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Election officials are scrambling to get their cut of Mark Zuckerberg’s $250 million

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Mark Zuckerberg’s $250 million gift to bolster local governments has set off a gold rush across the country as frenzied election officials rush to apply, secure, and deploy the money.

In rural America and the nation’s biggest cities alike, the cash bonanza is proving to be a godsend for election administrators who have insufficient budgets and who have been faced with the possibility of forgoing critical safety measures to protect voters from the coronavirus. But because Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, unveiled the gift just two months before Election Day, election officials are now scrambling to get their hands on the cash on an awfully pinched timeline.

Almost 2,000 election offices — about one-fifth of the country’s total election administration jurisdictions — have applied for the money, generating so much interest that the group awarding the funds, the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), had to extend the tight application deadline from October 1 to October 15. In some of these districts, the late checks are allowing them to increase their election budgets by as much as 30 or 40 percent, with the Zuckerberg gift replenishing coffers that were depleted by a deteriorating economy and stretched further by the costs of the pandemic.

Grants have ranged from large figures, like the $15 million that Dallas County, Texas, took home, to much smaller sums, like the $5,000 granted to small Maine coastal towns like Union.

That money was badly needed — but also introduced thorny ethical questions.

Mark Zuckerberg has kicked off a feeding frenzy across America

Word of the war chest has spread quickly among gobsmacked election officials, who call one another about the windfalls that various counties took home and wonder if this could be too good to be true. But they have to move quickly. As soon as election officials in Lansing, Michigan, heard that $440,000 in Zuckerberg money was coming their way — but before it even arrived — election officials raced to buy the last dozen ballot drop-boxes that a manufacturer had on hand so the boxes could be in place by the time ballots were mailed out.

There were initially concerns from several election experts that the money would essentially amount to too much, too late. Some worried that the timing would lead to flooding government offices with millions that they could not use effectively, or at least optimally, before Election Day. With the deadline extension, money could now arrive as late as the week before November 3. Amid all the chaos, Walt Latham, the elections director in York County, Virginia, for instance, said he simply didn’t have time to apply.

“A lot of us, when you’re busy with this you’re not necessarily even cleaning your house, and you’re barely doing your laundry,” he said. “This is not a calm time to start initiating new projects.”

But even harried election officials say the permissive rules for how the gift can be used have largely made the money “spendable.” Election officials can use the money to reimburse any costs, like buying election equipment, that were incurred as early as June, and they can still spend the funds as late as two months after Election Day, when they might, for instance, pay poll workers. Officials are also preparing to give back remaining money that they don’t spend.

One common, but perhaps unintended, way the Zuckerberg bucks are being used is to fill existing holes in counties’ election budgets for money they already spent, obviating the need for counties to find a way to make themselves whole. In Jackson County, Illinois, for instance, officials said they were running about $70,000 in the red, and the $43,000 they received from Zuckerberg will reduce that deficit. That does, however, effectively mean that the Zuckerberg grants are more shoring up county government’s budgets than they are allowing for additional Covid-19 protections.

For instance, Michelle Wilcox, the head of elections in Auglaize County in northwestern Ohio, went to Lowe’s last month and spent about $60 on her personal credit card to buy the last five boxes of gloves on the shelf. She was able to do that — despite the county’s $400,000 election budget being cut by 10 percent — because she was confident that the Zuckerberg money was in the offing.

“Just knowing that these funds are going to be available is just a reassurance of ‘Go ahead and get what we need now,’” she said. “I’m not going to [spend] $60 out of my personal money.”

The downsides of billionaires funding elections

The injection of money is nevertheless a stark example of private philanthropy compensating for a role traditionally played by the state. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, gifts from billionaires have had to play an astoundingly large role in shoring up America’s safety net and social services. Congress has failed to pass a new stimulus bill that would theoretically include billions in new money for election officials, leaving local administrators to rely on just $400 million set aside in the first stimulus measure in March.

For instance, South Carolina’s largest county, Charleston County, planned to offer a $25 supplement to the $165 that election officials planned to pay poll workers who volunteer on Election Day. When the pandemic hit, though, that supplement was scrapped, raising concerns from election officials that they would struggle to recruit workers. The $700,000 that the county received from Zuckerberg ultimately allowed them to add another $100 to each poll worker’s paycheck.

Conservative critics see a downside to this private money. The Thomas More Society, a nonprofit legal group that has some alliances with the Trump campaign, has alleged that the CTCL money — including some grants that predate the Zuckerberg gifts — that has gone out the door so far is largely going to counties primarily populated by Democratic voters; it has filed lawsuits in eight swing states with more to come. The group has no evidence that the CTCL is actively rejecting predominantly Republican areas, and the CTCL says the process is not competitive and so all eligible applicants will be approved for money.

But Phill Kline, the lead lawyer for the More Society, argued that billionaires privately funding elections introduces more subjectivity and less transparency than when billionaires are taxed and the government makes spending decisions by following an “objective” formula.

The Zuckerberg money is only growing increasingly partisan as more grants are announced. Conservative media personalities like Michelle Malkin have picked up on the lawsuit and started attacking the gifts. In Louisiana, the state’s GOP attorney general on Wednesday forced 26 interested local election officials not to pursue the money because of the “corrosive influence of outside money on Louisiana election officials.”

Zuckerberg, though, is not choosing where the money goes. Combined with the $50 million that Zuckerberg and Chan donated to secretaries of states, the $300 million gift is the billionaire couple’s second single-largest individual charitable gift ever. It has also been a brief public-relations respite for the oft-beleaguered Facebook founder. News about individual grants, primarily in local markets, has generated about $370,000 worth of news coverage for Zuckerberg, according to a report by Critical Mention prepared for Recode.

Not that this is translating everywhere. Frank Byrd, the clerk in Jackson County, said he wasn’t even aware of Zuckerberg’s involvement, though he did come across the accusation — seeded successfully by groups like Kline’s — that it came from a vague “liberal organization.”

“When you get money,” Byrd said, “you always try to tell yourself, ‘It’s all good.’”


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Belarus police fire stun grenades as 100,000 protest

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The opposition has given Belarusian President Lukashenko an ultimatum: Resign by midnight or face a national strike.

Belarusian police have used stun grenades against protesters as more than 100,000 people marched in the capital Minsk demanding President Alexander Lukashenko resign.

The police action came hours before the expiration of an ultimatum set by the opposition: Lukashenko must resign by midnight or face a national strike.

Protesters carrying the red-and-white flags of the Belarusian opposition movement scattered on Sunday as loud bangs and flashes lit up the city’s streets after nightfall, videos showed.

Explosions and white smoke filled residential areas as people hid behind vehicles and ran from police, the videos, shared online by reputable news organisations, showed.

Law enforcement confirmed riot control weapons had been used and detentions had taken place, the TASS and RIA news agencies reported.

It was the 11th straight weekend of mass protests since a disputed election in August plunged the country into turmoil.

Karel Lannoo, CEO at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Al Jazeera on Sunday the resilience of the opposition movement was putting huge pressure on Lukashenko.

“They have managed to come out like this each Sunday. This Sunday again more than 100,000 protesters came out even if the police has been very forceful in the streets trying to prevent them from demonstrating,” he said.

“I do not expect Lukashenko to step down today, but I think the resistance remains extremely strong. We also see that all the European countries as well as the United States and other Western countries have given very clear warnings to Lukashenko,” Lannoo said.

“Sooner or later he will have to step down.”

A national strike

Earlier on Sunday, crowds streamed through the capital shouting “strike”, waving flags and beating drums.

At least 12 metro stations were closed, helmeted riot police patrolled the streets and mobile internet services were disrupted in Minsk.

Two journalists were arrested before the protest, a local journalists’ association said.

Tens of people were arrested and security forces used tear gas in the western town of Lida, the Russian news agency RIA quoted the regional branch of the interior ministry as saying.

The Viasna Human Rights Centre reported about 60 arrests in various cities in the country where there were also protests.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century and has shown little inclination to quit, buoyed by loans and the offer of military support from traditional ally Russia.

The president’s main opponents have been jailed or fled into exile following the August 9 election, which Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging to win a sixth straight term. He denies electoral fraud.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main electoral challenger, has led calls from exile for a national strike to begin on Monday if Lukashenko refuses to release all political prisoners and resign to make way for a new election.

“Today at 23:59 the term of the People’s Ultimatum will expire, and if the demands are not met, the Belarusians will start a national strike,” she said in a statement.

Lukashenko has signalled that he would ignore the ultimatum.

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US Supreme Court pick ‘often ruled for police’ in force cases

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As appellate judge, Amy Coney Barrett often sided with police in excessive force cases, a Reuters analysis found.

In her three years as a federal appeals court judge, US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has consistently sided with police or prison guards accused of using excessive force, a Reuters news agency review of cases she was involved in shows.

Barrett, Republican President Donald Trump’s third nominee to the high court, has written opinions or been a part of three-judge panels that have ruled in favour of defendants in 11 of 12 cases in which law enforcement was accused of using excessive force in violation of the US Constitution.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote to confirm Barrett, a judge on the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, to the lifetime position on Monday, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority.

While her Senate confirmation hearings focused attention on how she might rule on cases related to abortion, Obamacare and elections, the Reuters review illustrates Barrett’s record on police use of force at a time of reckoning in the United States.

There has been a wave of protests nationwide – and abroad – since May 25 when a Black man named George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, just one in a long string of killings that civil rights advocates say is evidence of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

“Her record also makes clear she is predisposed to side with law enforcement in the context of excessive force cases,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which opposes Barrett’s confirmation.

Other groups that advocate for reform of the criminal justice system say she has written some encouraging rulings, with an overall record that is mixed. Barrett could not be reached for comment.

Qualified immunity

In five cases, the panel on which Barrett took part considered a request by police or corrections officers to be shielded from the lawsuits alleging excessive force through a controversial legal defence known as qualified immunity. The court granted those requests in four of the five cases.

A Reuters investigation published two weeks before Floyd’s death found the immunity defence, created by the Supreme Court 50 years ago, has been making it easier for police to kill or injure civilians with impunity. The report showed that federal appellate courts have been granting police immunity at increasing rates in recent years.

Barrett, who was appointed to the appeals court by Trump in 2017, wrote a ruling in July that said Green Bay, Wisconsin officers who shot and killed a suicidal man who had threatened them with a knife did not use excessive force in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures.

She was also part of rulings that overturned lower court decisions against Indianapolis police officers. In one, a federal judge had denied qualified immunity to officers in the case of shoplifting suspect Terrell Day, who died while handcuffed after telling officers he was having trouble breathing.

Barrett dissented from a 7th Circuit panel decision in 2019 to revive a lawsuit against prison guards at an Illinois prison for firing warning shots over a dining hall to help break up a fight, injuring several inmates.

She has also handled requests for qualified immunity outside of the excessive force context.

Barrett last year threw out a lawsuit by three Black men who sued Chicago cops for pulling them over while investigating a drive-by shooting near a school. The men, who had nothing to do with the shooting, said they were targeted because of their race, citing the “racialised nature of the mockery and threats” made by one of the officers. The driver, Marcus Torry, told the cops that he was complying because he feared police brutality.

Barrett granted the officers qualified immunity because it was not “clearly established” that the officers’ actions were unreasonable, noting that the plaintiffs matched the description of the suspects “in number, race and car color”.

In other cases, she has shown a willingness to side with plaintiffs.

In 2019, she wrote a ruling rejecting immunity for a police officer who used false statements in making the case against a murder suspect. She also joined a ruling denying immunity for officers who were accused of falsifying evidence that caused a man to be jailed for two years.

“I don’t think we can draw definite conclusions about how Judge Barrett would approach qualified immunity once she’s on the Supreme Court,” said Jay Schweikert, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, which is campaigning against qualified immunity. “Her decisions all look like reasonable applications of existing precedent.”

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Amy Coney Barrett is now one step away from becoming a Supreme Court justice

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The Senate voted to end its debate over the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Sunday afternoon, a move that sets the stage for a final Senate floor vote for her confirmation on Monday.

Despite efforts by Democratic lawmakers to use procedural maneuvers to slow her appointment, Barrett is on track to be confirmed to the court just about a week before Election Day with almost unanimous support from Senate Republicans.

Republicans have moved quickly to seat Barrett on the court, following her nomination by President Donald Trump in late September. Democrats have protested Republicans working to fill the seat left open by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to the presidential election — particularly given the GOP blocked President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee for months in 2016, arguing that the winner of that year’s presidential election should get to fill any empty seats.

But Republicans have the votes needed to secure the judge’s place on the court, and the Senate Judiciary Committee began its confirmation hearings for Barrett on October 12.

And on Thursday, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Barrett’s nomination, despite the fact that every Democrat on the panel boycotted the meeting — which technically meant they didn’t have the required number of minority members needed to conduct business. Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) disregarded the requirement and proceeded anyway.

On Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) deployed a number of tactics to try to slow down the nomination process, with little effect.

For example, he forced a closed Senate session on Friday for the first time since 2010. “The damage to Americans’ faith in these institutions could be lasting. So before we go any further, we should shut off the cameras, close the Senate and talk face to face about what this might mean for the country,” Schumer argued. But the GOP ended that session — which required cameras to leave — in just 20 minutes.

Schumer also tried to file several motions to delay the nomination process, like calling for the Senate to be adjourned until after the election unless both parties settle on a coronavirus relief package, but these all failed as the GOP-controlled Senate acted against them along party lines. Ultimately, McConnell filed a cloture motion, a mechanism for limiting debate, which set up Sunday’s vote.

Saturday, Schumer tried again to halt confirmation proceedings by raising coronavirus relief legislation, but was blocked by the GOP. And the Republicans’ position grew even stronger Saturday afternoon, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — one of just two Republican senators who had objected to confirming a justice before the election — saying she would in fact vote to confirm Barrett during a floor vote.

On Sunday Murkowski, along with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, were the only two Republicans to decline to vote to end debate. Murkowski, however, has signaled that her objection is over the timing of the vote, not with Barrett herself, and that she intends to vote to confirm Barrett on a floor vote.

“I’ve concluded she’s the sort of person we want on the Supreme Court,” Murkowski said of Barrett on Saturday, according to Politico. “While I oppose the process that led us to this point, I do not hold it against her.”

Barrett is likely to be confirmed Monday

A final confirmation vote is likely to take place on Monday evening, and barring unforeseen events, Barrett is all but certain to be confirmed.

Republicans need 51 votes to confirm Barrett, and have 53 in the Senate. They can afford to lose three votes, since Vice President Mike Pence can cast a tie-breaking vote in the case of a 50-50 draw.

But that is unlikely to be necessary, since only one Republican lawmaker is expected to defect: Collins, who is running a competitive race for reelection this year.

Political scientists say that the controversy surrounding the Barrett confirmation battle could increase turnout for the elections by illustrating how high stakes the next presidency is as the Supreme Court becomes an increasingly politicized institution.

According to polling for Data For Progress, likely voters split largely along party lines in their perception of whether it was appropriate for Republicans to press ahead with one of the most rapid confirmation processes in modern American history.

Schumer has indicated that the Democrats have considered boycotting the final confirmation vote in a display of dissent — and to send a message to the voters that they feel the process is illegitimate.

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