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Underdogs, robocalls and Oprah: The battle for the US midterms

AFP

Americans vote Tuesday in midterm congressional elections that will determine whether President Donald Trump continues to enjoy the support of the legislative branch or whether Democrats will be able to mount a serious challenge to his agenda.

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The US midterms encompass hundreds of local, state and federal elections as Americans vote on everything from who will sit on their local school boards to the senators they send to represent them in Washington.

But the highest stakes are for control of Congress, both houses of which are currently dominated by Republicans (although the party only holds a razor-thin 51-49 majority in the Senate). Democrats are hoping to win enough new seats to at least regain control of the 435-seat House of Representatives, and most polls indicate they have a good (88 percent) chance of doing so. Less certain is wresting control of the Senate, which pollsters say is likely (83 percent) to remain in Republican hands.

The vote follows a bitter campaign season that pitted two very different visions of America against one another in a contest that both sides characterised as a battle for America’s soul. Trump sought to make immigration – and by implication, national security – a pivotal campaign issue while taking credit for a robust economy. Democrats, for their part, put health care front and centre, denouncing Republicans for pursuing policies that risk jeopardising access to care for millions of US citizens.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s elections are being seen as a referendum on Trump’s America, with voters poised to decide if they want more of the same or whether they will deliver a stunning rebuke to those in office. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the factors that have played a role in the 2018 campaign.

2018: The year of the underdogs

An unprecedented number of women are running for office in 2018 – in part galvanized by the #MeToo movement – while in other districts challengers have emerged to give long-time incumbents a run for their money.

A record 234 women are in the running for the House while another 22 are candidates for some of the 100 seats in the Senate. And some have already made headlines with upset victories in the primaries: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, defeated incumbent Joe Crowley for the Democratic House ticket in New York's 14th district while Ayanna Pressley defeated 10-term Democratic congressman Michael Capuano in Massachusetts.

One race that has captured the popular imagination is Beto O'Rourke's candidacy in Texas, where he is challenging longtime senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz. O'Rourke's young, energetic demeanour and his seeming tendency to speak from the heart have drawn comparisons to a young Barack Obama while his unabashed progressivism and punk rock street cred have hinted that he could represent a new wave of Democratic candidates.

In Georgia, the governor's race – which now sees Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams within striking distance of Republican incumbent Brian Kemp – has brought out some of the best and the worst in US politics. Abrams has lured some impressive high-profile support including superstar Oprah Winfrey and former president Barack Obama, who both energetically campaigned for her in the southern state.

White supremacist supporters of Kemp responded with an overtly racist robocall that used an Oprah impersonator to refer to Abrams as "a poor-man's [sic] Aunt Jemima" and referenced "the Jews who own the American media".

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Foreign interference and social media

Facebook blocked 115 suspect accounts on the eve of the US midterm election, saying it had been warned by US authorities that some of the online activity might be linked to foreign entities. Most of the posts were in either French or Russian, the Telegraph reported.

Facebook announced in July that it had identified a new, "coordinated" influence campaign aimed at misleading potential voters and organising fake rallies ahead of the midterm elections, saying at the time that it had deactivated 32 false pages and accounts from both Facebook and Instagram.

In April, Facebook was forced to admit that information on some 87 million users may have been accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that used data mining to aid the Trump presidential campaign.

Russia launched an organised campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, in part by buying Facebook ads and publishing thousands of "fake news" posts, according to US intelligence agencies. Federal authorities say there has been no indication that Russia or any other foreign entity has targeted the voting systems being used for the US midterms.

>> Video: Facebook blocks suspicious accounts ahead of US midterms

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Voter suppression

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers have "started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote" since 2010. The new measures range from strict photo ID requirements to scaling back options for early voting to introducing new restrictions on registering to vote.

In the weeks before voting day, reports were already surfacing that some states were seeing renewed efforts at voter suppression.

In early October, the US Supreme Court upheld a voter ID law in North Dakota that risks disenfranchising tens of thousands of Native Americans. The law, passed by state Republicans after Democrat Heidi Heitkamp narrowly won a 2012 Senate bid, requires would-be voters to furnish identification that includes a residential street address. Many of the state's 30,000 Native Americans live on reservations that do not use standard US postal addresses. (The tribes are fighting back, finding ways to redesignate addresses and providing hundreds of free IDs.)

Elsewhere, residents of the Latino-majority municipality of Dodge City, Kansas, must travel two and a half miles from the city centre in order to vote. A federal judge last week denied a request from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a civil rights advocacy group, to open a new polling site.

Georgia voters won a victory last week when a judge ruled that absentee ballot applications that violated the state's “exact match” law could not be thrown out after more than 50,000 voter applications – most of them from African-Americans – were put on hold. The “No Match, No Vote” policy allowed the state to reject voter registration applications that do not exactly match the voter's other government records, including matching initials, suffixes (Jr., Sr.) and even hyphens.

>> For Democrats, getting out the vote could mean taking back Congress

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Early voting glitches

As polls opened across the United States on Tuesday, more than 35 million votes had already been cast in early voting (compared to fewer than 20 million in 2014). Record-high early voting numbers for a midterm election have been reported in Georgia, Florida, Texas and elsewhere.

But problems with voting machines and suspicions of willful misconduct have already arisen in several states. Voters in several counties in Georgia complained that their votes for one candidate had "flipped" to a vote for another or that their ballots had not been properly logged by the machine.

Voters in both Georgia and Texas reported that touchscreen voting machines had deleted votes for Democratic candidates or switched them to a vote for the Republican.

Glitches such as these are one reason why many are calling for the US to switch to a system using paper ballots, or which at least offer a paper option as a backup. Election security experts have long warned of the dangers of relying on machines that don’t produce a corresponding paper trail.

Some 6,500 poll monitors – more than double the number deployed for the 2016 presidential election – have been mobilised by civil rights and advocacy groups to help people with problems at the polls. Voters encountering problems voting on election day can call 866-OUR-VOTE.

>> Know your rights: What to do if you're turned away on election day

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