World Marks Anti-Corruption Day

Corruption costs the world economy $2.6 trillion each year, according to the United Nations, which is marking International Anti-Corruption Day on Sunday.

“Corruption is a serious crime that can undermine social and economic development in all societies. No country, region or community is immune,” the United Nations said.

The cost of $2.6 trillion represents more than 5 percent of global GDP.

The world body said that $1 trillion of the money stolen annually through corruption is in the form of bribes.

Patricia Moreira, the managing director of Transparency International, told VOA that about a quarter of the world’s population has paid a bribe when trying to access a public service over the past year, according to data from the Global Corruption Barometer.

Moreira said it is important to have such a day as International Anti-Corruption Day because it provides “a really tremendous opportunity to focus attention precisely on the challenge that is posed by corruption around the world.”

​Anti-corruption commitments

To mark the day, the United States called on all countries to implement their international anti-corruption commitments including through the U.N. Convention against Corruption.

In a statement Friday, the U.S. State Department said that corruption facilitates crime and terrorism, as well as undermines economic growth, the rule of law and democracy.

“Ultimately, it endangers our national security. That is why, as we look ahead to International Anticorruption Day on Dec. 9, we pledge to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide,” the statement said.

Moreira said that data about worldwide corruption can make the phenomena understandable but still not necessarily “close to our lives.” For that, we need to hear everyday stories about people impacted by corruption and understand that it “is about our daily lives,” she added.

She said those most impacted by corruption are “the most vulnerable people — so it’s usually women, it’s usually poor people, the most marginalized people in the world.”

The United Nations Development Program notes that in developing countries, funds lost to corruption are estimated at 10 times the amount of official development assistance.

What can be done to fight corruption?

The United Nations designated Dec. 9 as International Anti-Corruption Day in 2003, coinciding with the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption by the U.N. General Assembly.

The purpose of the day is to raise awareness about corruption and put pressure on governments to take action against it.

Tackling the issue

Moreira said to fight corruption effectively it must be tackled from different angles. For example, she said that while it is important to have the right legislation in place to curb corruption, governments must also have mechanisms to enforce that legislation. She said those who engage in corruption must be held accountable.

“Fighting corruption is about providing people with a more sustainable world, with a world where social justice is something more of our reality than what it has been until today,” she said.

Moreira said change must come from a joint effort from governments, public institutions, the private sector and civil society.

The U.S. Statement Department said in its Friday statement that it pledges “to continue working with our partners to prevent and combat corruption worldwide.”

It noted that the United States, through the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, helps partner nations “build transparent, accountable institutions and strengthen criminal justice systems that hold the corrupt accountable.”

Moreira said that it is important for the world to see that there are results to the fight against corruption.

“Then we are showing the world with specific examples that we can fight against corruption, [that] yes there are results. And if we work together, then it is something not just that we would wish for, but actually something that can be translated into specific results and changes to the world,” she said.

VOA’s Elizabeth Cherneff contributed to this report.

 

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US to Close Idaho Nuclear Waste Processing Project

Federal officials will shut down an Idaho nuclear waste treatment project after determining it would not be economically feasible to bring in radioactive waste from other states.

The U.S. Department of Energy in documents made public this week said the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project that employs 650 workers will end next year.

Officials said workers are wrapping up processing 85,000 cubic yards (65,000 cubic meters) of radioactive waste at the department’s 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.

$500 million plant

A $500 million treatment plant handles transuranic waste that includes work clothing, rags, machine parts and tools that have been contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says transuranic wastes take much longer to decay and are the most radioactive hazard in high-level waste after 1,000 years.

The Energy Department said that before the cleanup began, Idaho had the largest stockpile of transuranic waste of any of the agency’s facilities. Court battles between Idaho and the federal government culminated with a 1995 agreement requiring the Energy Department to clean up the Idaho site.

The Idaho treatment plant compacts the transuranic waste, making it easier to ship and put into long-term storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Not cost-effective

Federal officials earlier this year floated the idea of keeping the $500 million treatment plant running in Idaho with waste from other states. The bulk of that would have been 8,000 cubic yards (6,100 cubic meters) of radioactive waste from a former nuclear weapons production area in Hanford in eastern Washington.

Local officials and politicians generally supported the idea because of the good-paying jobs. The Snake River Alliance, an Idaho-based nuclear watchdog group, said it had concerns the nuclear waste brought to Idaho would never leave.

A 38-page economic analysis the Department of Energy completed in August and released this week found “it does not appear to be cost effective due to packaging and transportation challenges in shipping waste” to Idaho.

“As work at the facility will continue into 2019, no immediate workforce impacts are anticipated,” the agency said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday. The Energy Department “recognizes the contribution of this facility and its employees to DOE’s cleanup mission and looks forward to applying the knowledge gained and experience of the workforce to other key activities at the Idaho site.”

The agency said it would also consider voluntary separation incentives for workers.

Unclear where waste to go

With the Idaho treatment plant scheduled to shut down, it’s not clear how the transuranic waste at Hanford and other sites will be dealt with.

The Energy Department “will continue to work to ensure a path forward for packaging and certification of TRU (transuranic) waste at Hanford and other sites,” the agency said in the email to the AP.

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Trump Says Chief of Staff John Kelly to Leave at Year’s End

President Donald Trump says chief of staff John Kelly will leave his job at the end of the year.

Trump isn’t saying immediately who will replace Kelly, a retired Marine general who has served as chief of staff since July 2017. But the president says an announcement about a replacement will be coming in the next day or two.

Trump spoke to reporters at the White House before departing for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.

He calls Kelly “a great guy.”

The West Wing shake-up comes as Trump is anticipating the challenge of governing and oversight when Democrats take control of the House in January, and as gears up for his own campaign for re-election in 2020.

 

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Trump Confirms He’ll Nominate Army General Milley as Next Top Military Adviser

U.S. President Donald Trump has confirmed he will nominate Army General Mark Milley to replace Marine General Joseph Dunford as his next top military advisor.

“I am thankful to both of these incredible men for their service to our Country! Date of transition to be determined,” Trump wrote in a Saturday morning tweet.

Milley is a combat-experienced military leader and the current Chief of Staff of the Army, a position he has held since 2015.

Milley, who commanded troops during multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, must be confirmed by the Senate to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some military officials at the Pentagon had said Air Force General David Goldfein was also a top contender for the job but added that Milley has a good relationship with the president.

Department of Defense spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews said in a statement Saturday, “We are aware of the President’s nomination and share his confidence for Gen. Mark Milley.”

Trump hinted Friday he would make the announcement Saturday while attending the annual Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. Instead, he announced it at the White House before departing for Philadelphia.

As the Army’s top officer, Milley helped lead the effort to allow women to serve in front-line infantry and other combat positions. He has worked to reverse a decline in Army recruiting, which fell far short of its annual goal this year.

Milley is an infantry officer by training, and has also commanded Special Forces units.

His career includes deployments in the 1989 invasion of Panama, the multinational mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Iraq war.

If confirmed, Milley will replace Dunford, a former commandant of the Marine Corps and commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan. Dunford is expected to serve the remainder of his term as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, which ends October 1, 2019.  

 

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In White House Shake-up, Kelly’s Departure Now Seems Certain

President Donald Trump is inching closer to his long-teased major White House shake-up, gearing up for the twin challenges of battling for re-election and dealing with the Democrats’ investigations once they take control of the House.

The biggest piece of the shifting picture: Chief of Staff John Kelly’s departure now appears certain.

Trump announced Friday he was picking a new U.S. attorney genera l and a new ambassador to the U.N. , and at the same time two senior aides departed the White House to beef up his 2020 campaign. But the largest changes were still to come. Kelly’s replacement in the coming weeks is expected to have a ripple effect throughout the administration.

According to nearly a dozen current and former administration officials and outside confidants, Trump is nearly ready to replace Kelly and has even begun telling people to contact the man long viewed as his likely successor.

“Give Nick a call,” Trump has instructed people, referring to Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, according to one person familiar with the discussions.

Like all of those interviewed, the person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.

Trump has hardly been shy about his dissatisfaction with the team he had chosen and has been weighing all sorts of changes over the past several months. He delayed some of the biggest shifts until after the November elections at the urging of aides who worried that adding to his already-record turnover just before the voting would harm his party’s electoral chances.

Now, nearly a month after those midterms, in which his party surrendered control of the House to Democrats but expanded its slim majority in the Senate, Trump is starting to make moves.

He announced Friday that he’ll nominate William Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, to the same role in his administration. If confirmed, Barr will fill the slot vacated by Jeff Sessions, who was unceremoniously jettisoned by Trump last month over lingering resentment for recusing himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.

Sessions was exiled less than 24 hours after polls closed. But Trump’s broader efforts to reshape his inner circle have been on hold, leading to a sense of near-paralysis in the building, with people unsure of what to do.

Trump also announced that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert is his pick to replace Nikki Haley as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he said he’d have another announcement Saturday about the military’s top brass.

All this came the same day that Trump’s re-election campaign announced that two veterans of the president’s 2016 campaign, White House political director Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, the director of the office of public liaison, were leaving the administration to work on Trump’s re-election campaign.

“Now is the best opportunity to be laser-focused on further building out the political infrastructure that will support victory for President Trump and the GOP in 2020,” campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

The moves had long been planned, and will give Kelly’s eventual successor room to build a new White House political team.

Kelly was not at the White House on Friday, but was expected to attend an East Room dinner with the president and senior staff.

Ayers, who is a seasoned campaign veteran despite his relative youth — he’s just 36 — has the backing of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law and senior advisers, for the new role, according to White House officials. But Ayers has also faced some resistance. During Trump’s flight home from a recent trip to Paris, some aides aboard Air Force One tried to convince the president that Ayers was the wrong person for the job, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Trump and Kelly’s relationship has been strained for months — with Kelly on the verge of resignation and Trump nearly firing him several times. But each time the two have decided to make amends, even as Kelly’s influence has waned.

Kelly, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, was tapped by Trump in August 2017 to try to normalize a White House that had been riven by infighting. And he had early successes, including ending an open-door Oval Office policy that had been compared to New York’s Grand Central Station and instituting a more rigorous policy process to try to prevent staffers from going directly to Trump.

But those efforts also miffed the president and some of his most influential outside allies, who had grown accustomed to unimpeded access. And his handling of domestic violence accusations against the former White House staff secretary also caused consternation, especially among lower-level White House staffers, who believed Kelly had lied to them about when he found out about the allegations.

Kelly, too, has made no secret of the trials of his job and has often joked about how working for Trump was harder than anything he’d done before, including on the battlefield.

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Stocks Drop 4 Percent in Rocky Week on Trade, Growth Worries

Wall Street capped a turbulent week of trading Friday with the biggest weekly loss since March as traders fret over rising trade tensions between Washington and Beijing and signals of slower economic growth. 

The latest wave of selling erased more than 550 points from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, bringing its three-day loss to more than 1,400. For the week, major indexes are down more than 4 percent. 

Worries that the testy U.S.-China trade dispute and higher interest rates will slow the economy has made investors uneasy, leading to volatile swings in the market from one day to the next.

Dispute between U.S. and China 

On Monday, news that the U.S. and China had agreed to a 90-day truce in their escalating trade conflict drove stocks sharply higher, adding to strong gains the week before. The next day, as doubts mounted over the likelihood of a swift resolution to the trade dispute, stocks sank. On Friday, another early rally faded into another sharp drop.

“We’re in a market where investors just want to sell any upside that they see,” said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at CFRA. “The volatility we’ve seen the last couple of weeks has been pretty extreme in both directions.”

The S&P 500 index fell 62.87 points, or 2.3 percent, to 2,633.08. The index has ended lower three out of the last four weeks. The Dow dropped 558.72 points, or 2.2 percent, to 24,388.95. 

The Nasdaq composite slid 219.01 points, or 3 percent, to 6,969.25. The Russell 2000 index of small-company stocks gave up 29.32 points, or 2 percent, to 1,448.09.

The S&P 500 and Dow are now in the red for the year again. The Nasdaq was holding on to a modest gain. 

Markets upset since October 

Volatility has gripped the market since early October, reflecting investors’ worries that the Federal Reserve might overshoot with its campaign of rate increases and hurt U.S. economic growth.

Traders also fear that a prolonged trade dispute between the U.S. and China could crimp corporate profits and that tariffs will raises costs for businesses and consumers. Uncertainty over those issues helped drive the market’s sell-off this week. 

“The Fed has taken the punch bowl away in getting back to rates where they are today,” said Doug Cote, chief market strategist for Voya Investment Management. “We’re also going to get back to more normal volatility.”

At the same time, traders are also worried about a sharp drop in long-term bond yields as investors plow money into Treasurys, which tends to happen when investors expect slower economic growth. 

Technology stocks accounted for much of the market’s broad slide Friday. Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices slid 8.6 percent to $19.46.

Health care stocks take big hit

Health care sector stocks, the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 this year, took some of the heaviest losses. Medical device company Cooper lost 12.3 percent to $243.01.

Utilities, which investors favor when they’re fearful, eked out a slight gain. PPL Corp. gained 2.8 percent to $31.09.

Oil prices rose after OPEC countries agreed to reduce global oil production by 1.2 million barrels a day for six months, beginning in January. The move would include a reduction of 800,000 barrels per day from OPEC countries and 400,000 barrels per day from Russia and other non-OPEC nations. 

The news, which had been widely anticipated, pushed crude oil prices higher. U.S. benchmark crude rose 2.2 percent to $52.61 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 2.7 percent to $61.67 a barrel in London.

The Labor Department said U.S. employers added 155,000 jobs in November, a slowdown from recent months but enough to suggest that the economy is expanding at a solid pace despite sharp gyrations in the stock market. The unemployment rate remained at 3.7 percent, nearly a five-decade low, for the third straight month. 

Bond prices rose, sending yields slightly lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 2.86 percent from 2.87 percent late Thursday. 

The decline in bond yields, which affect interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, weighed on banks, which make more money when rates are rising. Morgan Stanley slid 3 percent to $41.32.

The dollar rose to 112.66 yen from 112.65 yen late Thursday. The euro strengthened to $1.1418 from $1.1373.

Small gains for gold, silver

Gold gained 0.7 percent to $1,252.60 an ounce. Silver climbed 1.3 percent to $14.70 an ounce. Copper added 0.6 percent to $2.76 a pound.

In other commodities trading, wholesale gasoline climbed 3.7 percent to $1.49 a gallon. Heating oil rose 1.5 percent to $1.89 a gallon. Natural gas gained 3.7 percent to $4.49 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In Europe, Germany’s DAX dipped 0.2 percent while the CAC 40 in France rose 0.7 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 jumped 1.1 percent. Major indexes in Asia finished mostly higher. 

Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 added 0.8 percent and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.4 percent. South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.3 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gave up 0.3 percent. 

 

            

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Many US-Bound Caravan Migrants Disperse as Asylum Process Stalls

Thousands of Central American migrants spent weeks traveling north through Mexico in caravans, walking and hitching rides when possible, only for many to give up hope and turn back when they met resistance at the U.S. border.

Others hopped the border fence, often directly into the hands of immigration authorities on the U.S. side, while still others dug in at temporary lodgings in Tijuana for the long process of seeking asylum from a reluctant U.S. government.

As rain poured down on a former music venue in Tijuana that holds a diminished crowd of 2,500 migrants, Jessica, 18, grabbed her feverish 1-year-old daughter and took her inside to a friend while she figured out what to do with her broken tent.

Jessica had traveled from El Salvador, and said she and her husband were waiting in the Barretal camp for the right moment to try to cross the border illegally.

“Getting asylum is really difficult,” she said. “They ask you for a lot of evidence and it’s impossible. It’s not like they say it is.”

Other migrants face the same dilemma. Of 6,000 who arrived in Tijuana in the caravans last month, 1,000 have scrambled over border fences, and most of those were detained, the head of Mexico’s civil protection agency David Leon told local media on Wednesday.

A further 1,000 have accepted voluntary deportation, he said, while others are living on the street outside the municipal sports center where they first arrived, or in smaller shelters. The director of the Barretal camp, Mario Medina, said he expected hundreds more to arrive within days.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to make it harder to get asylum, but a federal court last month placed a temporary restraining order on his policy that only permitted asylum claims made at official ports of entry.

Under former President Barack Obama a system dubbed “metering” began, which limits how many can ask for asylum each day in Tijuana. Lawyers say Trump is using the system more aggressively to stem the flow at the port of entry.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokeswoman said the agency works with Mexico and charities to manage the flow, but denied that people were being prevented from making asylum claims.

Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, which did not respond to requests for comment, has said in the past it protects migrants rights, while respecting other countries’ immigration policies.

Looking after the large groups of Central Americans is a challenge for Mexico. New President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to issue more work visas and on Friday pledged to do more to improve conditions at the Barretal shelter.

His government is in talks with Washington about an immigration plan, including a U.S. proposal to make asylum seekers stay in Mexico until their claim is decided, a process that can take years. Some believe that would deter people from seeking refuge.

NAVIGATING THE LIST

Despite the wait, more people are adding their names to the semi-formal asylum list. Created a couple of years ago around the time an influx of Haitians arrived in Tijuana seeking to enter the United States, it has been challenged in a U.S. lawsuit that claims it deliberately delays asylum seekers.

Migrants put their names in a black-and-white ledger, controlled by around eight migrant volunteers. Those on the list are given a number and must wait months to pass through for an interview. The list contains thousands of names from around the world.

Each day, CBP officials communicate with Mexican immigration officials who then tell the migrants how many can go through, according to volunteers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said between 40 and 100 per day are usually sent.

At the end of each day, Mexican immigration officials guard the ledger. Lawyers have cited multiple problems with this system. For instance, they have said, some people on the list could be Mexicans fleeing the federal government.

Some migrants expressed distrust of the list. Honduran Anabell Pineda, 26, said she thought the process was not for her as she left behind a daughter in Honduras.

“They say, though I don’t know, that asylum is for people that don’t want to go back to their country, and I do want to go back,” she said.

Pineda, traveling with her son, said that once she gets her paperwork, she plans find a job in Mexico City.

Pineda has applied for a humanitarian visa that will get her a work permit in Mexico, a better bet than trying to get to the United States, she said.

“It’s really difficult to cross, because of what happened last time. I don’t want to put my children in danger,” she said, referring to disturbances in which U.S. officials launched tear gas at migrants last month.

At a jobs fair set up by the federal Labor Ministry, coordinator Nayla Rangel said more than 3,000 migrants, mainly from the caravan, had job interviews.

Rangel said there were more than 10,000 jobs open in the state of Baja California, with salaries around 1500 pesos ($74) per week. For many migrants hoping to send money to families in Central America, that likely would not be enough.

 

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Mueller: Ex-Trump Campaign Chair Manafort Lied to Investigators

U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to federal investigators about a payment and contacts with Trump administration officials, the U.S. special counsel investigating whether Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia said in a court filing on Friday.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office submitted the filing to a U.S. District Court judge in Washington who had asked for more details on Mueller’s allegations last month that Manafort had breached a plea agreement by lying.

“In his interviews with the Special Counsel’s Office and the FBI, Manafort told multiple discernible lies — these were not instances of mere memory lapses,” Mueller’s office said in the filing.

According to the filing, Manafort lied about his interactions with Russian-Ukranian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik, Kilimnik’s efforts to tamper with witnesses, the circumstances surrounding a $125,000 payment to a firm working for Manafort, and Manafort’s contacts with officials in the Trump administration.

Manafort also provided investigators with shifting accounts about information relevant to another Department of Justice investigation.

The filing also said that Manafort, who maintains he has been truthful to Mueller, appeared before a grand jury twice.

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Storm Smacks Southern California with Floods, Mudslides

The second storm in a week brought record-breaking rainfall to parched Los Angeles on Thursday, jamming traffic on Southern California highways and prompting evacuations in wildfire-scarred areas.

A mudslide shut down Pacific Coast Highway and surrounding roads in and around Malibu neighborhoods charred by last month’s massive fire that destroyed hundreds of homes.

Kirby Kotler and his neighbors spent days before the storm stacking 18,000 sandbags behind their homes along the highway. But when heavy rains arrived, mud, water and rocks blasted through the bags and across their properties.

Kotler, who wielded water hoses to beat back the flames in November, used a tractor to keep the debris from entering his home.

“Saving my house once again,” said Kotler, 57, a lifelong Malibu resident. “I’m more than a little concerned. If we get another blast of heavy rain there’ll be no stopping the hill from coming down.”

Malibu officials reported no injuries and no major property damage.​

Plane slides off runway

At Hollywood Burbank Airport, about 15 miles (33 kilometers) north of downtown Los Angeles, nobody was hurt when a Southwest Airlines plane from Oakland skidded off a wet runway as it landed. The plane came to a stop in a graded area designed to slow aircraft that overshoot the runway, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

“As we landed, you could feel the brakes,” passenger Grant Palmer told KABC-TV. “Then I started noticing the plane going sideways.”

Palmer said he was prepared to tuck into an emergency posture while his unflappable co-worker continued writing emails during the rough landing. 

 

Needed rainfall brings accidents

Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California sorely need rainfall. Virtually the entire region is experiencing drought conditions, with portions of Los Angeles and Ventura counties and areas along the Mexican border in extreme drought.

The storm provided a big boost in and around Los Angeles. The downtown area set a new rainfall record for the day with 1.9 inches (4.8 centimeters) of rain, nearly double the previous record set in 1997, the National Weather Service reported. Normal monthly rainfall for December is only a bit more, 2.33 inches.

While rain caused numerous accidents and backups on LA-area freeways, heavy snow forced the closure of Interstate 5 in the Grapevine area between Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley. The hourslong shutdown along the key north-south route caused backups for miles.

Motorists were urged to use caution on mountain passes, where up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) of snow was predicted at higher elevations. 

​More evacuations 

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for hundreds of homes in Trabuco Canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains south of Los Angeles and Lake Elsinore neighborhoods in Riverside County. Both were burned in another massive wildfire earlier this year. Video showed a churning, muddy torrent full of tree trunks smashing down a bridge guardrail.

In Orange County, flooding closed several schools. Floodwaters also submerged several cars in Costa Mesa and rain partially collapsed the roof of a commercial building in Irvine but no injuries were reported.

In San Diego County, rain partially collapsed the roof of a child care center in Carlsbad.

Nobody was injured and the children, staff and even pets inside were evacuated, including a chinchilla, a snake, a scorpion, a tarantula, a leopard gecko, two toads, a tree frog, a bearded dragon and a lizard, KSWB-TV reported.

A portion of southbound State Route 170 in Los Angeles was shut down after mud flowed onto the roadway. Firefighters rescued motorists from cars stuck in a flooded intersection in the city’s North Hollywood area.

Firefighters also rescued a man from the flood-swollen Los Angeles River in suburban La Habra. Storm waters in the concrete flood-control channel have swept away people in previous years. 

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Both Political Parties Use Ballot Harvesting, But What is It?

An investigation into whether political operatives in North Carolina illegally collected and possibly stole absentee ballots in a still-undecided congressional race has drawn attention to a widespread but little-known political tool called ballot harvesting.

It’s a practice long used by special-interest groups and both major political parties that is viewed either as a voter service that boosts turnout or a nefarious activity that subjects voters to intimidation and makes elections vulnerable to fraud.

The groups rely on data showing which voters requested absentee ballots but have not turned them in. They then go door-to-door and offer to collect and turn in those ballots for the voters — often dozens or hundreds at a time. Some place ballot-collection boxes in high-concentration voter areas, such as college campuses, and then take the ballots to election offices when the boxes are full.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, election officials are investigating whether Republican political operatives in parts of the 9th Congressional District harvested ballots from minority voters and didn’t deliver them to the election offices. In some cases they are accused of harvesting ballots that were not sealed and only partially filled out. Ballot harvesting is illegal under state law, which allows only a family member or legal guardian to drop off absentee ballots for a voter.

Investigators are focusing on areas in the district where an unusually high number of absentee ballots were not returned. They want to know whether some ballots were not turned in as promised to the local elections office, were unsealed or only partially filled out.

Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, but the state elections board has refused to certify the results. The head of the state Republican Party said Thursday that he would be open to holding a new election if there is evidence of fraud.

Sick, elderly and poor

Supporters of ballot harvesting say they worry the North Carolina election may give an important campaign tool an unnecessary black eye. These groups see their mission as helping voters who are busy with work or caring for children, and empowering those who are sick, elderly and poor. Collecting ballots to turn in at a centralized voting hub also has been an important tool for decades on expansive and remote Native American reservations.

“Sometimes we think of voting as this really straightforward process and we often forget that all voters, but for new voters in particular, there’s a lot of confusion when voting about when they actually have to vote by, where they have to take their ballot to,” said Rachel Huff-Doria, executive director of the voter advocacy group Forward Montana.

​Arizona

Several states have tried to limit ballot harvesting by restricting who can turn in another person’s ballot. In Arizona, a video that showed a volunteer dropping off hundreds of ballots at a polling place prompted a debate that led to an anti-ballot harvesting law in 2016.

“I think at any level, Republican, Democrat or anything, it’s wrong. It’s a terrible practice,” said former Arizona Republican Party chairman Robert Graham, who backed the law. “People should be responsible for their own votes.”

The Arizona law making it a felony in most cases to collect an early ballot was challenged in federal court before the 2016 election, and blocked by an appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and allowed the law to be enforced.

Further challenges have so far been unsuccessful, most recently just before the midterm election.

Montana

Montana was the latest state to pass an anti-ballot harvesting law when voters approved a referendum last month. Al Olszewski, a Republican state senator, said he proposed the ban after two of his constituents in northwestern Montana complained of pushy ballot collectors coming to their homes.

“For a woman in her 70s that’s maybe frail and lives alone and feels intimidated, at least now they can say please leave” and have confidence that the law is behind them, he said.

Voting-rights advocates are dismayed that such laws are being passed without evidence of actual ballot fraud happening, at least before questions were raised about the activities in the North Carolina congressional race. They say restricting who can collect ballots punishes certain voters without doing anything to actually detect, deter or punish fraud.

“If you have an honest person who is trying to help voters, then who they are doesn’t matter as long as they return (the ballot),” said Myrna Perez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program.

​California

California went in the opposite direction when it passed a law in 2016 to allow ballot harvesting.

Republicans felt the new law’s effects during this year’s midterm elections after congressional districts that GOP candidates were leading on Election Day flipped to the Democrats when a flood of last-minute mail-in ballots were counted along with provisional ballots.

The rout included several seats that had been held by Republicans in the former GOP stronghold of Orange County, where more than 250,000 mail-in ballots were turned in on Election Day. And in the agriculture-dominant Central Valley, Republican incumbents Jeff Denham and David Valadao saw their leads disappear after a tally of late-arriving ballots.

Valadao, for example, had an initial lead of more than 7 percentage points, but Democrat T.J. Cox pulled ahead after winning 56 percent of the votes counted after Election Day.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan described California’s election system as “bizarre” in an interview with The Washington Post.

California’s situation underscored that ballot harvesting is an important tool for political parties. Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker wrote in a newsletter last month that Republicans must “develop a response to this new law that allows us to remain competitive.”

Even Olszewski, the sponsor of Montana’s anti-ballot harvesting measure, acknowledges that laws such as his are unlikely to eliminate ballot harvesting completely. Such “micro-targeting” of voters when used with technology to identify individuals’ political leanings has become too important and effective in get-out-the-vote efforts, he said.

“I think the Democrats, they’re the ones that figured it out and were far more successful in ‘18, in this election, than the Republicans ever were,” he said. “The Republicans, what I’m hearing right now early on is, holy cow, we need to learn how to do this as good or better than the Democrats at harvesting ballots. We have the data.”

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