cool

FILE PHOTO: Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran October 12, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran’s main pro-reform opposition leaders plan to speak out from their confinement under house arrest this month to publicly back President Hassan Rouhani for re-election, aides say, helping win over voters disillusioned with the slow pace of change.

Rouhani was elected in a landslide in 2013 on promises to ease Iran’s international isolation and open up society. He is standing for a second term against five other candidates, mostly prominent hardliners, on May 19, with a run-off a week later if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes cast in the first round.

In his first term, Rouhani expended his political capital pushing through a landmark agreement with global powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of international financial sanctions.

But even his supporters acknowledge he has made comparatively little progress on his domestic agenda, after promising that Iranians should enjoy the same rights as other people around the world.

Some reformist critics say he neglected the cause of curbing the powers of the security forces and rolling back restrictions that govern how Iranians dress, behave, speak and assemble.

Nevertheless, Iran’s two leading champions of the reform movement, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, will urge voters to back him, a spokesman said.

“The two leaders, like in previous elections, will support the candidate backed by the pro-reform faction,” said Ardeshir Amir-Arjomand, the Paris-based spokesman for the two men.

Another source close to the opposition leaders said “Mousavi and Karoubi will announce their support for Rouhani a few days before the May 19 vote.”

Rouhani has already won the backing of former President Mohammad Khatami, considered the spiritual leader of the reformists, who declared his support on his website on Tuesday. Iranian newspapers and broadcasters are banned from publishing the former president’s image or mentioning his name.

Many reformist voters will look for guidance to Mousavi and Karoubi, who both stood for president in 2009 when opposition to the disputed victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led to Iran’s biggest mass demonstrations since its 1979 revolution.

Both men have been held under house arrest for six years, although neither has been convicted of a crime. Their pronouncements from their confinement are eagerly followed by reformists online.

Maryam Zare, a 19-year-old in Tehran who would be voting for president for the first time, said she would vote only if she heard a call to do so from Karoubi and Mousavi.

“I will vote for whoever they support,” she said.

Others said they would back Rouhani, but only reluctantly.

“He is part of the establishment. We have to vote for the lesser of evils,” said music teacher Morad Behmanesh in the central city of Yazd. “What happened to Rouhani’s promises of releasing the two opposition leaders from house arrest?”

PRIORITIES

Under Iran’s governing system, the elected president’s powers are limited, circumscribed by the authority of the supreme leader, a position held since 1989 by hardline cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

During Rouhani’s first term, the president won Khamenei’s cautious backing for his nuclear deal. But persuading the leader to accept social change may be a more difficult task.

Some of Rouhani’s allies say he will now be able to make more progress on his domestic agenda if he wins a clear, fresh mandate for another four-year term, which would prove to the hardliners that the public wants change.

“Iranians want to be free and live freely. They are not against the Islamic Republic. People will continue to fight for their rights,” a senior official in Rouhani’s government said on condition of anonymity.

But international rights groups and activists in Iran say there were few, if any, moves to bring about greater political and social freedoms during Rouhani’s first term. Dozens of activists, journalists, bloggers and artists were jailed on political grounds.

Rouhani often suggests that he has no control over such arrests, carried out by the mostly hardline judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful military force.

“I have lost my hope over Rouhani’s ability to reform the country. His main focus has been economy, not improving civil rights,” said Reza, 28, a reformist who was jailed briefly after the 2009 election and asked that his surname not be published for security reasons.

The president has had some success on promises to loosen Internet restrictions, but access to social media remains officially blocked, although Rouhani, Khamenei and other officials have their own Twitter accounts.

Human Rights Watch said last year that Rouhani had failed to deliver on his promise of greater respect for civil and political rights. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2015 said that more journalists were in jail in Iran than any country other than China and Egypt.

The total number of political prisoners held in Iranian jails has not been disclosed. About a dozen people who also hold other nationalities have been jailed for what rights groups consider political offences.

“Whoever wins Iran’s presidential election should prioritize improving the country’s dismal human rights situation,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

“Iran has maintained the highest per capita execution rate in the world for years … it put 530 people to death last year, many for drug offences and a number of them minors.”

Rouhani benefits because reformist voters have no other choice on the ballot, where candidates are vetted by a hardline body.

Reformist voters will have to judge him in the context of what is possible under the system, said Saeed Leylaz, a prominent economist imprisoned under Ahmadinejad for criticising economic policy, who is now close to Rouhani’s government.

“Rouhani’s failure to fully deliver his promises on social reforms will impact the vote … but Iranians are well aware of his limitations and his achievements.”

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by Peter Graff)

Erdogan makes final push before vote on presidential powers

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan appealed for support from Turkish voters in final campaign rallies on Saturday, the eve of a referendum which could tighten his grip over a country bridging the European Union and a conflict-strewn Middle East.

Opinion polls have given a narrow lead for a “Yes” vote in Sunday’s referendum to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful presidency, a move Erdogan says is needed to confront the security and political challenges Turkey faces.

Opponents say it is a step towards greater authoritarianism in a country where 40,000 people were arrested and 120,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in a crackdown following a failed coup attempt against Erdogan last July.

Western countries have criticized that tough response, and relations with the EU – which Turkey has been negotiating to join for a decade – hit a low during the campaign when Erdogan accused European leaders of acting like Nazis for banning referendum rallies in their countries on security grounds.

He has also said Turkey could review a deal under which it limits the flow of migrants – many of them refugees fleeing war in neighboring Syria and Iraq – into the European Union unless the bloc implements plans to grant Turks visa-free travel.

At a rally in Istanbul, one of four he held in the last hours before Sunday’s vote, Erdogan described the constitutional proposals as the biggest change in Turkey since the country was established nearly a century ago, and the culmination of the response to July’s abortive putsch.

“Sunday will be a turning point in the fight against terrorist organizations. We will finish what we started on July 15 this April 16,” he told a crowd in Istanbul’s Tuzla district, decked with Turkish flags and giant pictures of the president.

Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party has enjoyed a disproportionate share of media coverage in the buildup to the vote, but the result may be close. A narrow majority of Turks will vote “Yes”, two opinion polls suggested on Thursday, putting his support at only a little over 51 percent.

“Tomorrow is very important, you must absolutely go to the polls,” Erdogan urged the crowd. “Don’t forget that the vote is our honor.”

“TURKEY AT CROSSROADS”

Some 55 million people are eligible to vote at 167,140 polling stations across the nation, which open at 7.00 am (12.00 midnight ET) in the east of the country and close at 5 pm (1400 GMT). Turkish voters abroad have already cast their ballots.

The package of 18 amendments would abolish the office of prime minister and give the president authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency and issue decrees overseeing ministries without parliamentary approval.

Proponents of the reform argue that it would end the current “two-headed system” in which both the president and parliament are directly elected, a situation they argue could lead to deadlock. Until 2014, presidents were chosen by parliament.

They also argue that the current constitution, written by the generals who ruled Turkey in the years following a 1980 coup, still bears the stamp of its military authors and, despite numerous revisions, must be overhauled.

“The presidential system we are bringing with this constitutional change is necessary for the development, growth and stability of our nation,” Erdogan said.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said Turkey was at a crossroads between a democratic parliamentary system and a “one-man regime”. A “Yes” vote would put the country in danger, he said.

“We will put 80 million people onto a bus … we don’t know where it is headed,” he told an opposition rally in the capital Ankara. “We are putting 80 million on a bus with no brakes.”

Also opposing the proposed changes, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) held a rally on Saturday in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which was addressed by its jailed co-leader Selahattin Demirtas.

“This campaign was not carried out fairly and equally,” Demirtas, who was arrested last November on terrorism charges, said in a joint letter with other detained HDP members which was read out at the rally.

“The reason behind our arrests was to prevent us from calling to our nation. The entire resources of the state were at disposal to support the ‘Yes’ campaign of the AK Party.”

Erdogan views the HDP as the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in the southeast and claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a police compound in Diyarbakir on Wednesday.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Bolton)

U.S. voters want leader to end advantage of rich and powerful

Hundreds of Temple University students wait in an hour-long line to vote during the U.S. presidential election in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.

By Chris Kahn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans who had cast their votes for the next president early on Tuesday appeared to be worried about the direction of the country, and were looking for a “strong leader who can take the country back from the rich and powerful,” according to an early reading from the Reuters/Ipsos national Election Day poll.

The poll of more than 10,000 people who have already cast their ballots in the presidential election showed a majority of voters are worried about their ability to get ahead and have little confidence in political parties or the media to improve their situation. A majority also feel that the economy is rigged to mostly help the wealthy.

The poll, which will be updated as additional responses are tallied and votes are counted throughout Tuesday, found:

– 75 percent agree that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.”

– 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.”

– 68 percent agree that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”

– 76 percent believe “the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth.”

– 57 percent feel that “more and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”

– 54 percent feel “it is increasingly hard for someone like me to get ahead in America.”

The Reuters/Ipsos online opinion poll was conducted on Election Day in English in all 50 states. It includes 10,604 Americans who have already cast their vote in the presidential election and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 1 percentage point.

The poll also includes a variety of questions about the presidential race, which candidate people supported, and why. Those results will be published later in the evening, after most of the votes have been counted and state races have been called.

(Reporting by Chris Kahn; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Grant McCool)