Reliability of Pricey New Voting Machines Questioned

In the rush to replace insecure, unreliable electronic voting machines after Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, state and local officials have scrambled to acquire more trustworthy equipment for this year’s election, when U.S. intelligence agencies fear even worse problems.

But instead of choosing simple, hand-marked paper ballots that are most resistant to tampering because paper cannot be hacked, many are opting for pricier technology that computer security experts consider almost as risky as earlier discredited electronic systems.

Called ballot-marking devices, the machines have touchscreens for registering voter choice. Unlike touchscreen-only machines, they print out paper records that are scanned by optical readers. South Carolina voters will use them in Saturday’s primary.

The most pricey solution available, they are at least twice as expensive as the hand-marked paper ballot option. They have been vigorously promoted by the three voting equipment vendors that control 88 percent of the U.S. market.

Some of the most popular ballot-marking machines, made by industry leaders Election Systems & Software and Dominion Voting Systems, register votes in bar codes that the human eye cannot decipher. That’s a problem, researchers say: Voters could end up with printouts that accurately spell out the names of the candidates they picked, but, because of a hack, the bar codes do not reflect those choices. Because the bar codes are what’s tabulated, voters would never know that their ballots benefited another candidate.

Even on machines that do not use bar codes, voters may not notice if a hack or programming error mangled their choices. A University of Michigan study determined that only 7 percent of participants in a mock election notified poll workers when the names on their printed receipts did not match the candidates they voted for.

ES&S rejects those scenarios. Spokeswoman Katina Granger said the company’s ballot-marking machines’ accuracy and security “have been proven through thousands of hours of testing and tens of thousands of successful elections.” Dominion declined to comment for this story.

Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. voters will be using ballot-marking machines this year, compared with less than 2% in 2018, according to Verified Voting, which tracks voting technology.

Pivotal counties in the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina have bought ballot-marking machines. So have counties in much of Texas, as well as California’s Los Angeles County and all of Georgia, Delaware and South Carolina. The machines’ certification has often been streamlined in the rush to get machines in place for presidential primaries.

Ballot-marking devices were not conceived as primary vote-casting tools but as accessible options for people with disabilities.

Critics see them as vulnerable to hacking. At last year’s DefCon hacker convention in Las Vegas, it took tinkerers at the ‘Voting Village’ not even eight hours to hack two older ballot-marking devices.

Tampering aside, some of the newer ballot-marking machines have stumbled badly in actual votes. That happened most spectacularly in November when ES&S’s top-of-the-line ExpressVote XL debuted in a Pennsylvania county.

Even without technical troubles, the new machines can lead to longer lines, potentially reducing turnout. Voters need more time to cast ballots and the machine’s high costs have prompted election officials to limit how many they purchase.

“There are a huge number of reasons to reject today’s ballot-marking devices — except for limited use as assistive devices for those unable to mark a paper ballot themselves,” says Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist who co-authored the voting technology history “Broken Ballots.” ’

But election officials see ballot-marking devices as improvements over paperless touchscreens, which were used by 27 percent of voters in 2018. They like them because the touchscreens are familiar to voters, looking and feeling like what they have been using for nearly two decades, and officials can use one voting method for everyone.

Michael Anderson, elections director for Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County, said “voters want it.” The county offers voters both machine- and hand-marked ballots.

“When we give them a paper ballot, the very first thing they say to us is, ‘We’re going back in time,’” he said.

New York State election commission co-chair Douglas Kellner was an early critic of paperless electronic voting machines. But he is confident in a ballot-marking device, the ImageCast Evolution by Dominion, certified for use in his state. He said safeguards built into the machines and security protocols make a hack of the Image Evolution “extraordinarily unlikely.”

But Jones is among experts who think today’s ballot-marking devices undermine the very idea of retaining a paper record that can be used in audits and recounts. It’s an idea supported by a 2018 National Academies of Sciences report that favors hand-marked paper ballots tallied by optical scanners. Some 70 percent of U.S. voters used them in the past two presidential elections and will do so again in November.

One state, Colorado, is banning bar codes from ballot-marking voting machines beginning in 2021.

Election administrators who reject hand-marked paper ballots as antiquated, inconvenient or unwieldy have few options beyond ballot-marking devices. That’s because the $300 million voting equipment and services industry is so insular and entrenched.

The industry faces virtually no federal regulation even though election technology was designated critical infrastructure in January 2017. Federal certification guidelines for voting machine design are 15 years old and voluntary. The leading vendors have resisted publicly disclosing third-party penetration testing of their systems.

”It’s a self-reinforcing system that keeps it frozen in a place in the past,” said Eddie Perez, a former product development director for Hart InterCivic, the No. 3 voting equipment company, now with the OSET Institute, a nonprofit that promotes reliable voting solutions. “They don’t want to make any changes in the equipment unless they absolutely have to.”

The Republican-controlled Senate has refused to take up bills that would, among other things, require a voter-verifiable paper trail and require bulletproof postelection audits. Republicans say the federal government should not impinge on states’ authority to oversee elections.

Northampton County, on Pennsylvania’s eastern edge, mirrored the state’s choice in 2016 by voting for Donald Trump after twice choosing Barack Obama. Last Election Day, it became ground zero in the debate over ballot-marking devices.

The county’s new ExpressVote XLs failed doubly.

First, a programming misconfiguration prevented votes cast for one of three candidates in a judge’s race from registering in the bar codes used to count the vote. Only absentee ballot votes registered for the candidate, said the county executive, Lamont McClure. The other problem was miscalibrated touchscreens, which can “flip” votes or simply make it difficult to vote for one’s desired candidate due to faulty screen alignment. They were on about one-third of the county’s 320 machines, which cost taxpayers $8,250 each.

One poll judge called the touch screens “garbage.” Some voters, in emails obtained by the AP in a public records request, said their votes were assigned to the wrong candidates. Others worried about long lines in future elections.

Voters require triple the time on average to navigate ES&S ballot-marking machines compared to filling out hand-marked ballots and running them through scanners, according to state certification documents.

ES&S said its employees had flubbed the programming and failed to perform adequate preelection testing of the machines or adequately train election workers, which would have caught the errors.

Election commissioners were livid, but unable to return the machines for a refund because they are appointees.

“I feel like I’ve been played,” commissioner Maudeania Hornik said at a December meeting with ES&S representatives. She later told the AP she had voted for the devices believing they would be more convenient than hand-marked paper ballots, especially for seniors.

“What we worry is, what happens the next time if there’s a programming bug — or a hack or whatever — and it’s done in a way that’s not obvious?” said Daniel Lopresti, a commissioner and Lehigh University computer scientist.

ES&S election equipment has failed elsewhere. Flawed software in ballot-marking devices delayed the vote count by 13 hours in Kansas’ largest county during the August 2018 gubernatorial primary. Another Johnson County, this one in Indiana, scrapped the company’s computerized voter check-in system after Election Day errors that same year caused long lines.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever seen an election computer — a voting computer — whose software was done to a high standard,” said Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer scientist who has found errors in results produced by ES&S electronic voting machines.

Voting integrity activists have sued, seeking to prevent the further use in Pennsylvania of the ExpressVote XL. Grassroots organizations including Common Cause are fighting to prevent their certification in New York State.

ES&S defends the machine. In a Dec. 12 filing in a Pennsylvania lawsuit, company executive Dean Baumer said the ExpressVote XL had never been compromised and said breaches of the machine “are a practical impossibility.”

ES&S lobbied hard in Pennsylvania for the ExpressVote XL, though not always legally.

After ES&S won a $29 million contract in Philadelphia last year in a hasty procurement, that city’s controller did some digging. She determined that ES&S’ vice president of finance had failed to disclose, in a mandatory campaign contribution form, activities of consultants who spent more than $400,000, including making campaign contributions to two commissioners involved in awarding the contract. ES&S agreed to pay a record $2.9 million penalty as a result. It said the executive’s failure to disclose was “inadvertent.”

The Philadelphia episode contradicts claims by ES&S officials, including by CEO Tom Burt in Jan. 8 testimony to a congressional committee, that the company does not make campaign contributions.

Public records show ES&S contributed $25,000 from 2014-2016 to the Republican State Leadership Committee which seeks GOP control of state legislatures.

ES&S has also paid for trips to Las Vegas of an “advisory board” of top elections officials, including from South Carolina, New York City and Dallas County, Texas, according to records shared with the AP from a Freedom of Information request.

Philadelphia paid more than twice as much for its ExpressVote XL machines per voter ($27) as what Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, disbursed ($12) for hand-marked paper ballots and scanners — plus ballot-markers for the disabled — from the same vendor.

Allegheny County’s elections board rejected ballot-marking devices as too risky for all but disabled voters. Its vice chair, state judge Kathryn Hens-Greco, regretted during a September hearing having to award ES&S the county’s business at all given its behavior in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

But no other vendor offered a hand-marked option with enough ballot-configuration flexibility for the county’s 130 municipalities.

While cybersecurity risks can’t be eliminated, Hens-Greco said, the county would at least have “the ability to recover” from any mischief: a paper trail of hand-marked ballots.

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Trump to Appoint New Ambassador to Germany

U.S. President Donald Trump said Sunday he plans to appoint a new ambassador to Germany after giving Ambassador Richard Grenell the job of acting director of national intelligence.

In response to a VOA question, Trump said he would be naming a replacement and praised Grenell as having done “a fantastic job.”

The White House also confirmed to VOA that Trump plans to name a permanent director of national intelligence.

“We have four or five people that are great, very respected,” Trump said of his potential choice, which he plans to announce soon.

The president said in response to another VOA question that Grenell will continue in his role as special envoy between Serbia and Kosovo.

“He’s going to continue to maintain that because he’s got such good dialogue,” Trump said.

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Trump: If Partial Truce Holds, ‘I Would Put My Name’ on Taliban Peace Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump said Sunday a seven-day partial truce with the Afghan Taliban has “been holding up” and it could eventually lead to his signing of a peace deal with the insurgent group scheduled for this week.

Trump’s remarks came a day after the “reduction in violence” truce took effect across Afghanistan on Saturday, with U.S., Taliban and Afghan forces agreeing not to launch offensive operations for a week.

“I want to see how this period of a week works out,” Trump told reporters before his departure on a trip to India. He said the cooling off period has “been holding up” but Trump stressed that progress over the remaining days was key to taking next steps in the Afghan peace process. 

The “reduction in violence” is meant to pave the way for U.S. and Taliban officials to sign a comprehensive agreement in Qatar later this week that would set the stage for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops to bring an end to America’s longest war.  

“If it works out over the next less-than-a-week, I would put my name on it, yes. Time to come home,” Trump said when asked whether he would sign the U.S.-Taliban agreement Saturday.  “And they (Taliban) want to stop. I think the Taliban wants to make a deal, too. They’re tired of fighting,” the U.S. president said.  

The two adversaries have negotiated a draft agreement in contentious off-and-on negotiations spread over a period of 18 months, hosted by Doha, Qatar. The gulf state is where the Taliban also maintains its political office.  

Meanwhile, a senior Qatar foreign ministry envoy reportedly visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, Sunday where he met with President Ashraf Ghani and other political figures to discuss the upcoming signing ceremony, among other issues. Mutlaq Bin Majed Al-Qahtani later shared details of his meetings with the Afghan TOLO TV channel. 

“Quite important countries and organizations, permanent and non-permanent members in the security council, neighboring countries and all the stakeholders — all those countries who are going to support the peace process of Afghanistan —will attend the signing ceremony,” the channel quoted Al-Qahtani as saying. “Hopefully, we can conclude this and sign it in Doha on the 29 this month,” the envoy added.  

The Taliban-Afghan peace talks are expected to begin within two weeks of the signing of the agreement, if they lead to a further reduction of violence, the United States will initiate a significant troop reduction over a period of several months.   

The U.S.-Taliban agreement provides a timetable for the withdrawal of American and coalition forces from Afghanistan, Taliban counterterrorism guarantees, and a process for political reconciliation between Afghan parties to the conflict through an intra-Afghan dialogue process.  

If Washington is satisfied with the progress in intra-Afghan talks, it will continue to reduce its forces according to a roadmap outlined in the agreement with the Taliban. A complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, however, will be linked to progress in the reconciliation talks and the Taliban’s anti-terrorist assurances.

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From Fringe Candidate to Front-Runner: Sanders Wins Nevada With Diverse Backers

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, often maligned by opponents as a liberal outsider who cannot unify the Democratic Party, won the party’s Nevada caucuses by a comfortable margin thanks to a diverse coalition of supporters, according to polling agency Edison Research.

Edison, which compiles voter polls and live election results for media organizations including ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News and Reuters, found Sanders won the largest share of whites and nonwhite caucus-goers.

Hispanics in particular — who account for nearly one-third of Nevada’s population — loomed large in his victory as he claimed support from more than half of the Latinos attending Saturday’s caucuses.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks onstage to speak at a campaign event at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Feb. 21, 2020.

Sanders also won caucus-goers of nearly every age group. He won the largest share of women and men, including white college-educated women — a group that is expected to be especially important for Democrats to win against Republican President Donald Trump in November.

And despite a public feud with Nevada’s 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union over his signature plan to replace private health insurance with a government program, Sanders won the largest share of the union vote. One of every three people who either belonged to a union or had a family member in a union said they would support Sanders.

Edison’s polling also found Sanders won most of those caucus-goers who said they cared more about a candidate’s stance on the issues than their perceived electability.

Here are some other highlights from the Edison poll, which was based on interviews with 2,746 Nevada Democrats, including about 1,780 as they entered early voting sites earlier in the week and another 966 on Saturday at 30 locations around the state:

** Among Hispanics, 53% said they were going to support Sanders ahead of the caucuses.

** Among African Americans, 36% said they supported former Vice President Joe Biden, while 27% favored Sanders and 18% backed billionaire Tom Steyer.

Nevada Democratic Caucus, Partial Results

** Among caucus-goers who are members of a labor union or have family members in a union, 34% said they planned to caucus for Sanders. About one in four caucus-goers said they were part of a union family.

** 62% said they support replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan. That initiative, also known as Medicare for All, is a signature issue for Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. It was criticized earlier this month by the state’s Culinary Workers Union in what was seen as a boost for more moderate Democrats who are still in the race.

** 43% of Democratic Nevada caucus-goers say healthcare is the issue that mattered most to them when deciding which candidate to support. Another 25% said it was climate change, 18% said it was income inequality and 9% said foreign policy.

Volunteers register caucusers at a caucus site at Sparks High School for the Nevada Democratic presidential caucuses in Reno, Nevada, Feb. 22, 2020.

** Among white, college-educated women, 22% said they planned to caucus for Sanders, compared with 19% for Klobuchar, 18% for Warren, 17% for Buttigieg and 13% for Biden.

** Sanders had the largest share of support from caucus-goers of all age groups, except those 65 and older. Among the 65-plus group, 28% said in entrance polling that they supported Biden, 20% supported Klobuchar, 14% supported Buttigieg and 12% supported Sanders.

** 52% of those participating in the Democratic caucus were doing so for the first time. A record number of Democrats were expected to have attended the Nevada caucuses, in part because of population growth in the state and also the party’s decision to allow residents to vote early this year for the first time.

** 65% say that when picking a candidate to support, they are thinking mostly about that person’s electability instead of whether the candidate agrees with them on major issues.

** 66% of Democratic caucus-goers said they considered themselves to be liberal. Another 31% said they were moderates and 3% were conservative.

** Among political moderates, support was largely split among Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg, with those three candidates getting a little more than 20% each.

** Most of Nevada’s caucus-goers came with their minds made up. Eighty-three percent of Democratic caucus-goers said they made their pick for the party’s nomination more than a few days before the caucus.

** About half of the poll respondents were college graduates. The other half did not have a college degree.

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African Americans Alert to Social Media Disinformation

A study by the Nielsen ratings service says African Americans are among the nation’s top consumers of social media especially about presidential politics. A U.S. Intelligence report says that made them a target of a Russian disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an effort Moscow is widely expected to repeat. VOA’s Chris Simkins reports from South Carolina where African Americans say they’re on the lookout for false content on social media.

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Sanders Wins: Key Nevada Caucuses Takeaways

Sen. Bernie Sanders cruised to victory in the Nevada caucuses, heartening his supporters and stoking alarm among moderates who fear he is too liberal and would lose to President Donald Trump.

Here are some takeaways from the Nevada caucuses:

Sanders’ presidential bid gets rocket fuel

Sanders’ convincing win means there is no longer an asterisk next to his status as the front-runner in the race. He proved his strength with a broad coalition that included Latino voters, union members and African Americans.

Now Sanders claims three victories in a row heading into South Carolina next Saturday, and more important, Super Tuesday on March 3 when about one-third of the delegates needed for the nomination are at stake. The biggest prizes that day, California and Texas, look a lot like Nevada demographically.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Feb. 20, 2020.

Another advantage: His opponents remain splintered and, with the exception of billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, underfunded to compete across such a vast terrain.

But now there will be extraordinary pressure to try to consolidate moderate support in an effort to stop Sanders’ rise. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren will have a decision to make on how much she tries to draw separation from Sanders since they are both competing for the progressive vote.

There is at least one strong note of caution about Sanders’ success. In Iowa and New Hampshire he didn’t seem to grow the electorate substantially. Data is still out in Nevada.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign rally, Feb. 22, 2020, in Denver.

Buttigieg issues warning about Sanders

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ran well behind Sanders, but he tried to cast himself as the strongest alternative to Sanders.

In language uncharacteristically blunt, Buttigieg issued a warning to Democrats about the perils of nominating Sanders, whom he characterized as inflexible and whose ideas are not in the American mainstream.

“Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans,” Buttigieg told supporters. He held himself out as the only viable alternative. “We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory,” Buttigieg said.

He added: “Sen. Sanders sees capitalism as the root of all evil. He’d go beyond reform and reorder the economy in ways most Democrats — let alone most Americans — don’t support.”

Despite his forceful argument, there’s a serious risk to Buttigieg in the upcoming calendar. He will have to win over black voters in South Carolina, then pivot to a multistate primary with comparatively limited resources. Buttigieg put out a plea for $13 million from donors before Super Tuesday.

The former mayor of a city of 100,000 has repeatedly defied the odds in the presidential nominating contests, but the odds are getting longer.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a Nevada Caucus night event in Las Vegas, Feb. 22, 2020.

Biden has his back against a firewall

Former Vice President Joe Biden was hoping Nevada would turn things around for him after a disastrous showing in Iowa and then New Hampshire. He argued that he’d do better in a more diverse state.

But Biden again lost badly even as he told supporters at a union hall, “We’re alive and coming back and we’re gonna win.”

His last and best hope may be to win in South Carolina next Saturday. He’s counting on his support among the state’s black voters — they could make up two-thirds of the voters — to serve as his firewall.

If Biden doesn’t win South Carolina, the rationale for his candidacy will much harder to maintain.

In Las Vegas, he tried out a new rallying cry: “I ain’t a socialist. I ain’t a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat. And I’m proud of it.” Party loyalty may be all Biden has left.

Maybe Culinary isn’t all-powerful after all

The 60,000-member Culinary Workers Local 226 represents workers in the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, and it’s routinely described, correctly, as the most powerful force in the state’s Democratic politics. But it’s not omnipotent.

Culinary didn’t want Sanders to win. It has strongly opposed his “Medicare for All” plan, warning its members that it would eliminate their own generous health plan. Some observers thought the union might end up backing Biden. But after the former vice president’s embarrassing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Culinary instead stayed neutral.

The calls from leadership went unheeded by many. Sanders had strong showings in some caucuses in casinos where crowds of Culinary members chanted the Vermont senator’s name and powered him to wins in most casinos. Culinary is driven by its members, many of whom are Sanders supporters, and there was no consensus among the rest about what they should do.

Leadership decided to refrain from a divisive fight, helping pave the way for Sanders’ win. It’s a reminder that even in places like Nevada with strong political institutions, those institutions ultimately derive their power from voters.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., reacts while meeting supporters at a campaign office, Feb. 22, 2020, in Las Vegas.

No bounce for Klobuchar

Sen. Amy Klobuchar produced one of the few surprises of the race when she surged to a third-place finish in New Hampshire, announced that she had raised more than $12 million, and vowed to prove her doubters wrong.

Her momentum proved short-lived. She finished well behind the leading candidates, and in the process, prompted questions about her viability.

But in a speech to supporters in her home state of Minnesota, she was defiant and said she would continue. She even tried to make a virtue of the fact that Trump mentioned her name at a rally. 

“By the way, for the first time ever, he mentioned me at a rally,” she said. “You know I’ve arrived now. You know they must be worried.”

Probably not. Time is running out for candidates who haven’t finished higher than third in any contest. That also applies to Warren, also desperately needs a win. Her strong debate performance came after much of the state had already cast early votes.

Not a great return on investment

Tom Steyer, the billionaire who made his fortune running a hedge fund, bet heavily in Nevada, more than $12 million on advertising, and lost big, finishing sixth. Steyer has made strong appeals to minority voters, but in Nevada, failed decisively.

But Steyer’s impact on the race could come next week in South Carolina, where he has spent even more money. Polls show that he has made significant inroads among African American voters. That would not be good news for Biden, who is counting on those votes to resuscitate his campaign.

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Is America Ready to Elect a Gay President?

Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay U.S. presidential candidate to mount a major campaign, has emerged as one of the leaders in the Democratic Party’s early nomination contests.

While Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not been a major issue in the Democratic race, many believe it would become a point of contention if he won the nomination to face President Donald Trump in November.

For his part, Buttigieg neither trumpets nor hides his sexuality. On the campaign trail, he speaks of being gay in terms of family values, emphasizing he is in a loving, committed same-sex marriage, and what his candidacy says about inclusion and equality in America today.

“One of the best things about this campaign has been being able to meet, especially young people who don’t always know if their family or their community has a place for them or their country. And being able to insist, the fact that I’m standing here, that, yes you do [have a place],” Buttigieg said recently at a Democratic town hall in Las Vegas, Nevada.

WATCH: Is America Ready to Elect a Gay President?

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Political evolution

The 38-year-old former two-term mayor of a small city in Indiana and a military veteran of the Afghanistan war has become a legitimate contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, emerging as the delegate leader after the first two nominating contests.

The early viability of Buttigieg’s candidacy is the latest sign of increasing public acceptance of diverse sexual orientations in the United States.

“Pete’s success so far in this campaign represents an evolution in American politics, upending traditional notions of electability and proving that America is ready to elect its first openly gay president,” Elliot Imse, communication director at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg waves to the crowd with his husband, Chasten, at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Nashua, N.H., Feb. 11, 2020.

LGBTQ is an inclusive designation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other sexual orientations.

It was less than five years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in a ruling that dramatically advanced LGBTQ rights in America. Over the past two decades, public support for same-sex marriage, seen as an indicator of acceptance of the LGBTQ community as a whole, has flipped from 60% opposition to more than 60% approval.

Activist groups like the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Imse said, have helped get “Pete’s race off the ground” by providing financial backing, volunteers and visibility in LGBTQ media outlets.

Casting himself as a moderate, Buttigieg earned the most pledged delegates and finished second in the voting in the Iowa caucuses behind progressive Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. In the New Hampshire primary, Buttigieg came in second, while former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed front-runner, fell to fourth and fifth place, respectively, in the two contests.

Protesters with Black Lives Matter protest a visit by Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, during a visit to A Bridge Home Project homeless shelter in Los Angeles, Jan. 10, 2020.

However, as the race shifts to states with large African American and Latino populations, it is unclear if Buttigieg can maintain his momentum, and whether his sexual orientation will cost him votes.

A Feb. 17 ABC/Washington Post national poll has Buttigieg trailing with only 9% support, far behind Sanders, who has 32%, Biden, with 16%, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a late comer to the race, with 14%.

Buttigieg has struggled to gain support from minority voters. In a Washington Post/Ipsos poll of African American voters taken in January, he had the highest unfavorable rating among the candidates.

The same poll showed 40% of African American respondents saying they are reluctant to vote for a gay man.

Michael Fauntroy, who teaches political science at Howard University in Washington, downplayed Buttigieg’s sexuality as disqualifying and said, “most voters do not place as high priority on this” as they do on larger issues like health care and jobs. Buttigieg’s newcomer status in national politics better explains his challenge to connect with minority voters, Fauntroy said.

“I think the bigger issue, as it pertains to African Americans and Latinos, is the fact that they just don’t know him relative to the other candidates,” Fauntroy said.

Buttigieg’s sexuality did not pose an insurmountable obstacle in 2015, when he won reelection for mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a significant African American population. Buttigieg got 74% of the vote.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks with an AP reporter as he walks in downtown South Bend, Ind., Jan. 10, 2019.

“If African Americans were sort of disproportionately inclined to not vote for somebody who is gay, you would think that would have shown up there as well,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Looming attacks

So far, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not proved divisive within the Democratic Party, which touts support for greater diversity and counts minorities as key components of a broad coalition. Outside the party, however, he already has drawn fire for his sexuality.

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom the president recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, provided a taste of negative attacks that could await Buttigieg. During a recent radio program, Limbaugh contrasted Trump, whom he called “Mr. Man,” with Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage, and said Americans are “still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage [as] president.”

Some observers say such comments may resonate with social conservatives but could alienate moderates who have supported Trump.

“I think any effort like that, on the part of Rush Limbaugh or others, is likely to engender sympathy [for Buttigieg] among mainstream middle-class, suburban soccer moms,” Barker said.

Responding to Limbaugh, Buttigieg contrasted his union with his husband, Chasten, to those of Trump, who has married three times and was reported to have paid hush money to an adult film star to remain silent about an alleged affair during the 2016 campaign.

Each of the Democratic candidates running this year, Barker said, “has something about their demographic profile that makes them out of the ordinary,” be that age, gender, religion or sexuality.

While these issues can be exploited by the opposition, none should pose an insurmountable barrier if the party comes out in force to vote for the eventual nominee, he said.

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Nevada Casts Votes for Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

Voters in the western U.S. state of Nevada cast ballots Saturday for their preferred Democratic Party candidates, who hope to defeat incumbent Republican President Donald Trump in November’s national election.

The Nevada caucuses are the third contest for the Democratic presidential hopefuls pursuing their party’s nomination, following those in Iowa in the U.S. heartland and New Hampshire in the northeastern part of the country.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders acknowledges supporters at a campaign event at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada, Feb. 21, 2020.

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire with overwhelmingly white populations, Nevada is a far more ethnically diverse state, where the population is approximately half white, nearly 30% Hispanic, 10% African-American and 10% Asian.

Nevada Democratic Party officials hope to avoid the calamitous vote-tallying process in Iowa earlier this month, when they unveiled a flawed vote-counting app that produced unreliable results from the voting precincts.

Nevada officials abandoned plans last week to use the same app that was used in Iowa in favor of a “caucus calculator” that has been pre-loaded on iPads. The calculator will help party officials tabulate the results from caucus-goers in precincts and from early voting, which Nevada allowed for the first time.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a town hall meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, Feb. 21, 2020.

Nevada party officials estimated nearly 75,000 people cast ballots over four days of early voting during which there were few problems, save the long lines at some polling stations. Early voting was heavy, as those 75,000 nearly equaled the total number of Nevada caucusgoers in 2016, officials said.

The Nevada caucuses will test whether the candidates’ can garner support from Nevada’s more diverse electorate.

Of the seven candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, is the favorite to win in Nevada, according to recent polls, after winning the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Democratic presidential Pete Buttigieg meets with people after a roundtable event with Nevada environmental activists and Native American leaders, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Feb. 21, 2020.

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of the Midwestern U.S. city of South Bend, Indiana, has also emerged as a leading candidate in Nevada after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll has Sanders as the leading candidate nationwide, with four other hopefuls locked in a second-place tie, as former vice president Joe Biden falters and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not participating in Nevada, gains ground.

The poll showed Biden, Bloomberg and Senator Elizabeth Warren tied with support from 14% of Democratic primary voters, followed by 13% for Buttigieg and 7% for Senator Amy Klobuchar.

WATCH: Related video by VOA’s Carolyn Presutti

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Nevada caucusgoers will congregate at precincts throughout the state and fill out a preference card that lists the candidates they can vote for. Two rounds of voting will take place Saturday and candidates are required to reach a 15-percent threshold to be viable, enabling them to earn delegates.

Caucusgoers who supported a nonviable candidate in the first round can opt to join the campaign of a candidate who is still viable. They can also gather with other supporters of another nonviable candidates in an attempt to reach the 15% threshold.

Officials will conduct a second and final count of all the votes, including the early votes. After the final vote, a formula grants delegates to viable candidates by voting precinct.

Caucus instructions and a sheet that will list hand-written results of the caucus are seen at the voting precinct at the Bellagio Hotel, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Feb. 22, 2020. (Carolyn Presutti/VOA)

Results in Nevada, home to the country’s gambling mecca of Las Vegas, could begin to become available within a few hours after voting begins.

President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday “the Economy, Jobs, the Military & Vets” will propel him to victory in Nevada during the November general election and said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, whom he described as “Corrupt politician man Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” has asserted the Russians “are pushing for Crazy Bernie Sanders to win” in November.

Democrats in the Great State of Nevada (Which, because of the Economy, Jobs, the Military & Vets, I will win in November), be careful of Russia, Russia, Russia. According to Corrupt politician Adam “Shifty” Schiff, they are pushing for Crazy Bernie Sanders to win. Vote!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2020

 

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Is America Ready to Elect a Gay President?

Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate for president of the United States to garner serious national attention, has emerged as a leader in the Democratic Party’s early nomination contests.  VOA’s Brian Padden reports, while Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has not been a major issue in the Democratic race, it would likely become a point of contention in a general election.

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Sanders Condemns Any Russian Influence in Election 

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is condemning any Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. 

The Vermont senator issued a statement immediately after The Washington Post reported U.S. officials told Sanders that Russia was trying to help his campaign. The statement did not confirm the report. 

Sanders wrote: “I don’t care, frankly, who Putin wants to be president. My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.” 

Sanders continued: “Unlike Donald Trump, I do not consider Vladimir Putin a good friend. He is an autocratic thug who is attempting to destroy democracy and crush dissent in Russia. Let’s be clear, the Russians want to undermine American democracy by dividing us up and, unlike the current president, I stand firmly against their efforts, and any other foreign power that wants to interfere in our election.” 

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