Political MoJo

Hacking Democracy

| Fri Oct. 27, 2006 4:45 PM EDT

"The American electoral system is rotten and we need to deal with that," Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida, told Mother Jones Radio. Sancho and Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, point out the vulnerability of our voting system in an HBO documentary, Hacking Democracy, airing November 2.

The film follows Harris and Sancho as they stumble upon Diebold's software on their FTP site, dig through trash and find illegally discarded voting records, and stage a mini-election with a computer hacker. In that election, the outcome of the vote is opposite the votes cast: 7:1 instead of 2:6.

As Sancho points out, this is not just a Diebold problem. It is a problem with all electronic voting machine companies: "The other companies are just much better at keeping secrets." Hacking Democracy should cure anybody of trusting electronic voting machines that do not have a paper trail.

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When It Comes to Press Freedom, We're Number 53!

| Fri Oct. 27, 2006 2:15 PM EDT

Reporters Sans Frontières recently released its annual ranking of press freedom around the world, and it's not good news for the United States. Our ranking's been steadily dropping since the survey started in 2002, when we were in the index's top 20. Now we're at a dismal 53rd place, down from an undistinguished 44th last year. That puts us in the same league as tiny democracies like Botswana, Croatia, and Tonga. To be sure, we're a long way from the atrocious rankings of Iran, China, Burma, Cuba, and North Korea. But it's nothing to write home about.

The United States' poor showing is largely to blame on the excesses of the war on terror. As RSF explains, "Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism.'" And then there's the journalists we've got locked up, such as a Sudanese Al-Jazeera cameraman being held in Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who's been in U.S. custody in Iraq for 6 months without charge. That's just the official hostility to the press. During the past year, right-wing commentators debated whether the editor of the New York Times should be sent to the gas chamber or the firing squad for revealing a program to track terrorist funds. It's not clear whether this episode figured into RSF's rankings, but it was another sign of why, when it comes to freedom of expression, we've got a long way to Number One.

[Ed. Note: This week's Sports Illustrated carries an excellent column on Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who used leaked grand jury testimony to blow the lid off the steroid scandal. They'll be heading to jail soon for failing to reveal their sources, and may still be in the big house when Barry Bonds, documented to have commited several crimes in Fainaru-Wada and Williams' reporting, breaks baseball's all-time home run record.

A detail from the column, which unfortunately is subscription-only: The Chronicle has received 80 subpoenas of reporters over the last 18 months, compared with five over the previous 18. That's the world's strongest democracy, leading by example.]

Jane Pauley Sues the NYT for Duping Her into an Advertorial

| Fri Oct. 27, 2006 11:33 AM EDT

Jane Pauley is suing the New York Times for fraud. Pauley claims that the paper misled her an interview where she discussed her struggles with bipolar disorder for what turned out to be a pharmeceutical company-funded advertisement. In the lawsuit filed Tuesday seeking unspecified damages, Pauley charges that the Times interviewed her last fall for what she believed was a news article on mental health issues. The interview came out in October as part of a "special advertising supplement" (complete with a full-page photo of Pauley) that was funded by Eli Lilly and other drug companies. Smoking Gun has a copy of the lawsuit, here.

Our Landlord the Torturer

| Fri Oct. 27, 2006 12:11 AM EDT

Over at Harper's, Ken Silverstein reports that the U.S. government is paying $17,500 a month to a rent one of its overseas embassies from a known torturer. The torturer in question is Manuel Nguema Mba, the security minister of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich West African nation that, as Peter Maass wrote in an investigative story in Mother Jones last year, seems like a "parody of an oil kleptocracy," where "a dictator, awash in petrodollars, enriches himself and his family while starving his people." In his article, Maass disclosed the rental deal with Mba (who's the uncle of the country's despot, Teodoro Obiang), but Silverstein adds some new wrinkles to the story. Despite reliable documentation from the U.N. and the State Department, our ambassador to E.G. has pled ignorance of Mba's human-rights record. The Clinton-era ambassador is calling for an investigation into the deal.

Sadly, it's not surprising that we're giving $210,000 a year to a man who has overseen the torture of dissidents. Pay-to-play is the name of the game in E.G.—it's a game that several American oil companies have played in order to get access to the country's crude. (In one egregious—but not atypical—instance, Amerada Hess paid $445,800 in rent to a 14-year-old relative of Obiang.) And apparently it's a game that the Bush administration doesn't mind playing, either.

Green Groups Get Local

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 11:07 PM EDT

Seems long overdue, but this is apparently the first year that national environmental groups are directing substantial campaign contributions into state-level races. Outfits like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters have traditionally made all their donations at the federal level, but are now realizing that much of the action is in state capitals. Surprise favorite: Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who imposed caps on industrial greenhouse gases. OK, the guy has a pretty good record on the environment, but does he really need this help more than, say, Green Party candidates?

Tennessee RNC Attack Ad Pulled: Blame Canada?

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 8:08 PM EDT

What got that racist anti Harold Ford attack ad pulled off the air? Was it complaints from NAACP? The DNC? Or was it our neighbors to the north? This, from a Canadian news station:

It's not often Canadians care about who's running for the U.S. Senate. But when we figure prominently in one of those quintessential American-style attack ads, nearly everyone on this side of the border sits up and takes notice.
A fierce fight between a Tennessee Republican candidate and his Democratic opponent has gotten personal - and Canada is right in the middle of it.
The controversial commercial from right wing candidate Bob Corker attacks a man named Harold Ford. It features supposedly ordinary citizens commenting on the Democrat, indicating he'll increase taxes and take guns out of the hands of residents, two huge issues in the south. There's also a shot of a rather questionable young woman who claims she's spent time with Ford at "The Playboy Club". But it's the next statement that seems to have rankled many. It comes from a comment made about some recent controversial nuclear tests.
"Canada can take care of North Korea," a man who resembles a young Wilfrid Brimley jokes. "They're not busy." The suggestion that we aren't pulling our weight in the world - and the fact that we've lost 42 soldiers in Afghanistan - is never mentioned.
The commercial, which has already been part of an equally nasty campaign between Ford and Corker, has been the subject of a protest by Canada's Ambassador to the U.S. And that complaint has apparently led to action.
Officials in Tennessee have agreed to pull the offending advertisement. But the U.S. Ambassador to this country has a response to our anger. He notes Canadian ads during the last election treated U.S. President George Bush with far more contempt and no one really issued any major complaints about those.

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Michael J. Fox: He's Our Man

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 3:24 PM EDT

Much has been said and written about Rush Limbaugh's extremely off-color comments about Michael J. Fox. But few have mentioned just how much of a chord that Limbaugh may have struck by lashing out against the former teen idol.

For those of us who grew up as children of the 80s, there are certain things that are sacred—relics and remembrances of the past that are cherished and protected like national treasures. These include the Atari video game system, Transformer toys, and Back to the Future and Teen Wolf star, Michael J. Fox.

And in the minds of those 80s kids who grew up watching the hit TV sitcom, Family Ties, Fox is the cute, offbeat, and likeable Alex P. Keaton. Ironically, Keaton was the staunch conservative Republican on the show who paraded around the house in a suit and tie, rebelling against his hippie parents with strange antics. The guy even had a picture of President Ronald Reagan displayed above his bed.

According to Wikipedia, "the character of Alex P. Keaton became a symbol of America's move towards more conservative political thinking in the 1980s."

There is no denying that Fox is a truly likeable guy, even AskMen.com says so. Despite being out of the Hollywood spotlight for half a decade now, Fox still has a few fansites. But for a whole generation, he is so much more than that. With his comments, Limbaugh has possibly estranged himself from an entire age bracket of listeners and supporters. Well, at least we can hope.

In the meantime, I suggest buying a Teen Wolf T-shirt on Amazon.com and wearing it prominently in the next few weeks to display your support for Fox and his cause.

-- Caroline Dobuzinskis

While the Administration Struggles with Spin, USIP Forecasts Iraq's Potential "Descent into Hell"

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:55 PM EDT

Folks in the Bush administration just can't seem to get their stories straight. Bush says "we are winning" but has recently abandoned his tagline "stay the course" although he does say his administration will "complete the mission." Rumsfeld, on the other hand, claims the administration is "not backing away from staying the course." And, almost simultaneously, White House press secretary, Tony Snow, jumped on the "abandon the phrase 'stay the course' bandwagon" claiming Bush has only uttered the words 8 times.

But while Bush and company struggle with how to talk about the war in Iraq, the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan think tank, has been doing research on how to actually handle it. Their new report documents the research they have been doing over the past six months which forecasts outcomes for the insurgency in Iraq. And, it doesn't look good. (See this excerpt from the recommendations and conclusions section.)

The administration's ambitious goals ("an Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure, where Iraqis have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country"), if possible at all, are attainable only in the very long term. Instead, avoidance of disaster and maintenance of some modicum of political stability in Iraq are more realistic goals—but even these will be hard to achieve without new strategies and actions and the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors.

Yikes. In fact, US News and World Report calls the USIP report "unremittingly grim." It does, I am afraid, appear to live up to this description. There is even a section called "Descent into Hell." Read the full report here.

Nicaragua to Ban Abortions - With Sandinistas' Support

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:30 PM EDT

Here's news to squash whatever vestigial remnants of good feeling ageing lefties (like me) might still harbor for Nicaragua's once-revolutionary Sandinistas: they're now supporting legislation to ban all abortions, even in cases where a woman's life is in danger. The law, expected to win parliamentary approval today, imposes prison sentences of up to 30 years for women who have abortions and for the doctors who perform them.

Not that current Nicaraguan law makes it easy to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Ipas, a US-based reproductive rights group, reports that only 24 women and girls have been allowed legal abortions in Nicaragua in the last three years - including a nine-year-old rape victim - leaving some 32,000 woman to abort their pregnancies illegally.

Sure, the Sandinistas have long since shed many of the egalitarian ideals that won them so much support at home and abroad when they overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979. But this is an especially depressing rowback from a party that used to trumpet the advancement of women's rights as one of their great victories.

RNC Plays Up Prejudice in Ads Against Harold Ford Jr.

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:26 PM EDT

In a desperate and vulgar attempt to thwart an increasingly intense senate race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee released a racially provocative ad last week against Democratic challenger Harold Ford, Jr.

The television ad features several people in mock interviews meant to show Ford as a liberal out of step with average Tennesseans. One of the people "interviewed" is a young blonde white woman with bare shoulders (it is unclear if she is actually wearing anything since the camera only shows her from the collarbone up) who claims she met Ford at a Playboy party. At the end of the ad she says "Harold, call me" while winking at the camera.

Ford, who is 36, single and African American, admitted he attended a Playboy party at last year's Super Bowl but critics have pointed to the ad's obvious racist overtones.

Ford is attempting to become the first African American senator from the south since Reconstruction. His opponent Bob Corker, who has already spent more than $2 million of his own money on the race claims to have nothing to do with the television spot (though he did approve a spot this week that plays tom-tom drums every time Ford's name is mentioned).

John Greer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University says the Playboy ad "is playing to a lot of fears" and "frankly makes the Willie Horton ad look like child's play."

--Amaya Rivera