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Updated: 31 min 47 sec ago

French Women Win Record Number of Seats in Parliament

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:41

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With 38.65% of seat, the election marks a record for female representation in the French parliament

In the second round of legislative elections on Sunday, 223 women were elected to France’s lower house. With 38.65% of seats in the National Assembly, the election marks a new record for female representation in the French parliament. It’s good news for equality: Women now hold 223 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly, a significant increase…

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What Is Gerrymandering? Supreme Court to Hear Key Case

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:38

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The Supreme Court announced Monday it will consider politically gerrymandered electoral maps

The Supreme Court announced Monday it will consider if politically gerrymandered electoral maps in Wisconsin are unconstitutional, which could have a major impact on U.S. elections. The court has already ruled against state electoral maps due to racial gerrymandering, but this could be the first case in which it decides just how much partisan gerrymandering is…

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A Close Look at the Indian Presidential Election System

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:31

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India’s presidential election will be held on July 17 as President Mukherjee’s term comes to an end | Indian Presidential Election System and voting at DC

New Delhi (dpa) – India’s presidential election will be held on July 17 as President Pranab Mukherjee’s term comes to an end next month. The Election Commission has set the ball rolling by issuing a notice on the filing of nominations for the contest. Here’s a guide that explains the election process in 10 points: 1.…

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Big Money Flowing Into Close Georgia Runoff Election

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:27

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Democrat Jon Ossoff is breaking records with his fundraising ahead of Tuesday’s special election

Democrat Jon Ossoff is breaking records with his fundraising ahead of Tuesday’s special election for Georgia’s 6th district congressional seat, prompting Republican attacks that he’s trying to buy the race with help from liberal donors. But the Republican Party and conservative allies are also dumping huge sums into the contest—far more than the Democrats and progressive…

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Elections Officials Outgunned in Russia’s Cyberwar Against America

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:23

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Hackers sent emails using a VR Systems address to 122 state and election officials across the country

WASHINGTON — Local officials consistently play down suspicions about the long lines at polling places on Election Day 2016 that led some discouraged voters in heavily Democratic Durham County, N.C., to leave without casting a ballot. Minor glitches in the way new electronic poll books were put to use had simply gummed things up, according to…

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Nearly 200 Million American Voting Records Exposed Online

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 22:19

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Collection of nearly 200 million voter registration files that can be used to identify American voters

A massive collection of nearly 200 million voter registration files that can be used to identify American voters have been discovered online on an unsecure server, ZDNet reported Monday. The 198 million records were found on an Amazon storage server owned by Republican data analytics firm Deep Root Analytics. Contained in the records is personal information…

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WASHINGTON — A Virginia data firm working for the Republican National Committee left voting records of 198 million Americans exposed on the internet and accessible to anyone, a California cybersecurity firm said Monday. The data firm not only left exposed the vast national database but also precise and painstaking projections for most voters of their projected…

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WASHINGTON — To any nefarious hackers looking for data that could be used to sway elections or steal Americans’ identities, the file compiled by a GOP digital firm called Deep Root Analytics offered all manner of possibilities. There in one place was detailed personal information about almost every voter in America. It was a collection of…

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:25

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If anyone is looking for a good, thought-provoking summer read, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is one I would certainly recommend.  The novel is a fictional slave narrative account of a teenage orphan, Cora, who escapes her hellish life at a Georgian cotton plantation in a desperate attempt to procure freedom in the north. Her journey northward is starkingly different from what one would expect; it deviates from traditional historical fiction works, as the Underground Railroad on which she travels is literally as it sounds: it is a network of train tracks, locomotives, and subterranean stations.  

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Readers follow Cora as she stops in different states throughout her journey, which on first glance, appear to be havens, but in reality, mask treacherous plots designed for black inhabitants, namely practices of covert medical experimentation and sterilization. Cora becomes increasingly disillusioned as her hopes for freedom become challenged by the shackles that bind, which are more firmly entrenched than they outwardly appear.  

The novel was selected for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 2016, was the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Carnegie Medal of Excellence, and, recently in April, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Given its critical acclaim, it is little surprise that this novel won.  Interestingly, however, I discovered an article by Jay Nordlinger, written last year but re-published the day after the 2017 Pulitzer Prize announcement, under a new title, A Problematic Prizewinner of a Novel, which criticized controversial aspects of the novel, specifically, Whitehead’s moral and historical judgments. Given the re-emergence of the article, it appears the author’s sentiments have not changed.

Nordlinger, criticizes the didactic character of the novel, chastising that “teaching in a novel should be accidental, not bluntly striven for.” To him, the novel was pedantic, as it appeared to “spell out” events for the reader.  He seems to believe that Americans are not so ignorant of their history. He goes on to further criticize, this time the treatment of Ethel, who secretly houses Cora when she reaches North Carolina. Ethel is mocked for her girlhood desire to serve as a missionary in Africa, which may be a tolerable criticism; but, when Whitehead continues to mock her as she is being lynched by a white mob, Nordlinger sees this as crossing the line into hurtful and hateful.

Nordlinger’s caustic review aside, most reviews laud Whitehead:  Reviewers regard the novel as a timely work that projects black voices onto a genre, that up until recent years, was the preserve of white, male writers. Whitehead, as well as other black Pulitzer Prize recipients, remind us that black storytellers are creating provocative and insightful works on racism and deserve to be read.

The other winning works, by black writers, all focus on racism—“Sweat” a play by Lynn Nottage explores the devastating cycle of violence, prejudice, poverty and drugs; Olio a poetry book by Tyehimba Jess, writes the Pulitzer Prize committee, “challenges contemporary notions of race and identity”; and reviews in The New Yorker, by theater critic Hilton Als, according to the committee, scrutinize “the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race.”

The choice of these winners reflects the committee’s recognition that these voices that must be heard—because despite the change in public attitudes toward racial inequality so far, we have not realized the promises of the post-racial society.

The Preventable Grenfell Tower Tragedy

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:14

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A horrendous fire that set the Grenfell Tower in west London ablaze on June 14 could have resulted in far less loss of life than the 79 people whose lives were claimed that Wednesday. The fire, which burned for just about 24 hours, initially required 35 fire engines, along with hundreds of firemen in an effort to control the burning building.

Now, even though the direct cause of the fire is still in the air as some reports linked a faulty refrigerator to the tragedy, one thing is for certain: the cladding on the exterior of the 24-story building played a major role in exacerbating the fire.

Many fire safety experts believe that the building’s newly installed external cladding contributed to the rapid spread of the fire to the rest of the tower. In fact, one resident of the Grenfell Tower stated that “The whole one side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick.”

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However, according to Chancellor Philip Hammond, the type of cladding used on the Grenfell Tower during the time of the deadly fire was already banned in both the United States and Britain.

Mr. Hammond told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, “My understanding is the cladding in question, this flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the US, is also banned here.”

Records show that over $33 million were spent installing an “ACM (Aluminum Composite Material) rainscreen over-clad” during the recent renovations that took place at the Grenfell Tower in 2012. One of the main products used in the cladding was Reynobond, which is available with various types of core materials. The material used on the Grenfell tower cladding was polyethylene (Reynobond PE). Another, more fire-resistant material (Reynobond FR) is another option for building cladding. The fireproof version of Reynobond cladding cost just over $30 per square meter. On the contrary, the flammable version cost just over $28 per square meter.

What follows next is why I believe certain people need to be held responsible for the incident and why this fire should not have spread as quickly as it did that Summer night.

According to the European distributor of Reynobond Arconic’s current brochure and website, the Reynobond PE cladding used on the Grenfell Tower was only suitable for buildings 10 meters or less in height. The higher grade fire-resistant cladding could be used on buildings up to 30 meters tall.

The Grenfell Tower was 67.3 meters in height and should have been equipped with the non-combustible A2 version of Reynobond cladding.

The manufacturer of the cladding states that Reynobond PE is banned in the United States for buildings which exceed 12 meters in height due to the risk the cladding poses of spreading fire and smoke. The Department for Communities and Local Government in the United Kingdom also stated that cladding with a polyethylene core “would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18 meters in height.”

During the renovations to the Grenfell Tower in 2012, an insulation foam product called Celotex RS5000 was installed behind the building’s cladding. According to its datasheet, the product “will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity.” Charred remains of this product were found littered around the area of the Grenfell Tower in the aftermath of the fire.

The bottom line in this situation is that even though the cause of the fire seemed inevitable, the cladding installed on the exterior of the Grenfell Tower in 2012 was not only the wrong type for that particular building, it was also banned in both the United States and Britain.

There is no reason the cladding that “went up like a matchstick” should have been placed on the outside of the Grenfell Tower. If proper procedure had been taken in placing the correct cladding on the building, regardless if it may have been more expensive, I suspect far less than 79 people would have lost their lives on June 14.

Identifying the Key Benefits to the Fair Representation Act

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 17:01

From a new article by Fair Vote writing at IVN, a publication of the Independent Voter Project and the Foundation for Independent Voter Education:

The Fair Representation Act gives voters of all backgrounds and all political stripes the power to elect House Members who reflect their views and will work constructively with others in Congress. Under the Fair Representation Act, there will be more choices and several winners elected in each district. Congress will remain the same size, but districts will be larger, each electing 3, 4, or 5 winners.

Voters will be free to rank their choices without fear of “spoilers.” No district will be “red” or “blue.” Every district will fairly reflect the spectrum of voters. Voters are clamoring for change. The Fair Representation Act is effective, constitutional, and grounded in American traditions. It will ensure that every vote counts and all voices are heard.

See more about the Fair Representation Act here.

Supreme Court to Hear Wisconsin Partisan Gerrymandering Case

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 11:21

Supreme Court to decide on partisan gerrymandering: Can it be used to create favorable voting districts?

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it will hear a closely watched challenge to partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and decide whether it is unconstitutional for party leaders to entrench themselves in power with carefully drawn electoral maps. The case of Gill vs. Whitford is to be heard in the fall, and it could yield one…

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Egypt Blocks Websites in Fresh Round of Crackdowns

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 11:14

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – link

Egypt has blocked the website of an independent Turkish newspaper in English as it steps up censorship

Istanbul/Cairo (dpa) – Egypt has blocked the website of an independent Turkish newspaper in English, as it steps up censorship measures. On Monday, users reported not being able to access the website of Hurriyet newspaper’s English edition. The Turkish edition – the most popular newspaper in Turkey – was not blocked. The paper is part of…

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How Cuba Dissidents Are Responding to Trump’s Change in Policy

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 11:10

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The Castro brothers of Cuba have not had elections since they took over in 1959

The letter sent by Cuba’s main dissident group to President Donald Trump thanking him for his decision to prohibit U.S. trade with the military, security and intelligence services on the island—their tormentors—serves as a timely rebuke of President Barack Obama’s warm embrace of the Castro regime and those still defending it. The letter was sent by…

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VIDEO: Puerto Rico’s Protest Art Calling for Independence

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 11:05

From VICE News:

Street art in Puerto Rico has long channeled widespread frustrations about the island’s century-long status as a U.S. territory. The work of La Puerta is one such example. The anonymous collective voicing ideas of identity and politics exploded throughout San Juan over the last year, but now, their protest art might come at a cost.

In May, the country’s penal code was amended to punish acts like disrupting school activity and painting on public walls with jail time. Human rights lawyer Ariadna Godreau-Aubert worries, “These new amendments are trying to implicate street art as well as every other kind of free speech activity against austerity and the government.”

La Puerta’s street murals often advocate for the island’s independence, a political debate revived by the fiscal crisis. On June 11, a referendum took place where Puerto Ricans voted between statehood, free association/independence, and the status quo.

Leading up to the vote, VICE News followed the La Puerta collective as they took to an expressway that’s become the go-to spot for their political messages.

Should the U.S. Ban American Travel to North Korea?

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 19:51

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North Korea is hardly a top destination for American travelers. But it’s not off limits.

North Korea is hardly a top destination for American travelers. But it’s not off limits. That could soon change. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday the U.S. is considering a ban on American travel to the isolated authoritarian state headed by dictator Kim Jong Un. “We have been evaluating whether we should put some type…

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Do Term Limits Have the Power to Save African Democracy?

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 19:05

Ever since the (re)adoption of democracy in many countries in Africa in the early 1990s after close to three decades of one-party rule, quite a few African countries have made great strides at becoming more democratic while several others have simply remained authoritarian nominal democracies. Two good examples are Ghana and the Republic of Cameroun.

John Dramani Mahama, President of Ghana since 2012 – link

While Ghana has experienced several political upheavals and suffered several military coups since its independence in the 1957, she is today becoming a beacon of democracy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Ghana has moved from a hybrid democracy since 2006 to something close to a full democracy in 2016. In the meantime, Cameroun has not wavered from the authoritarian regime category during the same period.

An additional problem is that too few African countries are improving like Ghana, at least not as fast. However, the question is why are some African countries improving in democratic terms while others are not? It is important to note that democracy is conceived here as the regime type. Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index describes a range from full democracy through flawed and hybrid democracy to authoritarianism or nominal democracy. In a full democracy:

basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, and tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the flourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies” (https://goo.gl/HDrtyU).

On the polar opposite end, an authoritarian regime is one in which:

political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary” (idem).

Paul Biya, President of Cameroun since 1982 – link

Limiting Political Mandates

There are several possible explanations to the highlighted difference in democratic advancements and levels between African countries. Looking at the case of Ghana and Cameroun, the limitation of Presidential terms of office could provide a clue. In Ghana, “a person shall not be elected to hold office as President of Ghana for more than two terms”  according to the Ghanaian Constitution, Article 66 (2). In Cameroun on the other hand there is no limitation.

The limitation of mandates is likely to provide the grounds for more accountability in office and adherence to the rule of law. In their first term of office, incumbents tend to work hard to perform well in office in order to seek one additional term and in order to provide the background for the maintenance of their party in power in subsequent elections. This creates a favourable environment for sound political competition and respect for political freedoms.

On the other hand, the possibility to seek re-election indefinitely can lead the incumbent to concentrate more on maneuvers to thwart the democratic process. Such maneuvers or strategies can include putting in place patrimonial politics that has a pervasive nefarious influence on the legislative, the electoral mechanism, the justice system, the security apparatus and the media, with the sole aim to maintain the incumbent in power.

Macky Sall, President of Senegal since 2012 – link

As the incumbent keeps “winning” the elections through these strategies and behind the cloud of deformed legality he/she keeps implementing legislative frameworks that further deteriorate political freedoms in favour of authoritarianism.

The Limits of Term Limits

It would seem therefore that in comparing African countries, those with term limits for the position of the Chief Executive are more likely to have democratic advancements or to be more democratic than those in which there are no term limits. Countries like Senegal, Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Botswana that are amongst the most democratic in Africa all have term limits.

However, many undemocratic countries also have term limits. This appears to make the relationship between term limits and democracy spurious. This is not necessarily the case since term limits operate within a wider Constitutional framework and the extent to which the Constitution can be modified is another important factor to be taken into consideration.

Where Constitutions seem to be the handbook of the incumbent limitation of term limits can equally becoming the private affair of the incumbent and therefore do not matter. Today term limits are allowed and tomorrow they are removed. It is not the rationale for such manipulation that is absent. Cameroun and Congo-Brazaville are examples.

Denis Sassou-Nguesso, President of the Republic of the Congo since 1997 – link

There is always an argument as to why there should be term limits now and no term limits later. Constitutional stability is therefore another important intervening variable.

A Culture of Stability

That a country has Constitutional stability might also depend on the level of political culture in society. Some societies will generally not tolerate individual subversion of democracy. Either the population actively opposes subversion or the political elite have a high sense of political independence.

Such political culture is a matter of antecedence and in the case of Africa can be traced to colonial influence. It would seem that countries formerly under British colonial rule are more likely to be more democratic than former French colonies. The British were more democratic in their colonial policies and ruled their colonies in a way as to foster a high sense of democratic culture in the population, which sense has thrived despite the dark years of the Cold War.

This is unlike in French colonies where mostly only repression was the order of the day. Citizens of former French are less predisposed to question authority than are citizens of former British colonies. This has created a situation where subversion goes unabated by the populace. While this situation seems to be changing for contemporaneous reasons, as seen recently in Senegal and Burkina Faso, most of francophone Africa remains blinded by the farce of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”.

Flexible or Rigid Systems

Therefore, while it appears that term limits have advanced democracy in Africa’s most democratic countries this has been favoured by progressive gains in constitutional stability influenced by a strong pre-acquired political culture for mostly former British colonies. Addressing the question of the discrepancies in democratic advancement between African countries is therefore not an easy issue and can appear overly complex. Antecedent and intervening factors are very important when considering any single independent variable.

Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso since 2015 – link

In this case, term limits appear to be clearly linked to democratic advancement. But because term limits are used even in the most vicious autocracies on the continent one has to dig deep.

Term limits are only an effective tool for democratic advancement if they co-exist with the type of Constitutional stability that does not make the Constitution the private handbook of the incumbent, independently of whether it is a flexible or rigid Constitutional regime.

The extent to which some incumbents have manipulated the Constitution in their favour in Africa has made political scientists to begin considering Constitutional manipulation a behavior of non-compliance. Incumbents are only able to subvert democracy in this manner when they go unchallenged. In Africa the antecedent conditions have made this possible for some incumbents. And this appears to be more rampant in former French colonies where the stage for repression had been set by the French and the mystification of the position of the Head of State had been beaten hard into the minds of the population. As the “Chef de l’Etat” stays on in power his longevity in power means less and less freedoms for the people. Terms become not only unlimited but are overly long, five years for some and up to seven years for others. The temptation might even be to make to make one term up to 10 years long.

Whatever the case, it is important to carry out more studies on exactly how the nature of term limits in Africa is affecting democracy and under which conditions term limits can ensure democratic enhancements.

VIDEO: Time to End Attacks on Vietnam Activists and Bloggers

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 18:07

Vietnamese bloggers and rights activists are being beaten, threatened and intimidated with impunity. The Vietnamese government should order an end to all attacks and hold those responsible accountable. Donor governments should tell the Vietnamese authorities to end the crackdown, and that repressing Internet freedom, peaceful speech, and activism will carry consequences.

About Human Rights Watch:

Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe. Its staff consists of human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups.

Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries, generating extensive coverage in local and international media. With the leverage this brings, Human Rights Watch meets with governments, the United Nations, regional groups like the African Union and the European Union, financial institutions, and corporations to press for changes in policy and practice that promote human rights and justice around the world.

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Money Flowing Into Atlantic Coast Pipeline Lobbying Battle

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 18:00

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In Atlantic Coast Pipeline Battle, Dominion Hires Democratic PR Firm That Created Ads for Virginia Governor

Dominion Energy, the lead company behind the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline, last year hired SKDKnickerbocker, a powerful communications and Democratic consulting firm that previously produced campaign ads for Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, according to a DeSmog investigation. McAuliffe, a long-time ally of the Clinton family and former head of the Democratic National Committee, has been…

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The controversial Atlantic Coast pipeline has become a central flashpoint in Virginia

The Real Reasons For This Qatari Kerfuffle

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 13:44

Punching above its weight? – link

Spats between Persian Gulf nations are commonplace: they’re similar countries with a shared language, religion, and culture. All walk the tightrope between conservative Islam and modern openness to various degrees. Conflicts are often in the differences of how each pursues modernity versus Islam.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a loose affiliation of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the Emirates, dominated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was established in 1981 partly to counter Iran, whom its members mainly hate, but also to provide a mechanism for fixing these dust-ups. That this latest one has gotten so horribly and dangerously out of hand is due to unannounced background factors. These factors are different to those we see in various media.

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Further, gasoline has been poured on the flames by our reckless leader. A frequent dynamic these days sees our State Department and President going in opposite directions. There’s conflict between “T-Rex” Tillerson’s diplomatic attempt to lower the temperature and the President’s ill-informed, twittering adventurism. All this isn’t helped by Trump’s de-funding of the Department of State by a third, the implications of which will probably be disastrous for America’s place in the world, but a boon for Russia and China.

Nasty editorials, horrible words muttered in Arabic at summits, and the recalling/re-instating of ambassadors are how these differences have always been expressed. Later they’re quietly patched up with face saved all around. The recent blockade, deportation of formerly welcome citizens, and denial of overflight rights is unprecedented and serious. Most of Qatar’s food is trucked in from Saudi Arabia so with the border closed all hell broke loose there last week. In any other context such a blockade would legally be an act of war, which all this could, in the worst case, lead to. Additionally, after Al Jazeera, Qatar Airways is the international face of the country and a revenue earner. They’ve been forced to fly bizarre aerial calisthenics to stay aloft while avoiding the GCC’s countries’ airspace.

What’s not the problem?

It’s not a matter of the Qatari government “funding terrorism” any more than the US does by surreptitiously backing our respective friends in the Syrian disaster, often the same players. Some Qatari individuals do donate to extremists which a problem it seems the Emir is taking seriously.

KFC in Qatar – link

The allegation Qatar supports terror is rich coming from the Saudis, with Trump piling on, who for decades have been promoting and subsidizing Wahhabism, the sharp end of fundamentalism which is intellectual architecture for ISIS, Al Qaida, and most of the 9/11 hijackers’ ideology. ISIS’s schools use Saudi textbooks. But… they let Trump grab their orb, put his posters up around Riyadh and projected his face onto the Ritz Hotel 3 stories high. And they made noise, but not deals, about a $100Bn defense buy.

Another phony pretext is Qataris paying Iranian-backed militias millions in ransom for the safe return of royal family members who’d been kidnapped while falconing in Iraq: all the Gulf countries pay ransoms. Also all of them hunt with falcons, very popular in the social set there and one may bring one’s falcon into the cabin on Qatar Airways: large uncaged carnivorous birds being a rare sight inside planes of other airlines.

The real reasons for the problem

Iran. Being compromisers and dealmakers, Qatar’s relationship with Iran is conciliatory. Racially a third of the population was once descended from Iran, and tellingly, unlike all their neighbors, a friendly co-existence between Sunni and Shite exist in Qatar. Finally, the bulk of their wealth derives from the “North Field” marine gas reserves which are split with Iran. Sharing a geological bank account is great motivation for friendly relations.

Qatar Export Treemap – link

The Saudis hate this. They prefer a time decades ago when quiet little Qatar was the kind of vassal state Bahrain still is, before the Qatari ruling al-Thani family became a local irritant. Saudi Arabia has never been comfortable with Qatar as a Player punching above its weight, or as a regional negotiator (Sudanese, Lebanese and Libyan conflicts).

Tiny countries like Qatar need to find a space to operate and as a deal broker they are efficient. Their hosting of some of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles and even being the only country on earth these days to host a Taliban Embassy are all pursuant to Qatar’s dealmaker role the Saudi’s can’t stand.

Thusly the Saudis and GCC have recast Qatar’s policy of “talking to all players” in numerous conflicts as palling around with terrorists, a fiction our president seems to have fallen for despite the facts.

A perennial but little reported sore point is also Qatar’s state owned Al Jazeera network. Until it left the US TV dial a year ago it provided one of the most intellectual global new services available here and around the world. It is an open, critical, and pretty evenhanded liberal network which is reviled in the palaces of the autocratic Arab world. In backing the rest of the Gulf against Qatar, Trump is taking the side of autocracy again against freedom of speech and real journalism.

Perhaps Trump’s strategy by joining the Gulf pile-on against our closest ally there, Qatar, is his idea of “Divide and rule?” Perhaps it is just blundering and ignorant? It’s been suggested he didn’t know we had a large base in Qatar. Whichever, it’s fundamentally damaging American prestige and our place as a sober, just arbiter, and making our real allies jittery everywhere. The president’s needless fueling of the Sunni-Arab vs Iran split, future location of a very serious coming war, is particularly reckless.

An educational aside in this crisis: it’s impolite for us to mispronounce the names of the countries we’re wrecking. Think ee-RAH-q, not Eye-rack. In this case the closest is k’tar (equal emphasis on both syllables), not “Cutter” (NBC) and not Fox’s intentional mispronunciation: “Gutter.” It makes us look like idiots. Ironically one person who can at least pronounce the country’s name: President Trump.

Will Texas Voting Laws Go Back Under Federal Supervision?

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 13:09

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Constant controversy and mounting court loses mean Voting Rights Act provisions could be returning. Jim Malewitz and Alexa Ura writing in the Texas Tribune pointed out the seriousness of the situation. Take a look at an excerpt:

Six years later, a barrage of federal court rulings that the 2011 Legislature intentionally discriminated against people of color has forced Texas leaders to confront the possibility that they strayed too far in meddling with elections — and put the state at risk of once again having the federal government monitor its election laws. The cases could answer nationwide questions about the strength of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, just four years after part of it was gutted.

Also from the Texas Tribune article:

The court rulings, if they withstand appeals, could reinsert the federal government into crafting Texas election laws. For decades under the Voting Rights Act, Texas was on a list of states and localities needing the federal government’s permission to change their election laws, a safeguard for minority voting rights called preclearance. The U.S. Supreme Court wiped clean the list in 2013 and lifted federal oversight for Texas and other jurisdictions, noting that conditions for minority voters had “dramatically improved.”

Confusion created by hastily drawn up voter ID laws have even prevented votes from being tallied. A new article by Jeremy Wallace of the Houston Chronicle had the story:

Hundreds were delayed from voting and others nearly turned away entirely during the presidential election because of confusion over the status Texas voter ID laws, a new report from a voting rights advocacy group shows. It’s just one of numerous problems Texas voters — particularly minority groups — faced during the 2016 election cycle, the report from the Texas Civil Rights Project detailed on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, throughout the state, voters faced numerous obstacles that complicated the process,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project which put out the report on Thursday. “Through our Election Protection Coalition, we heard directly from thousands of voters about the barriers they faced in our electoral system.”

The first of its kind Texas-based report on voter issues was limited in scope to just over 4,000 incidents that we logged. But Stevens said it’s safe to assume there are many more Texans who experienced similar obstacles in voting that simply did not know who to turn to.

See more on the subject at DC’s Voter ID archive of articles. A recent article on DC, “DMV Hours Slashed At Offices Essential to Obtain Texas Voter ID” had more on recent Texas voter laws and their problems. The new hours in particular seem to reflect at minimum a disregard for residents to have easy access to obtain their voter IDs. Election expert Rick Hasen at Election Law Blog recently posted, in a segment he titled, “As Texas Defends Its Voter ID Law, It Cuts Hours for Motor Vehicle Dep’t (Essential for Voters to Get IDs)” that he expects “this news will make it into a filing before Judge Ramos in the voter id litigation”. Here is an excerpt from the Houston Chronicle article that broke the story:

Despite a two-year budget of $2.4 billion, the Texas Department of Public Safety, with little notice, has reduced office hours at 11 of the state’s busiest driver’s license offices and plans to lay off more than 100 full-time employees to deal with a $21 million funding crunch. The statewide police agency’s primary function is to patrol state highways and issue driver’s licenses, but in recent years has spent hundreds of millions on security operations along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

The effects of the reduced driver’s license office hours were apparent on Monday morning, where nearly 200 customers formed a long, snaking line outside the large DPS facility at 12220 South Gessner. On June 5, the DPS abruptly scaled back operating hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the large centers. The offices are still open after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Only recently Texas has drawn condemnation leading to a different Texas voter ID controversy over protecting the vote. The Justice Department under the leadership of election-protecting Attorney General Eric Holder lead new lawsuit against Texas to prevent its new onerous voter ID requirements from disqualifying huge numbers of minority and poor voters. Ballot Access News, written by Richard Winger, had the latest news in U.S. Government Files New Lawsuit to Invalidate Texas Government Photo-ID Law.  Take a look:

On August 22, the United States filed a lawsuit in federal court in Corpus Christi, alleging that the Texas government photo-ID law passed in 2011 (and not yet implemented) violates Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, and the 14th and 15th amendments. The case is U.S.A. v State of Texas, 2:13cv263. It will go to a three-judge court. Here is the Complaint. The Complaint alleges that some Texas residents who don’t have the needed ID would be forced to make a round trip of up to 200 miles to obtain such an ID. The Complaint also points out that some of the offices that issue state ID’s are not open in the evening or on weekends, so that some applicants would need to miss work in order to obtain Texas Voter ID.

The 2011 law had not been implemented because neither the Justice Department, nor another federal court, pre-cleared the law. Now that the preclearance portion of the Voting Rights Act is effectively no longer workable, the Justice Department is using Section 2 of the Act. Section 2 applies to the entire nation and does not permit any state to pass a law that injures the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities. Thanks to Rick Hasen for the link.

According to new information from the New York Times, the move by the Justice Department and Eric Holder will be facing some unprecedented barriers to their efforts in protecting voters thanks to the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act only months ago.

The Justice Department said it would file paperwork to become a co-plaintiff in an existing lawsuit brought by civil rights groups and Texas lawmakers against a Texas redistricting plan. Separately, the department said, it filed a new lawsuit over a state law requiring voters to show photo identification. In both cases, the administration is asking federal judges to rule that Texas has discriminated against voters who are members of a minority group, and to reimpose on Texas a requirement that it seek “pre-clearance” from the federal government before making any changes to election rules. In June, the Supreme Court removed the requirement by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act.

Holder was not being subtle in his quest for better voting methods either. “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights,” Mr. Holder added: “We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement.” In the Justice Department complaint there was more interesting information on the Texas law and state of elections:

The Attorney General files this action pursuant to Sections 2 and 12(d) of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973 & 1973j(d), to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. According to the 2010 Census, Texas had a total population of 25,145,561, with a Hispanic population of 9,460,921 (37.6%) and a non-Hispanic black population of 2,975,739 (11.8%). There is no driver license office in scores of Texas counties, and driver license offices in dozens of additional counties are open only one or two days a week. Each of the documents needed to procure an EIC (state ID) costs money to obtain. A copy of a certified birth certificate from the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics—the least expensive option for those born in Texas—is $22. It costs $345 to obtain a copy of U.S. citizenship or naturalization papers.

VIDEO: Behind the Ongoing Russia and Belarus Media Battle

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 12:56

Kremlin suggests that Minsk needs to curb a rise in nationalism and anti-Russian messaging

The Russian state-controlled media have their usual Western targets. But occasionally, those Russian news outlets focus closer to home – on neighbouring Belarus. The storylines coming out of the Kremlin suggest that Minsk needs to curb a rise in nationalism and anti-Russian messaging , that’s allegedly Western-backed. Minsk and Moscow have been allies for years, with…

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