It’s less than 100 days until Election Day. What are the chances of political realignment? Is vote-by-mail a panacea? And how can despairing citizens contribute to real change? Civic Ventures President and campaign expert Zach Silk and veteran political strategist Cristina Uribe are joining forces to answer your questions about the 2020 election this week.
Cristina Uribe is a veteran political strategist and manager working at the intersection of advocacy and politics. She has held senior management roles at several organizations, including California Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC), Senior Advisor for Strategic Initiatives at the National Education Association (NEA), and Western Regional Director at EMILY’s List. She has led campaigns and civic engagement efforts in dozens of states across the country.
Nick’s twitter: @NickHanauer
Hey, my name is Zach Silk. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the podcast. I’m the president of Civic Ventures, and I’m excited to be talking today with one of my old friends and favorite people in politics, Cristina Uribe.
For those of you who not had a pleasure to talk to Cristina, she’s one of my favorite politicos. Has been involved in political campaigns up and down the ticket. Everything from local races to legislative races, to congressional races and everything in between. And also like me has a lot of experience on ballot measures. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches and I thought it’d be really interesting to talk to Cristina about some of the ways that politics is playing out here in 2020. I think we first met in 2006. Does that ring a bell to you?
I feel like yes. Maybe even a little bit before that congressional campaign when you were… When we were doing state legislative races in Washington.
Oh my goodness. And back then, if I recall, you worked for EMILY’s List.
Yeah. I had the Western States for EMILY’s List.
Cristina, sometimes people say that this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes. And normally I laugh about that because I don’t remember an election that people didn’t say that, but this might actually be the most consequential election of our lifetimes.
Yeah. I tend to agree because that is something that we say every election. And to be honest, depending what’s on the ballot. If things you care about, especially ballot measure, it is really consequential to your life. Especially for most people who are impacted by jobs or their healthcare, or will the government recognize their marriage. It’s pretty consequential. But for me on this one, it feels like, yes, this is a pretty big moment, at least in my lifetime and I think that’s true for many folks. In our lifetimes this is probably the most consequential one.
Our plan here is to talk a little bit about Cristina’s and my view of where things are in the political circumstance we find ourselves in. And then we’ve asked you all what questions you would want to ask us. So we’ve gotten a really rich array of questions, and we’re going to take as many as we can. And I thought we would start, Cristina, by just talking about how do you see the current circumstance? Where are we in this election? We’re about a hundred days out. What do you see when you’re looking out there?
I think a lot of my brethren who’ve been doing all the work and everyone who’s listening, activists and folks who’ve basically been engaged in this election since January 21st of 2017. So for some people, this election started three-plus years ago. I think for everyone else, it starts now. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I am actually in favor maybe of shorter election seasons. But I do think the campaign actually starts now. Everything else has been prelude, but now it’s the last three months before the election. This is really when it’s starting. And I think we’re starting from a place of where both the candidates and the campaigns, and maybe everybody is in this scared of losing position. I think both camps are in that scared of losing.
How people react to that is very different as we know. And I think that’s what we’re going to see maybe play out in these last hundred days is someone who tends to be erratic and unpredictable and dangerous when scared of losing, including in ratings. Again, this is someone who deals in measuring their success by ratings and applause. And that is very dangerous as we’ve seen. And then Zach, you and I both talk about sports a lot. I think, well, we’re here to win. So what will that take? Sure. No one wants to lose, but you can’t operate from that perspective. And so being overly cautious can contribute to losing.
And so I think that’s where this starts with the Biden folks. Will they be cautious because of being scared to lose or will they be aggressive and smart over these next hundred days? And then what does everyone else do outside of those campaigns? Because in this day and age, there’s a lot of rounds, the environment, the context we create for this campaign, that’s outside of their control as well.
Yeah. And then one of the things that I think is important for us to all situate ourselves, there’s no question that we now have a plethora of polls, and we have all these different services, whether it’s RealClearPolitics or FiveThirtyEight, that will aggregate them for you. And you can look at those trendlines and there’s no doubt that Biden is ahead, but the real question is he’s ahead going in, but we’re here now in the home stretch. I think the sports analogy would be, it’s fine to be up in the third quarter, but the game doesn’t end until the end of the fourth quarter.
But simultaneous to that, how many times have we watched a sporting event where the team that’s ahead in the third quarter gets cautious and takes their foot off the gas and starts playing cautiously and that allows your opponent back in. And I think that’s certainly one of my great concerns and I definitely feel like Democrats as a whole, they’re playing not to lose rather than playing to win. And that’s just a very dangerous mentality, particularly with the… For all of his faults, Trump is a wily opponent, and he would be happy to take advantage of that.
Right. You can’t protect a lead. Especially when you know that the folks that you’re dealing with, I think this is really important, I’m one of those when you are ahead specifically around campaigns, that’s when you double down. That’s when you go harder because of what a Biden win could mean more than the presidency. You and I have been on the opposite side. Have been on the losing side on occasion. And I was just thinking, it was a different time, but in 2010 I was working on an independent effort to try and save the House, we were unsuccessful, the House of Representatives. But what I witnessed during that was the waterfront just kept moving away from us whereby the end, we were trying to protect relatively safe democratic seats in Massachusetts.
And that’s because the Republicans had just shifted and continued to spend and spend in places that seemed unwinnable before. And so I do think when momentum’s on your side or if you have a lead, that’s actually when you should double down. Increase where you’re thinking around what’s possible. That is not where we should be cautious, but we should be expansive in what is possible? How many state legislatures can we win back in 2020? How many U.S. sen…? It’s not just at the federal level. If we’ve learned anything this year is how much state and local governments matter. And that’s where people live and breathe this as well. Let’s not be cautious. We need to double down. I am in favor of running up the score. I am not one of those people who thinks when you’re ahead by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter that you shouldn’t go for another attempt. Absolutely no, this is when you run up the score. This is absolutely what I think we should be doing.
We talk a lot about economics on this podcast. And there was an old phrase that was bandied about in the 1992 race by James Carville a fellow politico. And he famously said, it’s the economy, stupid. I’m curious. Do you think that still holds, this notion?
I was going to ask you that. I think it depends on what we mean by the economy now. So I do think that’s true, but what do we mean by the economy? So for me, it’s like, yep, people are out of work and that’s going to continue to grow. And sadly in the next month or two people are coming up against mortgage payments and rent payments, and a real fear around housing loss and protections for people. This giving cash to folks. Maybe we should just continue to give people money, so they have some kind of economic security.
So I do think it is still the economy, stupid. I just think, and think this is a result of the work that folks like you and others have done around let’s be expansive about what that means. It’s not the stock market. If I’ve learned anything from you, Zach, it is the economy is not the stock market. I think people are getting that because that’s further and further out of reach for some people as well. So I think it’s how we talk about the economy and what it means to people’s everyday lives. That if we centered that conversation, then it’s absolutely about the economy.
I’ll let you pivot to asking questions. We’re going to take questions from people who’ve asked us questions. So let’s get to that.
Okay. So there’s this one question from Jordan, which is a lot, and I appreciate his thoughtfulness or her thoughtfulness. Why doesn’t Joe Biden just have a message that talks about how for the last 40 years the GOP has sold us on trickle-down economics myth, which is based on a disproven philosophy, that if you give money to the rich, the rich will put it in industry, and that’s all going to create jobs and trickle down to the rest of us and grow the economy. Except for we know, you all know it best on this podcast, that billionaires don’t invest money. That money and jobs and other benefits to taxpayers. That it just benefits themselves and doesn’t trickle down.
And he goes on to really get into modern monetary theory and other things around growing the economy. Jordan does. But so why isn’t Joe Biden using that long message as part of his message and Dems in general, I think is, is what Jordan’s asking too.
Well, first of all, it’s a great question, Jordan, and it is hard for candidates to change the fundamental philosophy of the party they’re running for. The office they’re running for and the party they’re part of. And so it is hard. I just want to say, I am sympathetic for whether it was Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They’re running with received wisdom from the party and from the way that we understand economics in this country, which has been shaped as Jordan notes by 40 years of adhering to a very specific economic worldview.
The good news is we do know better. We better understand the way the economy really works. There was a long time when people centered the very wealthy and corporations in the economy, and we are changing that. We are now centering people and you can see these experiments playing out in cities and states that are centering people in their policy. They’re more resilient. They’re more prosperous. And in places where you don’t center people and you center the rich and powerful, you actually are less resilient and less prosperous.
The question is, how do you translate that kind of complex evolution on the economy to something that you can make digestible for regular people in their living rooms often in a 30-second television ad? And that’s hard. I will say that that is hard. And that’s one of the arts of politics is how do you translate complex policy into digestible information? Let me say one quick thing. And I’d be curious about your experience with this, Cristina. I think it’s gotten better. I will say much to the credit of people who ran in this primary in particular with Elizabeth Warren at the lead and Bernie Sanders, but you even saw it in other characters running really changing the way we talked about the economy as Democrats.
And I found that Joe Biden is really leaning into that. He is rejecting this idea that it’s the rich and powerful who drive the economy, and he’s leaning into some policymaking. We still have more to see from him, but it’s been more consistent and more consistently focused on people rather than the powerful than I think we’ve seen in a while. Do you agree with that?
I do. And I think it’s a result of what happens outside of the election. So even going back to what we talked about. For some people, it started the day after, and I think one of the things we’ve learned is we need to create the conditions for change in the intervening elections. So you hear a lot about narrative, which is a word I sometimes struggle with, but it really is the stories we tell and part of that is creating the conditions for when things like universal basic income come into our lexicon. Whereas that is more power. People talking about that now, not an actually, as you said, some cities experimenting as well with different policies and concepts.
That is the work around shifting this 40-year campaign by the GOP around trickle-down economics. That is the culture and narrative that we’re working against. And sometimes it could take a really long time, but then there are these what folks talk about as persuasion windows. We are in a window right now because of this fracture of a pandemic, economic depression, and really the historical struggles of this country around racism. All of those coming together at one time. So that fracture that’s happened a little bit actually is a window, a persuasion window I think. I think this is a moment where for people who have been working on these issues for decades, where decades can happen in weeks. Where it is an opportunity for us, again, to really, as you said, see candidates take some of these ideas and run with them, which maybe would have existed in a different scenario.
But I do think that’s the opportunity. And I do agree that we are making progress, and we should actually sell it… The other thing we’re working against, I’ll just add really quickly is the cynicism. We don’t take a beat to celebrate our victories, and we need to do that because that’s how people believe that participating is worth it. That’s actually when people are like, oh, we can change the future by participating in it. When we actually lift up some of the successes we’ve had, and we don’t do that enough, and we need to.
So I’ve got a question from Brian. It seems clear to him that this upcoming election could be a bloodbath for Republicans, something more akin to what happened in Watergate where people were for a long time ashamed to call themselves Republican. And he asks, do you think the political fallout will carry both into this election and then beyond, and maybe I should ask, do you think it’ll be a bloodbath?
I was going to say, go Brian. I am definitely an optimist or else I would not be doing this work. A bit of a pragmatist as well. Those calibrate each other. I think the pendulums swing much faster now for a variety of reasons, because of just access to information and Twitter and Facebook and TikTok. There’s just so much information in surround sound that happens in a way that didn’t before. So I am not convinced that it’ll be the type of post-Nixon, post-Watergate realignment, but we have seen those big pendulum swings happen, but then they go right back in the other direction.
So that’s why I’m cautious on does it carry over to 2022? So I do think that opportunity where could we take back the U.S. Senate and win the presidency and hold onto the house and see some states win back state legislatures and yeah because I’ve seen it happen in the opposite direction in very recent memory. So I actually believe all of that is possible because I have seen it happen. And so I do believe it’s possible.
I’m not sure what it carries over to 2022, because as I’ve seen you talk a lot about Zach and others, this economic depression that we’re facing down is likely still going to be around for whatever incoming administrations are going to be facing. And when we look at state governments and municipalities, the people who are charged with coming in and cleaning up the mess, usually have the hardest work. And is that rewarded two years later or three years or four years later when people are feeling better? I don’t know.
I agree. And I think one of the things to think about is, as Cristina was saying, it used to be there were more long swings of the pendulum in which it would rest on one side and take a long while to go swing back the other way. Pendulum swings are quite swift now and part of that is, like it or not, we’ve sorted ourselves into two pretty equally powerful and innovative, organized movements. Obviously those are political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, but underneath that, as you’ve already talked about Cristina, there’s this rich set of movement actors on both sides. And they spend a lot of time strategizing, thinking and thinking about the evolution of the movement and then it’s interface with the party. And we have counterparts in the Conservative movement who are doing the same thing.
And I know for a fact that there are young, next-generation Republicans thinking about how to change the party to be competitive after Trump. And they’re going to be very swift if Trump is defeated in changing and evolving. It really is an ecosystem where there’s going to be a really fast evolution here and I think it’s hard to know where they’ll go. I look at it and I can see a world in which you actually have a highly functioning, Conservative party that is really honestly reckoning with the problems we face in the 21st century. And that we can debate about that. So that’s one wing. And then there’s the other wing, which is basically a racial animus nationalist kind of backwards-looking and reactionary, which I don’t know which one will win.
I mean, there’s sort of, I don’t know what to call it. There’s sort of the… Tucker Carlson well represents the kind of white nationalist wing of the party, and he is pretty young and very influential. And then there are other characters in the party who I think would like to take it into the 21st century. And in fact, famously, they wrote that briefing after Mitt Romney lost, which was trying to get the party to evolve on a bunch of items to move it forward. And I’m not a fan of Marco Rubio, but he actually has said some fascinating things about worker power and the nature of the economy. And I could imagine a world in which a Republican Party was willing to have an honest debate with us about how to make the economy work better. But thank you so much for that. Let’s get onto the next question.
We have one from Craig. So this actually builds a little bit of what we were talking about, which is with so many cash strapped cities and towns, how will they be able to afford to do vote by mail or put in place the proper precautions to ensure people are safe going to the polls?
Especially since we know from the federal government, they either refuse to help and really when talking about federal government, it’s really the U.S. Senate that is refusing to pass anything meaningful. And Trump for sure to… The house has tried but it’s the U.S. Senate basically blocking anything on this front. So given the economic realities of trying to implement vote by mail and/or make voting safe, how’s that going to happen without additional resources?
Well, first and foremost, let’s be very clear that this is a problem perpetrated by one particular party, which is really the Senate Republicans, Republicans writ large, but Senate Republicans in particular. There have been money allocated by the democratically controlled house. There’s actually been some really good work that’s been done in Republican-controlled states trying to fix this problem. As much as Trump wants to make vote by mail a partisan issue, in most of the country, it’s not a partisan issue. In fact, there’s a lot of states where they are very Republican states, and they have excellent vote by mail systems, and they want to use them. It feels like the way that Trump talks about it, that this is bringing out Democrats, but actually the original vote by mail people. Let’s be clear were old people and the military.
So these are two very strong Republican voting blocks. Vote by mail used to be the primary way that they got an advantage in turnout. So this shouldn’t be partisan. We should be able to figure this out. I will say, I am encouraged by individual states and what they’re doing, even Republican states. Ohio is doing some interesting things. I know Iowa just talked about… They’re going to go and mail applications to everyone in the state. Wisconsin is doing a variety of things, even though their state legislature is so tightly controlled by Republicans.
It’s sad to me that we are not seeing more action by the Feds. I do think that if you’re looking to take near-term action to help guarantee you should be reaching out to your lawmakers, especially if you have a Republican Senator in your state to just communicate with them how crucial this is to protect the vote. It is the one thing that keeps me up at night about this election. There’s a variety of things, but that’s the one that makes me the most nervous is the inability for people to fully participate.
I would just add real quickly on that, which is it’s… I was nervous when so many people who are committed to expanding the vote, which we should enfranchise as many people as possible, make it a safe as possible for everyone that vote by mail though also is not a panacea for this election. To your point, which is A) I know Washington State has it, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Places that have done it, didn’t institute it in one election, and they didn’t do it in less than a hundred days. So there’s that and the fact that for indigenous and native communities vote by mail presents tons of problems as it relates to having addresses versus PO boxes.
And also we know that young people and people of color tend to have their vote by mail ballots I don’t want to say discarded, but there’s always signature problems or challenges. And so that’s the other thing. There’s larger rejection rates. So the other piece of that is we also have to demand, and I know there’s efforts going on to get young people to sign up to be poll workers. For people who do have to vote early, in-person or on election day in person, which is still in a large amount of states, we just have to make that as safe as possible. And I think really encourage as much early voting as possible because we do know even in Wisconsin, that Milwaukee had in their primary, an 8% decline in turnout in more democratic areas.
And that is, I think what keeps me up at night as well as just protecting the vote, counting every vote. But thinking about, I think someone said we can lose up to 5% election margin based on rejection rates of certain ballots. And that 5% margin is not something that I think we have. So I do agree it’s not a partisan issue, but I do worry about making sure that we don’t think that even if we have vote by mail everywhere, that that is going to enfranchise everyone.
Yeah. So I’ve got a really good… Two different listeners asked a version of this question. I’m going to riff on both of them and ask you, Cristina. I think you have a really good perspective on this. And I’ll start with Alex and their articulation. Today protests are rightfully happening across the country. My wife and I are sitting at home wondering what we can do to help support meaningful change in how this country functions. They have a long list of things that they would like to see done differently. Of course, some of which is related to racism and income inequality and the variety of things we talk about. The issue is that we do not feel equipped to counteract the Republican agenda. We live in a progressive liberal area. And obviously we vote in that vein and our feeling is that our vote doesn’t count towards change or moving Republicans. If we were going to do that, do we have to move to a Republican area. I don’t want to move to those states so what…?
Hey, Alex, you are speaking to a lot of people. You’re speaking what is on a lot of people’s minds. But yeah, I don’t want to move to those states. So what else can I do? Let me say real quick, JD had a similar point. I really appreciate what you’re doing, but I’d like to know what ideas you have for how I can help bring about change besides voting. And I can sign endless number of petitions. Is there something else that I can do as a concerned citizen? It’s difficult to not feel helpless and frustrated about the lack of changes in our society. Thanks. And please keep bringing your message to the people.
Thank you, JD. And thank you, Alex. These are excellent questions and Cristina, I’m going to put it to you. What do you reflect on when you hear that?
I was asked this question the night before the inauguration in 2017 by a room full of women, mostly who work in tech and creative industries. And it was on the eve of the first Women’s March and someone’s saying, is that even going to matter? And I think it gets to these questions as well, which is actually first, I’m not going to tell anyone to move because I think you should live… If you have that freedom to live in a community that reflects your values, that you want to be a part of. I think that’s what everyone in this country wants. And so you shouldn’t have to move to make an impact.
And I think not thinking about the large systemic change on a day-to-day perspective, which is, I think showing up at a rally, for people who are impacted and struggling, it does make a difference to see people in other parts of the country and other communities using their opportunity and maybe greater protections to speak up and say something. It actually does make an impact when you’re part of a community that might be more marginalized or disenfranchised. I tell people this all the time. Giving money, that is not inconsequential, especially if it’s $5 or $10. I know folks are like, what more can I do? The way we fund lawsuits, the way we bail people out who are unjustly locked up either through protest or a criminal justice system that does not have justice in it, that is with funds.
The organizers that you see going in the old days, going door to door in the pre-COVID, but that are making calls. And these young organizers that are doing this work on social media and through Zooms, that all requires money. And I know for those of us who have it and who can give that, it does make a difference. Showing up at your city council meeting in a Zoom. I participated in my first school board meeting a few weeks ago via Zoom. It’s the highest turnout that our school board meeting had ever had and it was around disinvesting from the police that were in our school district. And there was like 800 people who participated and our school board did take that action.
And that’s what I mean around celebrating those victories. Did that one action by our school board reform the entire criminal justice system and incarceration system in our country? No. But it made a difference for the kids in my school district. I can tell you that. And I think that’s what it’s important to remember and definitely want to hear your thoughts. But I said this to someone just on bail reform, someone who’s like does it make a difference giving to these bail funds, which just reinforces this system that doesn’t work? And I was like, have you ever met someone who was just bailed out or who was incarcerated or one family that’s been freed from a detention center or someone who finally has healthcare that didn’t have it before?
These little actions actually make a difference in people’s lives, which is what we’ve been talking about. And then that’s how you create the conditions for the big systemic challenges that we need to take on in our country. That will not just happen in D.C. The fight for 15 is such a good reflection of that as well. Those were fights happening in communities and victories happening in cities and towns across our country that then forced this larger conversation that goes back to trickle-down economics doesn’t work.
So I just think for everyone listening, it actually does make a difference. Use this opportunity where we can’t gather in person in as many ways as possible to pay attention to what is happening with your city budget. What is happening with your school budget? What’s happening at the state level? And if you have money, pick an organization and it doesn’t have to be national, to send resources to, or to give your time to. As someone who’s been impacted daily by the different challenges in our country, it really does make a difference and does help shift this larger narrative and does make the systemic change possible that we need in our country.
First of all, I’m very sympathetic to both Alex and JD. It can feel very much like what good does it do for me to vote for…? You may live in a city that has all Democrats and you may live in a state that’s blue, and you may feel that you need to move to Idaho to help change the political makeup of Idaho. But the reality is and I think Cristina, you said it so well, that there are things you can do right now today from home socially distant, appropriately taking good care of yourself. Contributing matters. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money. Cristina said that so well. Find organizations you believe in. I promise you that those people who are being funded by that, they are working every single day to make the world a better place, and they’re fighting for it, and they are worthy of your investment.
And you can pick and choose the ones that you believe in. I think that is extraordinarily important. Actions do matter. I don’t believe in all of these silly petitions. There are a lot of silly petitions out there, and they’re really just there to generate large email lists, but they don’t actually have impact. But if you pick the right organizations, they’re figuring out how to translate mass communications into action. And they are employing people to go and communicate in the halls of power, whether it’s at city hall or at Congress, and there is positive impacts to your communicating. I know it doesn’t always feel like it when you’re clicking on that email but participating, finding really effective organizations, following them.
Honestly, all of the most meaningful change in this country has happened when it started at a local level. And it almost always involved some act of civic courage, and frequently that involved going into the streets, protesting and marching, going to a community meeting, participating in a Zoom call. Those are things could actually do make a meaningful difference. Whether that is the fight for 15 or the fight for marriage equality or fight for civil rights or the fight for suffrage, all of these things started in these small places. Often those were on the surface. They look like homogeneous places that might’ve been blue. The fight for 15 started with strikes in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. Those are blue places. And now we have, Amazon has $15 as its fundamental minimum wage. And the Democrat running for president is running on a $15 minimum wage. Those are things that can happen and that’s because of actions from people like you.
So Cristina, I just want to ask one last question of you. So we talked about the hundred days. That’s just about when the election actually starts for most people. What are you going to be looking for in the next hundred days? What are you going to be watching for?
I’m thinking about what comes between election day 2020 and inauguration day 2021. I’m thinking about… Zach, you’re in Washington State. So my mantra is count every vote. We won’t know on election night. A functioning democracy wants to take the time to make sure we got it right and we count every vote. I am so focused on that. So what I’m looking for in the next hundred days is making sure we get that story to take hold to be honest. The candidates are going to do what they need to do and run their campaigns. And I’ll be watching that, but I’m really more looking at how do we ensure that everyone is prepared to know that we need to count every vote, ensure every vote is counted.
It won’t happen on election night. Reporters in Washington State know that, in Colorado, in California, in Oregon, increasingly in other states and the public needs be reassured of that. The fact that we don’t know doesn’t mean something is wrong. So that’s what I’ll be watching for is how we start to ship that. And I’m also worried about a bad narrative taking hold on, what happens between election day and inauguration day. That’s what I’ll be looking for. People’s excitement around the election as well because I do think this is when people start to get engaged and I’ll be interested in that. So those three things.
I agree with that 100% that those are really important and probably among the most consequential things. Well, it’s not just simply who’s going to win the election, but there’s going to be a spin war like we have not seen in, I guess maybe since Bush v. Gore in 2000. But it’s going to be similar to that. And I think we all need to be prepared. And then as someone was noting earlier, I’m really curious to see how the Biden team and all the Democrats start thinking about running on and talking about the economy in the next hundred days. Because as voters tune in, this is when their messaging is going to be most impactful. And I’m hoping that they really center people and talk about a new way to think about the economy. So I’ll be watching for that too.
Hey Cristina, what a pleasure. It was awesome talking.
This was so great. We did this is on the day that both of our teams are having an opening night too in baseball, as crazy as that is. So I take that as a good omen.
It’s all starting now. It all starts today.
It all starts today. Throw out the first pitch, let’s go.
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