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Midterm turnout surges to 50-year high, early estimates show

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By Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Voter turnout soared in the 2018 midterm elections, according to an early projection in a new study, potentially reaching the highest level in over 50 years.

An estimated 48.1 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, over 113 million people in total, according to research by University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, who runs the U.S. Election Project. If that holds it would be the highest rate since 1966, when 48.7 percent of voters participated.

The numbers are still subject to change as states continue to report final vote counts, especially places like California, where voters can mail in their choices all the way up to Election Day and large numbers of ballots have yet to be counted.

The high turnout, which was presaged by a surge in early votes, as well as primary and special election votes, comes after voters participated at historically low rates just four years ago in the 2014 midterms. Just 36.7 percent of voters cast ballots that year, the lowest percentage since World War II.

McDonald attributed the increase to a variety of factors, including more high-profile and competitive Senate and governor races in key states. The House, which flipped to Democrats, was also much more hotly contested this year in comparison to 2014, when Republicans were considered prohibitive favorites to maintain control.

Texas, which had the lowest turnout in 2014 amid mostly non-competitive state races, saw its turnout rate spike as voters went to polls in the closely watched Senate race between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. But the effect also extended to states like North Carolina, which saw high turnout despite an off-year for both senate and gubernatorial elections.

But the biggest factor seems to be President Donald Trump. Unlike previous midterms, where one party’s voters showed up in high numbers and the other remained depressed, the high turnout rates suggest voters across the board were eager to participate. Exit polls found two-thirds of voters identified Trump as important to their vote, either to show their support or register their opposition.

“Let’s give Trump some credit: He inflames passions for both Democrats and Republicans,” McDonald said.

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Italy MEP offers Brexit OLIVE BRANCH and admits Rome TERRIFIED by no-deal

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ITALY eurocrat Paolo De Castro has given Theresa May a glimmer of hope her Withdrawal Agreement can be “improved”, as Italian business leaders admitted fears billions of pounds worth of trade between Rome and London could be at risk by a no-deal Brexit.

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Shutdown could further endanger whales

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By Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to the federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Outside of the federal government, work to protect whales is still going on. The developer of an offshore wind energy project off Massachusetts announced Wednesday it is partnering with environmental groups on a plan to try to protect the right whales.

And not all the news about the whales is gloomy. A Florida research team has located the third right whale calf of the season. None were spotted last season.

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said that a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and that he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.”

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Brexit Article 50 news: Will Article 50 be extended?

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BREXIT Article 50 being triggered was the first action the UK took towards withdrawing from the European Union in 2017. Could article 50 be extended?

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