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By Steve Kornacki

For the second time in 18 years, a pivotal election may be slipping away from Democrats in Florida thanks to an unlikely culprit: the design of a ballot.

That possibility now looms over the Senate contest after machine recounts were ordered Saturday in that race, as well as the battle for governor.

If a recount leaves the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bill Nelson, on the wrong side of the ledger, Democrats will be left to grapple with a major issue in what is supposed to be one of their most reliable vote-producing counties.

Broward County, just north of Miami, is home to nearly 2 million people, making it one of the largest counties in America. For Democrats, it is also a vote-producing behemoth, typically accounting for more than 10 percent of all of the votes they receive statewide. Not surprisingly, based on the ballots counted from Broward so far, Nelson is crushing his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, 69 percent to 31 percent.

But that’s where the ballot issue comes in. While there have been a lot of votes cast in Broward in the Senate race, there were more cast in the governor’s race. As of Saturday, the gap stood at about 26,000.

This means that on about 26,000 ballots, voters registered their choice in the governor’s race, which pitted Democrat Andrew Gillum against Republican Ron DeSantis, but not for Senate. That adds up to about 3.7 percent of all ballots cast in Broward. To put it mildly, that number is radically higher than anything found in any of Florida’s 66 other counties, where votes cast in the Senate and gubernatorial races have tracked about evenly.

Clearly, something is up in Broward — but what? The Nelson campaign’s attorney, Marc Elias, is suggesting that there is a machine issue that somehow resulted in votes from the Senate race not registering from some ballots. Broward’s election supervisor, Brenda Snipes, meanwhile, is insisting there is no technical issue. If there is one, the recount will presumably catch it.

But the other possibility here is one that will evoke long-suppressed unpleasant memories for Democrats of a certain age: Did the design of Broward’s ballot cause a small but critical chunk of voters to miss the Senate race?

There is some compelling evidence for this theory. A look at the Broward ballot shows that the Senate race occupies a lonely corner, buried in the left column under a lengthy set of instructions. The governor’s race, meanwhile, is perched prominently atop the middle column, with wide spacing between the names of all six candidates who qualified to run. There’s no question where the eye is more easily drawn.

Then there is this: On the Broward ballot, the Senate race is paired in that lower left column with one other contest, for the House. Broward contains parts of four congressional districts — all of them safely Democratic — so voters in different parts of the county had different House races on their ballots. But in one of those districts, Rep. Frederica Wilson’s 24th Congressional District, there was apparently no House race listed at all. That’s because Wilson was running unopposed and Florida law mandates that the race simply not appear on the ballot in such a case, with the sole candidate simply being deemed the winner.

Image: Broward County election protest
Protesters demonstrate outside the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office on Nov. 10, 2018 in Lauderhill, Florida.Joe Skipper / Getty Images

And, as political cartographer Matthew Isbell discovered, in the small portion of Broward County that is part of the 24th District, the number of ballots that contained no vote in the Senate race exploded. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, also examined results from precincts around the county and found that the number of non-votes in the Senate race was significantly higher than the statewide average everywhere — and particularly in the 24th District.

These findings strongly suggest that a small share of Broward voters simply missed the Senate race. The consequences could be enormous.

If most of those 26,000 had voted in the Senate race, and if they’d done so at the 69 to 31 percent rate for Nelson seen countywide, Nelson would have earned a plurality of about 8,000 from them. Scott is leading by about 12,000 votes as of this writing, but if the final statewide margin is trimmed to less than 8,000 votes after the recount, the Broward ballot could have ended up being the difference.

This is trauma that Democrats in Florida — and across the country — are only too familiar with.

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush claimed the presidency with an official victory margin of 537 votes in Florida, it was the ballot of another giant and heavily Democratic county that helped to doom Democrats. Then, the culprit was Palm Beach County and its infamous “butterfly ballot,” which produced widespread confusion and a fateful anomaly, with Pat Buchanan receiving nearly four times as many votes in Palm Beach than in any other Florida county. Even Buchanan would later say that he believed the bulk of those 3,411 votes were intended for Al Gore.

There were, of course, other factors at play in Florida in 2000. Democrats maintain that a recount under a certain set of conditions would have given the state to Al Gore, while Republicans insist that the TV networks’ early call of the state for Gore — when polls were still open in the strongly Republican Panhandle region — led dejected Bush voters to go home without casting ballots. It’s impossible to pinpoint one factor that made all the difference.

But it’s also impossible for Democrats to forget that Palm Beach ballot, just as this year’s Broward ballot may end up etched into their memories forever.

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Federal judge blocks Mississippi abortion ban

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By Charlie Gile and Dartunorro Clark

A federal judge on Friday issued a preliminary injunction blocking Mississippi’s fetal heartbeat anti-abortion law from going into effect, saying it infringes on women’s health care rights.

“Here we go again. Mississippi has passed another law banning abortions prior to viability,” Judge Carlton Reeves wrote in his order.

“By banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, SB 226 prevents a woman’s free choice, which is central to personal dignity and autonomy,” he continued.

The Mississippi ban prohibited abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, or around six weeks, which is before many women might know they are pregnant. Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill into law in March.

The lawsuit was filed by the Jackson Women’s Health Organization against Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer of Mississippi.

Reeves ruled last year that Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban was unconstitutional, The Associated Press reported. Mississippi is appealing that ruling, and is likely to appeal this one, as well.

The judge’s ruling comes as dozens of conservative states across the country have passed or proposed bills that would place strict limitations on abortion. Anti-abortion advocates have said that they hope the bills, which have prompted swift legal challenges, will ultimately lead to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Under the Mississippi law, doctors could have their medical licenses revoked if they perform the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Though the law does provide an exception if the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother, it does not provide an exception in cases of rape or incest.

The Republican governors of Kentucky, Ohio and Georgia have signed similar bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. On Friday, Missouri’s Republican Gov. Mike L. Parson signed legislation banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy with an exception for medical emergencies, but not for rape or incest.

Also on Friday, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit over Alabama’s near-total abortion ban that makes performing an abortion a felony with little to no exceptions. The law, signed by GOP Gov. Kay Ivey on May 15, is the most restrictive in the nation.

“The Alabama Legislature has been pushing abortion care further and further out of reach for years with medically unnecessary and politically-motivated restrictions, and this extreme abortion ban shows us just how far they’ll go to push their anti-abortion agenda,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project attorney, said in a press release.

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Theresa May NOT DONE YET: Prime Minister could accept PEERAGE and sit in House of Lords

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THERESA May could become the first former prime minister to take a seat in the House of Lords since Margaret Thatcher, according to some Tory MPs.

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Trump heads to Japan with Sumo wrestling and golf on the agenda

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Under the threat of potentially devastating U.S. tariffs on autos, Japan is ready to roll out the newest phase of its charm offensive targeting President Donald Trump as it welcomes him on a state visit tailor-made to his whims and ego.

Offering high honors, golf and the chance to present a “Trump Cup” at a sumo wrestling championship, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, arguably Trump’s closest friend on the world stage, will continue a years-long campaign that so far appears to have spared Japan from far more debilitating U.S. actions.

The stakes are high. U.S. tariffs could cripple Japan’s auto industry, while North Korea remains a destabilizing threat in the region. But this trip, the first of two Trump is expected to make to Japan in the next six weeks, is more of social call meant to highlight the alliance between the countries and the friendship between their leaders.

“In the world of Donald Trump, terrible things can happen if you’re an ally, but no major blows have landed on Japan,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trump, who departed Washington for Tokyo on Friday, has the honor of being the first head of state invited to meet Emperor Naruhito since he assumed power May 1 after his father stepped down, the first abdication in about two centuries. Naruhito will welcome Trump to the Imperial Palace on Monday for a meeting and banquet in his honor.

“With all the countries of the world, I’m the guest of honor at the biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years,” Trump said Thursday.

Abe will host Trump on Sunday for a round of golf and take the president to a sumo wrestling match, a sport Trump said he finds “fascinating.” Trump is eager to present the winner with a U.S.-made trophy.

It’s all part of a kindness campaign aimed at encouraging Trump to alleviate trade pressures, said Riley Walters, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, who said the personal relationship between Trump and Abe is probably the best of any two world leaders.

Abe made a strategic decision before Trump was elected to focus on his relationship with the U.S. The courtship began when Abe rushed to New York two weeks after the November 2016 election to meet the president-elect at Trump Tower. Last month, Abe and his wife, Akie, celebrated first lady Melania Trump’s birthday over a couples’ dinner at the White House.

Trump plans to return to Japan for a summit of leading rich and developing nations in Osaka in late June.

Behind the smiles and personal friendship, however, lurks deep uneasiness over Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Japanese autos and auto parts on national security grounds, a move that would be far more devastating to the Japanese economy than earlier tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Trump recently agreed to a six-month delay, enough time to carry Abe past July’s Japanese parliamentary elections.

“On the surface, it’s all going to be a display of warmth, friendship, hospitality,” said Mireya Solis, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. But, she said, “there’s an undercurrent of awkwardness and concern about what the future might hold. … We’re coming to a decisive moment. This is, I think, the moment of truth.”

Also at issue is the lingering threat of North Korea, which has resumed missile testing and recently fired a series of short-range projectiles that U.S. officials, including Trump, have tried to downplay despite an agreement by North Korea to hold off on further testing.

“The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent television interview. That raised alarm bells in Japan, where short-range missiles pose a serious threat.

“That is not an acceptable American position for Japan,” said Green.

Japan, which relies on the U.S. for its defense, has also been largely cut out of negotiations with North Korea, even as Kim Jong Un has met with other leaders in the region, including China’s Xi Jinping. That leaves Abe to rely on the U.S. as an intermediary, said Sheila Smith, an expert on Japanese politics and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Abe has to rely on Trump to advocate,” she said. Abe recently offered to meet Kim without preconditions in an effort to restore diplomatic ties.

With Trump’s relations with the leaders of the U.K., Germany, Canada and other allies strained, Abe has worked more than any other leader to try to keep Trump engaged with international institutions, Green said, adding that it is critical for Japan’s survival.

And while leaders across Europe and elsewhere might take heat for cozying up to Trump, analysts say Japanese voters see Trump more as a curiosity and understand the pragmatic importance of good relations, which they say has paid off for Abe.

Indeed, while Trump has rejected Abe’s invitations to re-join a sweeping trans-Pacific trade deal and keeps the threat of tariffs in place, Trump walked away from his last meeting with Kim without a deal, which some had feared would include a declaration to end the Korean war and a vow to pull U.S. troops from the peninsula.

“I would argue that Abe has been so good at maintaining the relationship that maybe things could be worse,” Walters said.

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