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Muslims worldwide are protesting French President Macron’s crackdown on Islam
Bangladeshi Muslims denounce French President Emmanuel Macron for his remarks defending the right to display cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, on October 27, 2020. | Mushfiqul Alam/NurPhoto via Getty Images From Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, thousands want a boycott of French products. Thousands of Muslims from the Middle East to Asia are protesting the French government and boycotting French products after President Emmanuel Macron defended the right to display cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed — considered a major taboo by many Muslims. From Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, Iran to Morocco, countries are showing their displeasure at how France is treating its Muslims. It threatens to drive a wider rift between the Western European nation and much of the broader Muslim world. Earlier this month, secondary school teacher Samuel Paty brought scrutiny when, as part of a lesson on freedom of expression, he showed his students two caricatures of Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the same images that in 2015 inspired jihadists to kill 11 staff members at the magazine and six others in Paris. Parents and teachers at the school said Paty gave his Muslim pupils the opportunity to leave the classroom or look away so as not to offend them, but an outcry ensued nonetheless. On October 16, an attacker beheaded Paty with a butcher knife as the teacher made his way home. Police found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to the assailant that featured a picture of the severed head along with a message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.” In response, Macron’s government has turned Paty into a freedom-of-expression hero. At a national memorial for the slain teacher last week, Macron said France “will continue the fight for freedom” and “intensify” efforts to end Islamist extremism in the country. Part of that campaign is to create an “Islam of France,” as the president has put it for years, that aims to seamlessly integrate Muslims into French society. Macron says extremists are impeding that integration, and his government has begun carrying out raids, deportations, and ordering the dissolution of certain Islamic groups. One of them aimed to fight Islamophobia in France and another was a humanitarian organization that does work in Africa and South Asia. Authorities also didn’t stop images of the cartoons from being projected onto French government buildings during the national remembrance. France’s interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, told local paper Libération on Monday that such measures were aimed at “sending a message,” adding, “We are seeking to fight an ideology, not a religion.” Yet to thousands of Muslims worldwide, fighting a religion is exactly what it seems like the French government is doing. And they’re speaking out against it. From boycotted yogurt to canceled “French week” We will not give in, ever.We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2020 On Tuesday, 40,000 people rallied in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, against Macron’s efforts, and even burned him in effigy. That followed less aggressive acts in other countries, with Turkey, Tunisia, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and more calling to boycott French products and grocery stores. In Kuwait, for example, they’ve already started pulling items like French yogurt and sparkling water off the shelves. Qatar University even canceled its “French week” as part of the anti-Macron movement. Kuwait started who’s next #إلا_رسول_الله#Koweit #kuwait— عـبداللـه العويهان (@a_alowaihan1) October 24, 2020 #Tunisians launch the #BoycottFrenchProducts campaign in response to attacks on #Islam and #prophetMuhammed in #France.#تونس #قاطعوا_المنتجات_الفرنسية #إلا_رسول_الله #فرنسا— Mourad TEYEB (مــراد التـائـب) (@MouradTeyeb) October 23, 2020 It’s unclear what precisely instigated the protests. H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, said it was likely a combination of factors, namely Macron’s defense of the cartoons and the crackdown on Islamic organizations. “A lot of people are quite aware of that outside of France, and it contradicts the claim that the French authorities are only going after extremists,” he said. The global reaction by Muslims is similar to what happened after a far-right Danish newspaper published cartoons titled “The Face of Muhammad” in 2005. Even though no image directly portrayed the prophet, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest. Some demonstrators responded violently, and 250 people were killed and another 800 were injured. But the main action was for the public in Muslim-majority countries — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya — to boycott Danish goods and companies. The message was clear then as it is now: If a country allows such cartoons to be published, it will take a major economic hit. But that message hasn’t been fully received by the target countries, and experts believe the current uprising may eventually fizzle out just like the Danish one. “It’s going to be a blip,” said Shahed Amanullah, a former US State Department official who led outreach to Muslim communities around the world, “and the fundamental problems of what’s happening in France aren’t going to be addressed by the outside world.” There’s no prominent effort by French Muslims for a boycott at the moment, Amanullah continued, which means “when they subside, they’re going to be left holding the bag.” But some world leaders actually want the protests to continue — mainly because it benefits them politically. This is an opportunity for Muslim leaders to grab power The heads of Muslim-majority countries have stepped up their criticism of France since the Paty murder, and of Macron in particular. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday tweeted the French president’s actions and statements “inevitably leads to radicalisation.” The next day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went even further, saying in a televised addressed that French products should be boycotted since Muslims in France have been “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II.” Hallmark of a leader is he unites human beings, as Mandela did, rather than dividing them. This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) October 25, 2020 (Other figures, like those leading Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, are also making similar comments to gin up anti-Western sentiment and show themselves to be defenders of Islam.) Why say such things if it might provoke further anger? Perhaps they truly believe it, but experts argue they’re making those comments out of pure self-interest. “I don’t think they’re instigating, necessarily, but they’re definitely utilizing [the moment] for their own benefit,” said Mobashra Tazamal, a researcher on Islamophobia. “These leaders often present themselves as defenders of Islam and Muslims and it pays off for them in terms of national support.” But, she noted, they’re more talk than action. “Both Khan and Erdoğan have failed to hold China accountable in its campaign of repression against Uighur Muslims,” she said, “even as Chinese authorities destroy mosques, criminalize the observance of Ramadan, and force Uighur Muslims in concentration camps to drink alcohol and eat pork.” Still, Macron is an easy target, and may be one for months to come. On October 2, two weeks before the Paty murder, Macron delivered an address detailing his views on the role of Islam in France’s secular society. “What we must attack is Islamist separatism,” he told the nation, saying extremists preyed upon desperate Muslims in desolate neighborhoods, basically creating anti-French enclaves by spreading their radical Islamic “ideology” and “project.” He also made some sweeping, incendiary generalizations, such as that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today, all over the world.” Such language, experts say, particularly demonizes French Muslims. That not only gives the Khans and Erdoğans of the world fodder to attack Macron, but also the space to animate their publics when it most suits them, potentially stirring up even more trouble. They might win, in other words, but France’s Muslims may lose. “This will have lasting consequences, I think, in how French Muslims are problematized in France by the elite,” RUSI’s Hellyer said. “That’s troubling.” Macron’s two reason for continuing the crackdown on French Muslims Experts say Macron’s actions are driven by two factors. First, he is trying to garner some right-wing bona fides by taking a tougher stance against Islamic extremism ahead of his reelection fight 18 months from now. Second, he’s a true believer in France’s centuries-long values of freedom of speech and secularism. “We will not give in, ever,” he tweeted on Sunday. We will not give in, ever.We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 25, 2020 The problem with that is French Muslims may feel extremely targeted by what Macron’s government is doing. After all, Holocaust denial is criminalized, which means some forms of expression are outlawed in France. But when it comes to images of the prophet, Macron says that’s fair play. “French Muslims are asking for the same respect that France gives French Jews,” said Amanullah. “They want to feel like they’re equal French citizens, not second-class citizens.” Unsurprisingly, little of what Macron’s government has done has sat well with Muslims around the world — and they’re expressing their frustrations. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
3 h
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
President Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally at Capital Region International Airport on October 27, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images On Tuesday, the president yet again spread misleading information about voting on Twitter and Facebook. Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing one’s early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday. In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used. Twitter Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet. Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump. It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar time period before the 2016 presidential election. Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post. trends.embed.renderExploreWidget("TIMESERIES", {"comparisonItem":[{"keyword":"can I change my vote","geo":"US","time":"now 7-d"}],"category":0,"property":""}, {"exploreQuery":"date=now%207-d&geo=US&q=can%20I%20change%20my%20vote","guestPath":""}); Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information. Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election. The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.” Facebook Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center. At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly. On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment. That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He’s does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
3 h
The Philadelphia police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., explained
Philadelphia police in riot gear form a line in front of protesters in West Philadelphia on October 26, 2020. | Michael-Vincent D’Anella-Mercanti Wallace, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot in front of his mother while reportedly experiencing a mental health crisis. Philadelphia is reeling after two police officers shot and killed a 27-year-old Black man named Walter Wallace Jr. on Monday afternoon. During the encounter, which was captured on video, both officers had their guns drawn as Wallace, who was reportedly experiencing a mental break, advanced toward the officers with a knife, though the knife is not visible in the video. By Monday night, West Philadelphia, the site of heated Black Lives Matter protests in late May and early June, had become grounds for hours of unrest over the police shooting. Community leaders are calling for the police department to release body camera footage of the incident as others question whether the city’s new system for responding to behavioral health crises was put into effect on Monday. Activists with groups like Reclaim Philadelphia have longdemanded the defunding and dismantling of the Philadelphia Police Department, which they say has a police union contract that allows for the surveillance, harassment, displacement, and incarceration of Black and Latinx communities in the city. What we know about the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. According to a report from the Philadelphia Police Department, officers made their way to the 6100 block of Locust Street in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia after receiving a report about a man with a knife. A live video posted to Instagram on Monday afternoon by a bystander sitting close by in a car on the block shows what took place in the moments before officers fired their weapons. Wallace, first standing on the sidewalk, moves toward officers who are standing in the middle of the street. As Wallace advances toward them, the officers walk backward away from Wallace with their guns pointed toward him. Wallace pursues the officers to the other side of the street, in between parked cars and back into the street, for about 25 seconds. During this time, Wallace’s mother follows Wallace in an attempt to shield him and stop him from advancing toward the police. Other bystanders scream for both Wallace and the officers to stop. Officers can be heard yelling, “Back off, man!” and “Drop the weapon!” Another bystander, a young Black man, follows behind Wallace before officers scream, “Move! Move! Move!” to him as they prepare to use their weapons. Once Wallace is back in the street, each officer fires several rounds of shots; Wallace falls to the ground immediately. His mother and other bystanders run to his side, visibly angry with the police for shooting him. In the video, Wallace is seen standing several feet away from the officers when they shoot him. “I’m yelling, ‘Put down the gun, put down the gun,’ and everyone is saying, ‘Don’t shoot him, he’s gonna put [the knife] down, we know him,’” Maurice Holloway, a witness, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Why didn’t they use a Taser?” Wallace’s father, Walter Wallace Sr., told the publication. “His mother was trying to defuse the situation.” He added, “He has mental issues. Why you have to gun him down?” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who spoke to the family Monday night, said the video of the incident “presents difficult questions that must be answered.” The two officers, whose names have not been released, were removed from street duty and the PPD’s Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Unit has launched an investigation into the shooting, which Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said will fully address residents’ questions about the fatal shooting. Both officers were wearing body cameras. Ahead of the unrest, Outlaw said she planned to join Kenney to meet with members of the community and members of Wallace’s family to “hear their concerns.” “While at the scene this evening, I heard and felt the anger of the community. Everyone involved will forever be impacted,” Outlaw said. The fatal shooting led to a night of unrest across West Philadelphia neighborhoods A large crowd assembled at the scene of the police killing Monday evening, with gatherers alleging excessive use of force on the part of the two officers. Protesters eventually moved to Malcolm X Park, where they chanted “Black Lives Matter” and Wallace’s name. At a nearby police station, protesters were met with police officers who were dressed in riot gear and formed lines with shields and barricades. A caravan of dozens of cars and protestors are driving up Walnut protesting the murder of Walter Wallace #Philadelphia #BlackLivesMatter— Sharmin Hossain (@sharminultra) October 27, 2020 Hundreds of people also traveled to West Philly’s 52nd Street commercial corridor where vandalism and looting ensued, creating a scene that mirrored the unrest that took place in West Philly after the police killing of George Floyd in May. According to police, at least 30 officers were injured in the protests, including from thrown bricks and rocks. One officer, who was run over by a black pickup truck in the early hours on Tuesday, was hospitalized and in stable condition with a broken leg later in the morning. Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia #WalterWallace #OTGWestPhilly— michael vincent (@mvddm) October 27, 2020 Black Lives Matter philly protests #WalterWallace #OTGWestPhilly— michael vincent (@mvddm) October 27, 2020 As police attempted to control the crowd, violence broke out. In various videos online, officers could be seen beating protesters with batons. #OTGWestPhilly— tarynnaundorff (@xxxtarynxx) October 27, 2020 In another video, a Black woman is pinned to the ground as one officer repeatedly punches her in the face, with several officers forming a blockade around the assault. City Council member Jamie Gauthier, who leads the district where Wallace was killed, demanded that the police department immediately release the body camera footage from both officers. “The public deserves a full, unvarnished accounting of what took place today,” Gauthier said. The killing took place about a week before the presidential election, when Philadelphians will vote on a ballot measure to determine whether the city will restore its police oversight commission. Critics have long argued that the commission, however, would have no real power over the police department, as commission recommendations were historically overlooked and ignored. The body was also underfunded, and investigations into police misconduct took years. Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia, is at the center of the presidential election, with some predicting the state could be the tipping point in determining who wins. Trump has seized on this reality by advocating for poll watchers in Philadelphia, and Donald Trump Jr. sensationalized the situation in the city on Tuesday morning, suggesting that people vote for Trump to avoid “more BLM riots in Pennsylvania.” For activists, Wallace’s death further underscores their calls to push for greater attention to victims of police violence who have mental health conditions, like Daniel Prude, who was fatally shot by police in Rochester, New York, on March 23 while experiencing a mental health crisis. Activists have demanded that resources be redirected from police officers to emergency response systems and experts who are actually equipped to address such situations. At the start of October, Philadelphia announced it had launched a program to flag 911 calls related to people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. It is unclear whether this initiative was in use on Monday. But as local PBS station WHYY points out, the police department has already trained nearly half of its officers in crisis response, and the department hopes to have a behavioral health specialist accompany officers on calls by the end of the year. “Had these officers employed de-escalation techniques and non-lethal weapons ... this young man might still have his life tonight. Had these officers valued the life of this Black man — had they treated him as a person experiencing mental health issues, instead of a criminal — we might be spared our collective outrage,” Gauthier said in a statement, adding, “In this moment of reckoning and pain for West Philly, we need accountability, we need justice, and we need it now.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
4 h
The 15 Silicon Valley millionaires spending the most to beat Donald Trump
Prior to the 2016 race, these 15 people together had donated about $7 million in total federal contributions. Over the last two years alone? That figure is over $120 million. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images These tech titans have spent $120 million over the last two years, leading Silicon Valley’s political awakening. Donald Trump has poked the bears that are Silicon Valley billionaires. Over the last four years, the tech industry’s very richest have gotten far more political than they have ever been, channeling their money and energy into the world of partisan campaigning. They’ve hired full-time political aides to manage their investments. They’ve traded notes and organized to pool their money for maximum impact. And they’ve become vocal public critics of the president, so incensed by the Trump presidency that they’ve eschewed the longstanding Silicon Valley tradition of staying out of politics. Some of the biggest Silicon Valley celebrities are indeed staying out of the race, but here are the 15 Democrats of Silicon Valley who are most responsible for the current political awakening. Recode reviewed all public federal campaign contributions this cycle through October 15. While they are backing different groups, one striking commonality is how little they had donated prior to Trump’s 2016 run. It’s new territory for almost all of them: Prior to then, these 15 people together had donated about $7 million in total federal campaign contributions. Over the last two years? That figure is over $120 million. Prior to the 2016 race, these 15 people together had donated about $7 million in total federal campaign contributions. Over the last two years? That figure is over $120 million. Some caveats to this list: Determining who qualifies as “Silicon Valley” is more subjective than you’d think (Does it apply to everyone who physically lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, no matter the industry? What about tech leaders who live in New York or Seattle?) but we focused on people whose money principally comes from founding or investing in tech companies. This list also doesn’t tally all political donations. It doesn’t include gifts to state or local candidates. And, most importantly, the sums don’t include the tens of millions of dollars — likely even hundreds of millions — that these donors are spending on outside groups that aren’t required to disclose their backers. So Silicon Valley megadonors’ true contributions to ousting Trump are impossible to assess in total, meaning it is also impossible to assess the scale of their influence in American democracy. That influence could pay off in a Biden administration that will have to wrestle with how aggressively to regulate the tech companies that have helped create these fortunes. Karla Jurvetson: $27.5 million Randy Vazquez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images Karla Jurvetson has become one of the nation’s most generous female campaign donors. The psychiatrist has come out of nowhere over the last four years to be one of the ascendant Democratic megadonors of the Trump era. The former wife of tech mogul Steve Jurvetson, she has focused her donations on gifts to female candidates; she almost single-handedly financed a super PAC that spent big to support Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid in its final weeks, pumping $15 million into that last-ditch effort. And in a sign of her power, she was the one chosen to host Barack Obama when he made his sole Silicon Valley fundraising trip of the cycle last fall. Dustin Moskovitz: $25 million Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images Dustin Moskovitz helped found Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg. Moskovitz is one of the most thoughtful figures in Silicon Valley in terms of his philanthropy, and his political giving is similar. A founder of Facebook alongside Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg, Moskovitz and his political team have scoured the academic literature to try to deduce where megadonors can get the greatest possible “return” on their investments. And his brainy dive into political science research has led him to Future Forward, a super PAC that is focusing on last-minute television ads just before voters head to the polls. Moskovitz has been closely associated with the group for much of the calendar year, and recent reports disclosed that he has put at least $22 million into the little-known group. Reid Hoffman: $14.1 million Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25 Reid Hoffman is one of the country’s biggest and most controversial donors. No megadonor has become more controversial in the Democratic Party than Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn. Hoffman has been trying to move the Democratic Party into the digital age, and to do so has been willing to fund unorthodox projects that push the envelope in ways that some other Democratic donors find discomfiting. One of the most unusual expenses from Hoffman has been the $4.5 million that he has spent on his own to create anti-Trump memes. He and his aides have also become the port of call for other major tech donors, building a full-scale political operation that has made Hoffman a powerful figure in Silicon Valley politics. Operatives consider getting on Hoffman’s list of recommended groups to be a major coup. In recent weeks, Hoffman has been emailing his network to encourage them to donate to Biden transition efforts, according to messages seen by Recode. Jeff and Erica Lawson: $8.2 million Jeff Lawson, the co-founder and CEO of the $45 billion software company Twilio, and his wife, Erica, had only given about $1,000 to federal candidates before the 2016 race. But in a reflection of how Trump has energized Silicon Valley, the Lawsons soon after his election started cutting checks to dozens of Democratic congressional candidates and state parties. This fall, they started really digging deep, including giving $6 million between them to Future Forward. Connie Ballmer: $7.6 million Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images Connie Ballmer and her husband, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, at the White House for a state dinner in 2011. Ballmer is of Seattle, but she’s the wife of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — one of the richest people in the world. Ballmer’s total comes almost entirely from the $7 million she donated to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control group started by Mike Bloomberg. Jeff Skoll: $7.4 million Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival Jeff Skoll speaks onstage in 2017. Like Lawson, Skoll — the first full-time employee at eBay — had never given more than a few thousand bucks before Trump was elected. But this year, the billionaire philanthropist started funneling his fortune into Democratic efforts, including $4.5 million into Senate Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC aiming to retake the Senate. Eric Schmidt: $6 million Lee Jin-man/AP Eric Schmidt is a longtime Democratic powerbroker. Schmidt is the consummate Democratic powerbroker, having helped Google curry favor with the Barack Obama administration back when he was Google’s CEO. So, unlike others on this list, Schmidt is not new to this. He has put millions into groups like Future Forward in addition to hosting fundraisers for the Biden campaign directly. It will be interesting to see what role Schmidt may play in a Biden administration if Biden wins. Sam Bankman-Fried: $5.6 million Bankman-Fried is one of the most unusual megadonors of the cycle. A 28-year-old cryptocurrency trader who would often sleep in his office overnight on a bean bag, Bankman-Fried, like Moskovitz, identifies as an “effective altruist.” That means he’s trying to use his money for the greatest possible good — which has led him to donate to Future Forward. Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings: $5.3 million Hastings, the founder of Netflix, has long been involved in politics — he has been a major funder of education reform efforts, and he helped raise money for Pete Buttigieg during the primary. He and his wife, Quillin, are now funding more than ever, including $2 million to Senate Majority PAC. And that $5.3 million figure doesn’t even include the millions more that the couple is spending this year on California ballot initiatives and local politics, which have long been a political priority for them. Jessica Livingston: $5 million Livingston is one of the co-founders of Y Combinator, the iconic Silicon Valley startup accelerator, alongside her husband Paul Graham. And she cut the biggest check by far of her career this fall when she gave $5 million to a group called Tech For Campaigns, which places tech workers inside Democratic campaigns across the country. Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch Jessica Livingston (middle) helped found Y Combinator. Michael Moritz: $3.9 million Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair Venture capitalist Michael Moritz onstage at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on October 19, 2016, in San Francisco, California. Moritz, a legendary venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital, had only donated $70,000 in his life to politics before Trump was elected. But since 2016, Moritz has gotten heavily involved with Acronym, a liberal group focused on digital anti-Trump advertising, and he and groups associated with him have donated over $1.5 million to its affiliated super PAC. Moritz has also emailed his associates in Silicon Valley to encourage them to support Acronym. A fun fact: Moritz’s longtime co-leader at Sequoia, Doug Leone, is one of the few big donors from tech to Trump, which should make for some interesting conversations between the two of them. Ken Duda: $3.7 million Probably the least well-known person on this list, Duda founded a public software company called Artista. He gave $2 million over the last year to Acronym. Vinod Khosla: $3.1 million MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images Vinod Khosla at an awards ceremony in 2015. A billionaire perhaps more widely known for his quixotic campaign to maintain his private access to a Bay Area beach, Khosla has given most of his donations to American Bridge, the leading super PAC that focuses on anti-Trump opposition research. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
4 h
Why North and South Dakota are suffering the worst Covid-19 epidemics in the US
Chef Chris Hanmer sets up the flag in front of his business in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on April 21, 2020. | Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images Here’s why the coronavirus outbreaks in the Dakotas got so bad. The third surge of Covid-19 cases is leading to worsening outbreaks across the United States. But two states — North Dakota and South Dakota — have coronavirus outbreaks that far surpass the rest of America. While the Dakotas managed to avoid big outbreaks during the spring and for most of the summer, the current situation suggests that was more an element of luck and timing than anything else. With the coronavirus, it often seems like a matter of time before it hits your area to some extent. And if a country or state doesn’t have the proper precautions in place — and the Dakotas didn’t — the virus can and likely will spread through its population. It’s a lesson in the need for constant, continued vigilance. North and South Dakota now have four to five times the weekly average for daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people. The US, overall, is seeing 22 cases per 100,000 people as of October 26. South Dakota, meanwhile, has 95 per 100,000, and North Dakota has 105 per 100,000 — making it the first state to surpass 100 per 100,000 at any time during this pandemic. Greater testing capacity doesn’t fully explain the spikes in Covid-19 cases in either state. In North Dakota, the seven-day testing average actually fell by nearly 2 percent over the last week as the number of cases increased by more than 14 percent. In South Dakota, the testing average went up by 11 percent as cases increased by 20 percent over the previous week. Both states have also seen their hospitalizations and deaths increase since September. North and South Dakota report the highest and second-highest, respectively, Covid-19 death rate over the previous week out of all states, Washington, DC, and US territories. And the percent of tests coming back positive, which is used by experts to gauge testing capacity, is more than 11 percent for North Dakota. In South Dakota, it’s an astonishing 40 percent. The recommended maximum is 5 percent — which North Dakota surpasses and South Dakota completely demolishes. That suggests that, if anything, testing in the Dakotas is still missing a lot of cases, and each state’s outbreak is even worse than the official figures indicate. Unlike other states, South and North Dakota never fully closed down, with the Republican governors in each state resisting ever issuing a stay-at-home order. So most of each state remained open — allowing the virus to spread freely through bars, restaurants, parties, celebrations, rodeos, rallies, and other large gatherings. Among those potential spreading events was a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, in early August, which some experts now blame for a Covid-19 surge that followed in the region, particularly in the Upper Midwest. Neither state has adopted a mask mandate, which research shows can help suppress the coronavirus. Based on some national data, both Dakotas have some of the lowest rates of mask-wearing in the US. Bonny Specker, an epidemiologist at South Dakota State University, was blunt in her assessment of the situation in the Dakotas. “Federal and many state leaders have not implemented mandates or reinforced [public health agencies’] recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus,” she told me. “In South Dakota, the governor had the information needed to minimize the impact of this virus on the health of South Dakotans, but she ignored that information as well as national recommendations from the CDC.” Meanwhile, much of the public never saw the coronavirus as a major threat to the Dakotas. “Our low rates in the spring and summer built a sense of complacency, and that it was more of a problem for the rest of the country,” Paul Carson, an infectious disease expert at North Dakota State University, told me, speaking of his state’s experience in particular. This follows the playbook set by President Donald Trump, who has pushed a false sense of normalcy and told his followers to not let the coronavirus “dominate your life” even after he himself got sick with Covid-19. North and South Dakota are led by Republican governors, and Trump won each state by 36 points and 30 points, respectively, in 2016. Trump also held a massive July Fourth rally in South Dakota at Mount Rushmore, attracting thousands of his supporters from around the region, despite public health experts’ advice against large gatherings. All of this — a public rejection by state and national leadership of even the most basic precautions against Covid-19 — has allowed the coronavirus to spread out of control. With each new interaction, the virus has an opportunity to spread. While mostly rural states like the Dakotas managed to avoid big outbreaks during the early phases of the pandemic, experts say that it was only a matter of time — and perhaps a bit of bad luck — before the virus hit such places. The only way this could turn around quickly is if the public and its leaders act. But there’s still a lot of resistance to stricter measures, including mask mandates and especially lockdowns. So there’s another possibility: The coronavirus will continue spreading in North and South Dakota, fueling more serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. “I fear we won’t see behavioral changes until people have been personally affected, or can’t get medical care because our hospitals are being overrun — which may not be too far off,” Carson warned. The Dakotas resisted basic policies to fight Covid-19 North and South Dakota have taken a laissez-faire approach to dealing with Covid-19 — never instituting stay-at-home orders or mask mandates as other states, including some of their neighbors, did. South Dakota in particular took a very hands-off approach, with no restrictions even on large gatherings. The strongest action Republican Gov. Kristi Noem took was to push businesses to follow safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Otherwise, Noem has boasted about her state’s loose strategy: She argued in an ad that businesses struggling with restrictions in other states should “come grow [their] company” in South Dakota. “Here in South Dakota, we trust our people,” Noem said. “We respect their rights. We won’t shut them down.” Noem still defends her approach, arguing in a recent op-ed that she’ll continue to resist stricter measures. “I’m going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for themselves and their families,” she wrote. North Dakota has done a little more. While avoiding statewide restrictions and lockdowns, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum in October called for reduced business capacity in some counties as cases spiked in his state. But these are mere recommendations — it’s hard to know if any businesses are following them — and, even then, he stopped short of recommending closures. North Dakota also has one of the most expansive testing regimes in the US — consistently reporting one of the highest rates of coronavirus testing in the country. This may partially explain its high case count, although its positivity rate indicates that it still doesn’t have enough testing. And that testing-and-tracing system can only do so much once the virus is completely out of control, which growing hospitalizations and death rates are evidence of. “Our contact tracers are overwhelmed with a backlog of cases,” Carson said. “We have further heard from many of our contact tracers that they are meeting increasing resistance from people to give up their contacts or abide by quarantine rules. People have become fatigued with the restrictions.” Similar to South Dakota’s governor, North Dakota’s Burgum has pushed a message of personal responsibility. “It’s not a job for government,” he said. “This is a job for everybody.” Social distancing and masking are effective for curtailing Covid-19. As a review of the research in The Lancet concluded, “evidence shows that physical distancing of more than 1 m is highly effective and that face masks are associated with protection, even in non-health-care settings.” Government mandates seem to help, too. A study in Health Affairs found that “government-imposed social distancing measures reduced the daily growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases by 5.4 percentage points after one to five days, 6.8 percentage points after six to ten days, 8.2 percentage points after eleven to fifteen days, and 9.1 percentage points after sixteen to twenty days.” And a study from the nonprofit research institute IZA found that Germany’s local and regional mask mandates “reduced the cumulative number of registered Covid-19 cases between 2.3% and 13% over a period of 10 days after they became compulsory” and “the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%.” Carson acknowledged that such mandates “did not seem so necessary earlier in our epidemic.” But by not instituting government policies and allowing the public to act recklessly, North and South Dakota kept themselves vulnerable to the coronavirus. That vulnerability took a while to expose itself in two sparsely populated states with relatively little travel in and out — but once it appeared, Covid-19 has exploded, rapidly spreading across both of the Dakotas. This wasn’t unpredictable. In the spring, a South Dakota meat plant became the US’s top coronavirus hot spot — showing Covid-19 could reach even mostly rural areas like South Dakota. But the outbreak didn’t change Noem’s approach. Ian Fury, a spokesperson for Noem, defended her actions: “Since the start of the pandemic, Governor Noem has provided her citizens with up-to-date science, facts, and data, and then trusted them to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones.” Burgum’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. The public, fueled by Trump, didn’t follow proper precautions It wasn’t just the government that allowed Covid-19 to spread in the Dakotas. The public has played a role too, with large parts of each state acting as though everything is normal and refusing to embrace even the most basic precautions against the coronavirus. COVIDcast, a project from Carnegie Mellon University that tracks real-time Covid-19 data, shows that North and South Dakota have some of the lowest levels of uptake in the US for both social distancing and masking. South Dakotans are the sixth most likely and North Dakotans are the eighth most likely, out of the 50 states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, to leave their homes for six or more hours a day. South Dakotans and North Dakotans are also among the least likely — 50th and 49th, respectively, out of all 50 states plus DC — to wear masks. The most infamous example of this in either state is the Sturgis motorcycle rally. From August 7 to 16, bikers came from across the country, attending events and hitting up local bars and restaurants. Masks were uncommon — even shunned. Among the T-shirts sold at the events, one stated, “Screw Covid-19, I went to Sturgis.” Insufficient contact tracing makes it difficult to say with any certainty how much of the current epidemic originated at the Sturgis rally, but Covid-19 cases surged in the region, and particularly the Dakotas, in the weeks after the rally. It’s not just Sturgis, though. On July Fourth, Trump held a large rally at Mount Rushmore, which is in South Dakota, that thousands of people attended, seldom wearing masks. Families and friends held their own parties and celebrations around the summer holidays, including Labor Day in September. There were rodeos and state fairs. Schools have reopened, with universities and colleges in particular fueling outbreaks nationwide. “Those events, combined with the lack of leadership in encouraging the public to wear masks or practice social distancing, have contributed greatly to the current situation we are in,” Specker said. Bars and restaurants are of special concern to experts: In these spaces, people are close together for long periods of time, they can’t wear masks as they eat or drink, the air can’t dilute the virus the way it can outdoors, and alcohol can lead them to drop their guards further. Another problem is older teens and young adults may act more recklessly, believing they’re at lower risk of contracting Covid-19. But as a recent CDC study noted, younger people tend to spread the virus to their parents, grandparents, teachers, and so on. That, Carson said, appears to have happened in North Dakota: “We saw a surge of cases in our communities that had students coming back to start college. Those cases spiked in the young college-age population, then eventually spilled over into the broader community.” Trump and Republican leaders have encouraged this. While touting their messages of personal responsibility, many Republicans have also downplayed the threat of Covid-19. Trump has deliberately done this — telling journalist Bob Woodward, “I wanted to always play [the coronavirus] down.” Even after his illness, Trump has tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” He’s even mocked masks and claimed — falsely — that they’re ineffective. (In reality, the evidence for masks keeps getting stronger.) For Trump, the goal here is obvious: If he manages to convince the public that things are okay and normal, it could boost his reelection chances. Republican lawmakers, in many ways beholden to Trump’s supporters, have by and large followed the president’s lead. In North and South Dakota, that has seemingly translated to a predominantly Republican public going out, too often without masks, and spreading the coronavirus across the states. North and South Dakota now have a serious and growing crisis Experts often compare the spread of the coronavirus to a runaway freight train: The virus can take a while to build up, but once spread hits exponential growth, it takes an immense amount of work and time — up to weeks or months — to slow things down. “Until the leaders of state and federal government support recommended public health policy, it is going to be difficult to slow the spread of this virus,” Specker said. For the coronavirus, the solutions are the same things everyone has heard about for months now: More testing and contact tracing to isolate people who are infected, get their close contacts to quarantine, and deploy broader restrictions as necessary. More masking. More careful, phased reopenings. More social distancing. This is what’s worked in other countries, from Germany to South Korea to New Zealand, to contain their respective outbreaks. It’s what’s worked in parts of the US, like New York and San Francisco. But, crucially, this has to be sustained. Until a vaccine or similar treatment is available, the coronavirus will remain a constant threat in the US. Even less densely populated places — like the Dakotas — aren’t going to be safe for long without proper precautions in place. Yet North and South Dakota leaders have continued resisting more hands-on approaches, calling for personal responsibility and limited, if any, role for government. Some local officials have stepped up to fill the vacuum, but they have more limited powers and reach than state leaders. The fall and winter stand to hasten the spread of the coronavirus, too. Schools will continue to reopen. The cold will push people indoors, where, due to poor ventilation, the virus has an easier time spreading than it does outdoors. Families and friends will gather for the winter holidays, from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s. A looming flu season could strain hospitals further, inhibiting their ability to treat a surge of Covid-19 patients. If it gets bad enough, the only possible solution to avert further spread could be a lockdown. Already, the mayor of Fargo, North Dakota, mentioned the possibility. “The concern is that if we don’t start turning this around and our numbers keep going up, it’ll be difficult to keep the businesses going and being open,” Democratic Mayor Tim Mahoney, a physician by training, said. Given that the outbreaks are already so bad and state leaders have still refused tougher actions, another possibility is the Dakotas will continue tolerating a high number of cases and deaths, failing to take any serious action in response. If so, the two worst outbreaks in one of the countries struggling the most with Covid-19 will remain bad and perhaps get even worse. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Democrats want to turn Texas blue. It starts with the state House in 2020.
Voters head to the Sam Houston State Office Building near the Texas State Capitol to cast their ballot during the Democratic presidential primary in Austin, Texas, on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020. | Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images Electoral power, health care, and voter enthusiasm are on the line. Former Vice President Joe Biden has made a late-stage play for Texas in the hope of bringing to fruition his party’s longtime dream of flipping a once reliably red state. Local Democrats have set their sights lower on the ballot: They’re hoping to pick up nine seats in the Texas House of Representatives, enough to give them control of the state’s House for the first time since 2002. The goal could be within their grasp. Those seats are all in districts that Democrat Beto O’Rourke won in his ultimately unsuccessful 2018 US Senate run. Even if President Donald Trump claims Texas’s 38 electoral votes in November and Sen. John Cornyn fends off newcomer MJ Hegar, Democrats hope that the state House will be the first domino to fall in their mission to remake Texas politics for good. In 2018, Democrats picked up 12 seats in the state House. The party’s internal polling suggests that they are on track to flip another six to seven seats, said Genevieve Van Cleve, the Texas state director of All On the Line, the advocacy arm of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The remaining seats are more of a reach, but Democrats believe they’re still winnable. The consequences of a Texas House win are bigger this year than in a typical election year because the state legislature will be responsible for redrawing electoral districts in 2021 after the results of the 2020 census come in. In a state that has long engaged in partisan gerrymandering, Democrats are hoping that, if they control the lower chamber, they will at least get a seat at the table during the redistricting process — improving their chances of winning elections in the state over the next decade. “Democrats can compete just fine if we’re on a level playing field, and what we don’t have in Texas is a level playing field,” Van Cleve said. They are also aiming to use a state House majority to prioritize expanding Medicaid for low-income Texans in the middle of a pandemic that has hit the state particularly hard, though with a Republican governor and state Senate that have long opposed that goal, it will likely be out of reach for at least the next two years. Beyond those policy goals, Democrats hope that flipping the state House could give voters a reason to show up in future elections. Texas has historically low turnout, especially among Hispanic voters, in part because it has among the most restrictive voting laws nationwide. That has been a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of flipping the state. “If we win a majority in the state House, you now have a seat at the table where you can begin to draw people back into democracy, draw them back in [with] a reason to vote,” O’Rourke said in an interview. “We have the ability to actually cure some of this.” A state House majority would give Democrats a seat at the table in redistricting Texas’s current electoral maps favor Republicans, but Democrats are trying to change that by flipping the state House and having a say in the redistricting process that will begin next year. Winning the majority would offer them only modest gains in power — a single seat at the table on the state’s five-person legislative redistricting board and the possibility of sending the maps to federal court. That’s an improvement over the veto power they currently have over the maps (none), but it’s still a far cry from taking the reins and being able to redraw them more equitably. Both congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years. In most states, including Texas, the state legislature controls the process. In 2021, the redistricting committees of both the state House and state Senate will convene and attempt to pass new electoral maps, which must include districts of equal populations that do not discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity. The governor has the power to veto those maps. But if the chambers can’t come to an agreement or the governor vetoes their maps — as is likely to be the case if Democrats take control of the state House — that’s when it gets tricky. A panel of three federal judges in San Antonio would have the final say over the congressional maps. But the process is different for the state legislative maps: a five-person board composed of the lieutenant governor, state attorney general, state comptroller, commissioner of the General Land Office, and speaker of the Texas House draw the maps in closed-door meetings, with no public input. A simple majority of the board would have to approve the maps. Currently, Republicans hold all of the seats on the board, but if Democrats win the state House and select their speaker, they would gain a seat at the table. That’s the only way Democrats can begin to reverse the partisan gerrymandering that has plagued Texas for decades. Republicans have been accused of diluting the power of nonwhite voters (who tend to favor Democrats) with their electoral maps in 2003 and 2011, spurring protracted legal battles. And they have sought to break up the state’s growing urban, Democratic centers and create districts that extend well into redder, rural areas. The practice is particularly obvious in Travis County, home to Austin, a city often described as a “blueberry in tomato soup.” The county has five congressional districts, all anchored in liberal Austin, but only one of those districts is represented by a Democrat. “I’ve been in these districts where they’re sliced and diced, cracked and packed,” Van Cleve said. “Somebody who wants to run for office quickly discovers that no matter how great a message they have and no matter how awesome their volunteer support is in the community, their voice is not going to be heard at the Texas Capitol if they live in a district that’s totally gerrymandered.” There could be additional complications to redistricting next year. Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney General, has been accused of committing crimes including bribery and abuse of office, and it’s possible that a Democratic state House could move to impeach him and force him to step down. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, would have to appoint his successor, meaning that his seat on the redistricting board would go to someone who “no Texan has vetted or voted for,” Van Cleve said. The redistricting process also hinges on the new population counts from the 2020 census, which has been delayed on account of the pandemic and obstructed by the Trump administration. The population of Texas has grown substantially over the last 10 years, which can largely be attributed to growth in the Latino community and in major metro areas. The state is on track to gain two to three congressional seats, but if the results of the census are delayed or found to be inaccurate, that could impact whether the electoral maps accurately reflect population trends. “It just doesn’t serve ordinary people,” Van Cleve said. “This system of rigged maps and hyperpartisan gerrymandering really goes lockstep with voter suppression.” Democrats are highlighting Medicaid in their battle for the state House On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates have sought to make their battle for the state House about one of voters’ top priorities, particularly in the middle of a pandemic: health care. In particular, they want to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act’s joint state-federal program that has offered health care coverage to individuals with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty line (about $17,600 for a single adult) since 2016. It’s a central pillar in their so-called “contract with Texas,” laying out policies they would seek to enact if they captured the majority. It’s also been highlighted in ads funded by the national Democratic super PAC Forward Majority, which has sunk $12 million into the Texas state House battle. But since the GOP still holds a decisive majority in the state Senate, Democrats won’t likely be able to pass Medicaid expansion even if they capture the state House. And even if they did manage to pass it, Abbott could still veto it. Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate nationwide, is one of only 12 states that has yet to expand Medicaid. The federal government covers 90 percent of costs associated with the program as of 2020, and Democrats estimate that it could bring in $110 billion in federal funds over the next decade. Expanding Medicaid would extend health insurance coverage to an estimated 1 million low-income Texans amid the pandemic. Coronavirus hospitalizations peaked over the summer after Texas became one of the first states to reopen its economy, and 650,000 Texans have lost their health insurance during the pandemic. There have been concerning signs that Texas is due for another surge as cases have recently spiked in El Paso and North Texas. “We have got to expand Medicaid,” state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Democrat who is up for reelection after flipping their district in 2018, told KXAN. “Texas is leaving $10 billion of federal funding on the table every year because we got stubborn in 2009.” Republicans, including Abbott, have long cautioned that it would nevertheless be too expensive and raise health care costs across the board. “Medicaid expansion is wrong for Texas,” Abbott said in 2015, calling it a “broken and bloated” program. A few Texas Republicans appear to be changing their position on the matter, but not nearly enough to be able to get the legislation through the state Senate and Gov. Abbott. Democrats see winning the state House as a driver of voter enthusiasm The Democrats’ play for the state House is coming on the heels of a particularly divisive few years in the Texas legislature, marked by controversies around a bill protecting businesses like Chick-Fil-A that donate to religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage, and a failed proposal that would have barred transgender people from using public bathroom facilities that align with their gender identity. Democrats see this election as an opportunity to show Texans, and the whole country, that their state politics can be different. “This is ground zero for the fight for LGBTQ rights. This is ground zero for the fight for voting rights. It’s ground zero for the fight for reproductive health care,” Charlie Bonner, a spokesperson for MOVE Texas, a voter registration and engagement group, said. “For that reason, there’s a lot of national interest in ensuring that we see progress here.” State House candidates have the challenge of getting their names out there in the middle of a pandemic that has made rallies, town hall meetings, and door-knocking impossible. Texas Republicans have also put up their own defenses, with Abbott injecting a mid-seven-figure investment into down-ballot candidates during the final weeks before Election Day. And they have sought to curb voter participation, limiting the number of ballot drop-off locations to just one per county, banning counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, and seeking to curtail drive-thru voting. But organizations like MOVE Texas have observed that Democratic voters are now more activated in the state than ever. While the top of the ticket is driving voters to the polls, so are competitive down-ballot races, particularly among young people. “We haven’t been having this discussion before about the hyperlocal basis for these issues that our generation really cares about, like racial justice and climate change,” Bonner said. “The president can’t have that much of an impact on those issues. But you can make a big difference on those issues in your city.” Turnout already appears to be up this cycle. As of October 20 — with 10 days of early voting still to go — almost one-third of registered voters had cast their ballots in the state’s 10 largest counties. (That includes both Democrats and Republicans.) And Harris County, which has historically voted Democratic, has set early voting records. Democrats are hoping that their play for the state House will keep voters activated for future contests: Abbott will be up for reelection in 2022, and his approval ratings have taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, possibly leaving him vulnerable to a Democratic challenger down the road. A Democratic PAC has already started fundraising to defeat him. A win in the state House could add momentum to those efforts. “People have written off Texas for so many years that Texas voters didn’t believe in themselves,” Bonner said. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The case for stripping the Supreme Court of its power
People that both support and oppose the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on October 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images A Harvard law professor on whether it’s time to rethink the nation’s highest court. Author’s note, October 27: This conversation occurred in October 2018, shortly after Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. After Amy Coney Barrett’s rushed confirmation to the Court, just a week before the 2020 election, it feels newly relevant. When he was arguing for the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the judiciary “will always be the least dangerous branch to the political rights of the Constitution,” in part because he believed the federal courts would stand above the political fray and act as a bulwark against tyranny from all directions. But it’s hard to defend the Supreme Court on these grounds today. As my colleague Matthew Yglesias has argued, the Court is now a blunt political instrument, used repeatedly to undermine outcomes of democratic governance — often on behalf of corporate interests. And the recent disaster that was the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation has further delegitimized the Court in the public’s mind. So it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if we should abolish the Supreme Court, or at the very least strip the Court of its ability to overturn laws that it rules unconstitutional. If the Court is no longer a neutral arbiter of the law, if it’s gradually shape-shifting into a partisan weapon, then maybe it’s time to rethink its role in our constitutional system. I reached out to Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard University, to talk about the case for abolishing the Supreme Court. I asked him if the Court is still fulfilling its constitutional role, if it’s unusual for a liberal democracy to place so much power in a single court, and if he thinks Democrats should consider packing the courts or imposing term limits on justices. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. Sean Illing What would you say is the basic mission of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system? Mark Tushnet The Supreme Court’s role is to tell the people and the political branches what the limits of their power are. Sometimes that means rejecting conservative policies, and sometimes that means rejecting liberal policies. But the general role, as it’s come to be understood, is to police the boundaries of our political system. Sean Illing Do you think the Court competently fulfills this role today? Mark Tushnet Whether the Court is competently pursuing it depends on a couple of things. One is your assessment of the legal quality of the work they do. And another is, of course, your assessment of the merits of the limits that they are placing on political choice. As to the latter, it’s just going to depend on your politics. For a while, liberals liked what the Court was doing, and then they didn’t. For a while, conservatives didn’t like what the Court was doing, and now they do. Sean Illing And what of the “legal quality” of the work they’re doing? Mark Tushnet I think the honest answer there is that, in the modern era, the quality has ranged from minimally competent legal analysis to extremely bad decisions that are announced without a clear or compelling explanation. Sean Illing I’m tempted to ask for examples of bad decisions, but let’s focus on the case for abolishing the Supreme Court, or at the very least for abolishing judicial review, which is the Court’s ability to decide whether a law by the government is constitutional. Mark Tushnet There are two components of the case for getting rid of judicial review. One is that, as a matter of basic democratic principle, the people ought to be able to consider policies and then vote on them without having the courts step in and say “no.” So from a democratic point of view, it’s hard to justify allowing the courts to single-handedly overrule popular will whenever they choose. The second component is that judicial review may actually impair the public’s ability to engage in serious thinking about what the Constitution means, and what we want to do in light of what we think our Constitution says. In a way, the Supreme Court simply takes on this conversation for itself, and leaves the citizenry as bystanders. Sean Illing Does the Court’s power of judicial review come directly from the Constitution? Mark Tushnet I should start by saying I’m not a textualist or an originalist, which is to say I don’t think the meaning of the Constitution is stable or fixed from the time it was enacted. However, I think it was widely understood when the framers created a court in a system with a constitution that that court would have the power to invalidate legislation it deemed unlawful. That’s not written into the US Constitution, but it was clearly a background assumption at the time and has been ever since. Sean Illing How unusual is it for a liberal democratic system like ours to allow judges to overturn laws outright? Mark Tushnet In the modern era, since the middle of the 20th century or so, this has become a pretty common role for courts worldwide. There are important variations in the way countries do it, however. And in particular, since the late 20th century, constitutional designers and implementers have switched from a US style, where the court has the last word and there is nothing you can do about it, to a system that allows for what legal scholars call a more “dialogic” process — which basically means there’s an interactive process between the court and the legislature. Sean Illing And how does that kind of system work? Mark Tushnet The idea is that the legislature passes a law, the court says it’s unconstitutional for this or that reason, and then the legislature has an opportunity to respond to the court. In some cases, the legislature will just say, “We understand your reasons, but we disagree with them, and we’re going to go forward with the policy anyway.” Sean Illing Do you think we’d be better off if we abolished the Supreme Court in its current manifestation and moved to a more balanced system like the one you just described? Mark Tushnet Yeah, I do. I’m a big fan of the dialogic approach. And it’s worth noting that even very conservative legal scholars like Robert Bork have proposed this sort of system, which suggests this is something people across the ideological spectrum could get behind. And I’ve felt this way for my entire career, regardless of the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Sean Illing We have this idea of the Supreme Court as a bulwark against majority tyranny and minority oppression, but that’s not the reality. There have been glaring exceptions, especially in the 1950s and ’60s, but in general the Court has continually defended the powerful against the weak — from slaveholders to segregationists to corporations. Why should the individual citizen feel invested in the Court at this point? Mark Tushnet If you look at the overall course of US Supreme Court history, the description that you’ve offered is basically correct. But there are exceptions, as there always are, to that kind of generalization. One is the relatively brief Warren Court era, which still occupies the imagination of many people who think about the Constitution. We’ve had the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision and Roe v. Wade, and then, more recently, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage — and all of these decisions were empowering for different segments of the population. The big question is whether the gains from those kinds of protections of minority interests are substantial enough to outweigh the Court’s interference with legislation on behalf of the most powerful elements of our society. If you’re focused on many recent decisions, like Citizens United, the Court certainly seems to be favoring corporate power, but the picture is less clear when you step back and evaluate it over a much longer period of time. Sean Illing You alluded to this a minute ago, but I want to push you a bit more on it. Democracy implies, at the very least, that citizens are allowed to choose the policies that govern their lives, either directly or indirectly. But the Court’s primary function seems to be to undermine majority will when it deems it necessary. It’s probably wise to have a constitutional safeguard of some sort, but do you think the current arrangement is a sustainable contradiction? Mark Tushnet If you think people vote for policies without paying any attention to the Constitution, then you might want someone watching closely and stepping in to intervene at exceptional moments, and the courts are where you want that to happen. My own view is that it’s fine if you have some opportunity to respond afterward, which is why I prefer a dialogic system. But it’s also the case that in many of the most contentious issues, the people have reasoned constitutional judgments, and the Court just comes in and says the people are in error. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s a legitimate disagreement between the voters and the Court, and then it comes down to a political judgment. This is when the role of courts becomes very problematic. Sean Illing Do you support imposing term limits on justices? Mark Tushnet I’ve signed a proposal for 18-year term limits. I think over time that might have some effect. It won’t immediately have much effect because in some ways the damage has already been done, but it would make the process more regular and predictable, and norms of reciprocity might develop, which we desperately need. Sean Illing Is there some other way forward, perhaps turning the Supreme Court into a body of top legal thinkers in the country, and instead of having a fixed number of justices review each case, we have a specified number of randomly chosen justices selected for each case? Mark Tushnet Well, Sweden does something like that — and Sweden is not a terrible place to live. You probably could design something that would work effectively. Again, the details would matter, and reconciling that with the existing Constitution would be very tricky, but sure, it’s conceivable. I think there is some enthusiasm among Democrats about alternative constitutional designs, but they can’t do anything about it now. But if they win in 2018 and 2020 or beyond, who knows? Sean Illing The Constitution doesn’t specify how many people should sit on the Supreme Court, and there is some momentum on the left for what’s called a court-packing strategy, which basically involves adding several ideologically sympathetic justices in order to create a more favorable Court. Do you think this is a good idea? Mark Tushnet There has been a lot of discussion about this among law professors, and ultimately it comes down to a political judgment. Maybe it’s wise, maybe it isn’t — politics is not my area of expertise. But because it might turn out to be politically wise, it’s worth developing arguments for court-packing and explaining why the norms around tinkering with the Court’s composition might be worth breaking. I think this is the role of constitutional scholars — to lay out all these arguments so that people understand the history and the stakes. But ultimately the decision to do it or not will have to be made by politicians, not law professors. And there is no way to know beforehand what the implications will be down the road. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
8 h
States need billions to prepare for Covid-19 vaccines. The federal government isn’t helping.
A doctor, who is taking part in a clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine, receives an injection in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 4. | Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images Experts say local and state governments need more time and resources to scale up vaccination efforts. Early results from the two leading US Covid-19 vaccine trials are expected in November, in what will likely be a major milestone in the race to end the pandemic. The final leg of the race, however, will be actually getting people vaccinated. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has offered guidance on jurisdictions’ plans, and has given them a deadline of November 1 to be ready to roll out a potential vaccine (a timeline administration officials assert is unrelated to the November 3 election). Will health departments be ready to distribute a vaccine by then? “Probably not, if you mean completely ready,” says William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who also serves as a consultant to the Tennessee Department of Health. “Are they working hard? Absolutely.” No matter when it commences, a nationwide vaccine administration effort will require a massive workforce of health professionals (who are already in short supply and are often already working on other Covid-19 responses). It also may require costly medical-grade freezers to keep vaccine doses at supercold temperatures — or lots and lots of dry ice. And it needs a robust new data management system to track who gets which vaccine when and where, particularly if vaccines require multiple doses to be effective, and if there ends up being more than one approved vaccine. The trouble is, states and local health departments have not received funding from Congress to make any of this happen. This “makes it nearly impossible to do what you need to be doing at this stage of the game if your go date is November 1,” says Adriane Casalotti, head of government affairs for the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO). Like many things in the pandemic, it didn’t have to be this way, she says. “This is one of the few areas of Covid-19 where we can plan in advance, where we don’t have to build the plane while flying it.” She adds that although their group has been asking the federal government for support for distribution since early vaccine research began, “now it’s late.” if jurisdictions do not have the resources to implement their COVID vaccination plans, there is only so much they can do! ⁦⁦@ASTHO⁩— Marcus Plescia (@MarcusPlescia) October 20, 2020 To be sure, there will not be enough vaccine to immunize 328 million people right away, which simplifies logistics somewhat. And many experts are expecting it will be the end of this year or the beginning of 2021 before the first doses are available. (Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recently said there might be enough doses to vaccinate health care workers, first responders, and seniors by the end of January, with some doses arriving sooner.) But even with a relatively modest beginning (and we’re still talking about tens of millions of people), public health workers want to make sure they have plans and systems in place, rather than rushing to meet a deadline, Schaffner points out. “The government is antsy about getting things started, but most health departments are saying, ‘Whether I start vaccination this week or next week doesn’t matter so much because this is going to be going on for eight months,’” he says. Let’s take a closer look at the challenges facing the vaccine rollout and how the government could help things get on track sooner rather than later. Health experts say they need billions of dollars to be ready; the federal government hasn’t promised any money State health departments were asked in late September to submit their proposed vaccine rollout plans to the CDC by October 16. For this task, the federal government distributed $200 million, which was split among the states, major metropolitan areas, and US territories. Not only did this mean relatively little funds for each of the 64 jurisdictions (states, territories, and major cities), Casalotti notes, but it also did not guarantee any funding would reach the thousands of smaller local health departments around the country, which is where much of the on-the-ground work of preparing to get people vaccinated will take place. More importantly, the government has yet to promise any money to support actually building out these plans and helping the health organizations be ready when the vaccines are. Without more federal funding for #COVID19 #vaccines distribution, it's kind of like setting up tent poles without having the tent, @MEPublicHealth @nirav_mainecdc says.#pandemic— Donna Young (@DonnaYoungDC) October 19, 2020 A well-coordinated, well-supported effort by health departments to vaccinate the US population will likely cost at least $8.4 billion, according to an October 1 letter NACCHO sent to Congress requesting that much be appropriated for the effort. And other public health groups, including the Association of State and Territorial Health Offices (ASTHO), agree. CDC Director Robert Redfield put the number slightly lower, but still in the billions. In a congressional subcommittee meeting in mid-September, Redfield said the CDC would need $6 billion to help states and localities adequately prepare to distribute a potential vaccine. But the federal government still has not said if it will fund the effort, or how much it will allocate to vaccine distribution and administration. “That needs to change soon, or that’s going to be a limiting step,” says Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for ASTHO. “It’s great that we have an opportunity to plan for some element of the Covid-19 response, because so far we’ve just been reacting.” Health officials are hoping a new, broad Covid-19 relief package, approved by Congress, will include funds earmarked specifically for vaccine distribution readiness. And soon. “That would mean we could finally be really prepared, and we could finally get a step ahead of things,” Plescia says. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images A Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial participant receives an injection at the University of Massachusetts Medical School on September 4. If the federal government doesn’t step up, would states and localities be able to? Experts we spoke with agree that the funds need to come from the top. The first reason for this is logistical. With local and state budgets tapped out from pandemic response and lost revenue — and unable to run deficits — the federal government remains the only level of government that could bankroll this effort. The second reason has to do with equity. “We’ve seen throughout the pandemic response when we’re not working as a nation, it’s really hard for us to make any ground,” Casalotti says. For a vaccine rollout to be most effective, it needs to be supported at a national level, she notes. “People travel, and what happens across state borders can directly impact your community. The virus doesn’t care about jurisdictional boundaries.” If states and localities are left to somehow support vaccine deployment, the results are going to be uneven, and likely accentuate disparities the pandemic has already laid bare, she says. “It really has to come from federal sources,” concludes Plescia. Major unknowns remain, making preparations even more difficult Planning a national vaccine rollout is a sizable ask, but it is also happening in the midst of major continued uncertainties — and not just about funding. This has left state and local health departments scrambling to prepare as best they can. “They’re not only planning, but they have to plan for several different contingencies,” Schaffner says. One big unknown is which vaccine or vaccines will be approved and distributed first. This matters in part because many have different requirements, such as extreme cold chains. If health departments need to keep vaccine doses in storage way below zero, as some front-running candidates require, that will necessitate medical-grade freezers. “You’re not going to find those freezers in pharmacies and doctors’ offices,” Schaffner says. Nor are they “something you can just run down to the hardware store and buy,” Casalotti adds. So if thousands of vaccine locations around the country are ordering these freezers at the same time — on an expedited timeline — it is possible there could be a shortage. Or if there is not a shortage, they could follow the path many other pandemic specialty supplies have: With such a sudden increase in demand, there could also be a drastic price increase. This would throw another wrench in even the best-laid plans. It’s quite possible, Casalotti says, for example, that health departments could already have established how many freezers they will need, and where they will procure them, but then encounter a new price, many times higher due to the surge in demand. The federal government has the ability to step in and prevent this sort of price gouging. Although “we haven’t seen those tools deployed” in previous instances of this during the pandemic, Casalotti says. Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, which is among those leading the race to approval, requires temperatures of about -94 degrees Fahrenheit (and even then is only stable there for about 10 days). To address this challenge in distribution, it has devised a freezer alternative, in which the vaccine vials can be stored in specially designed boxes filled with dry ice. Although these boxes will need to have their dry ice replenished during storage, which means that “all of our states have been spending a lot of time sorting out their dry ice supplies,” Plescia says. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images A lab technician sorts blood samples for a Covid-19 vaccine study at the Research Centers of America on August 13. Even this workaround might not prove to be a solution for everyone. Dry ice isn’t readily available everywhere, such as in some US territories, notes Plescia. And a shortage in the carbon dioxide supply has made it hard for some dry ice makers to keep up with demand. So Plescia hopes that even if a vaccine requiring drastic cold storage is approved first, a less temperamental one will not be far behind. Another big unknown is precisely who will get the vaccine first and when. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which Schaffner also helps advise, is working on finalizing this rubric for who will get the vaccine first. But they might not be able to complete their work until it’s known what vaccine or vaccines will be approved. Many expect that health care workers and first responders will be first to receive an approved vaccine, which aligns with an assessment put out by the National Academy of Medicine in September and the CDC’s interim playbook for states. (President Trump, at an October 16 stop in Florida, claimed inaccurately that “seniors will be the first in line for the vaccine.” The CDC has listed those 65 and older — along with others at higher risk for severe Covid-19, and essential workers — in the second half of the first phase for vaccination, although this could change based on the results of the ongoing vaccine trials.) Vaccinating health workers first would also give those working on vaccine distribution a slightly gentler start. As Plescia notes, this population would generally be easy to reach and follow up with through their employers, and tend to be in favor of vaccinations in general. If this prioritization group does come first, he is optimistic about the possibility of health departments being equipped to provide these early doses when they become available. “I think being ready for that is not overly ambitious, and as we roll that out, we start to learn more and gives us a little more time to be ready to do it in community settings — those are the things that are going to require more capacity and more planning, and just more people,” he says. What distribution might look like after that is fuzzier, making it hard for health departments to plan logistics, but also communication. Local health departments are eager for the federal government to take on the job of clear messaging once these priority groups get established. If local health departments are in charge of telling their communities who gets priority for the vaccine, “that’s just putting local health departments in a really hard position as people are looking at who is at the front of the line and who is at the back of the line,” Casalotti says. And animosity toward health departments has already been building, resulting in reluctance to participate in contact tracing efforts and even, in some cases, threats of violence, she notes. So she asks for “clear messages from the top that we’re all in this together, and not everyone is in prioritization group 1 — and that’s okay because we, as a nation, are all going to get through this.” Health departments will need time to get staff and systems up and running One clear challenge in being ready to vaccinate millions of people as quickly as possible is having enough well-trained workers to give those shots. Hiring people to give shots in a public health setting is challenging even in the best of times, Casalotti says. The pay tends to not be that great and the hours can be hard. Not only that, but much of this available workforce has already been hired out to other much-needed positions, like those in hospitals, she notes. There are also procedural considerations. “In most governmental structures, you can’t get a million dollars on Monday and hire people on Friday,” Schaffner says. “You have to go through a laborious administrative process to post openings, make sure they are available to everybody, interview applicants — and this all takes time.” And after they get hired, they still need to be trained before they can get to work. Mario Tama/Getty Images A nurse administers a flu vaccination shot to a woman at a free clinic held on October 14, in Lakewood, California. Public health departments and other locations will also likely need to acquire additional ancillary supplies, such as PPE and other items that are already in high demand in the midst of the pandemic and flu season. “We can be all ready to go and have planned perfectly and have our people in place and our capacity built, and then we run out of PPE,” Plescia says. He worries about that, he says, because “that supply still doesn’t seem to be secure.” And shortages, as we saw earlier in the pandemic, lead to unequal distribution, in which larger and wealthier states can procure more supplies. There is also the little-discussed — but critical — issue of data infrastructure. As a country, we have a patchwork method for tracking vaccinations. For most adult vaccines, only the patient and office or clinic receive records about a given dose. (As Schaffner jokes, “When my father-in-law lived in New Hampshire, and spent time in Tennessee, then spent winters in Florida, I was his vaccine registry, I told his doctors. It worked fine for my father-in-law, but I can’t do that for everybody.”) Even pediatric vaccinations are usually logged just on a state-level basis. (And still the CDC encourages parents and caretakers to be in charge of tracking their child’s vaccines themselves.) So the idea of states and localities tying into a robust national vaccine tracking program — and on short order — is daunting, but crucial. Especially with many leading candidate vaccines requiring multiple doses, and different time spans between doses. And this information will have to flow easily among vaccine administration sites across the country in close to real-time. “We have to have a good ability to track people and know who got the initial dose, and we need to be able to do that across state lines,” Plescia says. “If someone got the first dose in Florida and moves to South Carolina, we need to see what they got.” Even beyond that sort of rapid record look-up, health workers will also need a way to get in touch with people to remind them to get their second dose in the right time frame, he says. One candidate vaccine has a 21-day space between doses; another is 28 days. “It would be good to go ahead and have the funding so we can start building those systems,” Plescia says. And not only that, Casalotti says, “we need time to make sure those systems are interoperable, and to train the users in how to employ them. And, frankly, we don’t have the time.” “The marathon continues” For many health departments, support from the federal government can’t come soon enough. Despite asking the federal government for vaccine distribution guidance and funding since this spring, Casalotti says they have still wound up behind the eight-ball. “We have ended up in a position where we no longer have the luxury of time. Now we’re behind.” Additionally, many local health departments still hadn’t recovered from the budget cuts of the 2008 recession, and now a number of them have faced further budget reductions and have had to furlough staff. “That is certainly not what you want to be doing when you know you’re going to be in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. In the meantime, the CDC has been directed to transfer $300 million from its budget to the public affairs office at its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, Redfield said in a September 16 Senate subcommittee hearing. At least $250 million of that has been allotted for a massive public relations campaign “to defeat despair and inspire hope,” with the bulk of the funds to be used before January. Some of this could be used toward general vaccine safety education and information, but experts are dubious that will be the case. “I haven’t seen that this program would be addressing this issue,” Casalotti says. She asks for support from the federal government in reminding people that even after the first round of vaccine doses is distributed, the pandemic lifestyle will be here to stay for most people for quite a while. “The marathon continues, and we’re all running it whether we want to or not.” Other public health experts are also looking to the federal government for a unified message and response. “This is a pandemic; it’s a national issue,” Schaffner says. “We have not had a coherent, sustained response to Covid-19 from the beginning. Every public health person I know of thinks we need it. This has to be largely directed and funded from a federal level. This is akin to disaster assistance. Sure, the locals go to work, but you really have to deal with this from a federal level. This is a hurricane that’s hit all 50 states.” Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and author of Cultured and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
9 h
One Good Thing: Witch Week, a bookish treat for the witches and weirdos in all of us
Diana Wynne Jones’s classic is a joyful love letter to middle school weirdos. One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out. This week, in honor of Halloween, we’re summoning five recommendations involving witches. “Someone in this class is a witch,” says the anonymous note that kicks off everything in Diana Wynne Jones’s immortal 1982 middle-grade fantasy novel Witch Week. The idea that someone at Larwood School might be a witch is a very serious accusation in the world of Witch Week, where magic is both real and a capital offense. The book otherwise takes place in a world that is nearly identical to Britain in the 1980s, except that “Magic it!” is the rudest swear a child can think of, and there are somber reports on the radio about witch burnings. Yet magic keeps breaking out joyfully and anarchically all throughout the grim boarding school misery of Larwood. The dorms are frigid, the popular kids are sadistic and bogart the warm seats by the radiators, and the food smells unappetizingly of sink drains — but at night the kids feast on contraband food hidden beneath the floorboards, and one boy’s sneakers turn into a black forest gateaux. A flock of wild birds swoops in to disrupt the drudgery of morning hymn singing. And one girl makes good use of her hideous mauve bed sheets by wrapping them around herself during a midnight flight on her broomstick, which cuddles up to her like a pet pony. The girl in question is Nan Pilgrim, one of Witch Week’s two central point-of-view characters. The second is Charles Morgan, and while other perspectives occasionally slip onto the page — through journal entries or just straightforward perspective switches — it’s Nan and Charles, those oddballs and weirdos, who are at the heart of this story. Both Charles and Nan harbor a creeping suspicion that they themselves might be the witch in their classroom, although neither one of them can account for all the magic floating around Larwood. (Charles conjures the birds, and Nan rides the broomstick.) They also know that they’re the kinds of kids who their classmates would consider to be obvious witches — namely, losers. Charles wears glasses that give him a blank, creepy stare, which he uses aggressively against anyone he considers a threat. To stop himself from doing magic accidentally, he burns a blister into his finger so he’ll always remember that it hurts to be burned, which he will be if he’s outed as a witch. Meanwhile, Nan — a classic middle-grade heroine if ever there was one — is fat and bespectacled and short-tempered, and she never can climb the rope in gym class. Witches at a boarding school will inevitably bring Harry Potter to mind, but Witch Week predates J.K. Rowling’s series by 15 years, and it’s a different kind of story entirely. It takes place somewhere grimier and sadder than Harry’s glittering wizard world, and the kids are meaner. Larwood School is so gray and dingy that when magic appears, it reads like a pure jolt of color across the page: There, at last, something to light up the world with. Witch Week is also technically part of a series of its own. Ostensibly, Witch Week is the third volume in Jones’s Chrestomanci series, about a wizard named Chrestomanci who travels between worlds to fix up various magical problems. But this book stands on its own to the point that, as a child, I was shocked to learn after reading it that it was supposed to be part of a series. While Chrestomanci shows up in Witch Week, the book tells you straightforwardly everything you need to know about him. And he’s there in a strictly advisory capacity to the children, who are the true main characters. That goes especially for Nan, who as a bookworm and a writer is the obvious reader’s surrogate. And it’s Nan who has the clearest understanding of the toxic power dynamics of middle schools everywhere. Here’s her absolute barnburner of a journal entry on her class’s social structure: I do not know if 6B is average or not, but this is how they are. They are divided into girls and boys with an invisible line down the middle of the room and people only cross that line when teachers make them. Girls are divided into real girls (Theresa Mullett) and imitations (Estelle Green). And me. Boys are divided into real boys (Simon Silverson), brutes (Daniel Smith) and unreal boys (Nirupam Singh). And Charles Morgan. And Brian Wentworth. What makes you a real girl or boy is that no one laughs at you. If you are imitation or unreal, the rules give you a right to exist provided that you do what the real ones or brutes say. What makes you into me or Charles Morgan is that the rules allow all the girls to be better than me and all the boys better than Charles Morgan. They are allowed to cross the invisible line to prove this. Everyone is allowed to cross the invisible line to be nasty to Brian Wentworth. Wasn’t everyone’s seventh grade classroom like this? Those real boys and girls like beautiful aliens, flushed with power they had no idea how to handle. Everyone else relegated to the level of breathless hanger-on or enforcer. Unreal kids fending for themselves if they managed to scare up the charisma to make being alone look like a choice rather than a default. And then those sad and terrified few at the bottom, the “ands” stuck there in the class of their own. Witch Week has no time for the real boys and girls: Theresa and Simon are both petty bullies. Moreover, it has no time for the brutes. It’s a book for the leftovers, the unreal boys, the “and” kids, and even the imitations if they can make up their minds to stop imitating. (Sweet Estelle Green, condemned by Nan as a poor imitation of Theresa the bully, has one of the loveliest arcs in the book.) Witch Week is a book for the weirdos and the oddballs — which, Jones makes clear in her triumphant denouement, includes just about everybody. That’s why this book is so deeply endearing to readers of any age. Hurrah for the “and” kids, hurrah for the weirdos. I hear they’re witches. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
9 h
A Canadian study gave $7,500 to homeless people. Here’s how they spent it.
A man protests homelessness in Vancouver. Around 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness each year, and the rates continue to rise. | Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images The results show the power of cash transfers to reduce homelessness. Ray is a 55-year-old man in Vancouver, Canada. He used to live in an emergency homeless shelter. But over the past year, he’s been able to pay for a place to live and courses to prepare him for his dream job — in part because he participated in a study called the New Leaf Project. The study, conducted by the charity Foundations for Social Change in partnership with the University of British Columbia, was fairlysimple. It identified 50 people in the Vancouver area who had become homeless in the past two years. In spring 2018, it gave them each one lump sum of $7,500 (in Canadian dollars). And it told them to do whatever they wanted with the cash. “At first, I thought it was a little far-fetched — too good to be true,” Ray said. “I went with one of the program representatives to a bank and we opened up a bank account for me. Even after the money was there, it took me a week for it to sink in.” Over the next year, the study followed up with the recipients periodically, asking how they were spending the money and what was happening in their lives. Because they were participating in a randomized controlled trial, their outcomes were compared to those of a control group: 65 homeless people who didn’t receive any cash. Both cash recipients and people in the control group got access to workshops and coaching focused on developing life skills and plans. The results? The people who received cash transfers moved into stable housing faster and saved enough money to maintain financial security over the year of follow-up. They decreased spending on drugs, tobacco, and alcohol by 39 percent on average, and increased spending on food, clothes, and rent, according to self-reports. “Counter to really harmful stereotypes, we saw that people made wise financial choices,” Claire Williams, the CEO of Foundations for Social Change, told me. The study, though small, offers a counter to the myths that people who become poor get that way because they’re bad at rational decision-making and self-control, and are thus intrinsically to blame for their situation, and that people getting free money will blow it on frivolous things or addictive substances. Studies have consistently shown that cash transfers don’t increase the consumption of “temptation goods”; they either decrease it or have no effect on it. “I have been working with people experiencing homelessness as a family physician for 16 years and I am in no way surprised that the people who received this cash used it wisely,” Gary Bloch, a Canadian doctor who prescribes money to low-income patients, told me. “It should be fairly self-evident by now that providing cash to people who are very low-income will have a positive effect,” he added. “We have seen that in other work (conditional cash transfer programs in Latin America, guaranteed annual income studies in Manitoba), and I would expect a similar outcome here.” What’s more, according to Foundations for Social Change, giving out the cash transfers in the Vancouver area actually saved the broader society money. Enabling 50 people to move into housing faster saved the shelter system $8,100 per person over the year, for a total savings of $405,000. That’s more than the value of the cash transfers, which means the transfers pay for themselves. “People think that the status quo is cheap, but it’s actually incredibly expensive,” Williams said. “So why don’t we just give people the cash they need to transform their lives?” The benefits — and limitations — of giving people free money Williams developed the idea for the New Leaf Project when her co-founder sent her a link to a 2014 TED talk by the historian Rutger Bregman titled “Why we should give everyone a basic income.” It argued that the most effective way to help people is to simply give them cash. The general idea behind basic income — that the government should give every citizen a monthly infusion of free money with no strings attached — has gained momentum in the past few years, with several countries running pilot programs to test it. And the evidence so far shows that getting a basic income tends to boost happiness, health, school attendance, and trust in social institutions, while reducing crime. Recipients generally spend the money on necessities like food, clothes, and utility bills. But Williams and her collaborators decided that rather than give people monthly payments, they’d give one big lump sum. “The research shows that if you give people a larger sum of cash upfront, it triggers long-term thinking,” as opposed to just keeping people in survival mode, Williams explained. “You can’t think about maybe registering for a course to advance your life when you don’t have enough money to put food on the table. The big lump sum at the front end gives people a lot more agency.” That’s what it did for Ray. In addition to getting housing, he used the cash transfer to take the courses he needed to become a front-line worker serving people with addictions. “Now I can work in any of the shelters and community centers in the area,” he told me, adding that receiving a cash transfer had felt like a vote of confidence. “It gives the person their own self-esteem, that they were trusted.” Not everyone was eligible for a cash transfer, however. The study only enrolled participants who’d been homeless for under two years, with the idea that early intervention most effectively reduces the risk of people incurring trauma as a result of living without a home. And people with severe mental health or substance use issues were screened out of the initiative. Williams said this was not out of a belief that there are “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” — a woefully persistent frame on poverty — but out of a desire to avoid creating a risk of harm and to ensure the highest likelihood of success. “If there was null effect from people receiving the cash, from an investor perspective it could be seen as a ‘waste of money’ because it didn’t actually demonstrate impact in somebody’s life,” Williams said. “We just wanted to start small, and the idea is that with subsequent iterations we’ll start relaxing those parameters.” She also said it was a difficult decision to include a control group of people who wouldn’t receive any cash, but ultimately, the control group was deemed necessary to prove impact. “We knew that we needed the rigor, because people would be skeptical about giving people cash. We wanted that evidence base that can assuage some of people’s concerns when they want to see the hard facts,” she told me. Going forward, Foundations for Social Change is trying to raise $10 million to scale up its cash transfer approach to multiple cities across Canada. It plans to give out 200 cash transfers in the next iteration, which will also be run as a randomized controlled trial. Based on feedback from study participants and a Lived Experience Advisory Panel — a group of people who’ve experienced homelessness — the charity will offer a new array of non-cash supports to both the cash recipients and the control group, including a free smartphone. The charity also hopes to work with other populations, like people exiting prison and people exiting sex work. To Williams, the time feels ripe. “I think the pandemic has really softened people’s attitudes to the need for an emergency cash payment when people fall upon hard times,” she said. Although the study’s findings seem promising, they have not yet undergone peer review. Plus, it’s worth noting that cash on its own probably isn’t enough to end homelessness. “While I have no problem with providing cash to people who need money, the solution to homelessness is housing,” Bloch told me. “Especially in a city like Vancouver where housing supply is low and rents are astronomical, it will be very hard to sustain a homelessness intervention without offering long-term affordable housing. I would not want to see these findings used to take pressure off the critical need to provide both long-term affordable housing and long-term income security.” That said, Bloch added, “If this study serves to counteract some people’s perception that people who are homeless and/or low-income can’t be trusted with extra income, that’s great. It’s a myth we need to bury once and for all.” Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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How our Google searches have changed in this presidential election
Getty Images From Medicare to misinformation, a new data visualization tracks Americans’ interests in election years. The 2020 election is different from those that have come before in many ways, including the ways in which we’re Googling. Waves of Interest, a new collaboration between Google News Initiative and information design firm Truth & Beauty, looks at how Americans’ internet searches have changed over the course of five presidential election years, from 2004 to 2020. The series of interactive data visualizations looks at the relative popularity of a range of popular political concepts, garnered from search trends as well as Pew Research Center election surveys, across election years. So far, 2020’s data goes through September and will be updated when each month is complete. As Google data editor Simon Rogers told Recode earlier this year, “You’re never as honest as you are with your search engine.” And this year, that honesty has resulted in a snapshot of the biggest concerns and questions Americans have ahead of arguably the most important election of our lifetime. It also suggests which issues might have more bearing on the election’s outcome. In 2020, a number of the popular searches — postal voting, unemployment, vaccine — relate to the coronavirus pandemic as well as this administration’s response. There’s also increased interest in terms like “fact checking” that have to do with misinformation, whether that comes from foreign interference or from the president himself. While some issues, like electoral fraud, are common from election to election, others vary widely by year. In the last election, the Second Amendment, minimum wage, and affordable housing were big concerns. (Visit the site for a more comprehensive version of the visualization.) Back in 2004, there was an especially high level of search around same-sex marriage and terrorism. The visualizations also show where in America these searches are more pronounced, highlighting regional differences over time. Abortion, for example, is of perennial importance in the Midwest and South. Gun control has outsized interest in the West, especially in Wyoming, in every election year. Affordable housing appears to always be just as important in the Northeast as the Southwest. Earlier this century, health insurance was a concern nationwide, but lately, it’s more prevalent in the Northeast. These charts present a fascinating window into our major concerns going into each election — and 2020’s concerns are particularly novel. Nevertheless, we can’t predict the future based on what people are searching for. But perhaps, thanks to the data the search engine is collecting, we can better understand the past. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
This week in TikTok: Halloween is still happening ... online
Abby Roberts Plus, Sasha Obama? On TikTok?! Hello from The Goods’ twice-weekly newsletter! On Tuesdays, internet culture reporter Rebecca Jennings uses this space to update you all on what’s been going on in the world of TikTok. Is there something you want to see more of? Less of? Different of? Email, and subscribe to The Goods’ newsletter here. For a makeup influencer, Halloween is the busiest time of year — it’s the time when even regular people attempt the high-concept or intimidatingly intricate looks peddled by professionals, and they’re looking for inspiration. Which is why when I hop on a Zoom call with TikTok beauty guru Abby Roberts in late September, she’s in the middle of painting a sledgehammer to use as a Harley Quinn prop. “It’s insane!” she says of the amount of shoots she has planned for the next few weeks. 19-year-old Roberts, whose face I’d seen roughly a thousand times on my For You page but whose voice I had never heard (she’s from Leeds, so she’s got a fun northern English accent), has skyrocketed to 13 million followers on TikTok and is one its most recognizable stars. Among her most iconic transformations: Jojo Siwa, Joe Exotic, a T-Rex, Nintendo Mii, and the cowboy emoji, plus a lot of really cool vibey ones that she pairs with her closet full of e-girl fashion staples. What started as an obsession with beauty YouTubers when she was 11 has now led to a wildly lucrative career working with brands like Charlotte Tilbury and Maybelline. We chatted about what it’s like being famous in quarantine, plus Americans’ obsession with British chav makeup. (I did, however, forget to ask her for a tutorial on anime cosplay eye makeup, so if anyone has a good one, I need to learn by Saturday!) @abbyrartistry first of september it’s officially almost spooky szn so here’s a draft from last year - who’s excited?! ♬ som original - Ice Lyrics How’d you get into makeup? Growing up, I was always into art. When I was 11, I started watching YouTube videos of all these beauty gurus like NikkieTutorials and Jaclyn Hill, and I wanted to have a go myself. So I uploaded my first YouTube video when I was just 11. It was me doing my sister’s Halloween makeup or something, and it was terrible. It was so bad, but we were just having fun. When did you first blow up? I became big on Instagram probably two years ago, when I became friends with James Charles. I’d recreate his makeup looks, and that’s how he found me on Instagram and shared me on his Instagram story. I gained maybe 100,000 followers overnight, and TikTok really just took it to that next level. What typically performs best? People love the really crazy and kind of stupid looks, so I turn myself into all sorts of characters like a Teletubby or something. People love that. Have you noticed a shift in your own aesthetic from when you started on TikTok? There was no aesthetic to begin with! I was just trying everything, but now I feel like I’ve really found my specific style with makeup. People know what they’re getting when they’re coming to my page. Before TikTok, my style was so boring, and now I’m a full-on e-girl with purple hair. How do you define beauty on TikTok versus beauty on Instagram or YouTube? It’s a lot less polished and airbrushed than your typical Instagram or YouTube beauty guru. It’s kind of more relatable as well, which is why I really like TikTok. You’re showing all the behind-the-scenes, that side of things. The style of makeup is more alternative as well. One of the big trends on TikTok right now is to put on chav makeup — a really unblended contour, nude lips, and way too much eyeliner. Is that weird to see, having grown up in the UK? I was that person! I was a chav, that’s how I know how to do [the makeup]. It was a huge thing in probably 2014, just every British girl had no idea how to do makeup. There weren’t a whole lot of tutorials on YouTube and everything, so we were kind of all just terrible at it. Grime music is resurfacing on TikTok, so all the British people find that hilarious, how the Americans have just discovered it because of TikTok. It’s so funny. How do you separate your TikTok life from your real life? Honestly, it’s really difficult because you’re working and you’re on TikTok looking for videos to make, and then you’re going to TikTok for fun, but it never really switches off. You’re always looking at what to do next. But I think it’s all about introducing content gradually to your followers. I was very, very makeup-focused last year to the point where I felt like I was being restricted. I couldn’t post any other content and people wouldn’t like it, and it was really difficult for me mentally trying to keep up with doing these intense looks constantly. So I gradually just introduced my lifestyle and fashion content. My followers responded really well to it — I was really lucky that they still like that stuff — and now I’m able to enjoy lots of different types of content. @abbyrartistry brits reclaiming our audio ib @bellapoarch ♬ M to the B - Millie B I think it’s good to take a step away from it. I am still good friends with a lot of the people that I went to school with and whenever I feel that online is too much, I just go and spend some time with them and like ground myself, spend time with my family, get back into reality again, take a little break from social media. What’s your advice to someone who wants to get big on beauty TikTok? Associate yourself with the right people and try to stay away from the kind of shady characters in this industry. It’s important to make good friends that you can genuinely trust. Work hard on your content. Don’t become lazy with it just because something is popular. Stay true to yourself and the type of content that you like to create. TikTok in the news TikTok will now tell you why your video was removed, like, for real (as opposed to a vague statement about “breaking community guidelines”). Good! Two weeks ago was influencer hair salon drama, last week it was balloon girl drama: A balloon artist in Texas revealed the price of her custom garlands ($420) and when people balked, challenged them to recreate it themselves for cheaper. Turns out, a lot of them really had the time. Alex Hawgood at the Times finally wrote the story I’ve been wanting to read for years, about teen boys “feigning gay” on TikTok to excite their (mostly female) followers. Explained one TikTok star’s mother: “If you are just straight-up straight now, it’s not very interesting to these kids.” Fill in the blank in the latest “Teens are doing [very bizarre thing]!” headline. (Spoiler: They’re making each other eat raw oats. It’s fine.) A fascinating portrait of “the TikTok generation of televangelists.” How young people are using TikTok to get out the vote. Rolling Stone’s EJ Dickson exposes the awful underbelly of Discord servers devoted to spreading deepfake pornography of TikTok stars. Some TikTokers are getting really into a six-and-a-half-hour ambient noise album meant to mimic the experience of dementia. It’s called the Caretaker challenge, named after the artist, and people are filming their reactions. It does not seem like an enjoyable experience! One Last Thing Sasha … Obama … on … TikTok?!! (Her friend deleted the videos, but they’re cute and fun and oh god please do not let the alt-right try to turn this into some weird scandal.) am I crazy or is this Sasha thee Obama— lil floozy vert (@ternjerler) October 25, 2020 Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work, and helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Contribute today from as little as $3.
The remote learning center trend, explained
Students and staff at Celebrate! RVA, a Richmond, Virginia, nonprofit that has become a remote learning center during the pandemic. | Courtesy of Celebrate! RVA For parents who can’t afford “pods,” some small businesses and nonprofits are filling the void. For 15 years, kids came to Amerikick, a martial arts center on a bustling corner of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, for karate lessons, learning how to kick, chop, and bow in the center’s spacious upstairs studio. But in 2020, they come for something a little different: school. With New York City schools operating on a hybrid model that brings kids into classrooms just two or three days a week, Amerikick was hearing from working parents — especially those who were teachers themselves — that they needed a safe place to send their kids during their remote days. So over the summer, staff decided to transform the space into a distance learning center, where students could come to work on their online classes in a supervised environment. Turning a karate studio into a space for remote school during a pandemic required a few adjustments. “We outlined the mat with red tape in boxes” to make sure desks were 6 feet apart, Ada Vargas, Amerikick’s program director, told Vox. The studio also installed hand sanitizer stations throughout, as well as some warmer touches, like bulletin boards for each student. “They decorate it and make it their own, to kind of make them feel a little bit easier about things going on,” Vargas said. And, naturally, each student gets their own Amerikick-branded mask. While Amerikick’s pivot to distance learning may sound unusual, it’s not unique. Around the country, businesses and nonprofits from dance studios to summer camps are becoming what some call “supportive learning centers,” offering supervision, wifi, and sometimes extracurricular enrichment for kids whose schools are fully or partially remote due to Covid-19. These centers can offer a much-needed lifeline to parents at a time when many — especially moms — are being forced to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for their kids. Meanwhile, offering distance learning services could help some small businesses stay afloat in uncertain times. But businesses like Amerikick can’t solve America’s child care and education crisis all on their own. For one thing, unlike schools, these centers are often entirely unregulated, which means the quality of support kids get may vary widely, Elliot Haspel, a child care policy expert and the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, told Vox. And while nationwide data on the number of new learning centers is sparse, there certainly aren’t enough to fill the enormous need with millions of American kids not yet back to school full time. Nor are their fees — which range from free for some nonprofits to thousands of dollars per session for some camps — affordable for every family. Still, for those who can access them, the centers may offer something many families have struggled to find during this time of isolation: a community to support them and their kids. “We want our kids to look back on this time and not think, ‘That was the worst semester, doing virtual learning,’” Julia Warren, executive director of Celebrate! RVA, a nonprofit that operates a learning center in Virginia, told Vox, “but rather, ‘Wow, it was really hard, but I got to go this really special space that made it as fun as possible.’” For some families who can’t afford pods, learning centers are filling the gaps This fall, thousands of schools around the country began the school year either fully remote or on a hybrid schedule that had kids in school buildings only part of the day or week. Overall, about 38 percent of districts — including most of the nation’s largest — were either remote or hybrid. That left millions of parents in the same untenable position they occupied in the spring: expected to care for their kids and supervise virtual learning while also somehow doing their jobs. Some parents have been able to form “pods” to share child care and homeschooling duties, with affluent families even hiring teachers to educate their kids at home at a cost of up to $100,000 per year. But most people can’t afford that price tag — and even less formal, parent-led pods are out of reach for many families who don’t know others in their area or whose work schedules don’t allow them to pitch in on child care. Some cities have responded by opening their own learning hubs, often with priority given to low-income families. But there typically aren’t enough city-run sites to serve all kids who are doing remote or hybrid learning. New York City, for example, announced in summer that it would provide free child care for 100,000 students, less than 10 percent of the city’s school-age population. And now, an increasing number of businesses and nonprofits are filling the gap, opening up their storefronts to offer socially distanced spaces where kids can log in to their online classes, with supervision and help from adults on staff. Such supportive learning centers have “sort of become a cottage industry” in recent months, Haspel said. They include a dance studio in Islip, New York; sleepaway camps in New Hampshire and Wisconsin; and even private schools in California that have reopened as camps in order to be classified as essential businesses. Meanwhile, Amerikick, a franchise with locations around the country, is offering distance learning at its New Jersey studios as well as in Brooklyn. “We’re trying to help the community and the parents out,” Vargas said. At Amerikick, kids ages 5 to 12 can come in for distance learning from 8 am to 3 pm on days when they’re out of school buildings, with extended hours available if parents need them. Students each attend online classes at their own school, but Amerikick hired a teacher to make sure they log in at the right time and complete their assignments. And during breaks, staff help the kids get moving by playing socially distanced games like Simon Says — or by practicing martial arts. “Our style, we do acrobatics,” Vargas said. “There’s a lot of kicking and punching and rolling and fun stuff like that.” Amerikick’s distance learning program costs $65 per day, or a lower rate if parents pay by the month. Some nonprofits, however, are offering similar services for free to those in need. Celebrate! RVA, for example, was established in 2013 to throw birthday parties for low-income kids in Richmond, Virginia. But when the pandemic hit and schools closed down, “We were hearing from families who were just desperate for help” with child care, Warren said. “We just decided to make a pivot because we had the space, and we knew that our kids needed it more than anything.” Celebrate opened its space for distance learning on September 4, and today has 12 students, all attending free of charge. The nonprofit is part of a coalition of groups in the area that are trying to provide care and support to kids whose parents can’t afford to pay for it. For Celebrate, offering distance learning “was the most loving and joyful thing to do to support the kids and their families,” Warren said. Offering distance learning could also help small businesses While learning centers fill an important niche for families, they could also help some small businesses keep the lights on during a time when many former offerings — indoor dance classes, for example — aren’t possible. For Amerikick, which also offers online and outdoor karate classes, distance learning wasn’t a business decision, Vargas said. But with many school buildings closed, the time is ripe for youth-oriented businesses to make their services available for students, whether it’s operating a learning center or offering enrichment classes remotely, Ty Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit Educationally Speaking Center for Learning, told Vox. “This is the best time to tap into your gifts and offer whatever you’re offering,” Lewis said. “If you’re a dance teacher, a karate teacher, robotics, coding, this is an amazing time to do it.” For businesses and other organizations considering opening learning centers, many say the most important consideration is safety. “Just follow the science,” advises Richard “Woody” Woodstein, owner and director of Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire, which operated a five-week session this fall for students doing distance learning. “Whatever you think you need to do, do more to keep everybody safe,” he told Vox. “If you can do that, then kids can be kids.” After safety, though, the biggest question about supportive learning centers is quality. While large organizations like the YMCA have trained staff and a long track record of offering child care and supervision, smaller businesses and groups may be less prepared for the challenges, Haspel said. “Are they able to help a first grader who’s having a bad day and throwing a tantrum?” he asked. “Are they able to help a student who’s really struggling with reading or with math? That’s not as clear.” Parents looking to enroll their kids in learning centers should come prepared with questions, experts say. First, they should ask about pandemic precautions — questions like how many children are enrolled and whether social distancing is observed, Lewis said. Beyond that, they should consider asking what’s offered beyond just supervision: “Can you assist my child with instruction during the day? What are some activities that you’re going to offer them? Will they have repeated breaks so that they can move away from the screen?” And while some families may find centers that check all their boxes, they’re far from a full solution to the shortage of child care during the pandemic. For that, “we need a whole lot more money flowing into the system,” Haspel said. Experts agree that the child care industry needs at least $50 billion to stabilize it through the pandemic and into the future, but so far, provisions to provide the money have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Still, some individual centers are seeing successes, especially in a time when many students around the country are struggling with remote learning. Absenteeism has been a huge problem during the pandemic, with about two in five Richmond students chronically absent from school, Warren said. But at Celebrate, “we have not seen any child absent unexcused,” she said. And even in the short time the center has been open, the students have made big strides academically. The youngest, in pre-kindergarten, came to Celebrate not knowing many of her letters. But “she can now identify and match uppercase and lowercase letters, she can spell words, she knows sight words, she can put sentences together, she can add,” Warren said. “We’ve just seen incredible growth in our kids,” she added, “and we’re just really proud of all that they’ve been able to accomplish.” Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
What philosopher Peter Singer has learned in 45 years of advocating for animals
Philosopher Peter Singer’s newest book, Why Vegan? returns to questions he’s spent 45 years writing about. | Joe Armao/Fairfax Media/Getty Images In his new book Why Vegan?, the pioneering philosopher of animal rights takes stock of the movement’s progress — and why there’s so much work left to do Forty-five years ago, Australian philosopher Peter Singer published the book Animal Liberation. The arguments it made— that animals can suffer; that it is morally wrong to inflict extraordinary suffering upon them; and that we consequently haveto rethink our farming and food systems — are ones that many consumers today will have heard. At the time, however,Singer’s perspective was a deeply unusual one. There were animal advocacy groups,certainly, but they tended to focus on the plight of abandoned pet animals, like cats and dogs, with no major organization working on the plight of farmed animals (more on this below). In a 1999 New Yorker profile, journalist Michael Specter wrote thatSinger “gave birth to the animal-rights movement.” Singer’s book, activist Ingrid Newkirk wrote, “was a philosophical bombshell. It forever changed the conversation about our treatment of animals. It made people — myself included — change what we ate, what we wore, and how we perceived animals.” Simply put, the animal welfare movement would not be where it is today without Singer and his book. Now, 45 years later, he’s revisiting the topic in a new book — a collection of his essays called Why Vegan?, released for sale in the US last week. I spoke with Singer about the history of the animal welfare movement, what progress we’ve made since Animal Liberation came out, and what it will take to change the world he’s been criticizing for nearly half a century now. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Kelsey Piper You first wrote about the case for caring about animals 45 years ago. What has changed? Peter Singer A lot has changed, really. There has been a huge amount of change in awareness. Quite frankly, there is an animal movement now, which is concerned about all animals, not just about dogs and cats and horses. And there really wasn’t in 1975. It’s not that thereweren’t sort of tiny organizations. There were so many vivisection organizations [which work to combat the practice of animal vivisection for research], actually. But in terms of farm animals, there was really nothing going on. There was a small organization called Compassion in World Farming in the UK when I got into it, which is now a sort of quite large global organization. But it was run by one guy out of his home, I think, at the time, and there was no legislation to protect the welfare of farm animals. Now, the entire European Union has prohibited some of the worst forms of confinement that I described in Animal Liberation. And so has the state of California. And I think six or seven other states in the US also have legislation protecting farm animals. So that’s a big change. Then there’s a huge change in the availability of vegetarian and vegan food. Nobody would have known what vegan meant in 1975. There was this very small British organization that was founded in the late ’40s, called the Vegan Society. That was probably pretty much all of the vegans in the UK. And virtually none in the US either. There’s been a huge growth of awareness — organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to courses in animal law being taught at Harvard. There was none of that happening at all [in 1975]. So that’s an immense amount of change. But there hasn’t been nearly enough change in the way we treat animals. Kelsey Piper There’s change, maybe, in people’s interest in the issue and how we think about it, but still a pretty bad situation on the ground, and in some ways getting worse, right? Because we have more automation, we have more technology. We’ve bred birds differently. Peter Singer Yeah, the breeding of chickens in particular is a really bad aspect of it. They grow faster, they put on weight faster, and they seem to be in more pain just standing up now. That’s one difference, which you’ve written about. The other thing that I would say is — it isn’t bad that China and a lot of other countries are more prosperous. That’s great because there are fewer people in extreme poverty. But there are also hundreds of millions more people wanting to eat meat, [previously] unable to afford to eat meat. And China, in particular, has no national laws about animal welfare at all. The multiplying factory farms, what conditions the animals undergo — they’re pretty terrible. When you go to China, you see [animal abuses] that are pretty horrible you wouldn’t see here in the US. Kelsey Piper I’m also curious about the philosophy side of this. Are the arguments that you put forward 45 years ago still what you see as some of the strongest arguments for animals? Peter Singer I think the arguments that I put forward in 1975 are still the basic arguments, which seemed to me the most cogent. So what happened after I wrote Animal Liberation is that a number of different philosophers use different approaches.[American philosopher]Tom Regan’s animal rights argument, for example, wasn’t really in the literature beforehand, not in the form that Tom put it in, and a variety of other different views. [Regan argues that from a Kantian perspective, at least some animals have intrinsic rights as humans do, because they are what he called “subjects-of-a-life.”] So there is more pluralism about different approaches, philosophically, that lead to somewhat similar conclusions. But I remain a consequentialist. [There are] rights-based approaches — for those who like that approach ... [they] are out there, and that’s a good thing. Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach comes to a similar conclusion as well. [Nussbaum’s approach argues that ethics should be focused on the freedom to achieve well-being, and understood in terms of how many real opportunities to do that someone has.] Kelsey Piper I have seen it said that animals mattering, and being of moral significance — and accordingly, factory farming being very bad — is something of a rare area of agreement in moral philosophy. Peter Singer Yeah, absolutely. And even people who disagree on some of the points, like Roger Scruton, who died recently, was a conservative, British philosopher. Some sort of religious bent, I think, because hetalked about [how] we should have piety towards animals. He certainly continued to eat them, and even champion eating them, but he certainly opposed factory farming. Kelsey Piper I’m curious what you see as the strongest, simply put argument for being vegan. Peter Singer I think that it removes you completely from complicity in practices that are not morally defensible about the raising and killing of animals for food. There are more complicated arguments about whether you’re justified in bringing animals into existence who would not otherwise have existed and have a good life, about animals raised in suitable conditions and humanely killed. So you know, there are arguments for defending some forms of animal consumption. I don’t know what the impact of that is on attitudes to animals and whether it reinforces the idea that animals are still things for us to use. Kelsey Piper Are you personally vegan? Peter Singer Strictly speaking, no. For example, I don’t think that bivalves — mussels and clams — I don’t think they can suffer, so I eat them. I would certainly eat cellular-based meat, once it was available. And I’m not really strict about avoiding free-range eggs. Kelsey Piper That’s been one of the struggles in our family, finding eggs that we are confident come from chickens who were well-treated. Peter Singer Yes, that’s right. I think it’s somewhat easier to get genuinely free-range eggs in Australia [where Singer lives] than in big American cities anyway. It’s not always that easy to sort out which are labeled free range, but actually kept in big warehouses with small patches where they can go outside. In Australia they report the stocking density. Kelsey Piper In 2020, of course, there’s lots of old arguments about animal farming that are still relevant. But there’s also some new sorts of concerns on everybody’s horizon — like the potential for pandemics and the potential for contributing to climate change. Peter Singer The last essay in the collection is a 2020 essay about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, flu, and whatnot. It talks about wet markets, and the combination of cruelty and health risk that involves. When I published Animal Liberation, I was focused entirely on the animal aspect of it. Then, during the ’80s, I became aware of the climate change issue, and of the role of animal production in that. So there was a second major argument for avoiding animal products. When I talk to people who’ve become vegan in the last few years, I find climate has played quite a significant role. And then in recent years, I’ve become aware of the risk of pandemics coming out of factory farming. So what I say in the book is — there’s now this third reason: animals, climate, pandemics. Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
4 upcoming Supreme Court cases will reveal who Amy Coney Barrett really is
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the third day of her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill on October 14, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images We know she’s conservative. We don’t yet know if she’s a nihilist. Well, that happened. Just over one month after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, the Senate voted almost entirely along party lines to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. President Trump has been quite clear that he thinks “it’s very important that we have nine Justices” if we have a contested election, strongly suggesting that Trump expects Barrett to rule in his favor if the election ends up in front of the Court. The incoming justice has been coy about whether she would do so — or even whether she will hear cases involving the 2020 election in the first place. During her confirmation hearing, Democratic senators repeatedly asked Barrett whether she would commit to recuse from cases related to the 2020 election, due to the appearance of impropriety created by Trump’s comments. Barrett, however, would only offer a vague promise of “fully and faithfully applying the law of recusal” if asked to sit out an election case. Similarly, while Barrett’s record suggests that she agrees with the Republican Party’s opposition to abortion and Obamacare, much of her scholarship discusses legal theory at a very high level of generality and offers little insight into how she would decide specific cases. We know that Barrett will be a very conservative justice. But we don’t yet know if she will embrace the radical, even nihilistic approach preferred by someone like Justice Clarence Thomas, who has suggested that federal child labor laws are unconstitutional. We don’t know how much she’ll feel bound by precedent, or whether she’ll be moved by public opinion in cases where conservative “originalists” like herself read the law in ways that are wildly at odds with the public’s preferences. But these are contentious times, and the Supreme Court has an unusually contentious docket. Almost immediately after joining the Court, Barrett will confront cases that seek to move the law dramatically to the right — often relying on arguments that even many leading conservatives view as ridiculous. The four cases below will likely help us gain an understanding of whether Barrett is a right-wing outlier, even within an increasingly conservative federal judiciary. The votes she casts in these cases, and the specific legal arguments that she signs onto,may show us just how hostile the Court’s newest member is to democracy, and whether she’s willing to embrace deeply radical legal arguments that undermine progressive policy or punish interest groups aligned with the Democratic Party. To be sure, Democrats should not necessarily heave a sigh of relief even if Barrett rejects the conservative position in each of these lawsuits. These four cases represent some of the most extreme arguments before the Court, and there are others that could well be revelatory. How Barrett rules on them should offer a window into just how radical the newest justice is likely to be. 1) Pennsylvania mail-in ballots and the 2020 election Earlier this month, the Supreme Court handed down a brief order in Republican Party of Pennsylvania v. Boockvar, which left in place a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court decision allowing some mail-in ballots that arrive after Election Day to be counted — although it is far from clear that this decision will remain in place now that Barrett is on the Court. On the surface, Republican Party was a defeat for the GOP, which hoped to have these ballots tossed out. But the Court divided 4-4 in Republican Party, meaning that Barrett could potentially provide the fifth vote to trash these ballots. The Pennsylvania GOP has already asked the Supreme Court to reconsider this case. So Barrett’s very first action as a justice could be to hand the GOP a victory against voting rights. One of the GOP’s primary arguments in Republican Party — an argument that three justices seemed to endorse in Bush v. Gore (2000) — is astonishingly radical. The GOP argues that only the state’s Republican-controlled legislature — not the state Supreme Court or some other body — is allowed to determine how Pennsylvania chooses presidential electors. Taken to its logical extreme, the Republican Party’s argument could invalidate state constitutional provisions protecting the right to vote, at least in presidential elections. It could even allow Republicans to steal the 2020 election for President Trump. This latter point may seem far-fetched, but bear with me. The Constitution provides that “each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” members of the Electoral College. In its briefs in Republican Party, the GOP focuses on the word “Legislature,” claiming that only the Pennsylvania state legislature may set the state’s rules for choosing presidential electors, and not the state Supreme Court. For more than a century, the Supreme Court has understood the word “legislature,” when used in this or similar contexts, to refer to whatever the valid lawmaking process is within that state. As the Court held most recently in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (2015), the word “legislature” should be read “in accordance with the State’s prescriptions for lawmaking, which may include the referendum and the Governor’s veto.” Similarly, if a state’s constitution protects voting rights and gives the state Supreme Court the power to interpret state law, then the state Supreme Court may make binding decisions regarding how state law or a state constitution should be interpreted during a presidential election. The Arizona decision was 5-4, however, with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the majority opinion. While the four dissenting justices in Republican Party did not explain why they voted with the GOP, it’s not unreasonable to think that they voted the way they did because they agree with the GOP’s hyper-literal interpretation of the word “legislature.” Indeed, two of those four dissenters, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, signaled that they do agree with the GOP’s approach in an opinion handed down Monday night. So what would it mean if Justice Barrett provides the fifth vote for this interpretation of the Constitution? For starters, it could mean that state constitutional provisions protecting the right to vote would no longer function in presidential elections. The GOP is quite explicit about this in one of its briefs, claiming that to the extent that the Pennsylvania Constitution conflicts with the GOP’s understanding of the word “Legislature,” “the State Constitution must give way.” But that’s only the beginning. If the Supreme Court embraces the GOP’s understanding of the word “Legislature,” Republicans could potentially hand down pivotal rulings in battleground states that hand Trump a second term. Although every state has a law providing that the state’s electoral votes will be decided in a popular election, the Constitution does not actually require such an election. Again, it provides that “each State shall appoint” presidential electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Under the Republican Party’s theory in the Pennsylvania lawsuit, only the elected representatives in the state’s legislative body are allowed to make this determination. The state courts are cut out of the process because the judicial branch is not the “Legislature.” A similar logic could apply to Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor — again, because the governor is part of the state’s executive branch, not the “Legislature.” In other words, Republican-controlled legislatures in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan could potentially overrule the voters of their state, or stop a close and contested count, and simply assign their states’ electoral votes to Trump. All three states have Democratic governors, but if the Supreme Court reads the word “Legislature” in a hyper-literal way, those governors would not be allowed to veto such legislation. One of Barrett’s very first actions as a justice could be to weigh in on such a question. To be clear, we don’t know for sure if the Court’s conservatives would take such an argument all the way to that conclusion. But the Court’s4-4 vote in Republican Partycertainly left the door open to such a reading. 2) Obamacare On November 10, just one week after Election Day, the Court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, the latest effort by Republican lawyers to repeal the Affordable Care Act through litigation. Unlike previous efforts to convince the Supreme Court to take out Obamacare, however, the plaintiffs’ arguments in this lawsuit are widely viewed as laughable even among conservative opponents of Obamacare. As Yuval Levin, a prominent conservative policy wonk, wrote in the National Review, the Texas lawsuit “doesn’t even merit being called silly. It’s ridiculous.” As originally enacted, the Affordable Care Act required most Americans to either carry health insurance or pay at least $695 in additional taxes. The Supreme Court upheld this requirement, commonly known as the “individual mandate,” as a valid exercise of Congress’s power to levy taxes inNational Federation of Individual Business v. Sebelius (2012). The 2017 tax law signed by President Trump, however, effectively repealed the individual mandate by reducing the amount of the tax for people who do not have insurance to zero dollars. The plaintiffs argue that this zeroed-out mandate — which tells people that they must be insured or else they’ll be forced to pay absolutely nothing — is unconstitutional. Their theory is that the original mandate was upheld as a tax, and a zero dollar tax is no tax at all. That’s a plausible argument, but hardly an airtight one. It also shouldn’t be more than an academic argument. Who cares if a “mandate” that does nothing at all is constitutional or not? The answer can be summarized in one word: “severability.” When a court strikes down a provision of law that is part of a broader statute, it often must ask whether the rest of the statute can stand without the invalid provision. Ordinarily, this is a speculative inquiry. The court must try to figure out what law Congress would have enacted if it had known that a single provision of that law would be struck down. But in Texas, no speculation is necessary. Congress spent the bulk of 2017 debating whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, it didn’t have the votes to do so. So it repealed just one provision: the individual mandate. We know, in other words, that Congress would have preferred to leave the rest of the law intact if the zeroed-out mandate were struck down, because Congress left the rest of the law intact! This conclusion is bolstered by the Supreme Court’s decision in Murphy v. NCAA (2018), which held that courts should preserve as much of the statute as possible if they strike down one provision. “In order for other ... provisions to fall,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the Court in Murphy, “it must be ‘evident that [Congress] would not have enacted those provisions which are within its power, independently of [those] which [are] not.’” There’s also another glaring problem with the Texas lawsuit. Federal courts are not allowed to hear a lawsuit challenging a particular legal provision unless the plaintiff has been injured in some way by that law — this is a requirement known as “standing.” But no one is injured by a zero dollar tax, so no one should have standing to raise the arguments presented in the Texas case. Yuval Levin, in other words, is correct. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Texas are ridiculous. If Barrett accepts them, it raises very serious questions about whether the new justice is capable of distinguishing her own conservative political views from the law. 3) The census and undocumented immigrants The 14th Amendment to the Constitution provides that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.” This is unambiguous text. With a narrow exception for certain Native Americans, all “persons” must be counted in the decennial census, regardless of their immigration status. And yet, last July, President Trump released a memorandum announcing that “for the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status.” Thus, in violation of the plain text of the Constitution, Trump would not allow the census to count undocumented immigrants for the purpose of determining how much representation each state receives in the House of Representatives. Notably, about 20 percent of the estimated 10.6 million undocumented immigrants in the United States live in California. If Trump’s unconstitutional plan — which is now before the justices in Trump v. New York — succeeds, then the nation’s largest blue state could lose as many as three House seats. (It’s likely that Texas, a one-time Republican stronghold that is starting to trend toward Democrats, would also be hit hard.) In his memorandum, Trump tries to get around the Constitution’s explicit text by claiming that undocumented immigrants do not count as “inhabitants” of the state where they live. “Although the Constitution requires the ‘persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed,’ to be enumerated in the census,” Trump claims, “that requirement has never been understood to include in the apportionment base every individual physically present within a State’s boundaries at the time of the census.” As Trump correctly notes, there are many people who may be present in the United States — tourists visiting from other nations, foreign diplomats, and businesspeople, for example — who are not counted by the census. “The term ‘persons in each State’ has been interpreted to mean that only the ‘inhabitants’ of each State should be included,” Trump argues, and “determining which persons should be considered ‘inhabitants’ for the purpose of apportionment requires the exercise of judgment.” At the most general level, Trump is right that someone needs to determine which individuals who may be temporarily present in a state do not count as a resident of that state. But that doesn’t mean that Trump himself gets to make this determination, or that this decision can be made arbitrarily. As a federal court that rejected Trump’s argument explains, “it does not follow that illegal aliens — a category defined by legal status, not residence — can be excluded” from the census by claiming that they are not “inhabitants” of a state. “To the contrary,” the court continues, while quoting from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, “the ordinary definition of the term ‘inhabitant’ is ‘one that occupies a particular place regularly, routinely, or for a period of time.’” Many undocumented immigrants reside in a state for “many years or even decades.” They are as much “inhabitants” of those states as any other resident. The three-judge panel — two appointed by George W. Bush, one by Barack Obama — ruled unanimously. The legal questions in the New York case are, in the words of the lower court that rejected Trump’s arguments, “not particularly close or complicated.” 4) Union-busting litigation More than four decades ago, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Supreme Court held that public sector unions may, under certain circumstances, charge “agency fees” to non-members of the union. These fees are intended to reimburse the union for services it provides to such non-members. Then, in 2018, the Supreme Court decided Janus v. AFSCMEby a 5-4 vote along party lines. Janus overruled Abood, and held that public sector unions may not charge agency fees to non-members. So, from 1977 until 2018, agency fees charged by public sector unions were legal. And they were legal because the Supreme Court said they were legal. Nevertheless, anti-union litigators have, since Janus, brought a wave of cases claiming that unions have to pay back many of the agency fees that they charged prior to the Court’s decision in Janus — again, during a period when it was legal for unions to charge such fees. Though these cases have not fared well for the anti-union side in the lower courts, many of them are now before the Supreme Court. For the time being, at least, the Supreme Court has not announced whether it will hear these cases or not. But the justices have discussed these anti-union cases at multiple conferences — a sign that at least some members of the Court want to take them up. As one of the federal appeals courts that rejected these lawsuits explained, “the Rule of Law requires that parties abide by, and be able to rely on, what the law is,” not what the law may become in the future. It would be extraordinary if Barrett — or any other justice — voted to sanction unions for actions that, again, the Supreme Court itself held to be legal at the time that the union engaged in those actions. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Suburban women could be Trump’s undoing
Katie Mazzocco says she’s texted upward of 10,000 people encouraging them to vote. | Ross Mantle for Vox How Trump organized a grassroots army of suburban women against him. This is the first in a series of articles looking at the voters who could be the most decisive in the 2020 election. Before she got Covid-19, Katie Mazzocco had a plan for every part of her life. The 34-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two always voted, but she wasn’t involved with political organizing before Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Like thousands of others, Mazzocco was equal parts frightened and energized by Trump’s presidency.Ahead of the 2020 election, she had a plan to make hundreds of calls a day and knock on doors in her Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb — part of a key swing district — to encourage her neighbors to votethis fall. Now her old life is completely unrecognizable. Mazzocco’s once-packed days are mostly spent in bed, suffering long-term Covid-19 complications that oscillate between brain fog and excruciating chest pains. “On a daily basis, I’m still trying to hold my body together,” Mazzocco told me in a recent interview. “Some days, I can’t even talk.” Her once flourishing self-owned business is now on pause. She rarely has the energy to help her 10-year-old twins with their at-home schoolwork. Her husband, a teacher at a local school district, instructs his students from home these days. Mazzocco counts a good day as one where she can walk to the bathroom by herself and brush her teeth, rather than slumped over the shoulder of one of her daughters, her husband, or her mother — who lives with the family to assist with child care, cooking, and cleaning. Ross Mantle for Vox Mazzocco has long-term complications due to Covid-19. Ross Mantle for Vox Mazzocco with her husband. “Some days, I can’t even talk,” she says. “It’s driving me insane because I’m such a go-getter and high achiever,” Mazzocco told me. “Some days my brain is online ... some days it’s like being flattened. It’s agonizing.” Mazzocco is part of a relatively small group of Covid-19 patients with long-term complications. But she’s one of millions of women across the United States whose working and personal lives have been upended by the pandemic. Vox interviewed several such women around the country and found them organizing from their kitchens and living rooms — deciding the time for complacency is over. Many of them have stories similar to Mazzocco’s. They were previously engaged voters who paid attention to politics, but Trump’s win made them realize voting alone wasn’t enough. A grassroots army powered by women is developing through their networks of PTA moms, neighbors, and friends. “I feel like when you activate women, there’s this contagiousness where other women see that and are like, ‘Okay, I can do this too,’” said Claire Reagan, a teacher and mother of two who lives in the suburbs outside Kansas City, Kansas. Organizing is one of the few things Mazzocco can still do from her bed — getting out the vote by texting and writing letters. Her reach is impressive. She estimates she’s texted upward of 10,000 people encouraging them to vote and helping them make a plan, averaging about 100 to 200 conversations each week. And even though life is a daily struggle, Mazzocco is hopeful that this election will bring about real change. “I think people are excited about it and hoping for change,” she told me. “I want everyone to realize they can be so connected; it’s not that hard.” Suburban women, once a reliable bloc for Republicans, drove a blue wave for House Democrats in the 2018 midterms. If 2018 was a symbolic rebuke of Trump, pollsters of both parties expect a show of force against Trump from these women in 2020. The lasting effects of the pandemic have only intensified their revolt against the president. “Common sense suggests that suburban women were skeptical about Trump before the pandemic,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “Having their lives utterly disrupted by school closings and trying to help 6- and 7-year-olds learn virtually while also holding down a job has simply exacerbated their preexisting skepticism about Trump.” Why Trump repels many suburban women In mid-October, Trump stood onstage in Johnstown, Pennsylvania — about 65 miles away from Pittsburgh — and practically begged suburban women to vote for him. “Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump pleaded. “I saved your damn neighborhood, okay?” Trump has good reason to be worried about women in Pennsylvania and other swing states. National and state surveys show that Democratic candidate Joe Biden, on average, is polling around 25 points better than Trump among women (Hillary Clinton polled 14 points ahead of Trump with women in 2016). If Biden’s massive margin holds on Election Day, it would make it the biggest gender gap for a Democratic candidate in history. Democrats believe they can count on Black women, the party’s most reliable voting bloc. They’re more worried about white women, a group Trump narrowly won in 2016 — driven especially by those without college degrees. White college-educated women voted for Clinton over Trump 51 to 44 percent in 2016, but their support has grown and solidified even more four years later. They prefer Biden by nearly 20 points, according to an early October Fox News poll. A late October Midwestern state poll from Fox contained more bad news for Trump; it showed suburban women preferring Biden by 35 points in Michigan, 29 points in Pennsylvania, and 21 points in Wisconsin. There’s a simple reason for these numbers. Trump revels in being rude, macho, and chaotic — all things many women voters despise, pollsters told me. “They really didn’t like Donald Trump’s personal style; they thought he was a bully, they thought he was divisive,” said veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who advises Biden’s campaign. “They hate chaos. Suburban women really want stability.” Ayres, the Republican pollster, agreed. “It’s largely Trump’s attitude toward women, his belligerence, his style, and his conduct,” he said. Trump’s list of insults has gotten so long that the New York Times started counting them (598 insults as of 2019). Lately, the target of the president’s ire is America’s revered top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, whom Trump called a “disaster” and one of a group of “idiots” on a recent call with his campaign staff. Drew Angerer/Getty Images A family listens to Joe Biden during a drive-in campaign rally in Dallas, Pennsylvania, on October 24. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Annie Howell, a Trump supporter and poll watcher, outside of the Luzerne County Board of Elections in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on October 22. Trump’s rhetoric has gotten to the point where Claire Reagan, the teacher, and her husband keep the television off when their young children are around, to avoid them seeing the president at all. “I don’t want my children to speak the way the president speaks,” said Reagan, who lives in a conservative-leaning suburb outside Kansas City, Kansas. “My kids, they know who Barack Obama is. We want them to see what strong, calm leadership looks like, and I can say the same thing if Mitt Romney had been elected. It’s been very difficult to navigate how we expose our children to national politics. It’s not something I think will enrich my children’s understanding of how people who make the rules behave.” About four years after giving birth to her second child close to the 2016 election, Reagan was determined not to have her third child on November 3, 2020. She told me she had recently pushed back her scheduled C-section until after Election Day. “I didn’t want to be in the hospital on Election Day,” Reagan said. “I was a billion months pregnant in the 2016 election; ironically, I’m a billion months pregnant right now.” She added, “I just remember how heavy 2016 felt.” Suburbs like Reagan’s used to be prime Republican territory. The 2018 midterms were the first real wake-up call for the GOP that the suburbs, and white suburban women, were moving away from them. It wasn’t always this way. In 2010, Democratic candidates lost college-educated white voters by a massive 19 percentage points. During the 2014 midterms, Democrats continued their downward streak with the group, losing them by 16 points (both midterms were banner years for Republicans). But the 2018 midterms saw white suburbanites do a stunning 180-degree turn: White college-educated voters voted for Democratic candidates by 8 points. “Republicans for the first time in memory lost the suburban vote in 2018,” Ayres told me. “There is no sign at all that they are moving back toward Republicans. If anything, they are voting more strongly for Democrats today.” The 2018 midterms saw a symbolic rebuke of Trump in the suburbs, giving Democratic House candidates wins even in reach districts in South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, and Kansas. This year, Trump is on the ballot. Trump has galvanized a movement among suburban women The story about suburban women in 2020 isn’t just about them voting for a Democratic presidential candidate. It’s about a new wave of women-led grassroots organizing in some of the reddest parts of the country, focused largely on state and local races. Erin Woods’s foray into organizing in her suburban Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood really started after the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017, threatening to undo the protections for preexisting conditions without which her insurance costs would skyrocket. Before the ACA, Woods had been rejected from multiple health insurance companies for having had a preexisting condition. She estimates she paid around $40,000 in unnecessary premiums over several years. “I paid more for myself in premiums than we did for the rest of the family,” Woods told me. “Once I went back and looked at it, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this was a couple years of college.’” No one in her neighborhood really talked politics before 2016, Woods remembers. But she started having conversations with other parents at PTA meetings and her friends, and then started emailing people encouraging them to call their senators and representatives during the 2017 ACA repeal push in Washington, DC. Her email list morphed into a physical group of 20 friends who also wanted to get engaged in politics. It has since grown to about 150 people who make phone calls, do literature drops, and write postcards to encourage others to vote, Woods estimates. “It’s not that the men aren’t there, but if you’re reading the room, a lot of the people doing the work right now are women” It’s turned into a large, spiraling network mostly of women who bring in their friends organically. These networks live in private Facebook groups and text and email chains that light up whenever a new Biden/Harris sign goes up on a neighbor’s front lawn. Women like Reagan and Anita Parsa, who is friends with Woods and part of her organizing group, described themselves as informed and moderately engaged voters before 2016. Many identify as unaffiliated, supporting individual candidates over any one party. Now they are members of an army of galvanized women organizing from their homes. Some are nursing new babies, while others are watching their kids go off to college. Rather than telling their friends whom to vote for, these women are just encouraging their friends to vote, period. “I have gotten to know more women who are involved through my involvement,” said Parsa. “It’s kind of infectious; it gives you permission to talk about stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise.” These women could leave a mark on their heavily Republican state. Kansas is certainly not considered a swing state. But it is not immune to the political changes of the suburbs — evident in a surprisingly competitive Senate race coming two years after Democrats won the governor’s race and a House seat. One Republican pollster recently told me the suburbs outside Kansas City are “ground zero for suburban women fleeing the president.” Some of these neighborhoods boast mansions, the homes of doctors and lawyers. They’re traditionally moderate Republican areas, but there are many more signs for Biden, Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier, and local Democratic candidates dotting the manicured lawns these days. Keeping in mind the old politics adage that “yard signs don’t vote,” Reagan noted that she sees more Democratic signs in front of people’s houses compared to Republican ones on the side of the road — a sign that voters casting ballots for Democrats are willing to make a public statement in 2020. Kyle Rivas/Getty Images Biden supporters attend a campaign rally in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 7. “It’s a country-club-joining, fancy-car-driving neighborhood,” said Parsa, who lives in Mission Hills, a suburban neighborhood outside Kansas City. “I do not think we have shifted dramatically left in this area, I think this is a recognition of how extreme the candidates in the GOP are, and their feckless, fawning allowance of anything Trump wants to do.” Trump may have spurred their involvement, but these women also recognize they can effect the most change in their local offices. Right now, the main focus for Reagan, Parsa, and Woods is to break the Republican supermajority in the Kansas legislature (there’s little chance of actually flipping it). And with women making up the bulk of this organizing group in Kansas City’s suburbs, there’s also a dream to get more women elected to office — in hopes of addressing issues like education, child care, and health care. “It’s not that the men aren’t there, but if you’re reading the room, a lot of the people doing the work right now are women,” said Reagan. “A lot of the local campaigns that I’ve been in contact with, almost all of them are being run by women.” Trump fundamentally doesn’t understand the suburbs The second major factor driving the suburban revolt against the Trump-led GOP is the fact that American suburbs are simply a lot more diverse than they used to be. Far from the all-white enclaves of the 1960s and ’70s, America’s suburbs today are diversifying — much likethe rest of the country. “It’s hugely important to understanding how these suburbs are changing,” said Boston College political science professor David Hopkins, who has researched them extensively. Vastly changing suburbs could be the key to Democratic success in Southern and Western states that previously were reliably Republican. Red states like Arizona and Georgia now look to be in play for Democrats in 2020, owing to a combination of diversifying suburbs and moderate white voters turned off by Trump. A 2015 Brookings Institution report found that nonwhite people represented at least 35 percent of the suburban population in 36 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas. And recent analysis from the New York Times found the number of census tracts with all-white residents in the United States has cratered — going from about 25 percent in 1980 to just 5 percent in 2017, most of which were located in rural areas. Rather than focusing on health care or education even in the middle of a pandemic, Trump has settled on race-baiting messages about suburban housing and “law and order.” “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” Trump tweeted in August. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.” Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images A Biden supporter attends a a Drive-In rally in Dallas, Pennsylvania, on October 24. Her sign reads “Republican suburban women love Joe.” Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images Trump supporters listen while the president speaks during a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 19. But Trump’s political overtures to American suburbs in 2020 reveal his fundamental misunderstanding about who lives there. “I think Trump has an understanding of suburbia that comes from kind of a bygone era,” said Hopkins. “When he thinks suburbia, he thinks white people who are scared of Black people in cities, and violence in cities.” Suburbs today look a lot like the neighborhood of community college professor Daisy Foxx, 65, who lives in a suburban neighborhood outside Fayetteville, North Carolina — another major 2020 swing state where Biden and Trump are statistically tied. Foxx, who is African American, has lived here since 1996. She estimates her neighborhood is majority African American, with the rest of the population composed of Latino and white families. “It’s just home,” Foxx said. “What matters to me is I have a nice place to stay, a church to go to.” There are few yard signs for either party in front of the large homes in Foxx’s neighborhood, but she said there’s little doubt whom many people are voting for. “In my neighborhood we’re very much concerned about Trump and, frankly, getting him out of office,” Foxx told me. “It has a lot to do with Covid-19 and how he’s divided this country. I’ve never seen it so divided. It’s like a sickness in the atmosphere, and it’s just horrific.” Foxx has never liked Trump. But like so many other women, she’s seen Trump’s lack of leadership around Covid-19 directly impact her life in the past year. Foxx wondered aloud whether she should even put up her Christmas decorations this year, or if she’d see her grandchildren during the holidays. And she was fervent in her desire for white women to match their Black counterparts at the voting booths and cast a ballot for the Biden/Harris ticket. “African American women have been clear: We know exactly who will do a better job for us and our community,” Foxx said. “I hope my white counterparts are looking at this.” The political gender gap is cutting into marriages The historic gender gap between women supporting Biden and men Trump in the polls cuts into everyday life — even some marriages. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake noted the gender gap is “huge” among non-college-educated white men and women. “You have a record number of non-college-educated married white women married to Trump voters,” Lake said. Martha, a retired nurse who lives outside of Shreveport, Louisiana, is in one of these politically split marriages (she declined to give her last name due to privacy concerns). Martha told me she used to be a Republican and voted third-party in the 2016 election. Her husband, she says, didn’t really pay much attention to politics until he found Trump in 2016. This year, she’s voting for Biden and her husband is sticking staunchly with Trump. Politics has become a toxic subject in her household. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images President Trump speaks during a rally in Bossier City, Louisiana, on November 14, 2019. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images A mural painted on the side of a brick building in Shreveport, Louisiana. “In a lot of ways he’s a very good man, but we don’t talk about politics at all,” Martha told me. “When we do, we fight. We argue terribly. I have gone to a couple marches; I told my husband I was going to them. He didn’t say anything. I can’t sit and phone bank because he would be sitting here judging me.” Martha was suspicious of Trump from the get-go, believing in 2016 that the Republican candidate was a “con man.” But it’s not just Trump’s character she finds problematic; as someone who grew up low-income and relied on government support, she is deeply opposed to Republican efforts to dismantle the social safety net. She also disagrees with Trump’s actions to seal off the border to immigrants seeking asylum and dislikes the president’s trade wars with other countries. “I think he has diminished our country in the world because of his separatist policies,” she said. “It started out as a character thing, but it’s evolved into both.” The thing Martha struggles to understand the most is why her husband and other formerly close friends who support Trump defend him like he’s a member of their family, rather than a politician. “Is [Trump] more important to you than me?” she remembered asking her husband once. “He just looked at me; he didn’t answer me.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Trump’s pullback of pollution controls is even more hazardous than you think
Janeen Jones for Vox The EPA scrapped the Obama-era rules controlling methane emissions. The fracking-friendly move will also result in the release of hazardous pollutants linked to cancer. The Permian Basin is one of the most prolific oil and gas plays in the world, responsible for more than a third of the United States’ oil and one-sixth of gas production last year. The formation in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico that has minted fortunes and transformed the country into a global petroleum supplier is also ground zero for the worst oil and gas air pollution in the country. “You don’t know what you’re breathing,” said Gene Collins, a minister and community activist in Odessa, Texas. It could get worse. The US Environmental Protection Agency in August rescinded controls installed by the Obama administration to curb releases of methane, a potent, planet-warming gas leaked during oil and gas production, processing, and transportation. The action, expected but nonetheless condemned by environmentalists, had a little-noticed side effect: Experts say it could lead to higher emissions of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and hazardous air pollutants — chemicals that cause smog and are linked to cancer, respiratory illnesses, and a growing list of other ailments. In documents supporting the rollback, the EPA predicted the industry will save $19 million annually in compliance costs. It acknowledged, however, that the change would likely degrade air quality. “The EPA expects that forgone VOC emission reductions will degrade air quality and are likely to adversely affect health and welfare … but did not quantify these effects at this time,” the agency wrote in documents supporting the rule change. Translation: The change will likely worsen air pollution and harm people’s health. But the EPA didn’t bother to estimate the potential extent of the damage, despite what’s at stake for people living in communities like Odessa. A quick move to unwind the pollution safeguards The oil and gas sector is the nation’s largest industrial emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas with 28 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. Charlie Riedel/AP Pumpjacks in a field near Lovington, New Mexico, on April 24, 2015. Under President Barack Obama, the EPA in 2012 and 2016 finalized rules designed to curb emissions of both methane and VOCs from the oil and gas industry. “These commonsense steps will help to combat climate change and reduce air pollution that harms public health,” Dan Utech, Obama’s deputy assistant for energy and climate change, wrote when the 2016 rules were proposed. Many oil and gas groups were unhappy with the new constraints. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents thousands of independent producers and service companies, accused the EPA of siding with “extreme environmental activists” and said the regulations would have “virtually no impact” on reducing global warming. The American Petroleum Institute, the largest US oil and gas trade association, said the rules were duplicative and costly, and undermined the progress companies were making on their own to reduce emissions. President Donald Trump’s EPA moved quickly to unwind the pollution safeguards in 2017, making good on the new president’s promise to remove regulations that stood in the way of the industry’s growth and promote US “dominance” of global energy markets. The EPA argued that the two Obama-era rules were redundant, since methane and VOCs are often co-emitted. Because methane is the primary ingredient in natural gas, oil and gas companies also had a built-in incentive to limit leaks, the agency said. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement announcing the rollbacks. “Since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled, while methane emissions across the natural gas industry have fallen by nearly 15 percent. Our regulations should not stifle this innovation and progress.” Independent research, however, suggests methane emissions in the oil and gas sector are far higher than what the EPA’s data shows. Evan Vucci/AP President Donald Trump signs a memorandum to expand the offshore drilling moratorium to Florida’s Atlantic Coast on September 8, 2020, in Jupiter, Florida. One 2018 study, published in the journal Science, found that emissions in the oil and gas supply chain could be 60 percent higher than EPA estimates, “likely because existing inventory methods miss emissions released during abnormal operating conditions,” the authors wrote. In a separate study published in Science earlier this year, researchers using new satellite data found that methane emissions in the Permian Basin likely were more than twice as high as what the agency’s data predicts. The EPA’s own estimates show that upending the regulations will lead to the release of an additional 850,000 tons of methane, 140,000 tons of VOCs, and 5,000 tons of other hazardous air pollutants from 2021 to 2030. Asked how these numbers square with the agency’s mission to protect the environment and public health, EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones didn’t answer. But she said overall air quality in the US “continues to improve” and average concentrations of ground-level ozone dropped by 21 percent between 1990 and 2018. “Covered in a big cloud” VOCs are gases, some of which pose serious health risks. Benzene, for example, is a carcinogen. Collectively, VOCs contribute to ground-level ozone, or smog, formation, which can exacerbate asthma and cause other respiratory problems. And new research shows VOCs and other hazardous air pollutants may worsen the effects of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Lisa McKenzie, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, has found that benzene concentrations in the air around oil and gas operations in Colorado are about twice as high as they are in Denver, whose air isn’t exactly pristine. “The closer you live to an oil and gas site, the higher your risk of cancer … and the higher your risk for respiratory and neurological effects,” she said. And exposures to VOCs — especially benzene — emitted from oil and gas operations might explain the increased risk of childhood leukemia and congenital heart defects McKenzie and her fellow researchers found near such operations. David Brown, a toxicologist with the Pennsylvania-based Environmental Health Project, a research and advocacy organization, says VOCs can attach themselves to ultrafine particles and find their way deep into the lungs — and, ultimately, the bloodstream — causing heart disease and other ailments. Exposures come not only from wells but also from compressor stations, which keep natural gas flowing through pipelines. Someone living near such a station might inhale a potent mixture of gases that includes formaldehyde (a VOC and a carcinogen) and carbon monoxide, Brown said. Airborne exposures can also occur when VOC-rich well water escapes from kitchen faucets and showerheads. Brennan Linsley/AP A worker monitors water pumping pressure and temperature at an oil and natural gas extraction site outside Rifle, on the Western Slope of Colorado, on March 29, 2013. Sharon Wilson, a Texan who has lived in the oil patch, is certified to use an infrared camera to record video of emissions that are invisible to the unaided eye. For the past decade, Wilson has worked with the environmental group Earthworks to document air pollution and file reports with environmental authorities. There are parts of the Permian Basin where the pungent odor that comes with oil and gas production is inescapable. “Even driving down the highway, I have to put my hand over my mouth and nose just trying to filter it some way,” Wilson said. Wilson bristles when she hears oil and gas companies and regulators refer to the emissions she records as “leaks.” This, she said, implies releases that are small and inadvertent, not intentional, large-scale venting or flaring of methane and VOCs. The Permian Basin, where about 2 million people live on the Texas side alone, “is covered in a big cloud,” she said. “I’m not even worried about the leaks; I’m worried about the geysers.” Seth Shonkoff, a public health scientist with PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research group based in Oakland, California, co-authored a 2017 study that found 17.6 million Americans lived within a mile of an active oil or gas well and a review of 37 studies last year examining hazardous air pollutants released by upstream oil and gas activities — which identified 61 of these substances, including benzene and the VOCs toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, a toxic brew commonly known as BTEX. The chemicals came from wellheads, storage tanks, and other infrastructure. The EPA’s pullback on methane will likely only make things worse, Shonkoff said. “At the end of the day,” he said, “a loosening of regulations for methane emissions from oil and gas development will result in an increase in health-damaging VOCs.” A brief respite from air pollution In August, some oil and gas companies and energy-state politicians cheered as the EPA signed off on final rollbacks, which erased requirements that companies find and fix methane leaks and removed smog and greenhouse gas emission regulation of storage sites, large pipelines, and other parts of the transmission system. An agency spokesperson said the move corrected “legally flawed” actions made by the EPA under Obama. But some large oil and gas companies, including BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell, criticized the move amid fears that increasing methane emissions would erode arguments that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to burning coal. The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to requests for comment. Jennifer Pett Marsteller, director of public affairs and communications for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, provided a policy document that argued the same technology is used to manage both methane and volatile organic compounds. “There was never a need nor was there a justification to change the regulated emission for oil and natural gas production operations from volatile organic compounds to methane,” the IPAA wrote in the document. From a climate change standpoint, 2020 has been especially brutal, with record-setting wildfires on the West Coast and a parade of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Sending more methane into the carbon-soaked atmosphere is unlikely to be well-received by the public. Tony Gutierrez/AP A Texas and American flag attached to cranes fly near the site where President Donald Trump delivered remarks about American energy to the Double Eagle Energy Oil Rig on July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas. In September, a coalition of environmental and civil rights groups sued to block the EPA rollbacks, arguing the agency ignored evidence about methane emissions and their harmful health effects on communities of color. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last month issued a stay, temporarily preventing the rollbacks from taking effect. Low oil prices hammered first by the lack of pipeline capacity and then the coronavirus pandemic have slowed US oil and gas production, including in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, providing some communities a brief respite from air pollution. The Permian Basin was producing around 4.4 million barrels a day of oil in September, down almost half a million barrels from its peak in March, data from the US Energy Information Administration shows. The number of oil rigs in the region dropped by nearly 70 percent during that same period. But US energy officials expect drilling to pick up later next year. As oil and gas production bounces back, methane and VOC emissions are likely to follow and could climb higher due to the rollbacks, if the stay is lifted. Ilan Levin, the Austin-based associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization, says VOCs given off by oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin are generating smog “in places where there didn’t use to be a problem,” such as the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. A major source of this pollution is oilfield flaring — the burning of excess gas for safety reasons. Flares are supposed to incinerate at least 98 percent of VOCs and other pollutants. In fact, Levin said, “They almost never operate as they’re designed to operate” and wind up disgorging much larger quantities. “If you find an unlit flare, that’s a really bad thing,” he said. “That means it’s venting pure, unburned gas.” Flaring in Texas recently reached levels not recorded since the 1950s, state regulators said. And flaring across the Permian Basin peaked in 2019, according to data collected by independent research company Rystad Energy. Collins, the minister in Odessa, doesn’t think the downturn will do much to reduce air pollution long-term. For decades, he’s pushed local and federal officials to conduct more health studies and do more air pollution monitoring. For a while, though, when the pandemic first hit and drilling in the Permian Basin slowed, Collins had a little reprieve. He even got to take a break from having to use a nebulizer that makes it easier for him to breathe. “I never had to use it for the three months that the economy out here was down,” he said. Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this story. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
The radical implications of the Supreme Court’s new ruling on Wisconsin mail-in ballots
President Donald Trump greets Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh looks on ahead of the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 04, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Mario Tama/Getty Images The Supreme Court’s new decision on Wisconsin mail-in ballots threatens a century of voting rights law The Supreme Court just handed down an order in Democratic National Committee v. Wisconsin State Legislaturedetermining that a lower federal court should not have extended the deadline for Wisconsin voters to cast ballots by mail. The ruling, which was decided by a 5-3 vote along party lines, is not especially surprising. The lower court determined that an extension was necessary to ensure that voters could cast their ballot during a pandemic, but the Court has repeatedly emphasized that federal courts should defer to state officials’ decisions about how to adapt to the pandemic. Monday night’s order in Democratic National Committee is consistent with those prior decisions urging deference. What is surprising, however, is two concurring opinions by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, each of which takes aim at one of the most foundational principles of American constitutional law: the rule that the Supreme Court of the United States has the final word on questions of federal law but the highest court in each state has the final word on questions of state law. This division of power is implicit in our very system of government. As the Supreme Court has explained, the states and the federal government coexist in a system of “dual sovereignty.” Both the federal government and the states have an independent power to make their own law, to enforce it, and to decide how their own law shall apply to individual cases. If the Supreme Court of the United States had the power to overrule a state supreme court on a question of state law, this entire system of dual sovereignty would break down. It would mean that all state law would ultimately be subservient to the will of nine federal judges. Nevertheless, in Democratic National Committee, both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh lash out at this very basic rule, that state supreme courts have the final say in how to interpret their state’s law, suggesting that this rule does not apply to most elections. They also sent a loud signal, just eight days before a presidential election, that long-settled rules governing elections may now be unsettled. Republican election lawyers are undoubtedly salivating, and thinking of new attacks on voting rights that they can launch in the next week. A potentially seismic reinterpretation of American election law As Gorsuch notes in his concurring opinion, which is joined by Kavanaugh, the Constitution provides that “the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” A separate constitutional provision provides that “each State shall appoint” members of the Electoral College “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” According to Gorsuch, the key word in these constitutional provisions is “Legislature.” He claims that the word “Legislature” must be read in a hyper-literal way. “The Constitution provides that state legislatures — not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials — bear primary responsibility for setting election rules,” he writes. The implications of this view are breathtaking. Just last week, the Supreme Court split 4-4 on whether to overturn a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that also would have allowed some mailed-in ballots that arrive after Election Day to be counted. Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were among the dissenters, though because there were no written opinions,neither explained why they would have thrown out the state supreme court’s decision. We now know why. Based on Gorsuch’s reasoning in Democratic National Committee, it’s clear that both he and Kavanaugh believe the Supreme Court of the United States may overrule a state supreme court, at least when the federal justices disagree with the state supreme court’s approach to election law. That is, simply put, not how the balance of power between federal and state courts works. It’s not how it has ever worked. Nor is it correct that the word “legislature” should be read in the hyper-literal way Gorsuch suggests. For more than a century, the Supreme Court has understood the word “legislature,” as it is used in the relevant constitutional provisions, to refer to whatever the valid lawmaking process is within that state. As the Court held most recently in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (2015), the word “legislature” should be read “in accordance with the State’s prescriptions for lawmaking, which may include the referendum and the Governor’s veto.” But Gorsuch’s opinion suggests that this longstanding rule may soon be gone (again, as he put it, “state legislatures — not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials — bear primary responsibility for setting election rules”). State supreme courts may lose their power to enforce state constitutions that protect voting rights. State governors may lose their power to veto election laws, which would be a truly astonishing development when you consider that every state needs to draw new legislative maps in 2021, and many states have Republican legislatures and Democratic governors. The return of Bush v. Gore Kavanaugh, for what it’s worth, takes a slightly more moderate approach in his concurring opinion. The Supreme Court of the United States, he writes in a footnote to that opinion, may overrule a state supreme court when the state court defies “the clearly expressed intent of the legislature” in a case involving state election law. Just how “clear” must a state court’s alleged mistake be? The answer to that is unclear. But it is clear that Kavanaugh rejects the longstanding rule that he and his fellow federal justices must always defer to state supreme courts on questions of state law. That position could also have profound implications. In 2018, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down gerrymandered maps drawn by the GOP-controlled state legislature. Kavanaugh’s position would allow the Republican-controlled Supreme Court of the United States to overrule such a decision. Kavanaugh also lifts much of his reasoning from a disreputable source. Before today, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore (2000), which effectively handed the presidency to George W. Bush, had only been cited once in a Supreme Court opinion — and that one citation appeared in a footnote to a dissenting opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, which was joined by no other justice. But Kavanaugh quotes heavily from Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s concurring opinion in Bush, which also embraced an excessively literal approach to the word “legislature.” It appears that Bush v. Gore, arguably the most partisan decision in the Court’s history — and one that Kavanaugh helped litigate — is back in favor with key members of the Court. It’s worth noting that the decision in Democratic National Committee was handed down literally as the Senate was voting to confirm incoming Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a staunch conservative who during her confirmation hearings would not commit to recusing herself from cases involving the 2020 election. That means that last week’s decision allowing a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to stand could be very short-lived. That decision, after all, was 4-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts voting with the Court’s three liberals. With Barrett, the Court’s right flank may well be getting a fifth vote to toss out the state supreme court’s decision — and to order an unknown number of ballots tossed out in the process. It’s unclear what immediate impact the decision in Democratic National Committee will have on the upcoming election. Last April, about 79,000 ballots arrived late during Wisconsin’s primary election but were counted anyway due to a lower court decision. The Supreme Court’s decision in Democratic National Committee will prevent similarly late ballots from being counted during the 2020 general election. The deadline for Wisconsin mail-in ballots to arrive is 8 pm on Election Day. Though 79,000 ballots could easily swing an election, that’s only if it is close (in 2016, Trump won the state by a razor-thin margin of some 22,000 votes). A large enough margin could minimize the impact of the Court’s decision, and voters can ensure that their vote is counted by voting early enough. But while this decision may not change the result of the 2020 election, its impact is still likely to be felt for years or even decades — assuming that Republicans retain their 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court. American election law has entered a chaotic new world, one where even the most basic rules are seemingly up for grabs. And the Supreme Court just sent a fairly clear signal that it may be about to light one of the most well-established rules on fire. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
How an anti-democratic Constitution gave us Amy Coney Barrett
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the US Supreme Court, meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). | Susan Walsh/Getty Images The Republican Supreme Court was brought to you by a malapportioned Senate and the Electoral College. In 2016, President Trump lost the national popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He lost it by a lot — 2,865,075 votes, to be precise. Meanwhile, the Senate just voted to confirm Trump’s third nominee to the Supreme Court. The vote was almost entirely along party lines, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) crossing over to vote with all 47 members of the Senate Democratic caucus. Yet, while pro-Barrett senators control a majority of the Senate, they represent nowhere near a majority of the entire nation. Indeed, the senators who voted against Barrett represent 13,524,906 more people than the senators who voted for her. (I derived this figure using 2019 census estimates of each state’s population. You can check my work using this spreadsheet.) These two numbers — 2,865,075 and 13,524,906 — should inform how we view the actions Barrett will take now that she is one of the nine most powerful judges in the country. Barrett owes her new job to two of our Constitution’s anti-democratic pathologies. If every American’s vote counted equally in a presidential election, Hillary Clinton would be president right now and Barrett would still be a law professor at Notre Dame. And if the Senate did not give Wyoming the same number of senators as California — despite the fact that California has more than 68 times as many people as Wyoming — Barrett would not have been confirmed. And Barrett is not unique. The first justice in American history to be nominated by a president who lost the popular vote, and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the country, is Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first nominee. The second is Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s second nominee. The third is now Barrett. That’s half of the Supreme Court seats held by Republicans. It is likely, moreover, that the Court’s newly enlarged Republican majority will make the United States even less democratic. Republican-appointed justices severely weakened the Voting Rights Act — the primary legal safeguard against racist voter discrimination — in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Abbott v. Perez (2018). Just last week, the Court divided 4-4 on whether to toss out an unknown number of ballots in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Republican Party, which hopes to see these ballots tossed out, has already asked the Supreme Court to take up this case again. With Barrett on the Court, the GOP may now have five votes to prevail. And that’s just the beginning. The Supreme Court plans to hear two related cases this term, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. Democratic National Committee, which could potentially dismantle what remains of the Voting Rights Act. At the very least, these cases are likely to weaken the nation’s protections against racist voting laws, adding to the damage done by Shelby County and Perez. Giving states broad leeway to target Black and brown voters will also likely hamper the ability of the Democratic Party, with its multi-racial coalition, to compete for the presidency or for control of Congress. American democracy, in other words, has slipped into a death spiral. Anti-democratic features of our Constitution enabled a party that does not enjoy majority support to gain power. That party is now entrenching its power by appointing judges who tend to be hostile to voting rights. And, as the courts hand down more and more decisions undermining the right to vote, Democrats will find it harder and harder to compete in national elections. Democrats, however, may have a brief opportunity to pull the nation out of this death spiral. Right now, polls show Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden favored to win his upcoming election, and Democrats are favored to gain control over both houses of Congress. If Democrats control Congress and the White House, they can add seats to the Supreme Court or enact other judicial reform measures that can dilute the influence of judges like Barrett and even reestablish a pro-democracy majority on the nation’s highest Court. Even in the best-case scenario for Democrats, however, there is no guarantee that they will hold onto the Senate for more than two years. Indeed, because of Senate malapportionment, Republicans stand a decent chance of regaining control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections — especially if a Republican Supreme Court spends the two years between now and the midterms limiting the right to vote. Democrats, in other words, will likely need to make a very difficult decision very quickly: add seats to, or drastically reform, the Supreme Court, or risk the further entrenchment of Republican power thanks to our anti-democratic Constitution. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Amy Coney Barrett has officially been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice
Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Capitol Hill on October 1. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images Barrett’s confirmation solidifies a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court. In a narrow 52-48 vote, the Senate has officially confirmed Amy Coney Barrett for appointment to the Supreme Court, a huge win for Republicans who worked quickly — and ignored past precedent — to advance her nomination. Barrett, who will now take the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a staunch conservative whose vote could be the deciding one on upcoming cases involving the Affordable Care Act, abortion rights, and voting rights. Her confirmation solidifies a 6-3 conservative majority on the high court, and is likely to affect its skew for decades. Ultimately, every Republican senator except Susan Collins (R-ME) voted in favor of Barrett’s confirmation, while no Democrats did. Collins voted against Barrett because she disagreed with the process used for her nomination, something Democrats had objected to as well. Democrats had also expressed concerns about the conservative slant of Barrett’s past writings and opinions. Overall, Barrett’s nomination has been controversial for many reasons including its timing: In 2016, Senate Republicans refused for months to consider a Supreme Court nominee until after the general election, because they argued that the American people — through their votes — should have a voice in the decision-making process. This year, however, with less than two months to go until the election, Republicans moved to expedite Barrett’s confirmation. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on October 12, 2020. To do so, Republicans made approving Barrett’s nomination their absolute priority, even as multiple lawmakers were diagnosed with coronavirus and as stimulus talks remained at an impasse. “Nothing about this is normal,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized at the start of Barrett’s confirmation hearing. “Instead of doing anything to help people who are struggling right now, we are here.” Just eight days before the general election, Barrett now joins the high court. Her rushed confirmation further underscores how determined Republicans are to continue their work remaking the federal judiciary — and opens the door for a comparable Democratic response should they retake the Senate majority. Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, briefly explained With her confirmation, Barrett, 48, becomes the Supreme Court’s youngest justice and the first justice to be a mother of school-aged children. Previously a judge on the Seventh Circuit and a longtime Notre Dame law professor, Barrett has also clerked for former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — and emphasized that her focus on originalism is similar to his. “His judicial philosophy is mine, too,” she’s said. Barrett is also a devout Catholic, and she has written in the past about how faith relates to judicial decisions about the death penalty. She will also be among six justices on the court who subscribe to the Catholic faith. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has written, Barrett has the potential to roll back the Affordable Care Act, undo Roe v. Wade, and expand the interpretation of the Second Amendment as a member of the court. While she’s only been a judge for a few years, she’s critiqued the Court’s decisions to uphold the ACA in the past, and contributed to opinions that signal an openness to limiting abortion access. Among the first cases that Barrett will consider as a Supreme Court justice is one examining whether the Affordable Care Act should be overturned: Pending any decision to recuse herself, she’ll weigh in on whether a change to the individual mandate — the tax Americans had to pay for not getting health insurance — would affect the validity of the entire law. Much like previous judicial nominees, Barrett did not comment on how she’d rule on particular cases like this one. She has been critical of Justice John Roberts’s past opinions preserving the ACA. After the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius decision, which preserved the ACA, she published an argument noting that Roberts’s conclusion “pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute.” There is reason to believe that she may view the current case differently, however. There are outstanding questions about how Barrett would handle a slew of issues — including possible recusal in a case involving the upcoming election outcome, if that comes before the Supreme Court. Multiple Democrats had asked if Barrett would recuse herself from a case like this, since it could pose a conflict of interest given her recent appointment by Trump — who’d likely have a stake in the lawsuit. During her hearing, she declined to say whether she’d recuse herself, but noted that she’d take the steps needed to see if that would be appropriate. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Barrett with President Trump after her nomination to the Supreme Court at the White House, on September 26. Overall, Barrett — following in the tradition of other judicial nominees — did not offer much indication on how she’d evaluate contentious subjects. But Democrats have expressed frustration at her evasiveness in general. She dodged a number of straightforward questions, included ones asking whether she believed that climate change was real and if she felt a president had the unilateral authority to delay an election. This nomination process has fired up voters in both parties ahead of the election Members of both parties have said that they’re fired up by the Supreme Court confirmation process, and the energy it has created could have an impact on the upcoming presidential and Senate races. And for Democrats, the rapid-fire nature of Barrett’s confirmation, specifically, stood out as problematic — particularly since McConnell even told the White House to hold off on a badly needed stimulus agreement, in part, out of concern that it would complicate the timing of Barrett’s nomination, per the New York Times. According to an October survey by Data for Progress, 47 percent of Democratic likely voters, 32 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans said that Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination was a factor they were considering as they headed to the polls. Meanwhile, 75 percent of likely Democratic voters think the entire confirmation process has been rushed, while 38 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Republicans agree. Certain lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) have also used this opportunity to energize their respective bases as they vie for reelection and the White House, respectively. In the long term, Democrats have signaled that Republicans’ willingness to expedite Barrett’s nomination has opened the door to similar actions on their part if they retake power. Progressive groups and lawmakers have urged Senate Democrats to consider modifying how the Court operates — or even expanding the size of the Court — if they end up winning the seats needed to do so, for example. “Don’t think when you have established the rule of ‘because we can,’ that should the shoe be on the other foot, you will have any credibility to come to us and say: ‘Yeah, I know you can do that, but you shouldn’t,’” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said earlier this month. “Your credibility to make that argument at any time in the future will die in this room and on the Senate floor if you continue.” Erin Schaff/Getty Images Barrett attends a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at the US Capitol on September 29. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
Typhoon Molave battered the Philippines. Vietnam is next.
An electric fan and belongings are seen on the floor of a destroyed house after Typhoon Molave hit the town of Pola, Oriental Mindoro province, in the Philippines on October 26, 2020. | Erik De Castro/AFP via Getty Images The storm is expected to hit the central Vietnamese coast, which has seen record flooding, this week. The Philippines is reeling from disastrous flooding after Typhoon Molave hit the country with 80-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain. More than 25,000 villagers have been evacuated from their homes and at least 13 have been reported missing since the storm, referred to locally as Typhoon Quinta, made landfall on the southern island of Luzon on Sunday before heading west across the country. Nearly 3,000 families from four regions are receiving governmentassistance, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the agency responsible for disaster relief in the country. The council says it has not received reports of any deaths but that rescue operations are still underway by the Philippine Coast Guard. Erik De Castro/AFP via Getty Images Flood-affected residents sit underneath a shed after Typhoon Molave hit the town of Pola, Oriental Mindoro province, in the Philippines on October 26, 2020. Erik De Castro/AFP via Getty Images A fisherman in Pola inspects his destroyed wooden boat on October 26, 2020. Erik De Castro/AFP via Getty Images A destroyed house lies on its side in the town of Pola on October 26, 2020. The Philippines is no stranger to typhoons, with more than 20 occurring in a typical season — indeed, Typhoon Molave is the 17th to hit the Philippines this year. But that doesn’t make it any easier for its citizens to adjust, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. The island country is also still recovering from the impact of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the strongest in recorded history with 150 mph winds. Haiyan left more than 6,000 dead and 1,800 missing with its destructive storm surges. Charism Sayat/AFP via Getty Images Residents stand along a sea wall as high waves pound them amidst strong winds as Super Typhoon Haiyan hits the city of Legaspi, Albay province, south of Manila, in the Philippines, on November 8, 2013. Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images Residents and survivors visit mass graves for victims during a memorial ceremony marking the first anniversary of Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, in the village of Vasper, Tacloban City, central Philippines, on November 8, 2014. Typhoons and hurricanes are essentially the same thing: Both are tropical cyclones — rapidly rotating storms that form over warm waters and feature high winds, rain, and low-pressure centers referred to as the “eye.” The difference is that tropical cyclones that occur in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean are called hurricanes, while tropical cyclones that occur in the Western Pacific Ocean are called typhoons. Recent research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary journal, suggests that climate change has impacted the location of tropical cyclones, with more storms occurring in the North Atlantic and Central Pacific since 1980 and fewer occurring in the Western Pacific. Using climate models, the researchers predict fewer tropical cyclones overall by the year 2100. However, another study from Science Advances, an open access journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showed that due to warming waters, typhoons in the Northwestern Pacific are expected to become 14 percent more intense over that same period. Molave is still heading west and is set to arrive on the already battered central Vietnamese coast on Wednesday with sustained wind speeds of more than 80 mph. Record flooding has already left at least 114 dead and dozens more missing this month. “This is a very strong typhoon that will impact a large area, “ Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc emphasized, while also authorizing the deployment of full force to help save lives. Vietnam is prepared to mobilize troops, helicopters, tanks, and any additional transportation available to aid in disaster response efforts. The Vietnam Red Cross Society is already on the ground responding to the historic flooding, passing out essential supplies, and helping evacuate people to safe places before the next storm. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Sorry, you can’t wear a Biden shirt or MAGA hat when you vote
Don’t wear any merchandise that features a candidate’s name or political slogan to the polls. | Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images You probably shouldn’t take ballot selfies either. With Election Day approaching, voters are heading to the polls in record numbers in states where in-person early voting has begun. Millions have already cast their mail-in ballots, and experts are surmising that if voter energy holds steady through November 3, this election cycle could have the highest turnout rate since 1908. To cast a ballot before or on Election Day, citizens generally need to be registered to vote in their state ahead of time, although 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow for same-day registration. Elections in the US are overseen by local governments and operate under a decentralized system, while adhering to various local, state, and federal laws. Since Election Day isn’t a federal holiday, employees aren’t federally mandated to have time off from work to vote, although each state has established its own set of laws. According to Ballotpedia, 28 states for the 2020 election cycle are requiring employers to give employees some time off to vote. In the remaining 22 states — most of which don’t offer universal vote-by-mail — there are no laws mandating this. This highlights how election-related rules aren’t always consistent from one state to the next, and can be highly confusing for people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the voting process. Here are some things to keep in mind as you head to the polls. Don’t wear explicitly political apparel Leave all apparel and accessories that feature a candidate’s name, slogan, or any ballot issue at home. Most states have laws that prohibit “electioneering,” or engaging in activities that support a political candidate or party near polling places. Thus, wearing a political shirt is interpreted as a political act, and could prevent you from casting your ballot that day. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states have restrictions on whether people can display signs, hand out campaign literature, or solicit votes within a specific distance of a voting station. In Michigan, it’s against the law to wear anything that “directly or indirectly makes reference to an election, a candidate, or a ballot question.” Some states have similar likeness clauses when it comes to a candidate or their logo. The Washington Post reported that some voters in Georgia and Tennessee have been challenged by poll workers for wearing Black Lives Matter apparel to vote early. One Georgia voter who was challenged acknowledged that some people could view the Black Lives Matter slogan and movement as political, which he disagreed with. “People’s lives are not political,” he told the Post. And while poll workers are expected to be nonpartisan, there could be inconsistencies as to what counts as “political” among these volunteers, who only receive brief training. Since Black Lives Matter does not reflect a specific party or candidate, apparel in support of the slogan or movement is permissible, according to a county election commissioner in Tennessee. However, T-shirts showcasing the Biden-Harris logo or “Make America Great Again” would be considered political, so leave those at home. You should probably save the photos for later Some states have enacted laws against taking photos inside or within a certain distance of a polling place, which means in-line selfies or images of a voter’s marked ballot aren’t allowed. These laws aren’t often enforced, although you can technically be fined, given jail time, or have your vote disqualified for violating these rules. It is entirely legal, though, to snap photos of an “I Voted” sticker or a sealed ballot, so long as you’re not inside a polling precinct or voting booth. In Georgia and Illinois, for example, photography isn’t allowed at voting centers, and some have bans on cameras or electronic recording devices. Other states are more lax on cellphone and camera use, like Arkansas, so long as a person isn’t snapping photos of marked ballots or being generally disruptive. If you’re curious about your state’s “ballot selfie” law, CNN published a handy in-depth guide on the nuances of each state. If the long lines at some early voting precincts are any indication of what Election Day will be like, be sure to keep these considerations in mind so that you’ll be able to cast your vote as smoothly as possible. Voting in America, even in the most progressive states, can be a long and arduous process. Don’t let a T-shirt or a random photo prevent you from exercising that right. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The Russian roots of our misinformation problem
Supporters react as President Trump speaks during a “Keep America Great” campaign rally at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, on October 17, 2019. | Tom Pennington/Getty Images What this 2019 book can teach us about the latest revolution in political propaganda. So much of politics today feels completely divorced from reality. Bullshit isn’t new, but the sheer volume of it, the constant flood of misleading stories, contradictory narratives, and outright disinformation, has changed the political landscape. The information space, thanks to digital technology, seems more out of control than ever. A 2019 book by Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born ex-reality TV producer turned journalist and academic, claims that we’re experiencing a brand of reality-bending politics that really began in post-Soviet Russia. It’s a politics built on a distinctive form of propaganda, the goal of which is to confuse, not convince. It’s also exceptionally cynical. The point, Pomerantsev says, isn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; it’s to tell people that “the truth is unknowable” and that the only way forward is “to follow a strong leader.” This new style has not entirely replaced the old 20th century model of propaganda, Pomerantsev says, but it’s becoming increasingly widespread. The book, titled This is Not Propaganda, is a fascinating look into the world of spin doctors, political operatives, and digital strategists, basically all of the people working in the shadows of the information war. Pomerantsev’s background gives him a unique perspective into the modern political circus, which is increasingly indistinguishable from reality TV. I spoke with Pomerantsev last October, shortly after the book was released, but it’s worth reposting as we move closer to the election. Our misinformation problem is almost certainly going to get worse, not better, and this conversation about how digital propaganda transformed Russian — and now American — politics feels all the more relevant. A lightly edited transcript follows. Sean Illing I want to start by asking you how your background as a reality TV producer informs your approach to politics. Peter Pomerantsev I can definitely say it has helped me. We’re in this weird place, really since the advent of TV and especially since the ’90s, where politicians are behaving more and more like entertainment figures. And at some point, politics became very much like another reality show. In the ’80s, for example, you had someone like Reagan, who was an actor playing the president. But today someone like Trump isn’t even playing a president — he’s just an actor playing himself. This is something very different, and it’s a big switch. I think it’s changed how we practice and cover politics. Sean Illing So let’s talk about how we got to this point. Your book begins with post-Soviet Russia and Vladimir Putin. You argue that this new brand of politics, this new brand of postmodern propaganda, was born in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. What happened? Peter Pomerantsev Several things happened, and they started in Russia before moving to the West. First communism collapses in the early ’90s and Russia embraces democratic capitalism. But just a few years later, faith in democracy and capitalism begins to fade. So propagandists are negotiating a new terrain where big ideas don’t matter anymore. Old social identities have collapsed, all the old professions and social roles that were in the Soviet Union have collapsed. There’s no idea of the future anymore. Instead of trying to argue in a rational way, politicians become these great performance artists, trying to be outrageous, reveling in the fact that they don’t care about the facts. And this is all very new. Politics becomes much more about feelings, not ideas. And you can see politicians changing their approach during this period. You can see these Trump-like figures who use similar rhetorical strategies that Trump uses today, where they say totally ridiculous things and you’re never quite sure if they’re serious or not. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s horrifying ... Sean Illing And it’s always entertaining— Peter Pomerantsev Right, it’s a show, but the elements of the show are very interesting. 20th-century Soviet politicians lied a hell of a lot, but they always made their lies sound very respectable, as if they were the truth. They were still imitating a factual discourse and they were representing an ideology that values the language of evidence. What was different about these new Russian politicians is that they just didn’t play this factuality game at all. They didn’t care about facts and didn’t pretend to care. So you couldn’t really call out their lies because they were never playing that game. And this is exactly what you see Trump doing right now. “We live in a new form of censorship now where we don’t understand how the information environment around us is shaped” Sean Illing I want to be clear about what you’re saying: A lot of people still think of propaganda as the art of making lies sound truthful, but that’s not at all what people like Putin and Trump are after. They want to make truthfulness an irrelevant category. Peter Pomerantsev It’s not about proving something, it’s about casting doubt. This has always been a function of propaganda, like the tobacco companies trying to make people doubt whether their product causes cancer. But overall most political ideologies have not been about casting doubt — they’ve claimed to be telling the truth about the way the world is or should be. But this new propaganda is different. Putin isn’t selling a wonderful communist future. He’s saying, we live in a dark world, the truth is unknowable, the truth is always subjective, you never know what it is, and you, the little guy, will never be able to make sense of it all — so you need to follow a strong leader. This is the way it works now, only it’s spread from Russia across the world. Sean Illing The collapse of faith in these grand ideologies like communism or democratic capitalism is a big part of this story. The traditional political categories or identities stopped meaning anything to people at some point and that created this new space for ... whatever the hell we’re dealing with now. Peter Pomerantsev For sure, and Russia just arrived at this point first. And the propagandists and the politicians found strategies to deal with it. I remember thinking a few years ago, after I finished my last book about Russia: Is this the dead end? Or is this freak show a harbinger of things to come? And of course it was. The same sort of politics I saw in Russia years ago is the same kind of politics I’m seeing now in the UK and Brazil and the Philippines and the US. And the internet and digital media technologies have been the essential tools behind all of it. Sean Illing For your book, you went around the world talking to people on the front lines of this new information war — the propagandists, the spin doctors, the social media gurus. Do these people know what they’re doing? Do they care? Are they just nihilists? Peter Pomerantsev This is very interesting to me. This is something I really wanted to work out. I talked to all kinds of people — troll farm workers, digital strategists, people who helped organized Brexit. To work in this space you have to be weirdly amoral. Most of them see themselves as political artists. They don’t really care about policies or ideas. It’s all just a kind of game and they’re able to dissociate themselves from the consequences. Sean Illing What was the craziest, most batshit place you visited while reporting this out? Peter Pomerantsev Eastern Ukraine is absolutely nuts. This is ground zero for the information war in a lot of ways. The people there have completely lost sense of reality, to the point where Russian bombs are hitting civilian territories in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians think the bombs are coming from Ukraine. They’ll scream at the Ukrainian soldiers, and the soldiers are like, “No, no, no, no ... it’s a shell, it obviously came from Russia.” But no one believes them. All the evidence in the world won’t persuade them otherwise. They were sympathetic to the Russian side, and they’ve completely disavowed the evidence in front of them. They’ve remade the world to fit the narrative planted in their heads by Russian propaganda. It’s one thing to talk about “alternative facts,” but when your actual house has been destroyed by a Russian shell, and you’ll still saying nonsense, that’s quite stunning. Sean Illing How is that unreality being reinforced? Is it smartphones? Are they watching Russian state TV all day? Peter Pomerantsev It’s mostly TV and rumors — that’s how they get their news. It’s very hard to get Ukrainian TV there. The Russians have put their own signal towers on the border, and so they beam in with a much better signal. So, even though you’re in Ukrainian territory, the Russian signal is stronger. And then local channels run by separatist groups are stronger than the Ukrainian channels. Sean Illing You’re a little grim in the book about the possibilities of solving this problem. It’s not a matter of simply tweaking the system or inventing a few novel technologies — the tools of the digital age cannot be put back in the box and that leaves us in something like an abyss. Do you see any way out of this postmodern nightmare? Peter Pomerantsev I tried not to be too fatalistic, and I really don’t want to leave the impression that there aren’t steps we can take. There is, without a doubt, a regulatory part to this. We need to revisit the principles of freedom of expression and understand what they mean in the digital age. Content is not where the battle is anymore. It’s about manipulated campaigns and the lack of transparency of the internet. I think we live in a new form of censorship where we don’t understand how the information environment around us is shaped. We don’t know why an algorithm shows us one piece of content and not another. We don’t know which bits of our data are used to target us and why. We don’t know if what we’re seeing is organic or part of a coordinated campaign. All of this is in the dark. We need to rip off the curtain for the backstage of the internet so that we can see how information is created, and why, and by whom. And outright deceptive campaigns should be illegal. And by that I don’t mean that people telling lies on the internet should go to jail. But massive campaigns organized by troll farms or governments or private companies that are explicitly deceptive and camouflaged should be illegal. Ultimately, we have to at least recognize the scale of the problem. Two years ago people were still telling me, “Well this isn’t really new, people have always lied, politicians have always lied.” To still think this way to is to totally misunderstand how technology has ripped up the old rule book. This is a new thing, and it needs to be dealt with. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Nepotism and the 2020 election, explained
Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Tiffany Trump sit on the stage during their father’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House on August 27. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Hunter Biden isn’t the only candidate family member in question in this campaign. It has been clear for over a year that Team Trump’s main plan for running against former Vice President Joe Biden was to try to gin up a scandal related to Biden’s son Hunter’s work in Ukraine. It was clear from President Trump’s efforts to coerce the Ukrainian government into launching a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden over this ended with his impeachment. That, in turn, led Trump to back away from the issue, for a while. But this October, Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post have used a hard drive they say a computer repair store in Delaware gave them to revive the story. They don’t have evidence that Hunter’s influence was why a Ukrainian prosecutor got fired. But the laptop does contain evidence (yet to be authenticated) that Hunter had wide-ranging business interests, and no particular qualifications as a business partner other than his father being vice president. It is true that on basic anti-nepotism grounds, Joe Biden is far from an ideal candidate. He certainly falls short of the standard set by several modern presidents. But Trump himself stands out from his predecessors as particularly bad on the corruption front. Not only does he still own and profit from businesses involved in dealings with foreign nationals, he has several adult children and in-laws who have business careers that are enmeshed with his political fortunes. To assess nepotism as an issue in the 2020 campaign requires a comprehensive look at the two candidates’ approaches. Hunter Biden makes a living off the family name It seems pretty clear that Hunter Biden, along with the traumas in his family and his personal struggles with addiction, has for years basically been cashing checks based on his relationship with his father. In the world of political scandals, there are actual crimes and there’s simply shady behavior — and perhaps the real scandal is what’s legal. To be clear, there does not appear to be anything illegal about Hunter Biden’s various roles, but someone getting jobs because his dad is important doesn’t sit well with those who want to see less special interest influence in Washington. Back when MBNA was a major Delaware-based credit card issuer and Joe Biden was a congressional champion of the credit card industry, Hunter was on their staff in a murky consulting role. The simple corruption story would be that Sen. Biden was backing the industry’s priority legislation because Hunter was a consultant for MBNA. But that interpretation is surely backward: Senators support their home-state companies’ priorities all the time, especially in a small state like Delaware. It’s much more likely that Hunter just got to cash some lucrative checks as part of his fortunate family situation enmeshed in the Delaware elite than that he had to work for anything. In 2006, George W. Bush appointed Hunter to the Amtrak board. Introducing him at confirmation hearings, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) basically explained that Hunter’s qualifications were just being a Delaware politics guy who rides the train a lot: More specifically, though, and for our purposes and for the purpose of this nomination, Hunter Biden has spent a lot of time on Amtrak trains. Like his father, like our Congressman, Mike Castle and myself, Hunter Biden has lived in Delaware while using Amtrak to commute to his job as we commute to our job in Washington almost every day of the week. You know, you learn a lot about what could work and what would work better at Amtrak by riding trains and talking to the passengers, the commuters, the passengers, the folks who work on the trains and make them work every day. You also have a chance to see the huge economic benefit the region receives from having a strong passenger rail corridor, something that should be available in a lot of other parts of our country. A senator’s unqualified son being appointed to the Amtrak board is not the reason that US passenger rail underperforms by developed world standards. Rather, US passenger rail underperformance reflects the fact that the US political system doesn’t take Amtrak seriously — treating it like the kind of organization where a senator can stash his somewhat embarrassing son. That’s the context for Hunter’s work at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. It’s overwhelmingly clear that getting Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired was a consensus view, including among Senate Republicans and the European Union. Back when Barack Obama was president, US officials and Western governments believed that Ukraine’s chief prosecutor was soft on corruption. He eventually was fired in March of 2016, and the New York Times reported that “the United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.” Shokin, of course, did not like that interpretation of events and eventually latched onto another story that painted him in a better light. In that version, he was fired because he was investigating corruption at a Ukrainian company called Burisma that had bought the loyalty of the United States government by giving Biden’s son Hunter a lucrative job on the company board. This story is not true unless you believe that Hunter could control Senate Republicans, the European Union, and the government of Canada. It’s clear, however, that Hunter Biden had no particular qualifications to be on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Presumably, the company was hoping in some diffuse sense to secure political friendship in Washington. It doesn’t seem to have been put to any particularly noteworthy use or involved any noteworthy acts of corruption. The whole Hunter Biden situation, from top to bottom, reeks of the kind of cozy cronyism that makes a lot of people detest establishment politics and explains the appeal of the idea of a rich businessman who can’t be bought swooping in to drain the swamp. And then there’s the reality of Trump. Trump’s daughter wields unprecedented influence Joe Biden’s son got a job on the Amtrak board that he was not particularly qualified for. Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who was no more qualified than Hunter for any public sector position, instead got a role as a White House senior staffer. Her husband, Jared Kushner, also is totally unqualified for government work and also has a job as a White House senior staffer. Their father intervened to get them security clearances. Ivanka Trump is involved in policymaking in a way that’s simply unheard of for a presidential child, especially one with zero prior experience in politics and government: She has overseen hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants. She represented the United States at the G20 summit. She was involved in shaping the 2017 tax cut that stands as her father’s main legislative achievement. She was even involved at a high level in a search for a new World Bank president. While not qualified for any of these roles, she’s also managed to repeatedly break the law in public service. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington once documented a 48-hour period in early October during which she violated the Hatch Act eight times. She then violated it 11 more times by October 20. It’s normal for a politician’s adult child to be involved in promoting his election campaign. But that in turn underscores how unusual (and inappropriate) it is to also install your daughter in the West Wing as a senior government official. Ivanka is not just someone who lacks the résumé for such a position; she has an extremely checkered career in business that’s involved extensive excursions into legal gray areas: Donald Trump’s tax returns, as leaked to the New York Times, suggest that he may be illegally disguising gifts to Ivanka as consulting payments to avoid estate taxes, something Donald’s father did but that we didn’t learn about until the statute of limitations expired. Ivanka was involved at a very high level in a Panamanian real estate development scheme where her key partner was a money launderer for various organized crime figures (oops). She was also the most senior official from the Trump Organization involved in a real estate development project in Azerbaijan that appears to have been a money-laundering scheme for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (double oops). Last but by no means least, back in 2012 Ivanka was nearly indicted by the Manhattan district attorney for fraud, but the inquiry was quashed by the DA himself after a timely $25,000 campaign contribution from the Trump family attorney Marc Kasowitz. The overall picture is one of much more nepotistic influence over government policy and much more involvement in graft and corruption than anything that’s been alleged about Hunter Biden. But Trump has more kids! And it’s actually Trump’s son-in-law who is truly in the eye of the corruption storm. Jared Kushner has myriad conflicts of interest Jared Kushner is a fascinating figure. His father, Charles Kushner, is a wealthy criminal (and Democratic Party donor) whom Chris Christie sent to jail back when Christie was the US attorney for New Jersey during George W. Bush’s administration. Also during this period, Kushner had the misfortune of being a case study in Daniel Golden’s book about corruption in the college admission process. Golden details the ways Kushner’s father wielded his influence, not only as a Harvard donor but as a donor to Ted Kennedy and other influential figures, to help his son gain admittance to Harvard. Then, in a somewhat harsh section of the book, Golden details Kushner’s lack of conventional intellectual or academic qualifications: “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former [official at Jared’s high school] told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not. I believe that Jared, for the longest time, didn’t want to talk about any of this, because he felt a little bit upset or guilty that he may have taken somebody else’s place. One of the things the Ivies ask is, ‘was this student in the most challenging courses offered in the school?’ We could not answer that question yes.” But at school, rather than coasting like an underqualified rich kid might be inclined to do, Jared used his dad’s money to become a landlord who owned several rental properties in the nearby town of Somerville. Kushner, according to a 2006 profile in the New York Sun, regarded spending his dad’s money and occasionally calling a plumber to be a major achievement: Having raised venture capital from his parents and a handful of family friends, the younger Mr. Kushner in 2000 established Somerville Building Associates — a division of his father’s Kushner Companies — and put down a reported $10 million on seven residential rental buildings in Somerville, Mass., which borders Cambridge. Soon thereafter, he purchased an additional investment property in Somerville. “I’d be in class, and get a call that a toilet broke, and have to get a contractor over there,” Mr. Kushner, a Livingston, N.J., native, said. “At this point, multitasking is what I do best,” he said. “I believe you have to push yourself, until one or the other begins suffering and then you have to make choices.” That multitasking experience is important, because as a White House staffer, Kushner has in his portfolio everything from overseeing the US-Mexico border wall, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and solving the opioid crisis to managing the nation’s medical stockpile amid the coronavirus crisis. The combination of a vast policy portfolio, no obvious qualifications for government, and a large fortune inherited from his criminal father has left Kushner with myriad financial conflicts of interest. Consider the real estate investment firm Cadre where Kushner has a 25 percent stake that he initially failed to disclose on government forms. Cadre has benefited from Opportunity Zone tax breaks that were created by the 2017 tax reform law and, while intended to help low-income communities, were in fact structured with such lax terms that they’ve been a windfall for people like Kushner. The Guardian reported in 2019 that Cadre has received $90 million in opaque investments from offshore vehicles, meaning that we don’t really know who Kushner’s foreign business partners are. But as David Corn reports, we do know that Cadre was actively seeking investment opportunities related to the pandemic even as Kushner was coordinating the nation’s medical supply procurement. The White House has refused to answer questions about Kushner’s business meetings in China, but a 2018 report in the Washington Post revealed: “Officials in at least four countries have privately discussed ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.” Kushner’s conflicts of interest are so vast as to almost defy accounting. But a few highlights: Joshua Harris, founder of Apollo Global Management, attended a series of White House meetings about infrastructure policy and shortly thereafter refinanced a loan on a Chicago skyscraper for Kushner. While working on Middle East policy, Kushner’s family company sought loans from a Qatari sheikh. The family business has also done a series of deals with Israeli investors. Oscar Health, another Kushner family company, was tapped to build a federal Covid-19 testing website. Somehow Kushner has also been getting coronavirus emergency money from the Small Business Administration. Kushner’s business partnerships and White House portfolio are so wide-ranging that it’s hard to know where to even draw a line around graft. But Trump has two more sons who play a more defined role in the world running the Trump Organization’s hotel business, and their profiteering can be more precisely defined. Donald Jr. and Eric Trump are breaking the rules On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump consistently promised to divest from control over the Trump Organization’s business assets. The fact that he chose to break this promise has come to make it seem inevitable that he would, but it’s worth recalling that he absolutely did promise to do this and he could have done it. Nothing was stopping him from selling his various hotels and golf clubs and then placing the proceeds into a blind trust investment or just putting the money into index funds. Instead, Trump simply turned active management of the businesses over to his sons Eric and Donald Jr. And as the New York Times reported a year ago, they’ve been actively pursuing business arrangement all around the world: Last month, the Trump family business received approval from a local government in Scotland for a major expansion of its golf resort near Aberdeen, marking the largest real estate development financed by the Trump Organization since the 2016 election. In August, President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., flew to Jakarta to help kick-start sales at a pair of Trump-branded luxury resorts planned for Indonesia. He appeared at a private event with wealthy prospective buyers and joined his politically connected billionaire Indonesian business partner at a news conference. And last year, Donald Jr. visited India to sell condos at future Trump-branded towers, appearing at an event that also featured India’s prime minister. This is roughly the wrongdoing that Hunter is accused of. But unlike Hunter, the Trump sons are actively involved in their father’s business interests and their father’s political career — speaking on his behalf at the Republican National Convention, appearing as frequent surrogates in the media, and serving as all-around political confidants. Foreign money has poured into the Trump International Hotel near the White House, and Trump’s sons’ international travel has cost the Secret Service hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, security expenses for the president’s family are a public investment worth making. But it does seem notable that a large share of that Secret Service tab has ended up being paid to properties the Trump family owns. In other words, it’s not just that Eric and Donald Jr. are touring the world at taxpayer expense to use their family connections to cut business deals; they are personally pocketing some of the government’s cash as they do it. The stakes in 2020 Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had kids who were too young to be involved in business while they were in the White House. Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had two grown children who obviously did seek to capitalize on their dad’s political connections, but did so primarily in order to advance their own political ambitions rather than for money. That kind of situation is probably better for everyone than the one that exists with top officials’ adult children kicking around with independent business careers. Since both the Trump and Biden families are similarly situated, in this case, you can get a good comparative look at the situation. Hunter seems to have a more troubled personal life than many of the Trumps or various Trump-in-laws. But the relevant figures of the extended Trump clan are simply more numerous, creating a wider range of actual and potential conflicts of interest. More importantly, Donald Trump has made his family members key advisers on critical political and policy decisions in a way that Biden simply hasn’t. The Trump kids show a lot more hustle and ingenuity at using their positions of privilege to attract more privilege. Jia Tolentino recounts the story Ivanka Trump tells in her biography of how she milked her family’s domestic servants for kickbacks via a lemonade stand: When Ivanka was a kid, she got frustrated because she couldn’t set up a lemonade stand in Trump Tower. “We had no such advantages,” she writes, meaning, in this case, an ordinary home on an ordinary street. She and her brothers finally tried to sell lemonade at their summer place in Connecticut, but their neighborhood was so ritzy that there was no foot traffic. “As good fortune would have it, we had a bodyguard that summer,” she writes. They persuaded their bodyguard to buy lemonade, and then their driver, and then the maids, who “dug deep for their spare change.” The lesson, she says, is that the kids “made the best of a bad situation.” This is fundamentally similar to the Kushner situation at Harvard — there for reasons other than his own merit, instead of coasting, he further peddled his dad’s money into a little business hustle. With Trump in office, Jared and Ivanka make policy. Eric and Don Jr. tour the world actively seeking new business opportunities. It’s much more entrepreneurial than the Hunter Biden story, and much more in keeping with a certain vision of the American work ethic. But it’s infinitely more corrosive than a guy who has had drug problems scoring the occasional no-show job thanks to his dad’s influence. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Sarah Kliff grades Biden’s and Trump’s health care plans
US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. | Jim Bourg/Getty Images The former Vox reporter returns to The Ezra Klein Show to wonk out on the 2020 health care stakes. There are few issues on which the stakes in this election are quite as stark as on health care. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden plans to pass (and Democrats largely support) a massive health care expansion that could result in 25 million additional individuals gaining health insurance. The Trump administration is pushing to get the Supreme Court to kill the Affordable Care Act, which would strip at least 20 million Americans of health care coverage. There’s no one I’d rather have on The Ezra Klein Show to discuss these issues than Sarah Kliff. Kliff is an investigative reporter for the New York Times focusing on health care policy, and my former colleague at the Washington Post and Vox where we co-hosted The Weeds alongside Matt Yglesias. She’s one of the clearest, most incisive health care policy analysts in media today and a longtime friend, which made this conversation a pleasure. We discuss: The legacy of Obamacare 10 years later Why the fiercely fought-over “individual mandate” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be What Biden’s health care plan would actually do and where it falls short Whether a Biden administration would be able to pass massive health care reform and why it might still have a chance even if the filibuster remains intact The ongoing Supreme Court case to dismantle Obamacare Whether Donald Trump has a secret health care plan to protect those with preexisting conditions (spoiler: he doesn’t) The hollow state of Republican health care policy The academic literature showing that health insurance is literally a matter of life and death Which social investments would have the largest impact on people’s health (hint: it’s probably not expanding insurance) And much more. My conversation with Kliff can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show. Subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Sarah Kliff’s book recommendations The Healing of America by T.R. Reid And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts Dreamland by Sam Quinones I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Trump wants you to believe coronavirus cases are “up because we TEST.” He’s wrong.
President Trump disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pennsylvania, October 26, 2020. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images Trump’s latest attempt to downplay the dire public health situation in the US, debunked. In recent days, President Donald Trump has been downplaying the increasingly dire public health situation in the US by reviving a flawed argument he first made in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — that the reason cases are going up is because the country does so much testing. “Cases up because we TEST, TEST, TEST. A Fake News Media Conspiracy,” Trump tweeted on Monday morning. “Many young people who heal very fast. 99.9%. Corrupt Media conspiracy at all time high. On November 4th., topic will totally change. VOTE!” Cases up because we TEST, TEST, TEST. A Fake News Media Conspiracy. Many young people who heal very fast. 99.9%. Corrupt Media conspiracy at all time high. On November 4th., topic will totally change. VOTE!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2020 This talking point echoes what Trump has been saying at his recent rallies. On Friday in Florida, for instance, he said, “You know why we have so many [coronavirus] case numbers? Because we do more testing than any country in the world ... there’s plenty good about testing, too. The bad thing is you find cases.” "You know why we have so many [coronavirus] case numbers? Because we do more testing than any country in the world ... there's plenty good about testing, too. The bad thing is you find cases." -- Trump still hasn't figured out that testing doesn't cause cases, the virus does— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 23, 2020 These comments come as single-day new coronavirus cases in the US hit record highs, spiking from about 35,000 a day in early September to roughly 83,000 on both Friday and Saturday. Trump might have a point if the number of tests conducted each day was experiencing a similar surge — but cases are rising much faster than daily tests. As CNBC detailed over the weekend: While Covid-19 testing is up nearly 13% from Oct. 1, new cases have risen at a much faster rate. The seven-day average of new infections is up 51% over that same period, according to Johns Hopkins data. And it’s not just cases that are rising. According to data from the COVID Tracking Project, coronavirus hospitalizations are up about 33 percent over the past month. Our daily update is published. States reported 1.1 million tests, 65k cases, 42k currently hospitalized. The death toll was 337 today.— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) October 25, 2020 Daily coronavirus deaths have remained relatively flat over the past three months, but experts warn that’s likely to change as cases spike. Instead of engaging with this reality, however, Trump’s closing campaign message has been to spread misinformation about the pandemic — as well as infections at pandemic rallies that make a mockery of basic public health guidelines recommended by his own government. In another tweet Monday morning, Trump suggested the media only covers the coronavirus so much because it wants to scare people. This also echoes comments he’s made at his recent rallies, where he’s repeatedly suggested the media wouldn’t cover hypothetical plane crashes because outlets are so fixated on the coronavirus. "That's all I hear about now. Turn on TV, 'Covid, Covid, Covid Covid Covid.' A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don't talk about it. 'Covid Covid Covid Covid.' By the way, on November 4th, you won't hear about it anymore ... 'please don't go and vote, Covid!'" -- Trump— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 24, 2020 In reality, the latest spike in cases has pushed hospitals in places like Texas and Utah to the breaking point, and has prompted health care providers to make contingency plans for rationing care. Meanwhile, about 800 Americans are dying each day from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — which is roughly the equivalent of three or four plane crashes. But since taking that state of affairs seriously reflects poorly on the short-term decision-making Trump has employed from day one of the coronavirus pandemic, the president has instead opted for trying to turn reality on its head. And while his fortunes could still change before next Tuesday, polls to date have indicated that with the US coronavirus death toll now north of 225,000, Americans aren’t buying what Trump is trying to sell. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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What it’s like to be enrolled in a Covid-19 vaccine trial with your entire family
Covid-19 vaccine trials are happening across the US. | Cravetiger via Getty Images Even my teenage brother and 80-year-old grandma have signed up to help with one of the most consequential medical developments in the world. Clinical trials for the Covid-19 vaccine began in the United States on March 20. Two days prior, I texted my friends that I wanted to sign up as soon as they began enrollment. “You know how dangerous that is? That’s why they’re trials!” my friend responded, with genuine concern. But I wasn’t worried. My father is an oncologist, my mother a clinical-trial researcher. In fact, my entire family — my parents, brother, sister, grandmother, and I — signed up for the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine trial. I feel safe because I am informed about the risks, because I know ethical considerations have been made, and because I trust my mom and dad’s recommendations as medical professionals — and as my parents. I get whythere’s a perception that human clinical trials are unsafe, or that enrolling in a trial is like consenting to be a lab rat. Medications and vaccines in trials have not yet been FDA-approved, and that idea alone is scary. How good can a new medicine be if we’re still trying to prove that it’s safe and it works? Plus, if we don’t even know all the possible side effects yet, how do we know what to expect? It doesn’t help that in the United States, there is already unwarranted skepticism and fear around vaccines. President Donald Trump’s declaration that he would get a vaccine approved before Election Day has raised fears about whether he can actually bypass standard medical and clinical regulations and distribute a vaccine before it’s ready. (Fact-check: He can’t.) The politicization of brand new vaccines has resulted in a lot of confusion and doubt: Less than 50 percent of Americans say they are committed to getting a Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available. There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation in 2020, and the Trump administration has interfered in the decision-making of public health institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For many Americans, it’s gotten more difficult to know who to trust and what to believe about a contagious virus we still have so much to learn about. But the process of developing a vaccine at unprecedented speed has actually been a rare success story in the US pandemic response, and trials like what I’m participating in are an important way to make sure vaccines are safe. When I asked my mother, Vicky, a clinical-trial researcher, to explain to me how this would work, she stressed that the most essential element of a vaccine trial is “preserving the safety of the individual, first and foremost.” Knowing this, I decided to sign up to test out one of the most consequential medical developments in the world right now. What happens during the Covid-19 vaccine trial? As the coronavirus spread throughout Florida, where we live, my family spent less and less time leaving the house. Like many families, we were getting groceries delivered and limiting our contact with people. My mom, sister, grandmother and I were all working from home. We were being as safe as we could, but there were still some concerns. My brother was about to start in-person school. My dad works in a hospital and treats immunocompromised patients, which puts him at risk for Covid-19. However, his being a doctor also means he is considered a priority for the vaccine trial. My grandmother, because of her age group, was also considered a priority. And because we all lived together for the summer, it made sense for all of us to enroll, to protect each other. Courtesy of Vicky Hajdenberg From left to right: Jackie, Vicky, Julio, Michelle, and Jimmy Hajdenberg in Orlando, Florida. Nearly 30,000 people nationwide are expected to participate in the study. But trials are only conducted in cities where the virus is spreading. In Orlando, Florida, where we enrolled, daily new cases of Covid-19 reached a peak of more than 15,000 by mid-July. Statewide, the virus was on the rise as well. Over a period of about three months, the six of us received two injections spaced three weeks apart. Four weeks after the second injection, we went back for another blood draw, which the investigators will use to check how many antibodies we produced. Because the study is randomized and observer-blind, the researchers, doctors, and participants do not know who received the vaccine and who received the placebo. According to the consent form, we could be in this study for up to 26 months and will need to visit the site another three or four times. Over the course of the study, we will have had our blood drawn five times. (On October 16, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote in an open letter that it is possible we may know whether the vaccine works by the end of October, adding that Pfizer will apply for emergency use authorization by late November, assuming positive safety data.) In phases 2 and 3 of the Covid-19 trial we enrolled in, the vaccine is given to reasonably healthy individuals. As with other vaccines, it’s meant to be preventive. Plus, this phase of the Pfizer trial merely tests the efficacy of the vaccine against a placebo. Nobody is getting injected with live virus (the stuff that makes you sick); it’s just the mRNA of the protein of the virus. Throughout the process, there’s careful oversight: An independent committee of experts called a Data Safety Monitoring Board routinely analyzes the safety of a trial. At a minimum, my mother says, these committees are made up of a highly qualified ethicist, physician, and statistician. In this trial, it appears that no news is good news. There’s not much communication with the clinic unless we need to report symptoms. Follow-up is simple; in fact, we could do almost all of it from our phones. At the end of the first appointment, we were instructed to download a symptom-monitoring app called the Covid-19 Illness Diary, which offers the prompt: “Have you experienced any of the following?” followed by a short list of symptoms. And that’s it. I fill mine out on Mondays. The appointment for the second injection was nearly identical to the first: I sat in the waiting room, answered questions about my health, took a pregnancy test (required for anyone who can get pregnant), sat in another waiting room, received the injection, and waited for another 30 minutes to monitor symptoms before I was dismissed. I felt safe the whole time. But I’m also young, and younger people have been shown to be less likely to get seriously ill from Covid-19. And although many older people might be anxious to participate in a trial, my 80-year-old grandmother, Henie, is fairly confident in the process because she is doing it with her family and because she trusts my parents when it comes to science. She also gets to spend some time with my dad when they get their vaccine injections together. Henie said she felt safe at the clinic but also knew the benefits, for her at least, outweighed the risks. Courtesy of Vicky Alejandro From left: Julio Hajdenberg, Henie, and Alejandro (who did not participate in the study). She explains that she knew some people who hadn’t left their homes for more than 140 days, and worries that kind of isolation could be more dangerous for someone her age than masking up and participating in the trial in a sterile environment. “And my family participated,” Henie added. “By myself, I don’t think I would have gone.” Distrust in clinical trials is nothing new In the US in 2020, there are so many regulations in place that you’d be hard-pressed to find a clinical trial that’s outright dangerous. Events like the International Harmonisation Conference established ethical and safety guidelines, and agencies like the FDA, the US Department of Health and Human Services, ethics committees, and institutional review boards all play a role in creating safeguards for clinical studies. But it’s important to note that before new drugs are ever tested in humans, they are tested in animals first. There is one caveat, though: In phase 1 trials, a small number of highly at-risk patients, often with terminal illnesses, will enroll in a first-in-humans study to rule out toxicity, or to at least demonstrate the medication is less damaging than the disease itself. But this is not the case with phases 2 and 3 of the Covid-19 vaccine trials, which is what my family and I are participating in. Understandably, the history of unethical practices, forced and unnecessary procedures, and the absence of consent in medical procedures have left some Black and brown Americans distrustful of such trials — Covid-19 trials in particular do not have enough Black participants because of this legacy, though the Pfizer trial made some headway this summer. (My family members and I in the trial are white and Hispanic.) My mother is clear to distinguish past abusive experiments from clinical studies today. As she puts it, those experiments “did not intend to protect human subjects.” With the Tuskegee syphilis study, for example, it was already known that there was a cure for syphilis. The study’s organizers were observing the course of a disease as it made its way through an at-risk population, under the guise of providing “free health care” to Black men. On the other hand, clinical trials have also excluded whole categories of people: minors, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, leaving them at high risk when they take the medicine later. Even my brother, who is 17, was not allowed to participate in the trial until about a month ago. But the moment minors were accepted into the study, my parents signed Jimmy up. “I was like, ‘Okay, cool,’” Jimmy told me. Informed consent is central to conducting these trials. For our trial, everyone in the room was given an iPad and had to spend about 20 minutes swiping through an informed-consent module explaining how a clinical trial works and the possible risks of the vaccine. I actually developed a very low-grade fever — 99.8 degrees at the highest — after the second shot, though the study directors said it didn’t count because it was below their official threshold for “low-grade fever.” I recovered in less than a day, thankfully. But the decision to participate should be an informed one made by the participant or a legal guardian. As my mom puts it, “We [had] a sort of a discussion in our family, even before the trial was available, that what we knew of the disease was much more deadly and dangerous than what a vaccine could offer.” It’s also critical to remember that nobody — including the doctors, who have anonymized all the participants — knows whether they got the vaccine or the placebo. Who got injected with what won’t be revealed until the study is completed. But some of us have our suspicions. My grandmother is convinced she got a placebo. She says she had no side effects whatsoever: “It was like drinking a glass of water.” Jackie Hajdenberg is an investigative reporter with Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA Today, focusing on voter access. She is based in New York City and Central Florida. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Sexy people keep telling us to vote
In 2020, hot people online are doing what they do best. | Sterling K Brown, Kylie Jenner, and Jenna Dewan via Instagram Welcome to the thirst trap election. If you are the sort of American who is not planning to cast a ballot in this year’s US presidential election, perhaps the most important in your lifetime, then it’s possible that nothing will convince you otherwise. Although in a perfect world, every eligible citizen would exercise their constitutional right to vote (and in a perfect world, it would be vastly easier to do so), sometimes people need extra prodding. Which is why over the past days and weeks, our nation’s professionally hot people have taken to the internet to encourage the public to vote with the best way they know how. Michael B. Jordan heroically bit his lip in a Twitter selfie begging people to vote early. Lizzo twerked as Uncle Sam. Kylie, as she is apt to do, posted a photo of herself in a bikini, but this time it linked to a voter registration site. Sterling K. Brown showed his abs, Diplo his butt cheeks. Some have turned their voter thirst traps into specific endorsements; YouTuber Tana Mongeau photoshopped a picture of Joe Biden’s head onto a butt-centric photo which she captioned #bootyforbiden, while “gun girl” Kaitlin Bennett has been attempting her best pumpkin patch poses for President Trump. View this post on Instagram update #bootyforbiden broke tana uncensored. love to see so many ppl who want change as badly as i do. u don’t need my ass to know what’s right for America so go VOTE! today was fun, ily A post shared by tana mongeau (@tanamongeau) on Sep 30, 2020 at 6:58pm PDT On some level, this should be an easy win for celebrities, who’ve clearly been having a difficult time during lockdown: All they have to do is what they normally do (post photos of themselves) with the added benefit of promoting a relatively political cause without any real risk of alienating fans. It takes precisely zero effort: Instagram has made voter thirst trapping extremely easy this year. On Stories, you can add a sticker to your photos encouraging people to vote early that links to information, and many celebrities’ and influencers’ posts also link to Facebook’s voting information center, which automatically connects to the user’s home state. Yet this hasn’t stopped people from responding to the efforts of celebrities with, largely, annoyance. “Celebrities getting naked to beg for votes is yet another downfall of 2020” reads the headline on a particularly excoriating article. When a slew of celebs, from Mark Ruffalo to Tiffany Haddish, produced a video wherein they got “naked” to get out the vote, the general response was, “Didn’t we already go through enough with the ‘Imagine’ video?” There is a reason these kinds of posts, even under the most generous interpretation, can ring as cheesy or trite. Rosemary Clark-Parsons, the associate director for the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, says that for us to feel as though a social media post is made in good faith, the mediu