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American Voter: Benjamin Rodgers

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US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden are battling for the presidency in a sharply divided United States.

Trump has been focusing on “law and order”; Biden has been trying to strike a conciliatory note. The Black Lives Matter movement and whether Trump will release his taxes are among the many issues Americans will consider when choosing their president.

As the hotly contested election approaches, Al Jazeera has been speaking to voters across the US asking nine questions to understand who they are supporting and why.

Benjamin Rodgers

[Courtesy of Benjamin Rodger]

Age: 32

Occupation: Full-time Student and Full-time Shift Supervisor at Starbucks  

Residence: Yakima County, Washington  

Voted in 2016 for: Hillary Clinton 

Will Vote in 2020 for: Joe Biden 

Top Election Issue: Democratisation of the American Political System

Will you vote? Why or why not?

“I will be voting in the upcoming election. And I vote in every presidential election, but I feel like this election is just especially important. And obviously this year, there are a lot of barriers. There’s a lot of doubt about the sort of effectiveness of American election systems in the middle of the pandemic. And of course, we’ve seen a lot of efforts by Republican lawmakers to push back against people’s capacity to vote early, [their] capacity to vote remotely, things like that. So there’s a lot of fear about how the election administration is going to go in unprecedented circumstances.

“I would always vote, but I’m sort of especially motivated to make sure that I vote the minute I get my ballot. I’m going to take my ballot into the drop box. I’m in Washington State, so we have all mail-in balloting – but instead of trusting it to the US mail, I’m going to take it directly to a ballot box, the day I get it, so that I’m not running any risks.”

What is your number one issue?

“I have a lot of issues that are really important to me. But I think that the sort of bedrock issue for me is the democratisation of the American political system. There’s a ton of checks, veto points in our system that sort of prevent the public from exercising choice in our democracy. Obviously, the electoral college is the most famous thing.

“In the last 20 years, Republicans have held the presidency for three terms now, and in only one of those terms did they actually win the national popular vote. Currently, they hold the Senate while having received a minority of votes for senators. In recent elections, the Democrats only recently took back the House [of Representatives] after winning electoral majorities in most house elections over the last 20 years. And so we see a system not only that has nonrepresentative bodies in it, but it also seems to be systematically weighted against one particular political coalition, and in favour of another coalition built on sort of rural white voters.

“And that same coalition [is] now about to appoint a sixth member on our Supreme Court, which has a very high degree of judicial supremacy. So what I want to see is the filibuster removed, so that a majority vote in the Senate is enough to pass laws. And I want to see DC and Puerto Rico added as states and some kind of measure taken to reform the Supreme Court.

“And I think that any other issues that people on either side of the political spectrum want to get done, you’re going to have to start with democratisation like that. Because when you have really polarised parties, where either party that elects a majority can’t actually get its project done, that just incentivises people to send more extreme people, thinking that that’s going to be how they get their programme instituted.”

Who will you vote for?

“I’m going to vote for Joe Biden.”

Is there a main reason you chose your candidate?

“The baseline reason is that he’s not Donald Trump. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Donald Trump is an authoritarian president. I think that he’s an ethno-nationalist, who doesn’t respect the rule of law. He has put his own family members in positions of authority, in some instances in contravention of the law. He’s undermined the rule of law and public accountability. And I just think those things are fundamentally dangerous.

“As it happens, Joe Biden also agrees with me on a number of policies. I really like the fact that in one of the primary debates, he said that his administration would not deport anybody who has not committed a felony. I think adding more accountability to our immigration system, which has been the source of a lot of human rights abuses, would be really good. Obviously, climate change — the US taking back a leadership role, globally, in addressing climate change is just critical to the future of the world and a stable global order. So there’s a lot of policy stuff that I really like about Joe Biden, but he wasn’t my candidate in the primary. But when you put him up against someone that I see as sort of an authoritarian fascist, it’s not really a hard choice for me.”

Are you happy with the state of the country?

“Oh, no, not even. I think that a lot of Americans, especially a lot of people who aren’t in the core base of Donald Trump — like moderate swing voters — and a lot of people would probably say they’re not that happy with the current state of the United States. I mean, you’ve got, like I said, a president that narrowly survived, that was impeached, and survived the removal proceedings by a party-line vote after there was really, really clear evidence that he was engaged in corruption and self-dealing in foreign policy. You have children, having been separated from their parents, and just human rights catastrophes at the border, really aggressive policing encouraged, including violence encouraged by the administration. I just think that those kinds of things are just really obviously big problems.

“But I think also on a deeper level, I don’t see enough appreciation in commentary about how [much of a] fundamental problem it is that our institutions just don’t seem set up to tackle ordinary problems — to adapt to things that happen. You see a really, really inept and lackadaisical response to a global pandemic, where we’re the wealthiest country on the planet and we have the greatest number of cases. And we like to tell ourselves this myth that we’re the greatest country on Earth, but then when you try to catch that out and actually [solve] problems and [take] care of our citizens, we just seem incapable of doing it. So yeah, no, I’m not happy.”

What would you like to see change?

“I think that the day-one immediate things I would like to see would be the removal of the Senate filibuster, adding DC as a state with senators and electoral representation in the electoral college as well, and offering that to Puerto Rico—now, it’s a question of whether they vote and choose to join as a state— but offering that to them.”

“There’s a few ways to handle sort of the extremism on the Supreme Court, either by adding seats to the court or just by jurisdiction stripping, which just removes its authority to hear certain types of cases. I think there’s a lot of ways you could go, but we have to do something about that.

“I favour a dramatic expansion in the permissiveness of our immigration system. And I think that for various reasons, I mean globally, I think that’s just a hard sell. I think a lot of the far-right nationalist movements have risen powered by a backlash [to] immigration. And so that’s a tough sell, and it’s not obvious to me that that’s a political winner. But I think from a humanitarian perspective, it’s necessary.”

Do you think the election will change anything?

“Well, I hope so! I think that there’s a few different outcomes. There’s the outcome where Joe Biden wins by a big margin, and Democrats take back the Senate. And I think that given the drastic erosion of norms, I think that there is actually a decent amount of appetite among Democrats for some pretty big changes, and systemic changes and things to hold people accountable and reinforce the rule of law and things like that.

“But I think that it’s actually really an open question if the election’s close. And if it’s not clear on election night, who’s won the presidency, I think that this administration is going to be really aggressive and litigating. I think that one of the times in the last 20 years, when Republicans won the presidency without winning the popular vote, it’s because the Supreme Court just handed them the presidency. And I think with a six-three majority on the Supreme Court, where Donald Trump has appointed three of the six conservative judges, I think there’s reason to be afraid that the Supreme Court will just find some justification to say Donald Trump is president.

“So I think there’s [sic] a lot of scary outcomes, and you read a lot of analysts talk about that this could end in civil war. I don’t think those things are overblown. I think it’s possible. But I think that the best defence we have to that is to deliver a really, really unambiguous election outcome. Because I think that if it’s obvious on election night that Joe Biden has won the presidency, I think our institutions are at least strong enough, that in that circumstance — where it’s really obvious fairly quickly— I think he’d [Trump would] have a hard time subverting that. So that’s my hope.”

What is your biggest concern for the US?

“I think the delegitimisation of mail-in ballots is a really big problem. Especially with the president really talking up the myths that they’re a source of fraud— I think there’s a really big risk that his supporters vote in person. And Democrats will be more likely to vote through mail-in ballots. And if mail-in ballots are counted more slowly than in-person votes, then it might well appear on election night, like Donald Trump is either winning or it’s close. And then if that margin disappears, you know, over the days or weeks after the election, I think that it’ll be covered as an open question whether fraud was involved, and Donald Trump will immediately say that it’s fraud.

“Our federal judiciary — having been packed by far-right, sort of cronies of this administration — I think they’ll look for any reason they can to be sympathetic to that perspective. So that’s the thing I’m most worried about — and that’s why once I get my mail-in ballot, I’m taking it into the drop box, I’m not going to mail it in, because I want it counted as quickly as possible. I want to take no chances.

“And so that’s why I think, because our system is so weird, if you’re in a solidly blue state, or a solidly red state, it can feel, I mean, mathematically, your vote doesn’t count for much, right? I mean it’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way our system is set up: your vote really counts if you’re in a swing state.

“This election, with the undermining of those norms it actually does matter that people, even in solidly blue and solidly red states, do vote, because I think that the way people perceive the legitimacy of the election will be affected by what the actual raw vote totals are on election night.”

Is there anything we haven’t asked about the election that you want to share?

“I think that one of the things that we see a lot in coverage is Donald Trump breaks some extravagant norm, right? He does something really unconscionable — and that menu is long. He’s done a lot of just really, really reprehensible things, and people cover it like, ‘Oh, but does this matter to his base?’, ‘Oh, they don’t care what he does, right?’ Like Donald Trump himself said in the last election, “I could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and not lose any supporters.

“But the reality is, that’s actually not true, because the fact is — it’s true that his core base is not going to abandon him, but that’s almost circular. Because his core base, by definition, are the people who won’t abandon him. But they’re also not an electoral majority. And if he’s going to win re-election, it’s going to be because either people who don’t like him stay home, or people who he has offended come back to him. And there actually are people who we’ve seen, like the number of people in surveys who claim that they are Republican, has decreased, and those are probably people Donald Trump has pissed off. So I think it’s really easy to say that none of the rules matter anymore. But I mean, we see even in sort of competitive authoritarian regimes, like politics still exists, and authoritarians still need legitimacy to govern.

“And so I mean, rather than letting him consolidate authoritarian tendencies in the American political system, we just have to beat him now. If we don’t beat him now, I don’t know what that means about four years from now or eight years from now, but we do actually have a window to beat him now. I do believe that.”

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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