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‘Army for Trump’ preps poll-watching operation, raising concerns

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Republicans are mobilising thousands of volunteers to watch early voting sites and ballot drop boxes leading up to November’s election, part of an effort to find evidence to back up President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated complaints about widespread voter fraud.

Across key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin, Republican poll watchers will be searching for irregularities, especially with regard to mail-in ballots whose use is surging amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to more than 20 officials involved in the effort. They declined to say how many volunteers have signed up so far; the campaign earlier this year said its goal was to recruit 50,000 monitors nationwide.

The mission, the officials said, is to capture photos and videos Republicans can use to support so-far unfounded claims that mail voting is riddled with chicanery, and to help their case if legal disputes erupt over the results of the November 3 contest between Republican incumbent Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden.

The campaign is already posting material of activity it claims is suspicious, including video of a Trump campaign observer being turned away from an early voting site in Philadelphia last month. The city says monitors are welcome in polling stations on election day but are not allowed in early voting facilities.

Some voting rights activists are concerned such encounters could escalate in a tense year that has seen armed militias face off against protesters in the nation’s streets.

Poll watching by partisan observers is a normal feature in United States elections that dates back to the 18th century and is subject to various state laws and local rules.

Still, this year’s operation by the Trump campaign is highly unusual, voting rights advocates say, both in its focus on early voting and in its emphasis on finding evidence to support baseless assertions by the president and his supporters that Democrats plan to flood the system with fake mail ballots to steal the election.

In a recruitment video posted on Twitter in September seeking volunteers for this “Army for Trump,” the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, made the unfounded claim that Democrats plan to “add millions of fraudulent ballots” to rig the results. Trump repeatedly has refused to commit to accepting the outcome of November’s election. During the September 29 presidential debate, he exhorted his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully”.

Mail ballot requests are tilting heavily to Democrats in battleground states, which likely means Biden will be in the lead before in-person voting begins on election day.

In Florida, where Republicans have historically relied on mail ballots, nearly 2.5 million Democrats have requested them, compared with about 1.7 million Republicans. In Pennsylvania, more than 1.5 million Democrats have requested a mail-in ballot, nearly triple the requests from Republicans.

Republicans said they plan to monitor every step of mail voting, including setting up cameras to show people dropping off multiple ballots at drop boxes. Some states allow third parties to drop off ballots, but the practice is banned in others, including Pennsylvania.

Pat Dion, head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, a politically divided suburb near Philadelphia, predicted the process could get messy.

“There’s going to be lots of watchers, lots of cameras and lots of attorneys all across the country. It’s going to be chaotic,” said Dion, who said he nevertheless supports the effort.

Democrats and voting rights advocates say Trump is trying to suppress the vote, not protect it.

“It’s an attempt to scare eligible Americans into thinking they are in danger if they go to vote,” said Myrna Perez, voting rights and elections director for the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group.

Democrats say Trump’s team is also laying the groundwork for a challenge to mail ballots in the event he loses, possibly throwing the election to Congress or the courts to decide the outcome.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said in a statement that “President Trump’s volunteer poll watchers will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally. And if fouls are called, the Trump Campaign will go to court to enforce the laws.”

‘Make our Republican presence known’

This is the first presidential election in nearly 40 years that the Republican National Committee has been free to sponsor such “ballot security” operations without permission from a federal court. A 1982 consent decree restricted these activities after the party sent teams of gun-toting men to minority neighbourhoods during a New Jersey election wearing uniforms saying “Ballot Security Task Force”.

That consent decree expired in 2018 and a federal judge declined Democratic attempts to renew it.

In Wisconsin, a state Trump won by less than a percentage point in 2016, volunteers will be posted in critically important counties around Milwaukee, Republican state party chairman Andrew Hitt told Reuters.

Pennsylvania, too, is shaping up to be a hotbed of activity. Trump won it by just over 44,000 votes in 2016. He has almost no path to securing a second term if he does not win its 20 Electoral College votes again in November.

In Montgomery County, a formerly Republican bastion outside Philadelphia that is now reliably Democratic, the Republican Party is holding several virtual training sessions over the next two weeks for some 50 volunteers to monitor 11 proposed ballot drop boxes there, according to an email sent by the party to supporters and seen by Reuters. “It is critical that we make our Republican presence known, so voters know they cannot get away with fraud,” the email reads.

On the western side of the state near Pittsburgh, Trump supporter Bob Howard has volunteered to watch election offices where voters will be dropping off absentee ballots.

“We … need to make sure that all the rules are being followed, so people can trust the results,” the 70-year-old retiree said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are launching their own voter-protection efforts. But theirs is a more traditional approach that includes registered poll watchers and an army of lawyers.

In Pennsylvania, Biden’s campaign said it has launched the biggest such Democratic programme there in history, with more than a thousand lawyers and volunteers. It would not provide details on whether its monitors will be deployed at drop boxes and other early voting locations alongside their Republican rivals.

Lawsuits multiplying

Election experts said the explosion of mail balloting is testing voting laws designed around in-person balloting. There is no rule book for monitors that try to enter early polling sites or challenge voters trying to drop off their ballots, said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

“It all comes down to county election officials and what they agree can happen. All of this seems headed to a major court battle,” Madonna said.

Confrontations have already emerged in Philadelphia, home to about 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered Democrats.

Election administrators there defended their decision to turn away the Trump campaign operative who filmed himself attempting to enter an early voting site on September 29.

“To be clear: the satellite offices are not polling places and the Pennsylvania Election Code does not create a right for campaign representatives to ‘watch’ at these locations,” Andrew Richman, chief of staff to the city solicitor, said in a statement.

The Trump campaign cried foul after one of its operatives was denied access to a satellite voting location in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US [File: Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters]

The Trump campaign quickly filed a lawsuit seeking access for poll observers in early voting sites. That suit is pending.

In Northampton County in northeastern Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the Republican Party tried to get sheriff’s officers assigned to drop boxes to request identification from voters dropping off ballots, according to Frank DeVito, a Republican member of the Board of Elections.

Pennsylvania law does not require voters to show an ID to vote. The Democratic-controlled board of elections denied that request.

Undeterred, DeVito said volunteers will be watching those boxes closely.

“We are telling them to take a folding chair, take video, take photos,” he said.

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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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