News Brief: Missouri Abortion Issue, Oklahoma Flooding, Election Security

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 12:07 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Missouri's last health clinic that provides abortions is within days of losing its license. If it does, Missouri would become the only state in this country without an abortion provider.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. And unless a court steps in, the state's health department probably won't renew that clinic's license. It expires on Friday. Now, Planned Parenthood runs the center in St. Louis. Their president, Leana Wen, told NPR they've been fighting to keep it open.

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LEANA WEN: We have complied with every single regulation that politicians have thrown our way, but the goalpost keeps on changing. And this most recent goalpost is potentially subjecting physicians and training residents, fellows, to criminal prosecution.

KING: That goalpost she's referring to is this requirement that clinicians submit to questioning in order to get the clinic's license renewed.

INSKEEP: Why is that questioning a problem? Well, let's try to find out from Sarah Fentem of St. Louis Public Radio, who's covering this story and is on the line.

Good morning.

SARAH FENTEM, BYLINE: Hi, everyone.

INSKEEP: I can imagine someone from the state saying, listen. We just want to ask some questions, and it's the rule. What is the reason that Planned Parenthood or the employees at this clinic give for not wanting to be questioned?

FENTEM: So that's not 100% clear. Planned Parenthood reps said yesterday that they asked the state if what was said during these interviews could potentially be used against the clinicians, and the state said it couldn't rule it out. And also, several of the clinicians aren't technically Planned Parenthood employees. Like, for example, there are independent trainees or there are residents that work there, so Planned Parenthood said it couldn't compel them to be interviewed even if they wanted to do that.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So there's some technicality of who's the boss. But when we heard the person from Planned Parenthood there say potentially subjecting physicians and training residents to criminal prosecution, that's what she's saying. She's essentially saying, we believe this interview would be to - for the purpose of gathering criminal information on somebody.

FENTEM: I think they were worried that could potentially happen, yes.

INSKEEP: But it is not clear, from the perspective of the state, that that's the purpose of this interview?

FENTEM: As far as I know, that's all that they have told me. Yes.

INSKEEP: OK. And the state says this interview is necessary - why? What is the reason they give?

FENTEM: Well, they said that it was to investigate certain problems with the clinic. But beyond that, they did not give either reporters or Planned Parenthood workers any more information than they just wanted to investigate certain problems with the clinic.

INSKEEP: OK, so some mutual suspicion here and some unanswered questions in this standoff. Now, we have to note that Missouri is one of the states that, at the same time, has been passing quite restrictive abortion laws. The governor of Missouri signed a bill banning virtually all abortions just last week. Is there a connection between that act by the legislature and the governor and this standoff with the abortion clinic?

FENTEM: Sort of. So last week, as you said, Governor Parson signed a bill that would outlaw most abortions after eight weeks, and that makes Missouri one of the most restrictive states when it comes to abortion rights. But that law doesn't go into effect until the end of August. So it's not a direct effect of that law, but it is part of this larger anti-abortion movement that's happening in Missouri. The governor and many members of the legislature have been really tough on abortion. Mike Parson is a Republican who has said on Twitter he wants to make Missouri the most pro-life state in the country. And abortion rights supporters say the increased regulations on abortion clinics, including those annual inspections and license renewals, are a way to further that anti-abortion agenda. And abortion clinics have, indeed, closed across the state in recent years. The one in St. Louis that we're talking about is sort of the last one standing.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks so much for the update - really appreciate it.

FENTEM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Sarah Fentem of St. Louis Public Radio.

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INSKEEP: All right. The tornadoes that swept through eastern Kansas last night were just the latest severe weather for that region.

KING: That's right. A series of storms also flooded rivers. Parts of the city of Tulsa, Okla., have gone underwater. Governor Kevin Stitt is relying on levees - very old levees - to keep the damage from getting worse.

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KEVIN STITT: We just got to pray for no rain up north. And if we keep getting rain into that watershed, there could be some serious problems.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Morris is in Tulsa covering this story.

Hey there, Frank.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing?

MORRIS: Well, the river, of course, is really high. There are a number of homes and businesses flooded, I mean, in the hundreds. And people are just on pins and needles here watching these levees start to deteriorate - these 70-year-old levees that have been under pressure for days and days.

INSKEEP: Now, you just said start to deteriorate. We heard yesterday on NPR News from the mayor of Tulsa who said, wow. They've never been tested like this, but they're holding. Are you saying there are now some signs of weakness?

MORRIS: I don't think that the signs of weakness have ramped up significantly, but they are leaking. And the water is just seeping through underneath some of these levees and causing all kinds of problems for businesses and homes in the - you know, in the shadow of these things and nearby. The ground is just turning to a kind of slurry in some places because the water is - there's been so much pressure on these levees for days now, and it's just going to stick for days longer.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from some people that you talk with there in Tulsa?

MORRIS: Well, again, people are taking this pretty seriously, especially folks who live and work down in what would be the shadow of these levees if the sun was shining. Yesterday, I was down in an industrial part of Sand Springs, Okla. That's sort of a working-class suburb just west of Tulsa, right downstream from this Keystone Dam, where the Corps of Engineers is releasing huge amounts of water - 275,000 cubic feet per second.

And I spoke with Val Silcox (ph) - I'm sorry - Val Silcox. She was rushing around to get her stuff out - the implements of this business - out of a warehouse.

VAL SILCOX: We're evacuating. The water is rising behind us. It's coming up under the concrete. It's getting wetter and wetter.

MORRIS: She's talking about water just bubbling up from the concrete - bubbles coming up through the concrete as the water comes up...

INSKEEP: Wow.

MORRIS: ...And destroys the business.

INSKEEP: Not a thing you really want to see. Frank, I want to ask about something else. I know your hometown is Kansas City. Weren't there tornadoes in Kansas City last night?

MORRIS: There were tornadoes in - near Kansas City. Kansas City itself didn't get hit. Lawrence took a pounding - Bonner Springs, Kan. Linwood looks terrible. You had some of the kind of damage just clearing the foundations in Linwood to some extent. Not clear of how strong those buildings were to begin with in the pictures, but the tornado looked to be about a mile wide last night. And so it was very serious. About two dozen tornadoes reported yesterday, mainly in Kansas.

INSKEEP: Well, best to your friends and relations there.

Frank, thanks so much.

MORRIS: Thanks. You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Morris.

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INSKEEP: Standing in line to vote has become much less of an ordeal than it used to be.

KING: Yeah, get this. No state in the 2016 election averaged a wait time longer than 20 minutes. That's according to the Elections Performance Index from MIT. One big reason for this is a new technology called electronic poll books. But now there are some questions about how secure that technology really is.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks covers voting and election security. And, goodness, you have a lot to cover, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: There's a lot to mine here.

INSKEEP: OK. So this technology that's supposed to make everything better, how's it work?

PARKS: So, basically, you think about the old days. And you walk in your community center, and somebody opens this huge binder of names. They find your name. They check you off. This is basically that process only electronic, either on a laptop or on a tablet, like an iPad. This...

INSKEEP: OK. I think I've seen that in a voting station somewhere.

PARKS: Exactly. I mean, well, the technology has taken off. Almost - more than 50% of voters who vote in person in 2020 are going to sign in using this technology. The problem is that this technology also raises a lot of tough security questions because, in a lot of cases, it's either directly or indirectly connected to the Internet.

INSKEEP: Oh, which means that a particularly clever hacker might find some way in there.

PARKS: Right. We know that voting machines themselves are - one of the big selling points is that they are never connected to the Internet. But these machines - these electronic poll books - a lot of their benefits - which there are a myriad of benefits. They're - if a voter is in the wrong location and they go to sign in on one of these, a poll worker can, using this machine, tell them where their right voting location is. If a voter tries to vote twice in a place where you can vote at different jurisdictions, it will be able to catch that by talking to the other electronic poll books in that district.

The election supervisors love this technology. They say it cuts down on voting times. And it cuts down on human error and on the amount of paperwork that election supervisors have to do. But that can also be a problem because these election supervisors who love this technology - they're supposed to be the ones who are asking the really tough questions. And a lot of security experts I've talked to are not convinced that those tough questions have been asked as this technology has truly started to take over.

INSKEEP: Well, help me out here. Let's look at this from an election supervisor's perspective. You said the actual voting machine is not connected to the Internet. The tablet where people are checking off names is connected to the Internet. But the tablet just has public information - a list of registered voters.

PARKS: Right. So what are the stakes here, right? The biggest thing is that, whether it's due to technical information or - excuse me - a technical malfunction, whether it's due to poor poll worker training or whether, in this worst-case scenario, a cyber attacker is able to get in there and make some mischief happen...

INSKEEP: Mess with who's registered and who's not.

PARKS: Exactly. You could see a situation where this can really screw up day-of-election voting. And we've seen this in real life. You look back at 2018 - I did a story yesterday on All Things Considered about Johnson County, Ind., which, basically, saw the company that was maintaining these poll books not provide enough bandwidth. And it meant that in-person voting on Election Day froze from 8 a.m., when people are trying to go right before work, all the way through lunchtime. That leads to delays. And it leads to people not voting.

INSKEEP: Wow. So the technology that's supposed to shorten the line - in that case, anyway - lengthened it.

Miles, thanks so much.

PARKS: Yeah. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Miles Parks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLA CRUZ'S "SIKU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.