U.S. states see major challenge in delivering record mail ballots in November

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With a health crisis expected to drive a surge in mail voting in November, U.S. election officials face a major challenge: Ensure tens of millions of ballots can reach voters in time to be cast, and are returned in time to be counted.

Recent presidential nomination contests and other elections held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – a warm-up for the Nov. 3 general election if COVID-19 remains a threat – showed some states have been overwhelmed by the sudden rush to vote by mail.

Nearly half of U.S. states allow voters to request absentee ballots less than a week before their elections. Even under normal circumstances, that often is too little lead time to guarantee voters will receive their ballots and have sufficient time to return them, election experts and state officials say.

In Ohio, for example, whose nearly all-mail election on April 28 was marred by ballot delivery delays, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose has asked state lawmakers to change the deadline for voters to request a mail ballot to one week before an election, up from three days currently.

“It is not logistically possible” for all voters asking for ballots at the last minute to get them in time to return them by mail, LaRose told Reuters. “That relies on a lot of luck.”

At stake is the integrity of the general election, and possibly its outcome. Voters who follow their state’s rules but can’t get their ballots back in time due to no fault of their own could be effectively disenfranchised. That could spark legal challenges in states where the race between President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden will be decided by slim margins. Tight contests could also decide control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

“Citizens could respond to all this and say our democracy is broken,” said Paul Gronke, a political scientist who expects about half of all ballots to be cast by mail in November, compared to a fifth delivered that way in 2016.

“Election officials need to move now” to make preparations to expeditiously move election mail and to avoid widespread disenfranchisement, said Gronke, who heads the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland.

FILE PHOTO: Mail-in ballots for the upcoming congressional election in Orange County wait to be inspected by election workers at the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, California, U.S. October 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Some are taking action. Wisconsin’s bipartisan election commission is working on adding new barcodes to ballot envelopes for tracking them in the mail, a move experts say would help the United States Postal Service process them more quickly. The commission also plans to mail absentee ballot applications to 2.7 million registered voters who are not already on absentee voter rolls, a move that should help reduce 11th-hour requests.

Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State likewise plans to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter ahead of November’s election, as Republican secretaries of state in Georgia and Iowa did for their June primaries.

Trump has criticized Michigan’s plan, and some Republican state lawmakers called it an unnecessary expense. The president and his allies nationwide have repeatedly said mail voting is prone to fraud, even as numerous independent studies have found little evidence of that.

Experts are most worried about battleground states that have little history of large-scale voting by mail, including Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. They are among the 24 states in which mail-in ballots comprised no more than 8% of ballots counted in 2018 midterm elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Failure by these states to prepare could lead to messy legal fights in the event of a close contest in November, said Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University.

“If you have 10,000 voters that never got their ballots, or their ballots didn’t get returned by the post office and the statewide margin is 3,000, well now you have got litigation over the results,” Foley said.

The Postal Service has internally set delivery targets for election mail ranging between one and three days, according to an audit of election mail service by the USPS Inspector General published in November. But in the 2018 elections, about one in 20 political and election mailings took longer than targeted, the audit found.

In a statement to Reuters, the Postal Service said it is holding discussions with state and local election officials nationwide on how to design their mailings for efficient processing and delivery.

Some voting rights advocates worry these efforts don’t go far enough. Setting an earlier deadline for requesting a ballot could also make it harder for people to vote if they contract the coronavirus or have other problems just before the election, said Jen Miller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio.

Miller is advocating that Ohio send ballot applications to all registered voters and set up more drop boxes so that concerned voters can deposit ballots there.

“I think it’s reasonable for an Ohioan to be worried about putting their ballot in the mail,” Miller said.

(For a graphic on the share of U.S. voters who cast mail ballots, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2XvVajc)

‘TERRIFIC CHALLENGES’

April elections in Wisconsin and Ohio, which included presidential nomination contests, offered a preview of what could happen if the coronavirus is raging in November and in-person voting is severely restricted.

After Ohio sharply curtailed in-person voting, election officials were inundated with roughly 2 million applications for mail-in ballots – more than six times the number of mail ballots cast in the 2016 primary. But as they scrambled to process the requests, they discovered that some ballots mailed out to voters took as long as nine days to reach them.

What was not known to them at the time, and which Reuters has exclusively learned, was that a coronavirus outbreak was ravaging a mail sorting facility in neighboring Michigan called the Michigan Metroplex, delaying election mail bound for northwestern Ohio.

At least two workers at the Detroit-area plant died after testing positive for COVID-19, and hundreds of its roughly 700 union workers were out sick or in quarantine on many days between mid-March and mid-April, according to Roscoe Woods, the head of the local branch of the American Postal Workers Union.

Letters were shipped to Ohio unsorted, forcing local post offices there to organize mail manually for delivery, Woods told Reuters.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of infection,” Woods said.

The Postal Service told Reuters it was investigating the matter, but would not confirm a coronavirus outbreak at the Metroplex. A spokesman for the office of LaRose, the Ohio Secretary of State, said the Postal Service confirmed the Metroplex was the problem facility.

LaRose said the experience left him with big concerns about November. He anticipates as many as 60% of Ohio’s ballots will be cast by mail, triple the percentage from 2016.

“I hope we never have to have an all vote-by-mail election again,” he said.

In Wisconsin, an important battleground state that was decided in Trump’s favor by less than a percentage point in 2016, about 1.3 million voters applied for absentee ballots for its April 7 primary, overloading officials accustomed to issuing only a fraction of that number.

In a May 15 report, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said 2,659 ballots were tossed out because they arrived after April 13, the last day ballots postmarked by Election Day could be counted. The commission does not know how many of these were postmarked in time, spokesman Reid Magney said.

The commission said it expects “terrific challenges” in November. It estimates more than half the state’s 3.4 million registered voters could request mail ballots. In November 2016, just under 150,000 – or about 5% of three million votes – were cast by mail.

In North Carolina, another competitive state, the state election board expects 30% to 40% of ballots to be cast by mail and is working to implement new barcodes on all ballot envelopes, said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the board.

Mail ballots that arrive at North Carolina election offices up to three days after the election are counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

But Jason Roberts, a Democratic member of the board of elections for Orange County, North Carolina, said he saw scores of ballots in the state’s March primary that were postmarked in time but arrived four or five days after the election.

“I would be hesitant to vote by mail in North Carolina on Election Day given what I’ve seen,” Roberts said.

(Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson)

Long lines, face masks in Wisconsin as voters head to polls despite coronavirus

By John Whitesides and Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Wisconsin voters faced long lines at limited polling locations on Tuesday, as the state’s presidential primary and local elections moved ahead despite mounting fears about the coronavirus outbreak.

Outside Riverside High School in Milwaukee – where officials were forced to close 175 of 180 normal voting sites due to a lack of poll workers – masked voters stood several feet apart in a line that stretched for several blocks early on Tuesday, according to video taken by onlookers and local news media.

More than half of Wisconsin’s municipalities reported shortages of poll workers, prompting the Midwestern state to call up 2,400 National Guard troops to assist.

The election took place even though Wisconsin, like most U.S. states, has imposed a stay-at-home order on its residents. More than a dozen other states have postponed their elections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has transformed Americans’ daily lives and plunged the economy into an apparent recession.

A flurry of 11th-hour legal wrangling failed to stop the balloting, as two late court rulings on Monday put the election, which will include Democratic and Republican presidential primaries and voting for thousands of state and local offices, back on track after days of uncertainty.

In deciding separate lawsuits brought by Republicans, the state Supreme Court blocked Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ order to delay the election until June and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal judge’s decision extending absentee voting, instead ruling ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday to be counted.

“Now voters will be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote, an untenable choice that responsible public officials tried to avoid,” said Satya Rhodes-Conway, the Democratic mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.

The legal maneuvering overshadowed the Democratic presidential primary in Wisconsin, the first nominating contest held since March 17 in the race to pick a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump for the Nov. 3 election. The outbreak has pushed front-runner Joe Biden and rival Bernie Sanders off the campaign trail.

Former Vice President Biden has built a nearly insurmountable lead over Senator Sanders in the delegates who will pick the nominee at the national convention this summer. The convention, scheduled to be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been postponed to August from July by the pandemic.

After a late-night meeting on Monday, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said no results of Tuesday’s voting would be released until April 13, the deadline for absentee ballots postmarked by Tuesday to be received.

In Milwaukee, the health commissioner in Wisconsin’s biggest city, Jeanette Kowalik, asked voters to wear masks, avoid reusing pens and stand at least six feet apart.

“I’m sorry, I wish I had the authority to protect us from this,” she wrote on Twitter.

(Reporting by John Whitesides and Joseph Ax; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan
By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.

Authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women’s rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.

“Women should be able to vote – it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem,” the politician and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.

“Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women,” said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.

“We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.

“This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks,” said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.

“Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future.”

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September’s election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.

The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.

No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.

“They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used,” she said.

“These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country,” said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women’s participation in politics.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.

He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.

“If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic,” he said.

“I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country.”

Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan’s election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.

During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Facebook suspends Russian Instagram accounts targeting U.S. voters

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Facebook suspends Russian Instagram accounts targeting U.S. voters
By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc. said on Monday it has suspended a network of Instagram accounts operated from Russia that targeted Americans with divisive political messages ahead of next year’s U.S. presidential election, with operators posing as people within the United States.

Facebook said it also had suspended three separate networks operated from Iran. The Russian network “showed some links” to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), Facebook said, an organization Washington has said was used by Moscow to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

“We see this operation targeting largely U.S. public debate and engaging in the sort of political issues that are challenging and sometimes divisive in the U.S. right now,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

“Whenever you do that, a piece of what you engage on are topics that are going to matter for the election. But I can’t say exactly what their goal was.”

Facebook also announced new steps to fight foreign interference and misinformation ahead of the November 2020 election, including labeling state-controlled media outlets and adding greater protections for elected officials and candidates who may be vulnerable targets for hacking.

U.S. security officials have warned that Russia, Iran and other countries could attempt to sway the result of next year’s presidential vote. Officials say they are on high alert for signs of foreign influence campaigns on social media.

Moscow and Tehran have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Gleicher said the IRA-linked network used 50 Instagram accounts and one Facebook account to gather 246,000 followers, about 60% of which were in the United States.

The earliest accounts dated to January this year and the operation appeared to be “fairly immature in its development,” he said.

“They were pretty focused on audience-building, which is the thing you do first as you’re sort of trying to set up an operation.”

Ben Nimmo, a researcher with social media analysis company Graphika who Facebook commissioned, said the flagged accounts shared material that could appeal to Republican and Democratic voters alike.

Most of the messages plagiarized material authored by leading conservative and progressive pundits. This included recycling comments initially shared on Twitter that criticized U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and current President Donald Trump.

“What’s interesting in this set is so much of what they were doing is copying and pasting genuine material from actual Americans,” Nimmo told Reuters. “This may be indicative of an effort to hide linguistic deficiencies, which have made them easier to detect in the past.”

Attorneys for Concord Management and Consulting LLC have denied any wrongdoing. U.S. prosecutors say the firm is controlled by Russian catering tycoon Evgeny Prigozhin and helped orchestrate the IRA’s operations.

Gleicher said the separate Iranian network his team identified used more than 100 fake and hacked accounts on Facebook and Instagram to target U.S. users and some French-speaking parts of North Africa. Some accounts also repurposed Iranian state media stories to target users in Latin American countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

The activity was connected to an Iranian campaign first identified in August last year, which Reuters showed aimed to direct internet users to a sprawling web of pseudo-news websites which repackaged propaganda from Iranian state media.

The accounts “typically posted about local political news and geopolitics including topics like public figures in the U.S., politics in the U.S. and Israel, support of Palestine and conflict in Yemen,” Facebook said.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

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)