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Currency Devaluation

Eric Platt of fastFT, discusses how the state of the Chinese economy impacts the US.
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The Hog Baron
A CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, outside of Rockwell City, Iowa. The proliferation of CAFOs has transformed the state in the past 30 years; lifeless pigs in dumpsters are now a common sight. | Photos by Kathryn Gamble for Vox How Iowa’s largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland. Part of The Animals Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world. Jeff Hansen, who owns Iowa’s largest hog operation, brought about 5 million pigs to market last year. Each one spent its entire life in a windowless metal shed called a confinement. Passing clusters of the massive sheds on the rural highways, you wouldn’t imagine that a standard confinement holds almost 2,500 pigs — unless the wind wafted the thick stench of manure in your direction. The manure drops through a shed’s slatted floors and collects in a deep pool below. Often, that pool will run through a pipe to a manure pond or lagoon that holds the overflow. Hansen’s company, Iowa Select Farms, employs more than 7,400 people, including contractors, and has built hundreds of confinement sheds in more than 50 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Since they began to arrive in the 1990s, these sheds have provoked controversy. Citing damage to health, livelihoods, property values, the environment, and the farm economy, rural communities in Iowa have campaigned fiercely against them. While their efforts have yielded small victories, they have lost the war: The state’s hog industry, led by Hansen, has cultivated close relationships with state politicians on both sides of the aisle to roll back regulations, and confinements have flooded the countryside. The Hansen family’s charitable efforts have seemingly solidified these ties; it’s not unusual for a sitting governor to attend a charity gala thrown by the Hansens. A 24,000-square-foot Iowa Select warehouse and conference center opened in 2020 in tiny Rockwell City. The three-shed complex houses nearly 7,500 pigs. Since Iowa Select was founded in 1992, the state’s pig population has increased more than 50 percent — while the number of farms raising hogs has declined over 80 percent. In the last 30 years, 26,000 Iowa farms quit the long-standing tradition of raising pigs. As confinements replaced them, rural communities have continued to hollow out. While other states have placed regulations on the hog industry out of concern for the environment and economy, Iowa has peeled them back. It now raises about a third of the nation’s hogs, about as many as the second, third, and fourth-ranking states combined. As the largest pig farmer in a state that both the American hog industry and export market depend on, Hansen is an agricultural force with international influence. Pigs in Iowa outnumber human residents by a ratio of more than 7 to 1, and they produce a volume of waste equivalent to nearly 84 million people, more than the population of California, Texas, and Illinois combined. In theory, this manure, when spread on nearby crop fields, is a useful fertilizer, but residents and scientists alike point to evidence that this “Mt. Everest of waste,” as one University of Iowa water quality researcher describes it, is frequently mismanaged. It filters through soil to underground pipes that discharge directly into rivers, and when manure is over-applied, rain and snowmelt can sluice it into waterways. As confinements have come to dominate farming, they’ve worsened Iowa’s water quality: Watersheds that are dense with livestock have a higher nutrient overload, and last summer the state closed half of its state park beaches to swimming for at least a week, citing the health risk of toxins or bacteria. Closer to the sheds, many rural residents say they’ve been plagued — and others pushed out — by the stench, the flies, and the health hazards that seem to accompany the facilities. Hansen likely can’t see — or smell — any hog buildings from his 7,000-square-foot mansion, which is nestled inside a gated community in suburban Des Moines. His view is most likely dominated by the golf course at the Glen Oaks Country Club, which abuts his backyard. In a year when Covid-19 sickened thousands of workers — and killed 11 — in Iowa hog slaughterhouses owned by Tyson, one of Iowa Select’s exclusive contractors, Hansen’s company jet recorded over 200 flights, including several trips to Naples, Florida, where until recently he owned multiple homes on the coast. Meanwhile, back in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has received $300,000 in campaign contributions from Iowa Select, fought to keep plants open, prioritizing farmers like Hansen, who would lose millions as barns became overloaded with market-ready animals. And in mid-July, when Iowa Select’s administrative headquarters in West Des Moines had an outbreak scare, the company reached out directly to the governor’s office, which sent a rapid-response team to test 32 office employees. The governor’s rapid allocation of testing resources to political donors such as the Hansens has stirred controversy, prompting an investigation from the state auditor. (Reynolds has argued that the state also offered testing to dozens of other businesses.) As the pandemic disrupted food chains, and Americans read headlines about farmers plowing vegetables into the ground and exterminating animals by the millions, they probably weren’t thinking of jet-setting millionaires like Jeff Hansen. But businesses like his are increasingly the norm in farm country: huge, regional-scale corporations owned by just one or a few families who, many believe, use their political connections to overpower both local democracy and local businesses. The story of Hansen and how he came to wield so much power reveals how decades of deregulation shaped the hog industry — and by extension, the farming methods used to produce the vast majority of the pork that America eats. Iowa Select Farms denied multiple requests for interviews and visits over a period of five months. It declined to comment on the findings of this story and referred Vox to the company’s website for information. Jeff Hansen and his wife, Deb, grew up in Iowa Falls as typical farm kids. They graduated from the local high school in 1976, and soon married. Both went straight to work: Jeff helped his father farm, while Deb worked in a local farm insurance office. During the Hansens’ childhoods, Iowa’s rich soils had supported a constellation of diversified single-family operations. Farmers grew corn and soybeans, but many also raised a flock of chickens, milked a small dairy herd, or grazed beef on pasture. As with many long-term portfolios, diversity was a farm family’s lifeline. Many considered pigs to be the keystone of these small farms’ survival. Farmers raised a variety of breeds in barns and in pens. While many kept hogs in every stage of the life cycle, others specialized in “farrowing,” breeding sows and raising the litters. Others bought “feeder” pigs, fattening them to maturity and then auctioning them at sale barns spread in a grid across the Iowa countryside. It was likely at just such a sale barn that newlywed Jeff Hansen bought his first three sows, which he kept in a converted barn on his father’s property. As the herd grew, the couple found the work grueling — particularly Deb, who had quit her office job to manage the pigs. To lighten her load, Jeff purchased labor-saving equipment: “elevated farrowing crates with steel slats, a feed pan and automatic waterers,” according to National Hog Farmer,a trade magazine. Quickly grasping the potential of mechanized livestock equipment, Hansen sought a loan to build a business around these automated systems. By the early ’90s, he was bringing in $90 million a year assembling the confinement sheds that would take over Iowa’s hog industry: concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. CAFOs had already transformed the poultry industry in the mid-South during the ’50s and ’60s and were first extensively used in the late 1980s with hogs in North Carolina. CAFOs allow operators to farrow thousands of pigs in one barn, a model that depends on liberal use of antibiotics to prevent diseases that thrive in crowded conditions. After weaning, the pigs are transferred to a finishing operation. Their next transfer is their last — to the slaughterhouse. These two trips in a packed semi are the only daylight the pigs will ever see. Iowa Select Farms owns hundreds of hog-feeding sheds across the state and brought 5 million pigs to market last year, even amid a pandemic. An aerial view of the Iowa Select CAFOs in Rockwell City shows how sprawling the operations can be. In the sheds, powerful exhaust fans constantly suck out the ammonia rising from the manure lagoons. Shut off the fans and hogs would die within hours, cut off from ventilation and left to overheat and ultimately suffocate, as whistleblowers say they did last year when the pandemic disrupted slaughterhouse operations and Iowa Select needed to quickly kill hundreds of thousands of animals. While Hansen continued expanding his CAFO business, farm economists signaled that if Iowa were friendly to corporations that wanted to expand hog CAFOs, the growth potential was enormous: Trade agreements that cut tariffs and import restrictions in Asia and Mexico had swung open the world market for livestock products — particularly eggs and pork. CAFOs were also attractive because the big meatpackers, which purchased, slaughtered, and packaged pork, were now offering contracts with locked-in prices. The prospect of a guaranteed buyer at prices immune to market fluctuations appealed to farmers made skittish by the volatility of the ’80s. For meatpackers, buying from CAFOs was vastly more profitable than buying from a patchwork of independent growers, who sold pigs of varying breeds and sizes at local auctions. CAFOs provided a steady stream of pigs in predictable sizes that were ready for slaughter on an exacting schedule. Hardin County, where the Hansens were raised, was the perfect place to take advantage of the CAFO-powered hog boom. While nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s land area is devoted to agriculture, its north-central region, smoothed by glaciers, has the flattest, richest cropland, which meant that it could receive copious amounts of manure and produce huge quantities of cheap feed. The region also has abundant groundwater (hogs are thirsty). “At that point, there were two things I knew for sure,” Hansen told National Hog Farmerin 2013. “Iowa was best suited to build an integrated pork production system and, second, I knew I could figure out how to do it.” After steadily expanding his CAFO-building business, Hansen decided, in 1992, that he could also make money with his own hogs. He incorporated a new company, Iowa Select Farms, signed a contract with a meatpacker, and started with a herd of 10,000 sows. In its first four years, Iowa Select more than quintupled its herd to 62,000, enough to crack the top 10 largest pork producers in the country. By 1999, Iowa Select, with 96,000 sows, was selling 1.7 million pigs in a year. Today, two-thirds of Iowa hogs are grown on contract with big meatpackers. Iowa Select Farms is now the fourth-largest hog producer in the country, and owns about 15 percent of the pork production in Iowa. Its sow herd is 242,500, and growing. As confinement buildings and their manure ponds spread rapidly across the Iowa countryside through the late 1990s, a passionate rural backlash emerged, sparking a prolonged battle over the future of farming in Iowa. Protesters packed gymnasiums and crowded hallways in the statehouse. Coalitions held rallies — one drew 1,000 supporters to a town of 2,700 — and lobbied legislators to enact a state moratorium on new confinement construction, or at least give counties the option to deny the necessary building permits. Hogs raised in hoop barns outside of Iowa Falls. An alternative to CAFOs, the barns are said to keep animals healthier and the environment cleaner. Pushback came from all directions. Right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan even made his opposition to confinements a key part of his 1996 presidential campaign in Iowa. “Farmers talk about it everywhere I go,” he told the Los Angeles Timesafter the Iowa caucuses. “Whenever I bring it up, the audience explodes.” According to the New York Times, Buchanan’s surprising close-second finish in the Republican Iowa caucuses— to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole — elevated him from protest candidate to legitimate contender. Iowa Select and industry leaders knew these movements could defeat them. Confinements were already being regulated and prevented from expanding in North Carolina, and while Iowa’s cheap corn was attractive, its lax regulatory standards were — and remain — the hog barons’ sine qua non. While most big corporate CAFO networks operated in multiple states, Hansen staked his entire operation in Iowa, but you’d be hard-pressed to say that he was welcomed. The fierce debate over confinements made the front page of the Des Moines Register year after year in the mid-’90s. National newspapers frequently covered the story. Even Hansen’s home county proposed a moratorium on new confinements. Scientists also began to document negative health effects among people who lived near confinements. One study of North Carolina residents who lived within a few miles of clustered confinements found that they had lower life expectancy and higher rates of infant deaths, asthma, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and blood poisoning than those who lived further away. Dangerous levels of ammonia, which causes burning in the eyes and respiratory tract as well as chronic lung disease, have been measured near massive hog sites in Iowa since the early 2000s. Communities near hog operations also report higher rates of headaches, sore throats, runny noses, coughs, and diarrhea than comparable areas without hog confinements. A 2012 study found higher rates of neurobehavioral and pulmonary impairment in people living within 1.9 miles of a massive hog facility and manure lagoon in Ohio than in a control group in Tennessee. In Iowa, confinements are often as close as a quarter-mile from homes, schools, and businesses. As of 2017, the EPA still hadn’t acted even to estimate air emissions from confinements in order to regulate them under the Clean Air Act — even after instances of workers falling into manure pits and dying from the fumes. Confinement applications sometimes promise to plant tree barriers to reduce air pollution, but the trees take several years to mature enough to be effective. That is, if they are planted in the right place, or planted at all. In interviews with Vox and in years of news coverage, Iowans living in confinement-dense areas have complained about the air quality being too poor for their kids to play outside; the clouds of flies attracted to the giant manure pits and lagoons; the exploding population of rats, drawn by the vast stocks of animal feed, that infest homes; and the vultures that snatch discarded carcasses from CAFO dumpsters, then drop pig parts in backyards. Hog farming has transformed Iowa in the past 30 years, and now pigs outnumber residents 7 to 1. Neighbors complain about flies, rats, and vultures that circle carcasses like these, discarded along a major highway. Despite the popular resistance to CAFOs, legislators faced pressure from business leaders to invite in even more of them. In the summer of 1993, a report called “Project 21” was presented to the Des Moines business leaders who had commissioned it. The 111-page paper, authored by a Virginia-based consulting firm, chided Iowa’s politicians and business leaders for “complacency” with the state’s relative economic health and low unemployment. Iowa needed to do more to distinguish itself, the report said, and boost growth. And to do that, the family farm needed to die. “Although it is politically popular to defend and protect the concept of family farms,” read the report, “legislation limiting corporate investment is economic folly.” The sentiment touched a nerve. “We’re really tired of this type of nonsense,” a leading organizer for a group called Prairiefire told the Des Moines Registerin response to the plan. “And if they want a fight in the Legislature, we’ll show them a fight they’d never imagined.” Forced to address the heated controversy, confinement operations marshaled their political power to fend off regulation. In 1994, the newly formed Iowa Pork Alliance enlisted Robert Ray, a beloved Republican former governor, to remind Iowans of hogs’ economic importance in statewide TV ads. (The state’s governor at the time, Republican Terry Branstad, also appeared in an Iowa Select TV promo that year.) Iowa Select emphasized repeatedly in the press that any efforts to stifle the growth of hog confinements would send production and jobs out of state. Iowa Select staff and employees donated $41,000 to Branstad’s campaign that year and hired his former chief of staff, Doug Gross, as a lobbyist. The relationship seemingly paid off: In 1995, Branstad signed a law that would prove to be pivotal for Hansen, restructuring local democracy to clear the way for his industry’s development. The law, known as H.F. 519, offered token protections to neighbors of confinements: New buildings had to be sited at least a quarter-mile from residences, and owners had to write plans — approved by the state — for disposing of their manure. But it also handed CAFO operators a huge victory by stripping county Boards of Supervisors of their long-standing authority to deny construction permits to confinement operators. Jeff Hansen described the law as a “fair compromise” and judged it sufficient to keep his business in the state. “We’re going to keep growing in Iowa,” he told the Des Moines Register. The issue became a prominent topic in the 2002 governor’s race between Republican Doug Gross and Democrat Tom Vilsack. While campaigning, Vilsack — who would later serve as agriculture secretary for Presidents Obama and then Biden — derided Gross as a “champion of corporate hog lots.” But as a state senator, in 1995, Vilsack had voted for H.F. 519. His second term, from 2002 through 2006, witnessed the largest confinement-building boom in Iowa’s history. When Julie Duhn joined the fight against CAFOs in 2016, activists and politicians had been campaigning — unsuccessfully — for more than twenty years. She got involved after retiring from her office job and experimenting with a new sport: kayaking. Duhn lived in Eldora, home to Pine Lake State Park, a collection of campgrounds and trails ringing two small lakes that trickle into the Iowa River, a popular tubing destination. Duhn, 70, remembers her first kayak outing mostly for its aftermath. It was a hot afternoon in mid-August, and when she got home from paddling her arms began to itch. They grew red and raw. After three weeks, she consulted a doctor who, after learning she’d had contact with the lake, blamed the rash on the water. The state Department of Natural Resources had considered the lake unsafe for human contact since 2012: A sign on the beach discourages visitors from wading in. The problem is an overgrowth of algae, which feed on the phosphorus that continually flows into the lake from farm fields spread with fertilizer and manure. A state report concluded that the waste produced by 10,000 hogs in the lake’s watershed was a clear contributor. One recent summer, Julie Duhn tried taking up kayaking at Pine Lake State Park in Eldora, Iowa. But soon, an itchy rash appeared on her arms. The eponymous lake at Pine Lake State Park had been on a state “impaired waters” list, marked as unsafe for human contact because of fertilizer and manure runoff. A stream near an Iowa Select CAFO complex in Rockwell City. Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources rubber-stamps permits for medium and large CAFOs and levies paltry fines for manure spills, but the department is so critically underfunded that rigorous enforcement of management plans is all but impossible. Implementation of state-sanctioned “best management practices” to reduce manure runoff is voluntary, and such efforts have not stopped the problem from worsening: 61 percent of Iowa’s rivers and streams and 67 percent of its lakes and reservoirs do not meet basic water quality standards, according to the latest assessment by the Iowa DNR. Manure spills are semiregular occurrences. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, an organization opposed to confinements, estimates that there have been at least 150 manure or ammonia leaks from Iowa Select operations since its founding — each of which resulted in only a small fine. Bob Havens, now in his 70s, learned to swim in Pine Lake and built his house there 20 years ago. Now, he says, in the summertime, “the lake turns into this slimy green sludge. You [can’t] even canoe through it, let alone fish,” and billows of foam course through local culverts. Both are signs of a dangerous nutrient imbalance. Havens sees the pollution as a matter of equity. “A lot of folks in Hardin County can’t afford a three-week vacation in the Bahamas,” he says, but they used to have Pine Lake for excellent swimming, fishing, and boating. Now, he says ruefully, “they just can’t do it.” That’s what frustrated Duhn. It hurt her to know she’d never take her grandkids swimming at Pine Lake. After her rash cleared up — it took a month of topical treatments — Duhn started going to meetings of the county board of supervisors and organizing people to oppose permits for proposed hog buildings. She thinks they managed to stop one: After a zealous campaign last year over a particular confinement, Iowa Select withdrew its application without saying why. “People don’t want to recognize that factory farming affects the water,” says Duhn, who helped organize some opponents of the CAFOs but has found that many want no part of the fight. But in a town where hog farming underpins much of the economy, many keep their opinions to themselves. “People don’t want to recognize that factory farming affects the water,” Duhn says. “Because then life gets complicated.” It’s no secret that rural American economies have struggled for decades with high poverty rates and anemic job growth. But have CAFOs been a good deal for their host counties? Ask Iowa Select and the company will likely point to a 2017 study it commissioned from Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University economist with a long record of supporting agribusiness. In the report, Hayes credits the company with “reversing economic decline” in rural communities where it builds giant sow barns. Dave Swenson, an economist who studies regional development at Iowa State University, says he believes that for all the jobs Iowa Select provides, the overall economy has continued to degrade. “There’s no evidence that [confinements] have slowed population drain in my opinion. They’re actually one of the key mechanisms for driving people out of rural areas, despite the claims to the contrary.” According to Mark Buschkamp, director of the Iowa Falls Area Development Corporation, Iowa Select is the largest employer in the area — along with the Jeff Hansen Family Hospital (yes, that Jeff Hansen). But as Duhn puts it, “Is a job with Iowa Select what you want for your kids?” Iowa Select is the area’s largest employer — along with the Hansen Family Hospital. A billboard for Iowa Select Farms sits across the street from the Hansen Family Hospital in Iowa Falls. The jobs are tough: Employees at sow farms monitor food, water, and ventilation; castrate, euthanize, artificially inseminate, and perform pregnancy checks on the animals; remove the dead; power-wash facilities; and wean litters. One former Iowa Select driver told the Guardian in 2019 that he earned $23,000 a year for 12-hour days with no overtime pay. It’s easy to see why communities across the state revolted — and many continue to revolt — against this particular type of economic development. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of respondents favor a moratorium on new corporate hog facilities. In January 2018, Thomas Burkhead learned that Iowa Select had applied for a permit to build its largest-ever sow complex a mile from his family’s farm near Rockwell City, in Calhoun County. He launched into action. The proposal was for a veritable hog mothership, a three-shed breeding complex covering an area larger than four football fields and housing 7,498 pigs — 5,200 of them gestating sows. Manure pits would underlie each shed; combined, they’d hold enough waste to fill three Olympic-size swimming pools. Despite residents’ complaints, Iowa Select and the Hansens have won friends in high places in the state, through political investments and their growing power as the state’s largest hog farmers. Once weaned, the offspring of those sows would need to be fattened, and that meant even more confinements would soon need to be built. Calhoun County already had more than 150 facilities housing north of 300,000 pigs, and residents say the smell of their manure was already making the area unlivable. “There are a lot of days where I don’t go outside, because it stinks enough to make you vomit,” Burkhead says. “I mean, it will knock you on your knees.” Burkhead rallied neighbors and community groups, among them Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, to fend off the sow-barn proposal. But he figured they had almost no chance. But the opponents persisted, eventually finding a mistake in Iowa Select’s application. The group rallied people to a special supervisor’s meeting and convinced the board to decline to recommend the proposal to the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR then kicked the proposal to the Environmental Protection Commission, an oversight board, which waved the company’s application through. Both the commission and the DNR leadership are appointed by the governor. In Iowa, counties have virtually no policy avenue for blocking confinements that meet the state’s requirements. Activists have resorted to leaning on a public scandal to shame companies into withdrawal. They create Facebook pages, write op-eds and letters to local officials and newspapers, crowd hearings held by county supervisors, and testify for hours — anything to chip away at CAFO operators’ standing with local leadership. Every year since 2018, Iowa politicians, cheered on by activists, have introduced a bill in the Iowa legislature to stop CAFO expansions, and they’ve convinced Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to introduce a bill that includes a long-term phaseout of large CAFOs nationwide. But neither has the support to reach the floor. Coming up on its 30th anniversary, Iowa Select is still expanding, along with the rest of the hog industry in Iowa. The state is now home to at least 13,000 confinements, and applications hit the DNR office at a steady clip. The 2016 spring gala for the Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation was a glittering event, packed with smiling faces and powerful personalities. Iowa’s then-governor, Terry Branstad, was in attendance, as was the current president of Iowa State University. The university, following a $2 million Hansen family donation, had dedicated the Jeff and Deb Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center less than two years earlier. This guest list was typical for the charity’s annual fundraiser. For the 2019 gala, Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds contributed to the auction an afternoon’s tour of the capitol and governor’s mansion, led by Reynolds herself. Iowa Select requested her presence at the gala the day after Reynolds won her election — likely aided by the Hansens’ six-figure campaign contribution. The Hansen Foundation has a long and well-publicized history of charitable giving. It donates thousands of pork chops to food banks, gives vouchers for ham to dozens of schools, and organizes “Operation Christmas Meal,” a series of drive-through pork handouts. In 2018, it gave away about $600,000 per year, accompanied by streams of photos uploaded to Facebook of smiling employees, occasionally joined by a governor or US senator. In December, Reynolds, who is up for reelection in 2022, spent a frigid day handing out Iowa Select pork packages at an Operation Christmas Meal drive-through event in Osceola, Iowa. But the Hansens weren’t there to help. Their jet had landed a few days earlier in sunny Naples, Florida. Hog CAFOs along highway D-41 near Iowa Falls. The Hansens no longer live near the CAFOs that have made them wealthy. Charlie Mitchell is a journalist living in Chicago. His work has appeared on The New Republic, The Baffler and elsewhere. Austin Frerick is an agriculture and antitrust expert at Yale. Kathryn Gamble is an independent photographer in Des Moines, Iowa.
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The next big voting rights fight is in Texas
An early voting poll location for the 2020 presidential elections in Houston. | Callaghan O’Hare/Bloomberg/Getty Images Texas is already one of the most restrictive states in the country. Republicans want new rules that would make things worse. Texas has, by one measure, the harshest voting rules of any state in the country. Now the Republican-controlled state government is working to make voting even harder — pushing legislation, similar to Georgia’s SB 202, that appears designed to suppress votes in Democratic-leaning areas of the increasingly purple state. One of the two big bills, SB 7, has already passed the Texas Senate. The other, HB 6, has been approved for a floor vote by the House Elections Committee. Together, these two bills contain a series of provisions that seem likely to suppress voter turnout. The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting. The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts. “SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU. LM Otero/AP Voters line up outside Vickery Baptist Church in Dallas on Election Day in 2020. Whether these bills will succeed at giving the GOP an advantage is an open question. Some provisions likely would hurt Democrats, while others might have little effect or even backfire against Republicans. But the anti-democratic intent of the Texas bills is clear: They are at once an attempt to codify Trump’s “Big Lie” about a stolen election — a conspiracy theory widely embraced by Texas Republicans — and an effort to give the state GOP a leg up in future elections. In the wake of the Georgia fight, Texas legislators are facing a preemptive backlash — with major corporations based in the state weighing in against SB 7 and HB 6. The biggest question now is whether the pressure will be sufficient to get Texas Republicans to back off before it’s too late. The Texas bills mount assaults on ballot box access The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant. One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines. Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin). In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder. First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters” The end result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout. “Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.” Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls. Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work. “It’s kind of underrated, but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas-Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.” The two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests. SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating disabled voters and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.” HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick poll watchers out for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote. It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights. And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws. SB 7 extends voter ID requirements to absentee ballots, requiring voters to submit information like their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on their mail-in ballot application. HB 6 requires voting assistance volunteers to take an oath foreswearing telling voters which candidates to vote for “by word, sign, or gesture.” Violating this oath, even unintentionally, is a felony comparable to criminally negligent homicide. From these provisions, you can get a clear sense of what SB 7 and HB 6 are all about: making it harder for voters to access the ballot box and harder for election workers to do their jobs, often in ways that seem designed to hand Republicans a partisan advantage. Trump’s “Big Lie” and the war on Houston Ostensibly, SB 7 and HB 6 are about preventing voter fraud. “In the 2020 election, we witnessed actions throughout our state that could risk the integrity of our elections and enable voter fraud,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference. This is a phantom problem. There is only one case of criminal fraud in the 2020 election currently pending out of the 11 million ballots cast in Texas in 2020, according to data from the state attorney general’s office reported by the Houston Chronicle. The better way to understand the Texas bill, like its cousin in Georgia, is as a ratification of Trump’s Big Lie: a formal codification of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president. Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images Campaign posters outside an early voting location in El Paso on October 24, 2020. HB 6’s lead sponsor, Texas’s House Elections Committee Chair Briscoe Cain, flew to Pennsylvania after the 2020 election to assist in Trump’s efforts to overturn the results via litigation. SB 7’s author, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, argued that his bill was necessary to address a lack of public confidence in electoral results. (Neither responded to a request for comment.) “This bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” Hughes said in a Senate address. It’s true that 73 percent of Texas Republicans, per a February 2021 poll, believed that the national election results were inaccurate. But this is a problem entirely of the GOP’s making: if it weren’t for Trump crying foul, after years of Republicans both in Texas and nationally warning their voters of the threat of voting fraud, their rank-and-file wouldn’t be particularly concerned. “The latest efforts by Texas Republicans seem another manifestation of a well-established case of political Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” the University of Texas’s Jim Henson and Joshua Blank write. “Having spent the better part of the last few years trumpeting unverifiable signs of a non-existent illness in the body politic, they are once again making herculean efforts to administer various cures to a symptom that they have created along the way: a lack of trust in the system.” You can see the influence of Trump’s lies in the way SB 7 targets Harris County’s pandemic voting innovations. In 2020, Houston and its environs led the way in facilitating mail-in voting. Election officials instituted 24-hour early voting, proactively sent vote-by-mail applications to elderly residents, and invented a drive-through voting method allowing citizens to cast ballots from their cars. Sergio Flores/Getty Images A poll worker helps a voter at a mail-in ballot drop-off location in Austin, Texas on October 13, 2020. SB 7 undoes these innovations. It sets a 12-hour-per-day limit on early voting, bans drive-through voting with limited exceptions, and prohibits election officials from proactively providing vote-by-mail applications to voters (HB 6 also does this). There’s no evidence that any of these Harris County initiatives facilitated fraud in any way. Surprisingly, banning them might not even be good for Republicans on pure partisan grounds: A New York Times analysis found that “in Houston’s 245 precincts with the largest share of Latinos, turnout was up sharply from 2016, and Mr. Trump won nearly two-thirds of the additional votes.” It seems plausible that, if the Harris County innovations had any clear partisan effect, it was facilitating turnout from a more conservative segment of the Latino population. That’s something Republicans should obviously want, especially in a state where the rapidly rising Hispanic population is widely seen as a threat to GOP political hegemony. But the Trump narrative is that the mail-in voting rules created for the pandemic facilitated fraud, especially in cities with high minority populations. This requires a crackdown on Covid-related innovations specifically — so Hughes put them in SB 7, as did dozens of Republican state legislators in bills restricting early voting around the country. Texas, democracy, and the stakes of what happens next Some anti-democratic state bills, like Georgia’s SB 202, have already passed into law. But Texas is at an inflection point: SB 7 and HB 6 could be still be stopped — or made even worse. Texas political observers expect each legislative chamber will prioritize its own bill: the House will pass HB 6 before it passes SB 7, forcing the Senate to consider the House legislation before SB 7 is enacted. Given that the two bills overlap in a number of areas, it’s unlikely that both laws will pass in their current forms. The most likely result is that a conference committee works to combine them. “The legislature has shown it has an appetite to pass extreme voter suppression bills and we don’t know their limit” That means there’s plenty of time for amendments that could substantially alter the bills’ effects. Members of the Republican legislative majority have proposed a number of dangerous standalone election bills that could be added to the final product. “Often these are fodder for amendments to election bills later on,” says James Slattery, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “Remember in Georgia, the bill was two pages long — and then all of a sudden it was 90 pages.” Two proposals, for example, are similar to the most dangerous provision of Georgia’s new law: a partisan takeover of local election administration. HB 329 would allow the Texas Secretary of State to suspend funding for voter registration in specific counties “in amounts determined by the secretary of state based on the registrar’s compliance with this code and the secretary of state’s directives.” HB 1026 would go even further by turning the secretary of state into the county registrar for every county in the state, effectively giving an appointed Republican power over the registration process and voter roll maintenance. “It’s hard to see these bills as anything but a blatant power-grab by Republicans who don’t want to see Democrats win any more elections,” says Charlotte Hill, a PhD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley who studies elections. Other bills enlist Texas police in bizarre voter intimidation schemes. HB 895, for example, would allow poll workers to photograph “the entire face of a voter” if they have questions about their authenticity of their ID, and allows police to use the photographs in criminal investigations. HB 3080 would require voters to submit a thumbprint as part of the vote-by-mail process — which, according to Slattery, may require voters to get fingerprinted at a police station. Strange as some of these proposals seem, there’s no guarantee that they won’t end up becoming law. “I wouldn’t sleep on these other bills,” says Buser-Clancy, the Texas ACLU attorney. “The legislature has shown it has an appetite to pass extreme voter suppression bills and we don’t know their limit.” One crucial difference between this round of Texas legislation and past ones, however, is that it’s happening directly after the national furor surrounding Georgia’s voting law. The backlash to that law ranged from top Democrats to corporate America to professional sports. Delta Air Lines, which uses Atlanta as a major air travel hub, condemned the law; Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest. But while this mostly happened after the fact in Georgia, the criticism in Texas is coming in before the bill is passed. Two major corporations headquartered in the state, American Airlines and Dell Computing, have condemned SB 7 and and HB 6 (respectively). A new statement from hundreds of corporations and business leaders, including Starbucks and Amazon, denounced the wave of voter suppression bills sweeping the country. So far, Texas politicians have been defiant. Gov. Abbott, for example, refused to throw the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opener in protest of MLB’s stance on the Georgia bill. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened Texas corporations who get involved in the voting rights battle with unspecified financial punishments: “if they think they’re going to attack the legislature on issues they have no knowledge about and come to us with their hand out, well that’s just not going to be the way we do business.” Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images Former President Donald Trump speaks with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (right) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (left) in 2017. The next few weeks will show whether this is mere bluster; whether the national backlash to Georgia’s law, both from activists and big corporations, actually has the potential to change the GOP’s calculus over voting rights. The Republican Party has been engaged in a long-running, at times systematic attempt to change the rules in their favor. Not every tactic they’ve used in the fight has been equally effective; gerrymandering, at both the state and national level, has a much clearer partisan effect than voter ID laws. But overall, there’s been a clear effect on electoral fairness — academic research has found a large and measurable decline in the quality of democracy in GOP-controlled states between 2000 and 2018. After Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, this partisan split on democracy itself became fully solidified. Democrats doubled down on their belief that the fraud is a non-problem and access to the ballot box should be expanded; Republicans became even more convinced that widespread fraud demanded more restrictions on the franchise. This makes state laws like those in Georgia and Texas seem a fait accompli: at the national level, virtually nothing has been able to derail the power of partisan polarization and group identity. Texas’s state government, like Georgia’s, is dominated by Republicans; Democrats don’t have any real power to stop them. But if the fight in Texas ultimately sees the corporate pressure and national attention that Georgia did, Republicans would face a potentially unprecedented level of pressure over proposed voting reforms. The bigger question is whether that pressure would work.
Welcome to the Animals Issue of The Highlight
Kathryn Gamble for Vox How one pork baron transformed the heartland. Plus: The unfortunate tale of the “it” dog, a fringe idea to protect wild animals from suffering, and more. While this pandemic year has pushed us physically further from one another, it has brought us closer to animals. Cat and dog shelters experienced a record jump in pet adoptions as so many people found themselves working from home, suddenly cut off from social lifebut newly able to devote time and care to a new companion. We’re also spending more time outdoors, enjoying nature and wildlife as a reprieve from our increased screen time. Covid-19 affected the meatpacking industry, too, shuttering slaughterhouses where the virus spread like wildfire, causing many farmers to inhumanely euthanize entire herds of pigs and flocks of chickens with nowhere to go, putting the grim reality of our industrial factory farming food system on full display. So it seemed a ripe time for an examination of our relationship with animals — those in our food systems, those in our homes, and even wild animals, the ones deep in forests and jungles that we may never lay eyes on. With support from Animal Charity Evaluators, an organization that researches which interventions, and which charities, are best positioned to help animals, the Animals Issue of the Highlight looks at everything from a new reason to reconsider which animals we protect to how industrial animal farming can ravage landscapes and rural economies. Thirty years ago, Iowa lawmakers — under pressure from business leaders— opened the door to a new way of raising pigs, one that would turn the state into the nation’s No. 1 producer of pork and turn some of its family farmers into true hog barons, responsible for bringing millions of pigs to market each year. In this month’s cover story, we look at one those farmers-turned-meat-titans, Jeff Hansen, and his company, Iowa Select Farms, the state’s most prolific pork producer, as a lens on how some have used money and influence to turn the landscape into a sea of “concentrated animal feeding operations” that residents say have rendered parts of the state unlivable. Pet ownership is best described as both a benevolent and mutual relationship, but our pursuit of ever-cuter and more unusual dogs could be the undoing of the very breeds we adore. Take, for example, the Frenchie, beloved by celebrities and big on the ’Gram. This year, it became the second most popular dog breed in America: Registrations for the squat, flat-faced, easily house-trained pooch have increased extraordinarily over the past decade. But few dogs are also quite as unhealthy. This month, we explore what happens when a dog becomes an aspirational item. (Hint: It’s not so great for the dog.) The animal rights movement has long been focused on helping animals exploited by humans: farm animals, animals raised for fur, animals used for testing, endangered animals threatened by poachers. Meanwhile, the environmental movement has been preoccupied with preserving the habitats of animals in order to save species. But a group of philosophers and zoologists is asking whether humans ought to try harder to protect all creatures from predators and disease — to care whether wild animals live good lives, happy and free of pain. Covid-19 has made it obvious that we live in an interconnected world where one infected animal, smart or not, can turn all our lives upside down. So, are we using the right yardstick when deciding which animals are worth protecting? And finally, those pets we adopted en masse during quarantine mean more food, more delivery boxes, and a shocking environmental impact. A comic looks at the carbon pawprint of our pet ownership, and what we can do about it. Kathryn Gamble for Vox The Hog Baron How Iowa’s largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland. By Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick Shyama Golden for Vox The very cute, totally disturbing tale of the American “it” dog (coming Tuesday) How the quest to own the tiniest, most Instagram-worthy and low-maintenance pup has bred a world of problems. By Tove K. Danovich Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images The wild frontier of animal welfare (coming Wednesday) Should humans try harder to protect creatures from predators and disease? Should we care whether they live good lives? A group of philosophers and scientists has an unorthodox answer. By Dylan Matthews The Washington Post/Getty Images Why do we care how smart animals are? (coming Thursday) Intelligence plays a role in how we treat them. Maybe it shouldn’t. By Sigal Samuel Eleanor Cummins and Maki Naro Are our pets gobbling up the planet? (coming Friday) From meat-based meals to kitty litter to plastic poop bags, pet care is unarguably bad for the environment. What can we do about it? By Eleanor Cummins and Maki Naro
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NAACP president pushes for policies after Dallas police ambush
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