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Rightwing poll ‘watchers’ plan to police US election

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Long before Donald Trump sounded the alarm about election fraud and urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully”, Catherine Engelbrecht, a mother and small business owner living on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, was already standing guard. 

For more than a decade, Ms Engelbrecht, a Tea Party activist, has been one of the right’s leading drill sergeants in a war against voter fraud — a scourge that experts say barely exists.

The organisation Ms Engelbrecht founded in 2009, True The Vote, has, by her estimate, mobilised thousands of like-minded citizens across the country to monitor the polls and challenge voters they believe are ineligible.

For this election, True the Vote has rolled out an app that allows citizens to report suspected voter fraud from their smartphones as well as a Continue to Serve initiative to enlist military veterans as poll watchers.

The stakes, Ms Engelbrecht believes, have never been higher. “These are revolutionary Marxists that are attempting to destroy our elections, and in so doing, destroy our country,” she explained in a recent episode of her Red White and True podcast. 

Casting ballots by mail, she argued, was not a way to avoid crowded polling places in the midst of a pandemic but a plot by the Left to sow electoral confusion that would eventually result in Nancy Pelosi, the House majority leader and Trump bogeywoman, seizing power. “It’s not just about mail voting,” Ms Engelbrecht said. “It is part of a much broader plan.”

That sort of apocalyptic rhetoric is stirring fears of pandemonium at polling places on election day that has been unfamiliar in the history of the world’s leading democracy.

It is not unusual for partisans to claim fraud in the run-up to election day to motivate their supporters. But this hyper-charged election season is different, say experts.

For the first time, a sitting president has predicted voter fraud on a grand scale and exhorted his supporters to guard the polls. This will also be the first national election since a decades-long ban was lifted on what the Republican party calls “ballot security” initiatives. 

The Republican party has responded by announcing plans to try to recruit 50,000 poll watchers in 15 states. In Pennsylvania, one of the most hotly contested swing states, it is suing for permission to allow people to serve as poll watchers outside the county where they are registered to vote, prompting worries about hostile outsiders descending on inner-city polling places. 

Meanwhile, militia and paramilitary groups such as the Three Percenters and Proud Boys are making menacing noises on social media about the need to protect polling places.

“The 2020 election is shaping up to be like no other in our nation’s history. There is significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to November 3,” the Conference of Mayors warned in a recent statement.

Michigan, where the FBI recently foiled a militia plot to kidnap the Democratic governor, has responded by announcing new restrictions on firearms near polling places. In cities such as Houston and Philadelphia, law enforcement and prosecutors are readying plans to handle election day disturbances.

“One of our biggest concerns that we have in the civil rights communities is the possible acts of violence in blue areas of red states for intimidation — more of a hodgepodge, not necessarily co-ordinated,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, chief executive of the Voto Latino Foundation. “That is what we’re watching out for.”

Ms Englebrecht did not dismiss such suggestions, predicting “civil unrest” would follow a chaotic election. “What I want more than anything is a seamless process and a peaceful exchange of power,” she said in an interview with the FT. “But that doesn’t look like where we’re headed.” 

Even if November 3 proves uneventful — as many suspect it will — the heated rhetoric of groups such as True the Vote might yet serve a purpose, according to Gerald Hebert, senior director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, by dissuading some people from voting.

“I think that rhetoric is largely just that. And it’s intended to chill people,” said Mr Hebert, a 20-year justice department veteran. He calls True the Vote “an extremist group.”

Nicolas Riley, senior counsel at the Georgetown University Law Center, agreed. “When you see some of these groups talking about, ‘we’re going to recruit armies, and they’re going to be armed and they’re going to have badges,’ I think one of the goals is just to make it uninviting to vote.”

While the rules vary, most US states allow citizens to serve as observers inside polling places on election day. They can report inconsistencies and challenge the eligibility of fellow citizens to vote.

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Typically, however, the practice is tightly regulated. Poll watchers must usually be registered with a particular party or candidate and certified well before election day. In Texas, for example, each party is limited to two poll watchers at a polling place at any given time, and they are forbidden from talking to voters.

“I could not decide on election day to roll up to a polling place and declare myself a poll watcher. In the vast majority of states, there is a process that one must go through, and there is a limit to the number of people who can go through that process,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, a counsellor at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

But those rules do not cover areas outside of polling places, where militias and other self-declared patriots and poll watchers may congregate. Doing so would follow in a long and racially tinged tradition of intimidating voters under the auspices of guarding against voter fraud. Academics — and some Republican election lawyers — say such fraud is vanishingly rare.

In the early 1960s, for example, the Republican party’s Operation Eagle Eye sent volunteers to inner-city and predominantly minority neighbourhoods where, in some cases, they administered literacy tests to challenge voters’ eligibility. Among its ranks was the late William Rehnquist, who went on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In 1981, the party hired armed, off-duty police to patrol inner-city polling places in New Jersey wearing armbands that identified them as members of the National Ballot Security Task Force. Its abuses prompted a consent decree that restricted the party’s election activities and was only lifted by a court in 2018.

Still, groups found ways to use seemingly legitimate poll watching to try to intimidate voters, according to Mr Riley. One tactic is to file challenges against voters when they arrive at the polling place if only to “gum up the works”.

“Sometimes they’re just making these challenges willy-nilly,” he said. “Even if most of them are rejected, is it enough to cause chaos in the polling place? Is it enough to increase the length of a line simply by making it take longer for people to vote?”

Ms Engelbrecht rejects the idea that voter fraud is not a serious problem, even if it has proved difficult to establish. A task force created by President Trump to substantiate claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election, claims that were first aired by a True the Vote member, wrapped up without issuing a report.

“Pointing out voter fraud is a lot like harvesting fog: You can see it — but picking it up is hard to do,” Ms Engelbrecht said. In any case, she argued: “You don’t need a lot of fraud to swing an election.”

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Like other Tea Partyers, Ms Engelbrecht claimed to “loathe politics”. Her family owns a machining business that serves the oil and gas industry. They live on a farm.

But Ms Engelbrecht was awakened by the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and a palpable feeling, as she put it, that “everywhere you turned, government was spreading”. She founded a Tea Party chapter called the King Street Patriots. The next year, during local elections, King Street members decided to volunteer as poll workers. What they saw, Ms Engelbrecht said, were shocking numbers of irregularities. True the Vote was soon born.

It gained national attention after Ms Engelbrecht applied to register the group as a charity and she and her family business were audited by the IRS. The revenue service was later found to be overly zealous in its scrutiny of Tea Party groups. Ms Engelbrecht testified before Congress about experiencing “a kind of trickle-down tyranny that is actively endorsed by the [Obama] administration.” She became a darling of Fox News and Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation.

Since then, True the Vote has trained volunteers to serve as poll watchers and election workers. It has also pushed for tougher voter ID laws, and filed lawsuits against counties that it deems negligent in cleaning their voter rolls.

A report published by the Pew Trust in 2012, that is often cited by ballot security activists, found that 1.8m dead people were on active voter rolls, and 12m flawed addresses. By law, those rolls should be cleaned — or “purged”, depending on one’s political affiliation — to prevent possible abuse. 

Dead wood that has accumulated on voter rolls does not equate to fraud, say voting rights activists. The process of cleaning the rolls, they claim, often results in many legitimate voters being mistakenly removed and disenfranchised.

“I think what they’re mostly doing is breeding a sense of distrust,” said Nicole Pedersen, a lawyer for the Democratic Party in Harris County, which includes Houston. “They’re looking for something that doesn’t exist.”

Until the pandemic arrived, Ms Englebrecht said she was not terribly concerned about mail ballots. “Then in mid-March, the script was flipped,” she explained. 

Her chief complaint is that Democratic governors have run roughshod over legislatures to extend deadlines for mail ballots, expand the use of drop boxes and other reforms that she believes their states are not equipped to manage.

“It feels very intentional,” she said. “It feels as though the pandemic was seized upon.”

It is an argument she sets out at length in a 28-minute YouTube video modestly titled, ‘The Most Important Video of the 2020 Election’.

Come election day, Ms Engelbrecht plans to be in a war room, responding to calls from her volunteers across the country, and readying for a contentious — possibly violent — election day.

As she told listeners recently on the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles podcast: “We have to be real with ourselves. This is a clear and present danger on home soil. And we have to stop it.”



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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Crimea ‘water war’ opens new front in Russia-Ukraine conflict

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When a cyclone drenched Crimea in rainfall last month, rivers burst their banks and thousands of people in the Russia-annexed peninsula had to be evacuated from the floods.

The silver lining to the deluge was that the rains also filled Crimea’s depleted reservoirs, temporarily alleviating a crisis brought on by an extended drought and a Ukrainian blockade of the Soviet-built canal that previously provided up to 85 per cent of the peninsula’s water supplies.

Moscow’s struggle to supply Crimea’s 2.4m residents with fresh water has become a flashpoint in an undeclared war, seven years after Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine. An even longer conflict between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

Russia has accused Ukraine of “genocide” over the building of a concrete dam across the North Crimean Canal, in addition to the existing sandbag and earth dam that was built in 2014. Kyiv fears that Moscow is plotting a military incursion to secure water flows from the nearby Dnipro river.

Coupled with surging food prices and international isolation because of western sanctions, the water shortages threaten to undermine President Vladimir Putin’s promise of a better life for Crimeans under Russian rule.

Though state-run pollsters claim Putin remains more popular in Crimea than on average across Russia, the patriotic fervour that sent his approval ratings to record levels after the 2014 annexation has long since subsided.

Map showing Ukraine and the North Crimean Canal, Crimea

“The water reserves and fields have dried up,” said Viktor, 47, a Crimean who regularly travels to Ukraine for work. “Each year it’s getting worse and worse. We didn’t have this problem before annexation,” he said, adding that most Crimeans blamed Ukraine for the crisis.

A $3.7bn bridge across the Kerch Strait linking Crimea with mainland Russia has become a conduit for trucks ferrying water for locals to take away in plastic containers. Popular Black Sea tourist resorts can turn on their taps for just a few hours a day during peak droughts, while the canal has filled with grass and weeds.

Crimea’s agricultural output has fallen owing to a lack of irrigation, making it all but impossible to grow water-intensive crops such as rice.

Construction of the canal began in 1957 after the Soviet Union transferred the arid peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to manage rebuilding after the second world war. The waterway allowed for the cultivation of arable land and helped transform Crimea into a haven for tourists.

“The canal symbolises the stupidity of the Kremlin in occupying Crimea. They didn’t weigh the consequences at a moment of electoral euphoria that was fed by their own propaganda,” said Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister in charge of reintegration policies for the occupied territories.

“Why didn’t you think about water?” he asked.

The North Crimean Canal is seen with a low level of water
The severely depleted North Crimean Canal previously provided up to 85% of the peninsula’s water supplies © Pierre Crom/Getty

Workers collect potatoes on the North Crimean Canal
Workers collect potatoes on the North Crimean Canal. Ukraine blocked the irrigation channel after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea © Pierre Crom/Getty

Russia, while pressing Ukraine to reopen the waterway, has launched a Rbs50bn ($680m) programme to bolster Crimea’s supplies, repairing crumbling infrastructure, drilling wells, adding storage and desalination capacity.

Russian prosecutors last week filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights accusing Ukraine of “flagrant violations” over the issue. Crimea’s governor plans to file a separate complaint demanding up to Rbs1.5tn in compensation.

“Kyiv has essentially used Crimea’s infrastructure dependence on Ukraine, which came about in the Soviet era, as a weapon of mass destruction against all Crimeans. The water blockade is an act of state terrorism and ecocide, but the international community is failing to notice the Kyiv regime’s crimes,” Sergei Aksyonov, the peninsula’s governor, said in written comments to the Financial Times.

Reznikov said Russia, as the occupation force, was responsible under the Geneva Conventions for securing water and other basic needs for local the population. Ukraine has filed its own multi-billion-dollar claims against Russia, citing losses caused by what it describes as an illegal land grab.

With tensions rising, Russia deployed tens of thousands of troops and advanced weapons to Crimea this spring, as well as to the border of the two breakaway eastern regions where Moscow-backed separatists have battled government troops into an eighth year.

Col Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s army intelligence unit, said Russia was looking to seize the canal as well as adjacent territory to connect Crimea with the breakaway regions. Russian troops could advance on Nova Kakhovka, the Dnipro river town where the canal begins.

Some Crimean Tatars, an indigenous ethnic group whose members largely opposed Russia’s annexation, have set up a makeshift camp near the dams to make sure the water flow does not resume.

A Crimean Tatar activist on the North Crimean Canal
A Crimean Tatar activist enters his base on the North Crimean Canal. Tatars have set up camp to make sure the water flow does not resume © Pierre Crom/Getty

A Ukraine military vehicle drives past a Soviet monument marking the entrance to Brylivka
A Ukraine military vehicle drives past a Soviet monument marking the entrance to Brylivka, a village on the North Crimean Canal © Pierre Crom/Getty

“It will be a full-scale war,” said a 55-year-old activist who gave his name as Alibaba. He said he and his fellow activists were willing to take up arms to defend the blockaded canal. “There will be nowhere to hide in these fields. Let them try,” he added.

At the Kalanchak border crossing near the new dam, Russian and Ukrainian troops have dug trench positions a few hundred meters apart.

Tensions have also flared in the Black Sea, not just with Ukraine but also with western navies. Russia fired warning shots in the path of a British destroyer sailing through contested waters off Crimea last month. Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city, is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Moscow has insisted it would not go to war over Crimea’s water supplies, even as it conceded that Ukraine was unlikely to restore them. “All these hysterical statements from Ukrainian politicians are completely baseless — they’re just stupid, aggressive propaganda aimed at inciting hatred between the Russian and Ukrainian people. There won’t be any ‘water war’,” Crimea governor Aksyonov said.

Reznikov, the Ukrainian minister, said Kyiv was ready to provide Crimea with humanitarian assistance, including drinking water, which it already does for the separatist-run eastern territories, but no request had been made.

“For Russia to admit they’re weak is very difficult . . . it would amount to an admission that they made the wrong decision,” he said.



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