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Oregon already votes by mail. Here’s what it can teach us in 2020.
A volunteer points a voter to a designated ballot drop box in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on November 6, 2018. | Gillian Flaccus/AP How Oregon adopted a vote-by-mail system. Steve Druckenmiller loved voting, and he loved elections, but he really thought voting by mail was a crazy idea. So when the subject came up during his interview for the job of elections supervisor in Linn County, Oregon, in 1984, he thought, Oh crap. “Sir, I think it stinks,” Druckenmiller recalls telling Del Riley, then the Linn County Clerk, who interviewed him for the position. Mr. Riley looked at him, big eyes behind big glasses, and thanked Druckenmiller for coming in. Druckenmiller figured, Well, I almost had it. But a few days later, Riley offered Druckenmiller the job of supervising elections in Linn, a square in western Oregon, south of Portland. Whether Druckenmiller liked voting by mail or not, he was about to learn from the master. In Oregonian politics, Riley is sometimes known as the “father” of vote by mail. Riley started asking why not let constituentssend in their ballots. He became an advocate for the system after pioneering, along with neighboring Benton County, thestate’s first vote by mail for local elections in 1981. Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has changed and expanded since, but that democratic experiment was a forerunner to how Oregon does elections now. Today, Oregon votes only by mail. It has done so for nearly two decades, after voters approved a ballot measure in 1998. Across Oregon, registered voters are sent a ballot, and they can either mail it back or drop it off. That has made Oregon’s system a vote-by-mail model for the country. Other western states, including Colorado, Washington, and Utah, have since adopted similar systems in the years since. Advocates say it’s as safe as in-person voting, cost-effective, and boosts turnout. They argue it could — or should — be the future of how America votes. AFP via Getty Images Temporary election staff open and inspect mail-in ballots before scanning them at the King County County Department of Elections in Renton, Washington, on November 2, 2016. Druckenmiller, after working for Riley for a bit, asked his boss why he’d hired a vote-by-mail skeptic like him to run elections. “I thought after you did some vote-by-mails, you’d see it,” Riley told him. “Besides, you know what? You’re the only one who applied for the job.” Riley was right. Druckenmiller did see it. When Riley retired, Druckenmiller was elected in 1986 to take his place as Linn County Clerk. He’s been running elections there ever since. By his count, he has probably run more vote-by-mail elections than anyone, anywhere — and he’ll be doing so again in 2020. The rest of America is suddenly more aware than ever of how it votes this year. Covid-19 took hold in the United States during the primaries, forcing states to postpone elections and rethink their electoral systems. States and many constituents saw voting by mail or absentee ballot — safe at home, away from crowds — as the best way to protect people and guarantee access to the polls in the middle of a pandemic. The number of Americans voting by mail has steadily increased in the past decade. In 2018, about 25 percent of all voters cast their ballots by mail. That number could about double in 2020. Beyond the states that already do it, this year, states like California, where counties already had many voters casting ballots by mail, are now also sending ballots to registered voters. Others, like Vermont and New Jersey, are mailing out ballots for the first time. This rapid expansion of voting by mail is happening amid one of the most consequential and fraught elections in recent memory. How the election unfolds may determine whether counties and states begin to more readily embrace all-mail elections in the future, or whether the politics surrounding it becomes even more polarizing. Oregon’s path to vote-by-mail offers some lessons for the rest of the country. Druckenmiller was a convert three decades ago. He believes you’ll be one, too. Just maybe not in 2020. Vote by mail started in local Oregon elections A delegation traveled to San Diego, California, in the spring of 1981. Riley, of Linn County, and others, including then-Republican Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus and some of her deputies, went to observe an all-mail election scheduled to take place there. Paulus and Riley liked what they saw. Riley, who passed away in 2018, and Paulus, who died in 2019, both saw voting by mail as a way to strengthen the democratic process. “The fundamental thing about Norma is she wanted to get everybody involved,” Pat McCord Amacher, a freelance writer who cowrote Paulus’s autobiography, told me. “And the thought that someone was not using the right to vote would have just been just unconscionable to her.” First, though, they had to see if it would work in Oregon. In November 1981, Riley conducted the state’s first all-mail election, in Linn County; on the ballot were two school district levies and one city charter amendment. (Neighboring Benton County also got in on some of the action, as one of the school districts overlapped.) According to a 2018 op-ed in the Oregonian by Phil Keisling, Oregon’s Democratic secretary of state from 1991 to 1999, 25,000 registered voters received ballots, and turnout was as high as 75 percent for this little dinky election. From there, a few additional counties in Oregon tested out vote by mail in local elections in the early 1980s, mostly for measures like school and library budgets, and later for local candidates as well. Al Davidson, who was served as the county clerk for 20 years in Marion County, Oregon, which includes the state capital of Salem, said some resistance to vote by mail was driven by the fear that district and school measures would get defeated at higher rates, since people who wouldn’t normally be motivated or pay attention would now just vote everything down. But it didn’t turn out that way. Opposition to the idea “kind of died out,” he said. “It didn’t take very long before most Oregon governmental units realized vote by mail was the wave of the future, and rather than try to fight it, they needed to embrace it.” Davidson admitted he wasn’t a big fan of vote by mail at first, and after he was elected in 1984, he told his staff that Marion County wouldn’t do it. But his staff convinced him, and after they conducted a few vote-by-mail elections and worked closely with other county clerks, Davidson decided he liked the results and changed his mind. “When I did, I was super champion of it,” he said. He became an advocate for expanding vote by mail across the state. “If you’re kind of a control freak, and you want something to be 100 percent, you would latch on to vote by mail.” Davidson flipped in the same way Druckenmiller did. Druckenmiller said as an election administrator, it was hard not to be persuaded, once you compared polling place elections to vote by mail. Vote by mail was orderly, Druckenmiller said. It was accurate — you minimized the chances of error. You saw better turnout for special and local elections, and it cost less. You could better help voters, avoiding the crazy mess of Election Day and all the mistakes that happen at polling places. “If you’re kind of a control freak, and you want something to be 100 percent, you would latch on to vote by mail,” Druckenmiller told me. In 1987, the Oregon state legislature did latch on, and made vote by mail permanent for local elections, though not for primary and general elections. County clerks in the state kept pushing to make it permanent for all elections. But that push turned a nonpartisan fight into something more political. The political parties couldn’t agree on vote by mail. So Oregonians eventually decided for themselves. Oregon experimented with vote by mail in a couple of statewide special elections in the 1990s, but the legislature largely frustrated any attempts to make it more permanent. In 1995, a bipartisan group in the Republican-led legislature passed a bill that would expand vote by mail for primary and general elections. The Democratic governor at the time, John Kitzhaber, vetoed it. That’s partly because Republicans, not Democrats, were the early champions of vote by mail in Oregon. “What that fear, or dislike, was coming from was the experience with absentee ballots,” Bill Bradbury, who served as Oregon’s Democratic secretary of state from 1999 to 2009, said of vote by mail during that time. Fresh in Democrats’ memories were recent elections in which absentee ballots had broken toward Republicans; Democrats reflexively thought that vote by mail would favor their opponents. But as Keisling, the state’s former secretary of state, wrote in Washington Monthly in 2016, those particular complaints were more often made in private; publicly, Democrats instead “fretted about potential voter fraud and coercion. (Sound familiar?)” Keisling, a Democrat, was secretary of state when the Democratic governor vetoed the bill in 1995. As a legislator, Keisling had voted against an expansion of vote by mail to party primaries in 1989. But as secretary of state — in charge of overseeing all elections in Oregon — he, too, experienced a conversion. The cost savings and the increase in turnout for local and special elections were too hard to resist. “I finally had an epiphany,” Keisling told Oregon Public Broadcasting in June 2020, “and realized we were confusing a particular ritual of democracy with what its essence was, which was participation.” Vote by mail, he said, “clearly increased participation.” In 1995, Keisling’s effort to expand vote by mail got an unexpected boost after a powerful senator from Oregon was forced to resign in 1995 following a sexual harassment scandal. That vacated a Senate seat, which needed to be filled through a special election. Keisling decided to conduct the primary and Senate election by mail. That election, held in January 1996, featured then-Democratic House member Ron Wyden and then-Republican state Sen. Gordon Smith both vying for the open Senate seat. So much attention was on the race, Wyden recalled, that every time he walked outside about 40 boom mics, along with reporters, were eager to document the election. Wyden won, edging out Smith to become the first senator elected in an all-mail election. Turnout in that January election was about 66 percent, which broke previous special election turnout records, according to Keisling. Wyden’s victory also completely flipped the partisan divide on vote by mail. “Then Democrats say they love vote by mail. Republicans say, Oh bad, bad, bad. And Oregonians listened to all this and said, This is ridiculous. We like this, it makes sense,” Wyden told me. When the Oregon legislature made another attempt to expand and make permanent vote by mail in 1997, it was theRepublicans who killed it. “It was simply one of those cases of whose ox was getting gored,” as Druckenmiller put it. But as Wyden noted, Oregon voters had by now gotten hooked on vote by mail. Local elections were being done this way. Oregon had also by this point embraced no-fault absentee voting for most other elections — meaning voters didn’t need an excuse to get an absentee ballot sent to them — and people took advantage of it. Election administrators were running in-person elections for a dwindling number of voters. Over the years, vote by mail had become part of the democratic process. But politics still prevented vote by mail from being official. “That’s why we had to take it into our hands, because the legislature obviously wasn’t going to get there,” Davidson, still the Marion County Clerk at that time, told me. Davidson and other county clerks and advocacy groups did take matters into their own hands: gathering signatures to get a vote-by-mail initiative on the ballot, so voters could vote on how they wanted to vote. In 1998, Oregonians backed Ballot Measure 60 by 757,204 to 334,021 — nearly 70 percent — to allow vote by mail in all elections. “We knew once we got it on the ballot, the people would override the legislature,” Davidson said. “And that’s exactly what happened.” How Oregon’s vote-by-mail system works Bill Bradbury became Oregon’s secretary of state just before the first entirely vote-by-mail election in 2000. It went off without a hitch, which he credits to the 20 years of off-and-on experience with vote by mail Oregon already had. Turnout in that general 2000 election was nearly 80 percent. But even though the vote-by-mail ballot measure had passed overwhelmingly in 1998, the naysayers never shut up completely. “Every time you talk about changing voting systems, and every time you talk about voting by mail, immediately, people go to FRAUUUDDDD,” Bradbury told me, doing his best impersonation of the critics. Yet Bradbury said he remembers no more than three prosecuted fraud cases in the primary and the general, which he said compared favorably to in-person elections. “I can say definitely there is not — N-O-T, not — an increase in fraud with vote by mail,” Bradbury said. Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has safeguards in place. Registered voters have their signatures on file — either by mailing a voter registration card to election officials, or by opting-in to registration directly when they get or renew a license. When it comes time to vote, election officials mail ballots to registered voters, which they typically receive about two to three weeks before an election. The ballot contains a few things: the ballot itself; a “secrecy envelope” that the ballot goes inside once it’s marked; and a return envelope, which now even has the postage prepaid so voters don’t have to cover the cost of return postage. Once you make your choices on your ballot, you slip it into the secrecy envelope, seal it up, slip that into the return envelope and seal it. Then you read and sign the statement printed on the back of the envelope, which basically says that you verify that you are you. Once that’s done, you either send it back by mailor put it into a secure drop box — either method requires that election officials receive the ballot before 8 pm on Election Day. Oregonians can also track their ballot to make sure it’s been received and counted. Only about one-third of Oregonians actually send their ballots back through the postal service, instead placing them in secure drop boxes at places like libraries or movie theaters or even McDonald’s. Jack Smith/AP Election workers in Portland, Oregon, verify the signature on ballots on November 7, 2000. Rick Bowmer/AP A voter delivers her ballot at a voter express official ballot drop site on October 29, 2004, in Portland, Oregon. According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, from 2012 to 2018, slightly more than 36 percent of ballots were returned by mail; 63 percent of voters put their ballots in drop boxes or returned them directly to county officials. In the May 2020 primary, about half of voters sent in their ballots by mail, with both the Covid-19 pandemic and Oregon’s decision to start paying the cost of postage likely accounting for that uptick. Each ballot has a unique bar code specific to each voter, so once the ballot is received, election officials can verify the signature on that ballot envelope to make sure it matches the one on that voter’s registration. There are often multiple reviews to guarantee it’s a match — Druckenmiller said if someone questions the signature, two other people will review it; if they’re not sure, he makes the final call. If the signature doesn’t match, voters are notified and given the opportunity to remedy that, in what’s known as a “cure” process. But once a signature is verified, the ballot is separated from the return envelope so the ballot can be tabulated. Along the way, there are layers of auditing to make sure the number of ballots received matches the tabulated numbers for the vote count. Many see mail-in ballots as more secure because there’s a paper trail, and so cant be hacked. Oregon election officials get updates from public records, like change-of-address notifications and death records, to check against the voter registration databases. “We use the Postal Service. When most of us move, we change our address, right?” Paul Gronke, a professor of political science and director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Portland, told me. “And so actually, vote by mail works really well and has very little deadwood. The rolls are very clean.” John Lindback, the elections division director from 2001 to 2009 at the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, told me clerks even used to check divorce records to see if any spouse had ever tried to force an ex-partner to vote against their will. They never found anything. According to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, in 2016, officials referred 54 cases of possible voter fraud to law enforcement. Of those, 22 people — representing just 0.0001 percent of all ballots cast that year — were found guilty of having voted in two states. Election officials in Oregon I spoke to told me that vote by mail is also much more efficient to oversee than polling-place elections, where sites are spread out across the county. “Clerks by nature are control freaks,” Lindback told me. With vote by mail, instead of having to staff dozens and dozens of election sites, people are staffed in the county elections offices instead. “They’re verifying signatures and processing ballots, and you have big tables of teams working on that,” Lindback said. “And you can look out there and go, Okay, everything looks like it’s going well. And you have way more confidence that everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” And if Oregonians are still skeptical, they can see for themselves. People are free to observe and monitor the process. That’s lately been more of a challenge because of coronavirus health restrictions — election officials already need more space to accommodate workers, and have to be cautious about protecting the people actually counting the votes — but Druckenmiller says over the years he’s had plenty of people come to observe and never had anyone leave with a complaint. “When we were first implementing vote by mail, there was a higher level of concern about fraud,” Bradbury said. “And I can remember really going through that with people and trying to bring comfort to people. And I think people now are completely comfortable with the system in this state. We don’t hear boopsabout people complaining about fraud.” Why the system has stuck An April 2020 YouGov poll found that 77 percent of adults in Oregon backed vote by mail, compared to 11 percent who opposed it. Indeed, voters in states that have vote by mail — whether in bluer states like Washington or redder states like Utah — all tend to overwhelmingly like it. It’s convenient. Voters don’t have to take off from work, or spend time waiting in line at a polling place. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who was elected by mail and who’s backed legislation to expand vote by mail nationally, pointed out that it eliminates voter intimidation or suppression at the polls. Others noted how mail-in voting can adapt to crises, like the recent wildfires on the West Coast or unrest in cities including Portland, which could be a challenge if election officials had to set up polling stations. Instead, voters get their ballots delivered right to them, and they can sit at their desks or their kitchen tables to fill them out. “It becomes sort of your civic evening,” Bradbury said. Some say it makes them more informed voters, because they have the time and opportunity to research candidates and ballot measures — which Oregon has its fair share of each year. Lindback heard a lot from parents who said they liked vote by mail because it gave them a chance to show their kids what voting was all about. “It provides an opportunity, as you’re marking your ballot to have your kids there,” he said. “And you can talk about it, talk about the candidates.” Advocates of vote by mail say it increases turnout, though some experts I spoke to said the gains are modest in high-profile national elections. Oregon did see an uptick in the 1990s and 2000s, but experts I spoke to attribute some of that to the novelty of it all, and the media coverage of the vote-by-mail elections. Don Ryan/AP 2016 election ballots are prepared for counting in Portland, Oregon. Don Ryan/AP Pallets with ballots for mailing in Portland, Oregon, in 2006. Gronke, who’s studied Oregon’s system, said the benefits are much more obvious in state and local elections, which tend to be lower turnout and don’t attract as much attention. “The vote-by-mail system certainly encourages people to participate regularly,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that, because you get all that information.” There’s also no evidence that vote by mail advantages one party over the other. Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who’s studied this question, said that’s because America really has a two-tier electoral process: first, you register. Then, you vote. “Voting by mail didn’t produce extra registrations,” he said. “It gave people who were already registered a chance to vote.” Vote by mail can catch people who might have otherwise not made it to the polls, but it doesn’t transform the voter makeup of a county or state. And then there’s why election officials love it. For one, it’s cheaper. Keisling wrote in 2016 that since 2000, exclusively voting by mail has saved Oregonians $3 million each election cycle. It costs money to set up dozens of polling stations in a county, staff them, and manage the equipment. Most states have some version of absentee or mail-in voting, and the more people that take advantage of that (as is expected to happen in 2020), election officials have to basically run two parallel elections. And again, for those control-freak county clerks, it’s much easier to administer. Of course, no voting system is perfect, even if Oregonians will try to convince you otherwise. Charlotte Hill, a policy researcher in elections and voting at the University of California Berkeley, told me that the social nature of voting does matter in elections; there’s a reason why it feels so hard to part with polling places. That could, in the longer term, diminish enthusiasm. “If we don’t give people an opportunity to, to feel like they’re part of that broader social unit when voting, I think there’s a chance that some people aren’t going to be as interested in participating,” she said. Mail-in ballots also get rejected at higher rates than in-person ballots do. Oregon has tried to remedy that over time by improving ballot design, and implementing those robust “cure” processes so voters can correct mistakes. Still, 0.86 percent of Oregon’s ballots got rejected in 2016, though that was slightly below the national average. Charles Stewart III, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me he has “not drunk the Oregon Kool Aid” on mail-in voting, but does think the state offers a case study for where and when vote by mail can work. It has tended to catch on in western states, where some people live great distances from county or city centers, so vote by mail makes even more sense. Oregon, he noted, has a strong tradition of political participation. The state also had decades of practice, even before the 1998 ballot measure, where Oregonians decided they liked mail elections and chose it for themselves. Due to the pandemic, though, states and counties don’t have 20 years to ease into vote by mail. They’ve had just a few months. The mail-in voting test for 2020 The outbreak of a pandemic in the middle of a presidential election year left states scrambling to figure out how to conduct voting safely and accessibly. Mail-in voting looked like the answer. But this rapid readjustment in how America planned to vote is creating even more uncertainty in an already tense election year. Vote by mail is business as usual in places like Oregon and Colorado. States like California, which had already been moving toward mail elections, also had an advantage. But most other states had to figure out how to accommodate a greater share of the electorate staying home on a very short timeline. In total, nine states (plus Washington, DC) are mailing ballots to all registered voters, including some like New Jersey that are trying this out for the very first time, along with overseeing polling place elections. Other states fall somewhere in between: Some are sending ballot applications, but not ballots themselves, to all registered voters. Others still require voters to request ballots, but have waived the requirement of providing a legitimate reason for voting absentee, or have allowed the pandemic to count as an accepted reason. The result is likely an unprecedented number of Americans voting by mail. But this great American vote-by-mail experiment in a contested presidential election has some of Oregon’s biggest advocates a little conflicted. On the one hand, they want everyone to join the vote-by-mail revolution. On the other hand, a revolution in an unpredictable presidential election year with tremendous implications for the future of American democracy is not exactly what they had in mind. “We took 20 years to get it right,” Davidson, the retired clerk in Marion County, told me. “And people who have never done it, election administrators who have never done anything other than polling-place elections, it just scares me to death.” Davidson said there are just too many variables, specifically in states that are now sending out ballots. There’s the equipment to process the ballots, and the training and administrative procedures, like cure processes to remedy discrepancies. Lots of places have rapidly changed their rules, and some states are still facing lawsuits, meaning procedures are changing weeks before the election. Vote-by-mail states are much more used to communicating with voters by mail, and so, as experts have pointed out, tend to have cleaner voter rolls. But states adjusting rapidly may struggle, and some experts said they are looking to see if that means ballots go out to people who have died or moved — and, well, cue the voter fraud chorus. “It’s best if you sneak up on this slowly,” Stewart, of MIT, said. “That’s one of the things I would have hoped that many of the states would have learned is that it does take a lot of work to make an effective transition to vote by mail.” Don Ryan/AP Ballots are processed in Portland, Oregon, in 2014. Don Ryan/AP A large road sign directs motorists to drive-by ballot drop boxes in Portland, Oregon, in 2010. Voting-rights advocates are also nervous that the rapid shift to — or at least the increased emphasis on — vote by mail may confuse voters and deter them from voting. Hill, of UC Berkeley, said that when voting laws change, “People who turn out at lower rates or who might be more skeptical of changes in voting laws — people who have been more subject to voter suppression in the past — they are not usually the first adopters of the new voting system.” States that are expanding their mail-in-voting options will also have in-person drop offs or polling places. This presents an additional challenge, with election administrators potentially having to run a mail voting process while still managing in-person polls, which requires even more resources and oversight to run because of sanitation and social distancing concerns. Lindback, Oregon’s former elections director, told me that when he used to talk about Oregon’s system he’d tell officials, don’t do wholesale change, start gradually, let voters get used to it, and build from there. But the pandemic didn’t leave many good options. And experts pointed out that because some states like Oregon do have well-established vote by mail, states have expertise to call on and techniques they can borrow. Laura Fosmire, a communications specialist with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, said in an email that the state’s director of elections has spoken with 30 other states since March about vote by mail. Additional resources might have also helped smooth the transition, as states are already cash-strapped because of the economic crisis, and the election price tag is going up because of new procedures — whether preparations for mail-in voting or maintaining polling places during the pandemic. Democrats included $3.6 billion in funding for states to administer elections in their $3 trillion stimulus package, but that bill is indefinitely stalled in the Republican-led Senate. In March, Sen. Wyden, who’s been introducing legislation since 2002 to expand vote by mail nationwide, and fellow Oregonian Sen. Merkley introduced legislation to try to help states expand vote by mail and no-excuse absentee voting, but it went nowhere. “Our good faith is to make vote by mail work,” Wyden told me. “The evidence has been overwhelming that it has been constructive.” But a lot of that good faith has been eroded by partisanship, which has pitted Democrats and Republicans on opposite sides of the vote-by-mail issue. That partisan fight may end up being the biggest threat of all to the process, and to American democracy itself. The biggest threat to mail-in voting is still misinformation The ultimate test for mail-in voting this election won’t be the ballots, or the procedures, or the rejection rates. It will be the rhetoric, and the misinformation, around it. A lot of this is coming from the president and members of his administration who’ve insisted that the rapid shift to mail-in voting is a recipe for fraud. Trump’s Twitter feed is a morass of conspiracies about missing ballots and Democrats stealing the election. Vote-by-mail advocates worry this could have a disastrous effect on the popularity and wider adoption of mail-in voting. None expressed fears that 2020 would suddenly be fraught with fraud. Instead, they are concerned that if there are administrative problems or hiccups that come from this shift to vote by mail, the current climate will make the process seem sinister when it’s not. “Do we want government by and for the people or by and for the few and powerful?” If election administrators make mistakes, Druckenmiller told me, “it is going to seriously not only damage the presidential election, but is going to seriously damage vote by mail, which is a wonderful revolution in helping people vote.” But Druckenmiller said neither side is really right in this situation — both parties are, again, mostly worried about whose ox is being gored. Democrats, he said, are acting like voting by mail is a simple way of doing elections, when it’s not. Trump and the Republicans are also wrong when they say it’s a tool of fraud, because it’s not. “I’m shattered by some of this stuff, I really am,” he said. “They’re setting up elections officials for failure. We’re going to be called dishonest. I don’t know exactly what to do with it, except you try to stand in the middle and point out that both sides are completely missing the marker.” A record number of people are expected to vote by mail, no matter what. The Republican-led attacks against it are already creating the conditions for voters to distrust the election results, no matter what they are. “This is a huge challenge of our time,” Hill said. “What do we do when one of the two major political parties is intentionally trying to reduce confidence in a widespread voting method? And I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.” Oregon election officials past and present told me they’re used to hearing concerns about fraud and other problems with voting by mail. Heck, some of them were those people. In building vote by mail, they had the space to address all the concerns seriously. Their ability to do that helped strengthen trust in Oregon’s system. But in this political climate, the president or party leaders are going to drown out election officials. Andrew Selsky/AP A voter asks questions at the Marion County elections office in Salem, Oregon, on August 19, 2020. Adam Bonica, an associate politics professor at Stanford University, told me it’s a little like a surgeon who has developed a safe and effective procedure, and right when they’re about to perform it, someone rushes the room and tackles them. “2020 is not about whether vote by mail works as a system,” he said. “It’s about whether vote by mail can work when there’s basically an anti-democratic regime pushing against that.” It sounds bleak, but it doesn’t have to be. Vote-by-mail advocates also note that this election could actually help more voters understand, Hey, there might be a better way. Voting experts say the best electoral systems are the ones that give voters lots of options — ways to vote early, in as many ways as possible. That really is the lesson of vote by mail. Bruce Riley, the retired sheriff in Linn County, Oregon, and the son of Del Riley, the county clerk who took a chance on vote by mail almost four decades ago, told me that his dad, a World War II veteran, wanted to try it because he believed so much in public service. Part of that service was getting people involved in the democratic process. “I truly believe it was about trying to get more people involved in the democracy that we all take for granted in America,” he told me. This has always been America’s contradiction: a democracy that struggles to be truly democratic. The bitter politics of this presidential election make it unlikely to happen in this year, and maybe not anytime soon. But proponents of vote by mail see it as a way to get a little bit closer to that ideal. “Do we want government by and for the people or by and for the few and powerful?” Sen. Merkley told me. “And if you want government by and for the people, the vision of our Constitution, then vote by mail is a high integrity system that stops so many forms of voter suppression and intimidation and people are going to really like it.” Druckenmiller understands people still think vote by mail is crazy or a terrible idea. Maybe he even relishes the critics, since he was once among them. But now, he says, if you don’t believe him, come down to Linn County, Oregon. Come see the revolution for yourself. 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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One Good Thing: Vintage Nintendo games are good vibes made playable
Nintendo The world continues to be the worst right now. Thankfully, there are old-school video games. One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend. It’s September, and 2020 is getting close to being over. Good, because 2020 sucks. This year has been a log flume ride straight into an overfilled splash pool of exhaustion, anxiety, and disempowerment. The pandemic has robbed us of stress-relieving fun. As we trudge toward a monumental election, every waking moment can feel like a series of blinks toward doom. And the surging course that Black Lives Matter has taken throughout the year has come with searing reminders of how unjust and terrible American society often is. Video games have provided me a way out of reality over the past six months. As I watch the news, fearing for my and my loved ones’ health, lives, finances, — and as I beat the drum over and over that “Black lives matter” and “Every vote counts” — I’ve spent more time playing video games than ever before in my adult life. And that’s saying something, because I used to write about video games for a living. I’m not judging myself or anyone else who’s found themselves doing the same. Because, hello: Video games are practically designed to take up all your time! They’re fun! They’re compulsively playable! They’re comforting! Finding comfort in games is what’s drawn me to them the most this year. Which is why I’ve turned obsessively toward the types of games that exude friendliness. I’ve found this most in the nostalgic charm and childlike wonder of (mostly) vintage Nintendo games. Gone is my interest in the new and buzzworthy; I’m here to revisit the kindly faces I can find on my Switch. And it doesn’t matter if you have pre-established nostalgia for the halcyon days of simple, E-for-Everyone-rated Nintendo games or not. In the same way that Nintendo’s small-town-life simulation game Animal Crossing found mass appeal earlier this year for its coziness, these games promise morally uncomplicated fun from the onset. They’re good for anyone who’s craved some virtual, pleasant, joyous worlds to escape to. One mainstay for me has been Nintendo’s recent release of a compilation of classic Super Mario games for the Nintendo Switch, featuring three games on one cartridge: Super Mario 64 (first released in 1996 on Nintendo 64), Super Mario Sunshine (2002, Nintendo GameCube), and Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo Wii). Unlike the old-school 2D Mario games, each one of these allows Mario to explore new worlds in three dimensions. They all provide novel spins on the classic Mario gameplay style — which still involves jumping on sentient mushrooms for coins, avoiding being crushed by angry rock monsters, and finding secret pathways inside big green pipes; saving the Princess from perennial Bad Dude Bowser remains Mario’s nice-guy goal at the end of his adventure. These games are between 13 and 24 years old, which can make them seem dated by a lot of modern entertainment standards. But Mario games are simple enough to be welcoming, and they’re easy to jump right into because of how indelible their formula is. I’m really enjoying Super Mario 64 in particular, which came out when I was two and a half years old. This is my first time playing the game, and it’s making me feel at once like a delighted little kid and a very placated adult. (Mario games are not, by any means, “easy,” but if a little kid can finish them, that means I can too. Probably.) And there’s nary a human to kill, never a sign of physical pain, and Mario throws up a peace sign when he finishes a mission. The worst thing he does in Super Mario 64 is squish a mushroom or pull a shell off a turtle’s back. And even though he can plummet to his “death” or run out of “lives,” he’ll always happily come back after each Game Over.) In Moon, another retro game now available for Nintendo Switch, reversing death is actually the entire conceit. Moon is a more obscure game, released in 1997 only on the PlayStation in Japan. The Nintendo Switch version that came out in August marks the first time it’s been available in English, so it’s a new game to many non-Japanese speakers. Being that Moon is 23 years old, its graphics are nothing to write home about, if that’s important to you; that doesn’t matter so much to me as a strong aesthetic does, and Moon’s is gorgeous. The game is filled with memorable, indescribable creatures, vast skies, a dreamy fuzziness to the characters’ outlines, and fantastic music. That’s all on top of its witty writing and wonderful story. Moon starts with a little boy playing a generic fantasy video game, where he is a swordsman vanquishing what we assume are monstrous foes. But somehow, the TV sucks him into the game’s world, and he is transformed into one of its minor characters. The hero the boy had been playing as is still present in the world of the game, but it becomes clear to the boy that said hero is maybe more of the villain. He has been destroying all these little monsters for nothing but money and bragging rights, because none of them were threatening him at all. Now the game’s world is littered with the sad corpses of these creatures, their spirits left to wander for eternity. It’s now the boy’s job to recover the creatures’ spirits and earn their love. Love is what fuels him, and love is what hopefully will get him out of the game and back home to his family. It’s a brilliant, very meta conceit for a video game. Moon is full of puzzles to make recovering love a challenging adventure, so that it’s not just about a little boy running around hugging mythical creatures and sad townsfolk. But at the same time, hugging creatures and townsfolk is indeed part of the goal. The boy makes friends with humans and monsters, improving a world he only previously knew from playing a video game. I’ve been engrossed with Moon because of how lovely it is to be asked to bring a world back to life. And its age means I can focus more on the game’s story and concept instead of comparing it to other, newer games that are more technically powerful. Instead of playing the latest, hottest, longest role-playing game out today, I’m having a lot of fun with Moon, which was designed as a parody of more self-serious blockbusters. These days, I default to finding games on Nintendo Switch, because it’s my current console of choice. Nintendo consoles have always been homes for many kinds of adventures, made accessible to many kinds of people, and the Switch carries that torch. I recently introduced my roommate, who’s not big into video games, to Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics, a newer Switch game. (It came out this spring.) It’s a charming roundup of virtual versions of all kinds of traditional tabletop games, like solitaire, mahjong, and foosball, none of which require much explanation to dig into. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is another Switch standby, and the best iteration of a classic franchise. It’s perfect for when I’m feeling competitive and kind of aggressive and want to drain my energy by running my friends off a rainbow-colored track. There are swaths of other nostalgic games on the Switch, many from the days of the original Nintendo and Super Nintendo consoles. An annual subscription to Nintendo’s online gaming service, which costs $19.99, includes online multiplayer options for new games as well as unlimited access to a curated slate of old gems. Donkey Kong, Dr. Mario, and Super Mario World are all bright and easy to jump into, and they’re probably familiar to tons of people who own a Switch. I’m also partial to the cutesiness of the Kirby games from the Super Nintendo era, because Kirby is so pink and round and tiny and I love him. Plus he’s really into eating desserts — which, relatable. These games are excellent distractions from the failings of the modern world. I appreciate finding joy in their older adventures, and pulling from the past to actively avoid the emotional toll of the present — especially when many of the video games from the past are so pleasant, so comforting, such wonderful ways to dip out of the real world for a sec. Anyway. Back to Mario 64 for me. Super Mario 3D All-Stars is on Nintendo Switch. Moon is on the Nintendo Switch digital storefront. The Nintendo and Super Nintendo games catalogs are available on Nintendo Switch with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. 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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Experts say Covid-19 cases are likely about to surge
Health care professionals prepare to screen people for the coronavirus at a parking lot in Landover, Maryland, on March 30, 2020. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images America keeps making the same mistakes over and over. So another surge of coronavirus cases seems likely. The surge of Covid-19 cases and deaths in America over the summer resulted from a toxic mix of factors: states reopening, lockdown fatigue, and a season typically filled with vacations and holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. People gathered and celebrated indoors — at bars, restaurants, and friends and family’s homes. Millions of people got sick, and tens of thousands died. This fall, experts worry it will all happen again: States are rolling back restrictions, people are eager to get back to normal, and Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up. America may be on the verge of repeating the same mistakes, which would risk yet another surge in the Covid-19 epidemic. Coronavirus cases have already trended up since mid-September. On September 12, the US hit a recent low in its seven-day case average of around 35,000. As of September 26, it was back up to almost 45,000. The surge doesn’t seem to be driven by any one particular state — although some, like the Dakotas, are doing quite badly — but rather upticks across much of the country all at once. (Increased testing capacity is likely detecting more cases, too.) Part of the problem is America never really suppressed its Covid-19 cases to begin with. Think of a disease epidemic like a forest fire: It’s going to be really difficult to contain the virus when there are still flames raging in parts of the forest and small embers practically everywhere. The country always risks a full blaze with each step toward reopening and with each failure to take precautions seriously. Consider Florida. This month, the state reopened bars and, more recently, restaurants, despite the high risk of these indoor spaces. The last time Florida opened bars, in June, experts said the establishments were largely to blame for the state’s massive Covid-19 outbreak in the summer. As Florida reopens now, it has roughly two to three times the number of Covid-19 cases that it had in early June, and its test positivity rate suggests it’s still likely missing a lot of cases. The state is fanning its flames while its most recent fire is nowhere near extinguished. This is, in effect, what much of the country is doing now as it rushes to reopens schools, particularly colleges and universities, and risky indoor spaces. Coupled with recent Labor Day celebrations, experts worry that’s already leading to a new surge in Covid-19 cases. President Donald Trump, for his part, has encouraged rapid reopenings. From his “LIBERATE” tweets in the spring to his recent demands that schools reopen, Trump has pushed forward with his efforts to return society to normal even as the coronavirus keeps spreading and killing people in the US. The fall and winter threaten to make things much worse. Schools will continue to reopen. The cold in northern parts of America will push people back inside, where the virus has a much easier time spreading than the outdoors. Families and friends will come together for the holidays. A flu season could strain the health care system further. States are once again starting to reopen more widely, as officials face pressure from businesses to reopen indoor dining before colder temperatures make outdoor activities less feasible. Experts worry that Americans as a whole will get even more fatigued with social distancing, now that the country is more than six months into its battle against Covid-19. “It’s less excusable this time,” Crystal Watson, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “We have an example of what happens when we reopen these types of businesses for indoor activities.” The good news is there’s still time to act. Cities, states, and the country as a whole could take social distancing seriously again. They could require masks where they aren’t already mandated. They could close bars and restaurants, supporting these businesses with a bailout, to prioritize keeping K-12 schools open while reducing other risks. Colleges and universities could ease demands for in-person teaching or at least embrace aggressive testing-and-tracing measures to mitigate the risks of causing further Covid-19 outbreaks. Without these steps, the fall and winter outbreaks could end up worse than the summer and potentially even the spring. That could mean not just more infections and deaths but yet another setback in America’s hopes of getting parts of life closer back to normal. “If you do things the right way, you can do them,” Cedric Dark, an emergency medicine physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, told me. “If you do them the wrong way, then you’re going to get cases.” We keep making the same mistakes After the spring outbreaks hit the Northeast of the US, much of the country, led by conservative states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas, moved forward with aggressive reopenings. The problem, experts said, is many of these places never suppressed their Covid-19 outbreaks. As epidemiologist Pia MacDonald at RTI International told me at the time, many states “never got to flat.” Case counts continued to climb, and states continued to reopen anyway. This created an environment that made it much easier for Covid-19 to spread. If there’s already some community transmission going on, then it’s simply going to be more likely that one person will infect another. Add more spaces in which infections are very likely — particularly close indoor spaces like bars and restaurants — and that risk can be increased dramatically. Today, the US seems to be heading in the same direction. While cases have fallen overall since late July, they plateaued at — and recently started rising from — a point that was still higher than the peak of Covid-19 cases in the spring (partly, but likely not entirely, attributable to more testing). Yet many states are moving forward with reopening once again. So MacDonald is now repeating the same thing she told me this summer: “We never got to low enough levels [of Covid-19] to start with in most places.” Of particular interest is indoor dining at restaurants and bars, which are reopening at varying levels across the country. Experts characterize these settings as perhaps the worst imaginable spaces for Covid-19 spread: 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 like it can outdoors; and alcohol could lead people to drop their guards further. It was a recognition of all these risks that led many states to scale back and close indoor dining and bars during their summer outbreaks. This time, though, there’s another major variable: Schools are reopening. Some places have even reopened, or set plans to reopen, schools alongside bars or indoor dining — making it hard to separate the effects of either and potentially compounding new outbreaks. Already, there have been reports of outbreaks in K-12 settings, where students and teachers can potentially transmit the coronavirus to each other in the classroom. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about how younger kids, particularly in elementary schools, spread the virus. Some experts raised graver concerns about colleges and universities. Students in these institutions aren’t just potentially spreading the coronavirus in their classrooms, although that’s likely happening to some degree. They’re also showing up at bars, clubs, and indoor restaurants, partying at dorms, and drinking a lot more than they should. “College kids are college kids,” Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine, told me. “That’s what I always tell every university president I talk to: You can make all the plans you want, but at the end of the day, it’s what happens outside your plans that matters.” The good news, for now, is that infections in colleges and universities will skew younger, and younger people are less likely to suffer major complications, including deaths, from Covid-19. That helps explain, along with general improvements in treatment, why daily Covid-19 deaths have still trended down since August (although they’re still at more than 700 a day in the US). But young people can still get seriously ill and die from the coronavirus — and if enough of them get infected, that could show up in higher death tolls eventually. Even if that doesn’t happen, young people will likely interact with their teachers, parents, and grandparents at some point, potentially infecting them. That could produce yet another outcome that would look similar to the summer: The outbreaks started among young groups first but eventually spread to older populations who were more susceptible to illness and death. After the summer surges, Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish Jha told me, “I was like, ‘Okay, now we’ve all been through this — every part of the country: the South, the West, the Midwest, the Northeast. There’s no denialism anymore that will work, because there’s been this long denial while it’s been there but not here.’” Yet, he said, “we’re starting to see this again.” He added, “I, at this point, feel like I clearly no longer understand why our country can’t learn its lessons and why we keep repeating the same mistakes.” The fall and winter are coming For months, experts have worried that the fall and winter would lead to more outbreaks, citing, as one contributor, the reopening of schools. That seems to be happening now, as cases start to creep up nationwide, with reported outbreaks in K-12 schools, colleges, and universities around the US. But things could still get worse. People are bound to get more fatigued with social distancing and the pandemic more broadly as time drags on. As months pass since the last huge wave of Covid-19 in the US, people are more likely to convince themselves it’s safe out there. If that happens, more people could end up going out and putting themselves in dangerous settings, infecting each other along the way. At the same time, colder temperatures, particularly in the northern parts of the US, will more likely push people indoors, where the virus is much more likely to spread thanks to poor ventilation. (One upside: This could have the opposite effect in southern parts of the country, where temperatures will get less unbearably hot, so the outdoors may actually get more tolerable.) As Thanksgiving rolls around, followed by Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s, families and friends will likely come together from around the country. That includes college and university students, who could come home from Covid-19 hot spots back in their dorms or classrooms. If you put this all together, there’s a real risk of a truly nationwide Covid-19 outbreak. As people come together from all over the country and return to home and school, they risk carrying the disease across local and state borders. That could result in a much more dispersed — and perhaps larger — coronavirus epidemic than the US has seen so far. “People will bring this back during Thanksgiving, during Christmas, during winter break,” Dark said. “This is a disease that has an incubation period of up to two weeks. So it’s not really safe to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to come home, and come back.’ … By the time you develop symptoms, you’ve already exposed your parents.” On top of all that, another flu season this fall and winter could strain health care systems, hindering hospitals’ abilities to treat Covid-19 patients and potentially contributing to more deaths. There are reasons to think it won’t get so bad. Maybe since so many people have already gotten sick in the US, there will be enough community immunity, as long as there’s enough social distancing and masking, to mitigate spread. Maybe people won’t ease up on proper precautions after seeing 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the US. Perhaps social distancing and masking for Covid-19 will hold off another flu season, as seemed to happen in the Southern Hemisphere. But there’s a risk. And the numbers are already heading in the wrong direction. “The next number in the fall is likely going to shoot way up,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told me. “Likely well beyond 65,000, 70,000,” the summer’s previous peak. “I think this fall is going to be the biggest spike of all.” We still have time to act None of this set in stone. Experts told me again and again that the US still has time to act before it sees a repeat of the summer or worse. None of the ideas to prevent all of this are shocking or new. They’re all things people have heard before: 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, including mandates in the 16 states that still don’t have one. More careful, phased reopenings. This is what’s worked in other countries, from Germany to South Korea to New Zealand, to contain outbreaks. It’s what studies support: As a review of the research published in The Lancet found, “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.” It’s also what’s worked in the US. After suffering huge outbreaks in the spring, states like New York and Massachusetts have suppressed the coronavirus with such policies. Cities, such as San Francisco, have avoided bad outbreaks entirely with similar efforts. Even single universities, like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, have seen promising early results with aggressive testing and tracing. (The federal government would ideally be in charge of all of this, but Trump has by and large punted the pandemic down to the states to resolve.) “There’s no mystery about what causes new cases,” Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious diseases physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston University School of Medicine, told me. “We have to make trade-off choices.” Much of the issue comes back to a careful reopening process. For this, some experts pointed to a budget model. The goal is to keep the spread of the coronavirus low enough that each new infection doesn’t always lead to more infections, making it so over time the country slides to zero cases. In other words, the goal is to keep the effective reproduction number, or R0 or Rt in scientific parlance, below one. Within that limited budget of an R0 or Rt lower than one, states can try to fit some places to reopen but not everything. Everything that reopens will add to the infection rate. Some places may have tiny, even negligible effects, such as parks. Some are bigger threats, like bars and indoor dining. And some may carry potentially high risk but still seem worth it to the community for their social benefits, like schools. The goal, then, is to balance out a reopening — doing it slowly, making it possible to see the effects of each extra step — to make sure outbreaks don’t get out of control. Ultimately, it may require not opening bars or indoor dining, perhaps ever, so schools and other more socially crucial places can open. At the same time, the government could offer shuttered businesses a bailout or other financial supports. “For us, as a society, to be able to send children to school, we have to make tough decisions and sacrifices in other areas,” Jorge Salinas, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, told me. “We can’t have it all.” Other steps, too, could help build a bigger budget. More testing, tracing, and masking, for example, could reduce the infection rate in a community further, regardless of what else is going on. By striking this balance, the country can not only avoid more infections and deaths but potentially an outbreak from getting so bad that it necessitates another lockdown. While experts all agreed that there’s zero political appetite for a lockdown right now, a massive surge in the fall and winter could leave the US with no other option. Israel, for example, has shut down until early October at the earliest after suffering a massive increase in cases. The reality is that the US will likely not go back to normal until it vanquishes the virus through a vaccine or similar treatment — a process that could take months or years, even after a vaccine is proven safe and effective, as the country and world scale up distribution to actually reach sufficient levels of immunity within the population. But maybe the US will continue muddling along, or worse. The country has already shown a much higher tolerance for Covid-19 cases and deaths than the rest of the developed world. Trump, for his part, seems content with that — recently stating that the coronavirus “affects virtually nobody” and showing no interest in changing his hands-off approach. If that holds, America could suffer tens of thousands more predictable, preventable deaths, on top of the 200,000 Covid-19 deaths it’s already seen.
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Everything’s scary. What’s Halloween going to be like?
Halloween might look a little different, but there are still scares and sweets. | Getty Images Candy companies, haunted houses, and Party City are still ready for the spookiest holiday. Right now, I should be wandering the blood-soaked halls of a decrepit house. There should be a chainsaw-wielding clown waiting in the shadows. I should be struggling to see in the dark, about to suffer a mild panic attack when an air cannon shoots me in the face. Instead, I’m sitting on my couch alone, with no demented clowns in sight. You see, I’m supposed to be at Universal Studios, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their iconic haunted theme park event, Halloween Horror Nights. Unfortunately, the event was called off in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. For Halloween fanatics like me, the weeks leading up to October 31 are the most wonderful time of the year. They’re normally packed with haunted attractions, shopping trips to stock up on candy and décor, party planning, and agonizing over what costume to wear. But there’s an extra chill in the air this fall and it happens to be a pandemic. It’s fair to say Covid-19 has spooked Halloween. Los Angeles already banned trick-or-treating while other municipalities debate whether to follow suit. Most of the country’s biggest Halloween events are canceled, including Halloween Horror Nights, Walt Disney World’s Oogie Boogie Bash, Knott’s Scary Farm, the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, and the West Hollywood Halloween Carnival. Even the nation’s purveyor of culturally divisive marshmallow candies, Peeps, suspended production. For better or worse, that means no pumpkin-, ghost-, or Frankenstein-shaped marshmallows until 2021. Still, the $8.8 billion Halloween industry is nothing if not creative and resourceful. Even World War II didn’t stop Americans from trick-or-treating and putting on parades. While the holiday will certainly look different this year, it’s far from canceled. Peeps may be on hiatus, but other candy companies like Hershey are more optimistic. In the US, the brand launched a color-coded interactive map to track the Covid-19 risk level of every county and offer safe trick-or-treating suggestions. In Canada, they partnered with Snapchat to gamify trick-or-treating. The result, “Hershey’s Treat Quest,” will allow kids to hunt for candy at home using augmented reality. “We are expecting upticks in respect to celebrating at home,” says Ola Machnowski, senior marketing manager for Hershey Canada. “This year, Halloween does fall on a Saturday, so parents are going to have the interesting dilemma of, ‘How do I keep my child occupied for a full day?’ versus just the evening.” At any rate, Hershey attributes half of its Halloween sales to people buying candy for themselves and their families to consume at home (something I’d know nothing about). Rampant stress eating certainly shouldn’t hurt those numbers. View this post on Instagram A post shared by 3 MUSKETEERS (@3musketeers) on Aug 26, 2020 at 9:07am PDT Mars Wrigley, which makes M&Ms, Skittles, and Snickers, has its own online plans, launching a digital Treat Town where kids can virtually trick-or-treat with trusted contacts and actually receive real candy afterward via vouchers. Users can even decorate their in-app “doors” and create costumed avatars. There will be no shortage of opportunities to shop in the lead-up to America’s second-largest consumer holiday — one that typically sees almost half a billion dollars spent on pet costumes alone. Despite online rumors to the contrary and some very panicked customers, Spirit Halloween opened most of its 1,400 seasonal pop-up stores this fall. Big parties may be a no-go, but the retailer is promoting safe ways to celebrate including virtual costume contests, outdoor scavenger hunts, family game nights and, of course, going full-out with outdoor inflatables, lights, and animatronics to show up the neighbors. It seems to be working; Spirit’s CEO Steven Silverstein says sales look to be on par with last year. In similar fashion, Party City pivoted to highlight the potential of virtual parties and drive-by celebrations, including “trunk-or-treating” and contactless “booing and ghosting” (leaving spooky surprises on a neighbor’s front porch with a note that says, “You’ve been BOOed”). It helps that Halloween spending is increasingly influenced by the ’gram: In 2019, nearly half of millennials admitted to making Halloween purchases strictly for social media posts. Uber-basic DIY costumes are also making an (ironic?) comeback. A new TikTok trend sees teens dressing up in white sheets — often accessorized with a cool pair of sunglasses — to do ghost photoshoots. But it’s haunters, in particular, who are determined to make this Halloween simultaneously safer and scarier than ever. There are typically over 1,200 haunted attractions in the US each year. The haunters — those who work in haunted attractions and events — have dealt with societal crises before, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic and several wars. “A lot of haunt owners actually saw an uptick after 9/11 and throughout the Iraq War,” says Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and authored the book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. While this may seem counterintuitive,inducing controlled amounts of fear is arguably therapeutic, and haunts are a safe way to experience the fight-or-flight response without actually being in danger. “Doing things that are challenging or scary, even when there’s no real harm involved, and coming out the other side leaves us feeling like we’ve overcome and accomplished something,” explains Kerr.In fact, Americans originally conceived of haunted houses as a way to occupy and focus aimless teenage boys who wreaked havoc during the Great Depression. Drive-through haunts offer Covid-19-safe experiences in Houston, Orlando, and Tokyo, where “zombies” smear vehicles with fake blood (and helpfully clean it off afterward). Still, some traditional haunts are determined to forge ahead, albeit with innovative changes. Gone are the haunt industry’s favorite go-tos like claustrophobia walls, close contact with actors, and heavy curtains between rooms. The only scares within 6 feet these days are courtesy of machines. Located in Salt Lake City, Fear Factory was the country’s first haunt to reopen after Covid-19 shutdowns for their annual Halfway to Halloween event in May. In addition to more than 400 returning staff, the company hired a new safety team tasked with wiping down and sanitizing any and all potential touch points every 15 minutes. Their 60-page contingency plan, which is publicly available, serves as a roadmap for the rest of the industry. “I really think it’s safer to go to our haunted house than to go to the grocery store and get groceries,” says founder and COO Rob Dunfield. Fear Factory The Poison Skull King, one of many haunters at Fear Factory in Salt Lake City, Utah. Beyond physical distancing, haunts need to rethink everything from actors’ costumes to sound engineering. (Well-timed lighting and sound triggers can fool the senses to make someone seem a lot closer than they actually are.) All of Fear Factory’s actors wear PPE masks under their decorative masks, and makeup is only applied with contactless airbrushes. In some cases, PPE masks incorporate special-effects makeup to look like rotting flesh, vampiric grins, or metallic Bane-esque masks. “The scare has been completely redesigned,” says Dunfield. “We used to have animatronics draw customers’ attention so actors could pop out and startle them up close. Now, that’s reversed. The costumed actors draw attention from farther away, then trigger an animatronic, loud noise, or air blast to go off right next to a person.” The move of the season is to creepily observe guests from afar, waiting to be noticed before slowly tilting your head in the way only homicidal maniacs do. “It’s given our actors the opportunity to actually act more and develop characters. Before it was all screams, grunts, and jump scares,” says Dunfield. This season’s haunt themes fall in line with horror’s tendency to reflect cultural anxieties. For example, horror during the Cold War often featured alien attacks and invasions, representing Americans’ fear of foreign attacks and nuclear warfare. In the early 2000s, Guantanamo Bay and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib gave rise to “torture porn.” While it seems generally agreed upon that it’s way too soon for any sort of coronavirus or pandemic theme, adjacent ones like zombie outbreaks, surveillance, isolation, and post-apocalyptic worlds are popular choices to prey on guests’ current fears. “Others are going in the opposite direction, leaning more into supernatural and monster themes — things that are so far outside reality we can really suspend disbelief and enjoy the fantasy of it,” says Kerr. In many ways, 2020 itself has felt like one long, never-ending horror movie. We’re in need of release, some serious group therapy, and a healthy dose of escapism. Whether you want to dress up like a sexy Carole Baskin, stuff your face with candy, or scare yourself silly at haunts, Halloween might be just what the doctor ordered — even in the middle of a pandemic. 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 first 2020 presidential debate
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images President Trump and Vice President Biden will share the debate stage for the first time in Ohio. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this an election season unlike any other, but one constant will be the debates. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off onstage for the first time on September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the debate, which will run from 9 to 10:30 pm ET. He has selected six topics for the debate: Trump’s and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, the ongoing pandemic, the economy, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the election. The fifth topic, “Race and Violence in our Cities,” drew some objection — it appears to focus more on urban unrest than the struggle for racial justice. Bend the Arc, a liberal Jewish group, said the language “reinforces anti-Black fear mongering.” Trump has repeatedly raised questions about the last topic: the election’s integrity. On Wednesday, he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses, something no previous president has refused to do. This will be the first of three debates between Biden and Trump. The two will meet again in Miami on October 15 and in Nashville on October 22. The vice presidential nominees, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, will debate in Salt Lake City on October 7. Follow along below for Vox’s debate coverage, including how to watch, breaking news updates, analysis, and more.
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The Supreme Court is about to hit an undemocratic milestone
Whose vote counts, Explained/Netflix Minority rule has reached the highest court in the land. The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, back in 1991, was a squeaker: 52 yeas, 48 nays — the narrowest margin in over a century. The senators who voted to put him on the bench had won their most recent elections with a combined tally of 42 million votes. But the senators who voted “nay” were elected by 46 million. Thomas became the first Supreme Court justice to be confirmed by a bloc of senators who had been elected by a minority of voters. Then it happened again. And again and again. The senators who confirmed Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh received millions fewer votes than the senators who opposed their confirmations. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement seems certain to join the ranks of these “minority justices.” Even if Trump’s nominee wins the support of every Republican senator, including moderate hold-outs like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, all those senators combined received 13 million fewer votes than their colleagues across the aisle. With this new confirmation, the Supreme Court will enter a particularly undemocratic new era. For the first time since senators were directly elected, a controlling majority of the court will have been put there by senators who most voters didn’t choose. (And of course, the last three will have been nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes.) The Senate has always been one of the federal government’s least democratic institutions. Each state — big and small — gets two senators. That means Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has as much say about who goes on the Supreme Court as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, even though Sanders represents about 600,000 people, and Cruz represents 29 million. It also means the smallest 25 states — home to only about 15 percent of the US population — have as much power as the 25 biggest. And that’s not new; half the Senate has always represented about 15-25 percent of the population. And yet, for most of the Senate’s history, majority rule has endured. Traditions of civility and compromise, along with self-imposed rules like the filibuster, meant that most legislation was passed by a group of senators who represented a majority of the nation. Most Supreme Court justices were confirmed by large bipartisan majorities — like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (96 yeas, 3 nays). But in the past few decades, things have changed. The nation has become more polarized, confirmation votes have become much closer, and Senate norms have been abandoned. At the same time, Democrats are increasingly concentrated in larger states, giving the GOP a leg up in the Senate. Democrats control a majority of seats (26-24) in the 25 most populous states. Republicans however, have a much larger majority (29-21) in the 25 least populous states. Back in 1980, the average Republican voter had 6 percent more power in the Senate than the average Democratic voter. That advantage has grown to 14 percent. Whose vote counts, Explained/Netflix This imbalanced Senate has created the least democratic Supreme Court in modern history.
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Whose vote counts, the Netflix series, explained
Whose vote counts, Explained/Netflix Three new Explained episodes on the ways our democracy is broken. Elections aren’t just a measure of what parties and candidates people prefer; they’re a measure of who counts in a country. And that’s what Vox’s new Netflix special series Whose Vote Counts is about. You can watch all three episodes over on Netflix, launching on Monday, September 28. Americans vote at much lower rates than most other developed countries, and one of the most common reasons given is that people don’t think their vote matters. Voting does matter, enormously — but it makes sense that so many Americans feel that way. All kinds of systems unique to the United States keep voters from the polls, tip elections in favor of moneyed interests, and give some votes a lot more power than others. For the three episodes in this series, “The right to vote,” “Can you buy an election?” and “Whose vote counts,” we combed through piles of studies, analyzed reams of data, and spoke to leading experts who’ve lived these systems from the inside. The result, we hope, is three compelling stories that make the issues and their stakes clear — brought to life by our three incredibly talented narrators, who shared our passion for these issues: Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez, and John Legend. The topics of these episodes have been coming to a head in recent years. But as we were making this series, and the election season heated up, we were surprised at the new dimensions they took. The pandemic has brought unprecedented strains on American voting systems, and new opportunities for unfair play. But it’s also helped energize the debate over how American citizens want the system to work. Our series outlines some of the proposed solutions out there to make America’s democracy represent all its citizens better. Many of the experts we spoke to were hopeful that we may be at an inflection point — heightened awareness and renewed will might have the power to bring about significant reform. As one of our interviewees put it: “There’s no such thing as forever in a democracy.” It’s just up to the American people to decide what’s next. 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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Sen. Lindsey Graham lays out a swift schedule for confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee
Sen. Lindsey Graham during a September 2020 Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. | Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images He’s setting up Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a full Senate vote before the end of October. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham laid out a swift timeline on Sunday for confirming President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, telling Fox News his committee will approve Barrett by October 22. That could tee up her nomination for a full Senate vote before the end of the month. Graham’s schedule is putting the Senate on track for what could be one of the fastest Supreme Court justice confirmations in modern American history, and there’s not much that Democrats can do about it. Graham told Sunday Morning Futures host Maria Bartiromo that the confirmation process would begin October 12. A day of introduction would be followed by two days of questioning, and a review of the committee’s recommendation would begin October 15, he said. “We’ll report her nomination out of the committee on October 22,” Graham said. “Then it will be up to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell as to what to do with the nomination.” If Graham is able to stay on that schedule, McConnell will have the option to hold Barrett’s confirmation vote before Election Day — or during the lame-duck session after the elections. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has explained, this would be an expedited process, but it would be fully within the rules: In recent decades, the Supreme Court confirmation process — from nomination to the final vote — has lasted two to three months. Typically, this time is taken up by vetting of the nominee’s history, writings, and career, and then hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee (which can last several days), before Senate leaders attempt to line up sufficient support for a floor vote. But there’s no reason other than decorum that all this has to take so much time. If Republican senators are unconcerned about the appearances of an unseemly rush to a vote, they can certainly hold a quicker vote should they so desire. The speed of the process Graham outlined has rankled Democrats and defenders of deliberative propriety in the Senate because it implies the outcome of the committee process is preordained — and has led to Democratic concern that Barrett will not be vetted properly in the rush to confirm her. The proximity of the vote to Election Day is also unusual. No Supreme Court nominee has been confirmed after July during a presidential election year before. Democratic lawmakers have criticized McConnell for choosing to hold a confirmation so close to an election, particularly after he blocked former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in March 2016, arguing that a president should not nominate a new justice within several hundred days of a presidential election. Democrats have limited tools at their disposal for stopping the confirmation process Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that Democrats have some procedural weapons with which they can slow down the process, but that their arsenal isn’t powerful enough to derail the nomination process altogether. “We can slow it down perhaps a matter of hours, maybe days at the most, but we can’t stop the outcome,” the senator said. Durbin added he did not see the procedural protest ideas presented by a former Senate aide in the New York Times as strong enough to significantly postpone the nomination date. One of the ideas presented in the op-ed is that Democrats could boycott hearings. But as Prokop has pointed out, “Democrats have tried similar tactics with Graham’s committee in the past, and he has simply ignored the rules when they are inconvenient.” It’s unclear whether McConnell will pursue a full confirmation vote before Election Day, or after it, during the lame-duck session. Some pundits have argued that holding the vote before Election Day could energize Democratic voters. Graham noted during his Fox interview that Ginsburg’s death has resulted in a fundraising bonanza for Democrats — including his rival in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison. The windfall has been so great that Graham even twice asked viewers to donate money to his reelection campaign. “Their base is going nuts, they’ve raised $300 million, ActBlue has, since the passing of Justice Ginsburg,” he said. “I’m being outraised two to one. Every Republican running in the Senate is being hit hard with all of this money.” The fear for Republicans is that an enraged Democratic base could deliver key races — including South Carolina’s Senate race — for Democrats come Election Day. But there are downsides to waiting until after Election Day as well. If Democrats win back control of the Senate, then Republicans confirming a Supreme Court nominee during a lame-duck session would be perceived as flagrantly dismissing of the will of the electorate. That could increase the likelihood of aggressive reprisals by Democratic lawmakers, in the form of moves like abolishing the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court. (Of course, a Democratic-controlled Senate could pursue those policies regardless of whether McConnell moves before or after Election Day.) Ultimately for the GOP, the upshot of Graham’s schedule — and top Democrats’ signals that they don’t think they can stop the confirmation — is that the Republicans have many options as they contemplate how to best complete a move that could reshape the Supreme Court for a generation. 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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Joe Biden maintains a steady lead over Donald Trump in national polling
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leaves a campaign event on September 27, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. | Alex Wong/Getty Images Joe Biden is leading the polls in September. That puts him in historically good company. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump in national polling now stands at a 10 percentage point margin in new polling of registered voters conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News. That lead was reflected in additional polls reported over the weekend — in an Emerson College/NewsNation poll of likely voters, Biden led Trump by 4 percentage points, a slight jump from an August Emerson poll that showed Trump behind by just 2 percentage points. Biden’s lead over Trump has been remarkably consistent — he held a lead in head-to-head polling over Trump during the Democratic nomination process back in 2019, and the consistency of his polling margins over Trump was being discussed in historic terms in May of this year. Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — and resulting shutdown measures on the local and state level, unrest sparked by police misconduct, wildfires and hurricanes, the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (and the announcement of her likely replacement, Judge Amy Coney Barrett) — Biden has stayed ahead of Trump. Biden leads with critical constituencies (and in a big way) It’s important to remember that polls aren’t predictions. Rather, polls are snapshots in time, indicating what a group of Americans — whether registered voters, likely voters, or simply adults — are thinking at a particular point during a race. But it’s also worth noting that Biden’s current lead comes from a number of critical voting constituencies, including older Americans and white college graduates. For example, according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll, political moderates favor Biden by a 47 percentage point margin in comparison to Hillary Clinton’s 12 percentage point margin in exit polls back in 2016. Independent-voting women favor Biden by a 57 point margin, compared to Clinton’s 4 points four years ago. White women — a group that Trump won by 9 points back in 2016 — now favor Biden by a 15 point margin. All of these groups are key to victory — senior citizens are among America’s most reliable voting cohorts, as are, according to exit polling from 2016, white women. In 2016, 67 percent of white women said they voted, compared to 64 percent of white men, 50 percent of Hispanic women, and 64 percent of Black women. A shift among any of these groups — particularly in swing states with large populations of older voters, like Florida and Texas — could help shape the results of the 2020 election. But Trump has held onto the majority of his 2016 supporters — 91 percent of likely 2020 voters who voted for him four years ago plan to do so again. And importantly, Trump now has support from 87 percent of voters who consider themselves to be conservative, more than the 82 percent of conservative voters who supported Mitt Romney back in 2012 (or Reagan in 1984) and the 84 percent of conservative voters who supported George W. Bush in 2004. Putting the polls into context To put these polling results into historical context, I wanted to take a look at past September polls during election years, particularly during presidential races taking place between an incumbent president and a challenger. So I went back to the Septembers of 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, and 2012, and found that September polling has been a crucial indicator for incumbents, win or lose. In September of 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan held a strong lead over Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, leading in Gallup polling conducted that month by a near-20 percentage point margin. A New York Times/CBS News poll from September 19, 1984, found Reagan and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, led Mondale and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro 54 percent to 33 percent. Reagan would go on to win a landslide victory, carrying 49 of the 50 states that November. But in 1992, it was the Democratic challenger, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, who led the incumbent, then-President George H.W. Bush, in September, with a 49 to 37 percent lead in the New York Times/CBS Poll from September 16, 1992. And in September 1996, Clinton held a 53 to 36 percent advantage with likely voters against Republican nominee Bob Dole. In 2004, polling seemed to vary widely, with some polls taken in September of that year showing then-President George W. Bush with a 13-point lead over Democratic nominee John Kerry, but others showing a more even contest (Bush would go on to win 31 states and 50 percent of the popular vote.) And 2012 was a remarkably close contest in September, with then-President Barack Obama leading Republican nominee Mitt Romney by just 2 percentage points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted from September 26-29. I reached out to Steve Kornacki, a political correspondent for NBC News, who told me that Trump is in “measurably worse political shape” than any incumbent who won reelection since 1980, a list that would include Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. But, Kornacki added, “his position isn’t as weak as the two who lost. Bush ’92 and Carter ’80 both had approval ratings in the 30s at this point, while Trump is in the mid-40s. (Carter was able to defy gravity for much of the ’80 race because of doubts about Reagan, but those melted away late, possibly because of that late October debate.)” Altogether, the national polls may not be as dire for the president as they appear, Kornacki said: “I’d say Trump’s behind, but only needs a few points of movement to have a real shot. Of course, with public opinion so entrenched, even a few points of positive movement may be asking too much for him.” 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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Another top Democrat signals openness to abolishing the filibuster
Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin at the 2020 State of the Union address. | Mario Tama/Getty Images Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said he’s part of Democratic discussions on changes to Senate rules. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) indicated on Sunday that Democrats are engaged in serious discussions about abolishing the filibuster should their party regain control of the Senate in November. Speaking on On ABC’s This Week, Durbin was noncommittal about where the Democratic Party’s discussions may lead, but said talks about changing the Senate’s rules are now necessary because he believes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has caused the “destruction” of the US Senate. This Week host George Stephanopoulos specifically asked whether Durbin backed Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) proposal that Democrats expand the Supreme Court and scrap the filibuster, a rule that effectively creates a 60 vote threshold for passing major legislation when the party is next in control of the Senate. “The conversation about the future of the Senate rules is on the table, and I’m part of it,” Durbin replied. “The reason is this: we have seen under Mitch McConnell the destruction and the denigration of the United States Senate.” NEW: “A conversation about the future of the Senate rules is on the table … we have seen under Mitch McConnell the destruction and denigration of the (Senate),” Sen. Dick Durbin says on calls from some Democrats to end filibuster and expand Supreme Court. https://t.co/xyScz0SW2y pic.twitter.com/TllFTXbSPX— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) September 27, 2020 Durbin did not comment on the question of expanding the Supreme Court, but he did suggest that Democratic leadership is warming to the idea of the sweeping rules change, which would allow legislation to be passed through a simple majority vote. Durbin suggested that a simpler process would allow the Senate to pass more legislation. “Last year in the Senate, 2019, we had 22 amendments voted on in the entire year,” he said. “Mitch McConnell has taken the Senate and turned it into something that is not even close to a deliberative and legislative and body — we need to make sure that whatever the procedure is in the future that we get down to business.” Jettisoning the filibuster is an idea that’s gained a great deal of attention in liberal circles in recent years, with figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) endorsing the idea. Following McConnell’s choice to violate the precedent he set in 2016 on considering Supreme Court justices for nomination, a greater number of Democrats, including more moderate lawmakers, have advocated for radical changes to the Senate. “Let me be clear: If Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans move forward with [nominating a Supreme Court judge], then nothing is off the table for next year,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said during a call with the Democratic caucus last weekend. “Nothing is off the table.” Not all Democrats share Schumer’s aggressiveness so far, however. On CNN’s State of the Union, Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the party’s most moderate senators, said that he wouldn’t support expanding the Supreme Court or getting rid of the filibuster. “The whole premise of this Senate and this democracy experiment of ours is certain decency and social order that basically has been expected from us and especially from the Senate from the beginning of our government,” he said. Abolishing filibuster is becoming a bigger and bigger target for Democrats The battle between Democrats and Republicans over filling the vacancy left by the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg right before a presidential election has sparked a broader discussion of norms in government. And whether the filibuster ought to be part of those norms has become an important part of that discussion. The use of the filibuster to block legislation unless it can surmount a 60 vote threshold has increased since the 1970s — and it skyrocketed during the Obama administration; political scientists say Republicans have spearheaded its increased use. Since it’s extremely rare and difficult for a party to control 60 seats in the Senate, the 60 vote threshold has the effect of dramatically dampening a majority party’s capacity to pass bills. Ending the filibuster would allow legislation to pass the Senate with a simple majority of more than 50 votes. Prominent Democrats have warmed to the idea in the past year in the past several months. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) was once a passionate defender of the rule — but earlier this summer he expressed openness to getting rid of it. At the funeral of civil rights icon and congressman Rep. John Lewis in July, former President Barack Obama offered his strongest criticism of the filibuster to date, arguing that it was a persistent obstacle to civil rights legislation. “If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who spent more than 35 years as a senator and has historically supported the filibuster, said in July that he’s open to Democrats scrapping the rule. He framed it as something that Democrats would consider if Republicans refused to cooperate with them even after losing the Senate. “It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” Biden said on a call with reporters. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.” Biden has since tempered those remarks, but Durbin’s statement Sunday suggests that among those who are still in the Senate, there is a serious willingness to, at the very least, consider changing the rule.
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Poll: Half of Americans who lost their job during the pandemic still don’t have one
A New York City store prepares to shut its doors permanently in September 2020. | Noam Galai/Getty Images The finding comes in a new Pew study that also found many Americans struggling to pay bills. Roughly six months after the coronavirus outbreak began to wreak havoc on the US economy, about half of those who lost their job say they are still without one. That’s one of the most notable findings of a new Pew Research Center survey, which paints a picture of a nation still reeling economically even as it recovers from the labor market free-fall earlier this year that intensified as Covid-19 cases increased, and state lockdowns froze businesses across the country. The study, which surveyed 13,200 US adults in the first two weeks of August, found some limited recovery with respect to employment: Of all those who said they had lost a job, a third have returned to their old job, and 15 percent say they have a new job. But that limited recovery has not been one shared equally by workers at different income levels: According to Pew, while 58 percent of upper- and middle-income adults who lost a job due to to coronavirus have returned to their old job or gotten a new one, only 43 percent of lower-income adults have been able to the same. The study’s findings also include a number of other indicators of ongoing economic hardship. “One-in-four adults have had trouble paying their bills since the coronavirus outbreak started, a third have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet, and about one-in-six have borrowed money from friends or family or gotten food from a food bank,” the report reads. Pew’s findings track roughly with government data and other economic analyses of the labor market. Less than half of the 22 million jobs lost during the early stages of the pandemic have been recovered, according to the New York Times. The Labor Department said earlier in September that in August that the economy added 1.4 million jobs in August, bringing the overall unemployment rate down to 8.4 percent. As Vox’s Aaron Ross Coleman has noted, that unemployment rate doesn’t reflect the exceptionally high rates faced by workers of color — for example, while the August unemployment rate for white Americans was 7.3 percent, the rate for Black Americans was 13 percent; Asian and Latinx Americans also saw unemployment rates higher than 10 percent. As with Pew’s results on regained jobs, the findings were a reminder the economy is not improving at the same rate for everyone. And overall, the department’s findings suggested reason for concern. The jobs report signaled a slowdown from earlier in the summer: the economy added 4.8 million jobs in June, and 1.7 million in July. With job growth slowing down and economic assistance from Congress stalled, economists and forecasters have cast doubt on the prospects of a rapid, or V-shaped, economic recovery. “I continue to view the glass as half-empty. We’re still a long ways from where we were pre-Covid,” Gregory Daco, chief US economist at Oxford Economics, told MarketWatch recently. It’s unclear when a coronavirus relief bill will have any chance of passing Pew’s findings — as well as the Labor Department’s report — show Americans are in great need of aid. However, attempts to unveil a new federal economic stimulus package have repeatedly failed, even as programs created earlier in the year — like an extra $600 per week in federal funds for the unemployed — have ended. On Thursday, however, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have agreed to restart negotiations over another coronavirus relief bill after talks collapsed in August. The two parties have struggled to find a compromise on the size and scope of relief legislation, with Republicans preferring to offer a far smaller amount of aid than Democrats. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May, but Republicans struggled for months to answer it with legislation of their own. In September, Senate Republicans announced their plan, a much narrower relief package that would provide $650 billion in new funding. Democrats argued the bill did not provide enough aid, and the legislation failed to pass the Senate. How much aid is necessary has been a sticking point for negotiations between the parties, with Democrats standing firm on the need for trillions of dollars in stimulus. However, Pelosi has now reportedly directed Democratic committee chairs in the House to design a more modest coronavirus relief package to bring to the next set of negotiations with the White House. Moderate Democrats whose face tough reelections odds have reportedly been applying pressure to Pelosi to put out a new bill that they can vote on before the House’s next recess, which is currently set to begin on October 5. Outside of Congress, the time line is even more urgent. With September ending, rent and other bills are coming due. But millions of Americans who could benefit from more robust unemployment aid, stimulus checks, more state-run services, and aid for their businesses, continue to wait for help.
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President Trump nominates Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court
Alex Brandon/AP Barrett has been nominated to fill the seat held by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. President Donald Trump has chosen Judge Amy Coney Barrett — who is currently serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit — to fill the Supreme Court seat previously held by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett was nominated to the Seventh Circuit by President Trump in 2017. Barrett is a staunch Catholic, a favorite of the religious right, and a former law clerk to conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Her judicial record is fairly thin, owing to the fact that she’s only been a judge for about three years, but that short record suggests she’ll be a reliable conservative if confirmed to the Supreme Court. Follow this storystream for all of Vox’s coverage of Barrett’s nomination, her record on policy issues, her Senate confirmation process, and more.
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Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, has a years-long record of ruling against immigrants
President Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to announce her as his nominee to the Supreme Court. | Alex Brandon/AP At the Seventh Circuit, she backed one of Trump’s key immigration policies. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, has been an obstacle to the advancement of immigrant rights during her time on the Seventh Circuit — and if confirmed, may continue to impede immigrant rights on the Supreme Court. Barrett has helped to advance Trump’s policies during her three years as a federal appellate judge. She sided with Trump in a case over Trump’s policy imposing a wealth test on the millions of immigrants who seek to come to the US annually. In her whopping 40-page dissent in that case, she laid out why the US has the right to block people who it deems likely to become dependent on public assistance in the future — even if they have never used public assistance in the past. She has also repeatedly refused to review cases brought by immigrants applying for humanitarian protections and other immigration benefits who claimed they had been wrongfully denied. Some of those decisions may have negative repercussions for future such applicants; given that they set a precedent to be followed by judges in lower courts, these refusals could make it harder for immigrants to challenge an adverse decision from a consular officer on their visa application or obtain deportation relief from an immigration judge. If confirmed by the Senate, as is expected, Barrett could help Trump achieve his vision of an immigration system that is primarily concerned with keeping people out, particularly those from low-income backgrounds — and one that increasingly rewards skills and wealth over family ties to the US. (Though he has even imposed restrictions on skilled immigrants amid the pandemic.) The Supreme Court has upheld some of Trump’s signature immigration policies, including his travel ban policy. But it has also thwarted him at key moments: It has temporarily prevented him from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has allowed more than 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the US, and blocked him from putting a citizenship question on the 2020 census, which experts said would depress response rates in immigrant communities. In those rulings against Trump, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals and cast deciding votes. But Barrett could tip the scales in favor of conservatives on high-profile immigration cases going forward, including one challenging Trump’s policy to exclude unauthorized immigrants from census population counts that will be used to redraw congressional districts in 2021 that will likely come before the justices by the end of the year. Here are some of the key immigration decisions Barrett has issued so far: She sided with Trump over one his its key immigration policies: The public charge rule. Perhaps Barrett’s most pivotal immigration ruling was her dissent in the case Cook County v. Wolf, in which the Seventh Circuit temporarily prevented the Trump administration from implementing its so-called “public charge” rule that created barriers to low-income immigrants seeking to enter the US. Published last year by the Department of Homeland Security, the rule establisheda test to determine whether an immigrant applying to enter the US, extend their visa, or convert their temporary immigration status into a green card is likely to end up relying on public benefits in the future. The rule has given immigration officialsmore leeway to turn away those who are “likely to be a public charge” based on an evaluation of 20 factors, ranging from the use of certain public benefits programs — including food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, and Medicaid — to English-language proficiency. It represents one of President Trump’s biggest blows to legal immigration so far. In June, a majority of the Seventh Circuit voted to strike down the rule, arguing that it “set[s] a trap for the unwary by penalizing people for accepting benefits Congress made available to them.” In her 40-page dissent, Barrett said that she would have upheld the rule, arguing that those challenging it had set forth an exceedingly narrow definition of what it means to be a “public charge” that isn’t consistent with federal law. “Congress’s willingness to authorize funds to help immigrants who encounter unexpected trouble is perfectly consistent with its reluctance to admit immigrants whose need for help is predictable upon arrival,” she wrote in her dissent. The rule went into effect again earlier this month following another federal court ruling. It has affected immigrants applying for green cards nationwide and at consulates abroad, as well as those applying for temporary visas overseas such as tourists, business travelers, students, and skilled workers. The administration hasn’t released detailed data on how many people have been affected by the rule. But Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, told Vox that 69 percent of the roughly 5.5 million people who were granted green cards over the past five years would have had at least one negative factor under the rule — which officials could have used as justification to reject their applications for immigration benefits. She dismissed a man’s claim for humanitarian protections In August 2018, Barrett refused to review a Salvadoran citizen’s petition for humanitarian protection in the US, which had been dismissed by immigration judges who didn’t find him to be a credible witness. Gerson Alvarenga-Flores had testified that he fled El Salvador after witnessing his friend’s murder at the hands of criminal gang members, who consequently threatened him. After he was apprehended at the border and detained, he claimed that he feared returning to his home country and applied for several forms of humanitarian protection, including asylum and protections under the Convention Against Torture. The immigration judge in his case found inconsistencies in Alvarenga’s testimony: He once claimed that he had been attacked by gang members while in a taxi and, on another occasion, said he was approached by them on a bus. Alvarenga explained that he gave the testimony in English, even though he does not speak English, which could have led to the confusion. But the judge nevertheless concluded that his account of being targeted by gangs wasn’t credible, without even considering whether he would have deserved humanitarian protection. Writing an opinion on behalf of a panel of Seventh Circuit judges, Barrett deferred to the immigration judge, agreeing that Alvarenga was unable to provide an adequate explanation for the discrepancies in his account. “These two encounters with gang members were crucial to Alvarenga’s claim that gang members were likely to torture him if he returned to El Salvador, yet he could not keep the facts straight with respect to either one,” she wrote. She ruled against a US citizen challenging his wife’s visa denial In January 2019, Barrett refused to reconsider a case brought by a naturalized US citizen, Moshin Yafai, whose wife Zahoor Ahmed, a citizen of Yemen, was twice denied a green card. The consular officer had denied Ahmed’s green card on the grounds that she allegedly tried to smuggle her two children across the border, even though Ahmed and her husband had provided documentation to the embassy that their children had died in a drowning accident. Writing the Seventh Circuit’s majority opinion, Barrett found that the consular officer nevertheless did not appear to act in bad faith and even asked for more information, “suggest[ing] a desire to get it right.” That meant that her court couldn’t review the consular officer’s decision, she said. The ruling could make it harder for visa applicants to challenge arbitrary denials down the line. Generally, courts can’t review the decisions of consular officers, who interview applicants for immigration benefits and decide whether or not to approve their visas or green cards. There is a narrow exception in the law that allows a US citizen to challenge a consular officer’s decision if it infringes on one of their constitutional rights. But it’s not clear whether one of those constitutional rights is to live with one’s spouse in the US, as Yafai had argued, she said. “The status of this right is uncertain,” she wrote in the opinion. “Even if the denial of Ahmed’s visa application implicated a constitutional right of Yafai’s, his claim fails because the consular officer’s decision was facially legitimate and bona fide.” She voted to deport a man who maintained lawful permanent residency for 30 years In June 2019, Barrett cast the deciding vote in a Seventh Circuit case resulting in the immediate deportation of a Mexican immigrant who had been a lawful permanent resident of the US for three decades and first arrived in the US at age 10. He had been convicted for drug crimes resulting in a more than 10 year prison sentence, but because his mother was a US citizen, he believed he had a right to remain in the US. The immigrant, Ruben Lopez Ramos, was not given the chance to argue that his deportation violated his rights under the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. A short, one-paragraph order sealed his fate, claiming that his argument was “irrational” and had “little chance of succeeding.” One of Barrett’s colleagues, dissenting, argued that Ramos should have been given his day in court, noting that, due to a now-repealed law, he would have derived US citizenship from his mother had she lived in the US prior to his birth and he could not have been deported. Ramos argued that he was subjected to differential treatment under that law in violation of his Equal Protection rights. “He might be right,” US Circuit Judge David Hamilton wrote. Ultimately, however, due to Barrett’s vote, the Seventh Circuit never considered the issue.
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How the pandemic is bringing Elon Musk’s dream to connect everyone on Earth closer to reality
Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox How the technology behind airplane wifi could help connect everyone on Earth. In vast swathes of the United States and the world, there are millions of people who don’t have reliable internet access. These unconnected people aren’t just in far-flung places like rural America or New Zealand or Sub-Saharan Africa, either. There are plenty of people living in dense city centers who struggle to access affordable broadband. The pandemic has brought new urgency to the problem, and while companies like Google and Facebook have floated far-out ideas for solving this problem, the internet technology that’s most promising is also the one that’s already proven: satellite broadband. In early March, just days before cities across the United States shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Elon Musk shared the latest details about his plan to build a satellite broadband service called Starlink. Speaking to an audience at a satellite conference in Washington DC, Musk described how a constellation of Starlink satellites will “blink” when they enter low-Earth orbit. As described, they almost sound like streaks of glitter in the night sky, or magic bands of flying gadgets that can beam internet down to anyone on the planet. Combined with improvements to existing technology like DSL, cable, and fiber — not to mention 4G and 5G cellular networks — futuristic satellite broadband stands to bridge the digital divide in the US and elsewhere. And because the pandemic has prompted explosive demand for better, more widely available internet connectivity, fast progress seems more inevitable than ever. Musk’s new satellites went online in early September, giving beta testers download speeds that rival those of terrestrial broadband. SpaceX has now put 700 Starlink satellites into orbit in the past 16 months and has plans to deliver as many as 30,000 more in the next few years. More satellites mean more bandwidth and faster speeds, and eventually, SpaceX says its low-Earth orbit satellite constellations could deliver high-speed internet to the entire US. Amazon, Facebook, and several startups have made similar promises in recent years. The concept of satellite-based internet service is actually decades old. However, the innovative low-Earth orbit satellite technology being developed by SpaceX and others could be essential, if not transformative, for everything from telemedicine to remote learning in places that aren’t already connected. Satellite broadband could also be very profitable to whichever company figures it out first. One could imagine Amazon using satellite broadband to boost its Amazon Web Services (AWS) business or Facebook using it to ensure that more people get online and look at Facebook. And if Musk gets his way, his Starlink constellation will generate billions of dollars in profits to fund his mission to colonize Mars. This all sounds futuristic, but satellite broadband is already a very real thing. In fact, if you’ve ever connected to the wifi on a plane or cruise ship, you’ve probably used it. The basic idea is that ground stations connected to the internet, known as gateways, can send data up to a satellite which then relays that data to antennas somewhere else on the ground — or on a ship or an airplane. The problem with this technological feat is that it’s all very expensive. It can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to launch satellites into space, and that’s not even taking into account what it takes to get over regulatory hurdles. Plenty of companies have tried and failed to crack the business model in the past 20 years, but rather suddenly, the space internet game has changed. “The Covid-19 crisis has significantly accelerated attention to and investment in satellite technology,” Babak Behesti, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology, told Recode, who added that the number of launches had gone up 10 fold from last year to this year. “Why? Because schools, local governments, and others suddenly needed to have broadband internet access in areas where there was really no infrastructure in place.” This might sound like proof that satellite broadband is finally on its way to solving the digital divide, but the situation remains incredibly tenuous. As SpaceX started firing up its Starlink satellites, Amazon in July received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)l to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for a constellation of its own called Project Kuiper. Meanwhile, longtime satellite broadband industry leaders like Viasat can’t seem to get new satellites into the sky fast enough to keep up with demand. And along the way, the federal government is pledging billions of dollars in subsidies to companies that bring broadband to rural America. In some ways, the dream of connecting everyone on Earth has never been closer. In other ways, it’s hard to tell if the latest innovative ideas will suffer the same pitfalls as those of years’ past. Satellite broadband, briefly explained Satellite broadband is exactly what it sounds like: broadband internet access delivered via satellite. The basic idea hasn’t changed much since the heyday of satellite TV in the late ‘90s, when companies would beam internet connectivity to the same dish that received your HBO signal at speeds that were faster than dialup but still slower than today’s broadband. In 2020, there are two main ways that companies deliver satellite broadband. The key difference between them is how high the satellites orbit. Geosynchronous satellites, which orbit about 22,000 miles above a fixed place on Earth’s surface, is an older technology that companies like Viasat use for broadband connections. You’ve probably used this tech for airplane wifi. Then there are low-earth orbit constellations, which are made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller satellites that orbit between 300 and 1,200 miles above the earth. This is the approach that’s getting all of the buzz lately and the one that SpaceX and Amazon are taking. Geosynchronous satellites are the more mature, more proven technology. Viasat and a company called Hughes, which is the former parent company of DirecTV, have been around for decades. (DirecTV actually used its dishes and infrastructure to offer a satellite internet service called DirecPC back in the late ‘90s.) Viasat and Hughes are also the two companies that most likely offer satellite broadband in remote parts of the US right now. If you’re someone who lives in the New Hampshire wilderness, where there are no terrestrial broadband options, you can get a version of DSL, which operates on existing copper telephone lines, that’s essentially as sluggish as dial-up or you can sign up for geosynchronous satellite broadband through Viasat or Hughes and get speeds comparable to basic broadband: about 25 megabits-per-second. Plans start at $40 to $50 a month and get more expensive if you want more bandwidth. Though they are dependable, these geosynchronous satellite systems have some issues. The main one is latency. The satellites are thousands of miles above Earth’s surface, so it takes time for data to travel — and that might mean a slight delay between sending and receiving. This isn’t a problem if you’re just browsing the web. It’s a significant problem if you’re trying to stream video games or do video calls, something we’re all doing more than ever before. Just think about remote TV news correspondents who have to wait half a beat between when the anchor in the studio asks the question and when they hear it in their earpiece, as the signal travels up to a communications satellite and then back down to the surface. Low-Earth orbit constellations, like the ones SpaceX and Amazon are building, promise to solve the latency problem. Because the satellites are closer to the ground, the data doesn’t have to travel as far. Musk says this means latency on SpaceX’s Starlink satellites,which will orbit at around 340 miles above the surface, will offer high latency, thus reducing the risk of lag. The latency question is a big deal to the FCC and its decision to hand out billions of dollars in subsidies, by the way. The agency says it will prioritize networks that offer low latency when giving out funding. Still, there are other unanswered questions about just how fast and dependable newly designed low-Earth orbit constellations will be. Unlike geosynchronous satellites, which are fixed above one spot, low-Earth orbit satellites circle the planet every 90 to 120 minutes. They’re designed to stay connected to the ground station and to the end user by staying connected to each other, but if this chain gets broken, it would disrupt the connection. These constellations are also made up of thousands of relatively small satellites — Starlink satellites weigh less than 600 pounds — which means they require multiple launches, which are expensive. “As more satellites go up, they optimize the network architecture,” explained Manny Shar, Head of Analytics at Bryce Space and Technology. “In the next couple of years, we should see decent improvements in rural areas where there’s really limited capability, and there’s limited competition to improve that. So at the very least, there will be an alternative option that those rural users can take advantage of.” Shar’s point about limited competition is an important one to highlight. Many parts of the United States, for instance, have access to slower DSL connections thanks to telephone lines, but because upgrading that infrastructure is so expensive, the telecom companies that serve those areas often have little incentive to do so. That leaves residents depending on a mix of poor wired connections and often spotty cellular networks. New technology like 5G could ostensibly bring faster cellular speeds to remote areas, but again, building that infrastructure takes time and money. Satellite broadband, meanwhile, can beam fast, reliable, and potentially affordable internet access down to nearly anywhere on Earth. This also requires time and money, but what we’re seeing in 2020 is that the pandemic is attracting all kinds of investment in the technology, which means more satellites are launching. Both geosynchronous and low-Earth orbit satellite broadband systems have pros and cons. The former is already viable, albeit not perfect. The latter holds promise, albeit unfulfilled. Inevitably, though, to get to that goal of connecting more people, it will all come down to money. Slow march of progress The future of satellite-based broadband largely depends on who can get the most bandwidth into space for the least amount of money. Each individual satellite, by design, can offer a limited amount of bandwidth, so companies are either making lots of satellites to launch at once — this is what SpaceX is doing — or they’re investing technological improvements and launching new satellites every few years. This is Viasat’s strategy, and the company plans to launch a new satellite called Viasat 3 next year that’s expected to vastly improve its network. This satellite and others like it weigh tens of thousands of pounds, so these launches are expensive. So one could see the appeal of launching lots of smaller satellites over time, especially if you’re a company like SpaceX and own your own rockets. Amazon and its Project Kuiper, similarly, have the benefit of being owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the rocket ship maker Blue Origin. It’s so far unclear how Blue Origin might factor into Project Kuiper, however. In fact, Amazon has revealed very little about the project other than it plans to offer affordable high speed, low-latency internet service through low-Earth orbit satellites. “There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all,” Amazon senior vice president Dave Limp, Senior said in a statement following the FCC’s approval of the first Project Kuiper launch. “Our $10 billion investment will create jobs and infrastructure around the United States that will help us close this gap.” It’s worth pointing out a difficult truth here. Selling affordable satellite broadband to individual customers in rural areas will not generate enough revenue to send the needed satellites to space. Again, each launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and selling service for $40 a month to individual households can’t cover the startup costs. And even then, not everyone that needs internet access can afford that. This economic challenge is part of the reason why the dream of offering satellite-based internet service to anybody on earth — or any other kind of reliable, high-speed internet service — has been so elusive. This is why companies that have been successful at building satellite broadband networks have approached the challenge from different angles. Viasat, for instance, spent years building out an enterprise business, selling bandwidth to the military and governments, not to mention helping you get wifi on airplanes. Now, the company says that demand from the consumer market has been on the rise and has simply exploded since the pandemic hit. And that demand isn’t necessarily coming from the most remote areas. “It turns out that a lot of the demand tends to be around the major metro areas,” said Viasat CEO Mark Dankburg. “In the highest demand markets — in the Midwest, in the Southeast — we’ve been out of bandwidth for two years. So we can’t have that many more customers until we get our next satellite.” Dankburg added that Viasat is developing technology that would involve connecting its existing geosynchronous satellites with its own low-Earth orbit satellites, as well as cellular networks, for faster, lower latency connections. As Recode’s Emily Stewart recently explained, broadband access isn’t just a problem in rural Montana. Even in city centers and suburbs, the infrastructure to offer high-speed internet access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive for many people to afford. This means that new options, including space internet, could stand to connect millions of Americans more quickly than it would take to expand existing terrestrial infrastructure. That doesn’t make providing access to those in far-flung regions any less of a priority, and government subsidy programs are helping to make this happen, albeit slowly. Coincidentally, just as the pandemic pushed the country into lockdown, the FCC launched its Digital Rural Opportunity Fund, which will provide up to $16 billion to telecom companies that expand internet access in rural areas. SpaceX has applied for funding, although it must prove that its service offers the low latency and high speeds required by the agency to get the money. Viasat received $87.1 million in funding from a similar FCC program last year. Again, in the absence of government funding, companies like SpaceX and Amazon are in a unique position to take the lead in the satellite broadband industry because building such an infrastructure will come in handy for other reasons. SpaceX is in a unique position to deliver its satellites into low-Earth orbit. The benefit of Amazon owning its own satellite broadband network also seems apparent. When it goes online, Project Kuiper could be an immediate boon to the company’s AWS business. “Amazon is essentially, effectively going to be its own biggest customer to really prime the pump for the revenue stream,” said Behesti, who is also a senior member of IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). “And then, obviously, the additional revenue streams would come from the residential individual consumers.” The benefits of satellite-based internet services have been obvious for years. However, for years, companies have struggled to make those ambitions meet reality. It’s not for lack of trying — and trying creative approaches, too. Alphabet continues to pursue a project called Loon, which started out as a Google experiment about 10 years ago. Loon involves using high-altitude balloons that beam internet access down to rural areas. After being deployed in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a fleet of Loon balloons started delivering service to millions of people in Kenya in July, marking the first commercial application of the technology. Meanwhile, Facebook has had its own far-fetched plans. Its initiative called Internet.org that aims to connect the entire planet suffered a big setback in 2016, when a SpaceX rocket carrying a satellite designed to deliver internet access to sub-Saharan Africa exploded on the launch pad. There was also Project Aquila, which involved sending solar-powered drones 60,000 feet into the atmosphere to connect rural areas. The company abandoned the project in 2018. Big internet companies like Facebook and Google have also faced backlash for their lofty connectivity projects. While projects like Loon and Internet.org are billed as charitable initiatives to serve the public good, critics say they stand to violate the principles of net neutrality and serve the companies’ best interest, rather than the public’s. After all, a free or low-cost internet service from Facebook or Google could simply steer billions of people to Facebook and Google’s products and services, balkanizing the internet as we know it. With all of these efforts, there’s bound to be more failures and possibly more backlash in the future. Elon Musk’s goal of offering high-speed broadband to everyone on Earth is a lofty one. We do know that such a thing is technically possible. It’s expensive, and plenty of smart people are figuring out how to pay for it, while other promising tech, like 5G, continues to roll out. But if anything would motivate such a tremendous disruption in the internet service business, the pandemic should do it. Never before have we depended so much on connectivity. We might just have to leave planet Earth to get it.
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How Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court could affect LGBTQ rights
People holding placards in support of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as a potential nominee for Supreme Court Justice as supporters of U.S President Donald Trump arrive at a Great American Comeback campaign rally at the Jacksonville JetPort at Cecil Airport. | Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images She once questioned the court’s landmark ruling on marriage equality. President Donald Trump reportedly will nominate federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, a choice LGBTQ rights groups are concerned could lead to a reduction in the rights enjoyed by LGBTQ Americans. The Supreme Court has been historically been important for the advancement of LGBTQ rights, with its rulings giving gay and lesbian people marriage equality and recently ruling that queer and trans people are protected from employment discrimination under federal law. And there are a number of important cases soon to come before the court; for example, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia is set to be heard the day after election day. That case, in which a religious adoption agency is seeking the right to turn away LGBTQ couples, will determine whether taxpayer-funded organizations are allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Senate Republicans have already promised a speedy confirmation process to install Trump’s nominee before the election, suggesting Barrett, if she is indeed the president’s nominee, will soon be on the Supreme Court. Barrett is a Catholic and former Notre Dame law professor; she has not said how she would rule in cases about LGBTQ rights, but she has spoken and written extensively about her conservative view on reproduction and sexuality. And these remarks have some of her critics concerned that she will swing the balance of the court towards a more conservative agenda on the issue of LGBTQ rights. What we know about Barrett’s record on LGBTQ rights As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, while Barrett has not served for long as a federal judge — and thus does not have as long a judicial record as many Supreme Court nominees have has — as a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, “she frequently weighed in on many of the cultural fights that animate religious conservatism.” One of these is the issue of LGBTQ rights, which has been a long and evolving interest for conservatives, many of who have fought against policies such as trans people using the bathrooms that align with their gender identity and transition care for trans teens. Some of Barrett’s most notable comments on the issue came during a lecture she gave at Jacksonville University ahead of the 2016 presidential election, while she was a professor at the University of Notre Dame. In that lecture, she defended the dissenters in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court ruling which made marriage equality the law of the land, as well as suggesting the Title IX rights afforded to transgender people ought to be reviewed by lawmakers. “Maybe things have changed so that we should change Title IX,” Barrett said during the lecture. “Maybe those arguing in favor of this kind of transgender bathroom access are right. ... But it does seem to strain the text of the statute to say that Title IX demands it, so is that the kind of thing that the court should interpret the statute to update it to pick sides on this policy debate? Or should we go to our Congress?” Also concerning LGTBQ advocates is that Barrett — who is Catholic — signed a letter in 2015 addressed to Catholic bishops that detailed her personal beliefs, and that included a statement that “marriage and family founded on the indissoluble commitment of a man and a woman.” This, Millhiser notes, would seem to “suggest that Barrett personally opposes marriage equality — and potentially opposes extending other rights to LGBTQ people.” In her Jacksonville University lecture, Barrett similarly deployed language, suggesting an adversarial stance towards trans issues by misgendering transgender women in the calling them “physiological males.” This is one statement, but to many advocates her words seem an ominous portent for the nascent transgender rights movement, which scored a big win at the high court this June in Bostock v Clayton County, which determined that transgender people are protected from employment discrimination under federal civil rights law. The Human Rights Campaign, for instance, has taken issue with Barrett’s likely nomination, highlighting Barrett’s Jacksonville University speech. In a statement Friday, Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said “If she is nominated and confirmed, Coney Barrett would work to dismantle all that Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for during her extraordinary career.” Of concern to activists like David is that Bostock isn’t the only trans rights case that will hit the Supreme Court under the next justice’s tenure. The court will be called upon to rule on several big legal battles have been brewing for years, over issues such as transgender student bathroom rights, or trans women participating in women’s sports. Should Barrett be confirmed, her work on the court may depart from her personal views. However, as Millhiser writes, her personal and professional thinking has aligned in the past: Barrett’s limited judicial record suggests that her approach to constitutional interpretation aligns with her conservative political views. In Planned Parenthood v. Box(2019), Barrett joined a brief dissent arguing that her court should rehear a case that blocked an anti-abortion law before that law took effect. That opinion argued that “preventing a state statute from taking effect is a judicial act of extraordinary gravity in our federal structure” — suggesting that Barrett would have prevented her court from blocking the anti-abortion law at the heart of that case if given the chance. And it is this judicial record, limited though it is, that has led activists to express concern Barrett’s appointment could limit LGBTQ rights in future rulings.
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The Trump administration is challenging a court ruling that prevents it from ending the census early
US Census workers stand outside Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on September 24, 2020 in New York City. | Noam Galai/Getty Images With just days to go, the Trump administration wants to end the census on September 30. The current deadline to respond to the 2020 census is October 31 — but that could change depending on the outcome of a lawsuit that the Trump administration is currently fighting in federal court. Earlier this week, a federal judge in California temporarily blocked the Trump administration from ending counting efforts on September 30, a month earlier than the administration has previously sought, because doing so would likely hurt the accuracy of the count. Instead, US District Judge Lucy Koh extended the deadline until October 31 in order to give the Census Bureau more time to collect responses online, by mail, and by door knocking in undercounted areas. But on Friday night, the Trump administration asked the Ninth Circuit to immediately suspend Koh’s ruling, arguing that the September 30 deadline must stand in order for it to be able to deliver final population counts to Congress by December 31 as it is required to do by federal law. Those population counts will be used to determine how many representatives each state will receive in Congress — and to redraw congressional districts — in 2021. Koh had waiving that December 31 deadline, as well, suggesting that census results could be delivered to Congress by a later date. But the Trump administration told the Ninth Circuit on Friday that she didn’t have the authority to do so. If the administration’s appeal succeeds, a shortened census could lead to inaccuracies and undercounts among historically hard-to-count populations — including communities of color, immigrants, and those living in rural areas, Census Bureau officials and former directors have warned. It’s just the latest complication in what has been the most chaotic and politically charged census in recent history. The Census Bureau had to suspend its operations for two months at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, resuming counting efforts in June and scrambling to make up for lost time. Ongoing wildfires on the West Coast and a historic hurricane season in the South have also created hurdles to completing the count in affected areas. And President Donald Trump has sought to exclude unauthorized immigrants from census population counts that will be used for redistricting, which could have the affect of depressing response rates in immigrant communities and undermine their political power. Why cutting short counting efforts could hurt the census’s accuracy The stakes of the census are high: Not only does it dictate representation in Congress and redistricting, but it also determines federal funding levels for health care, food stamps, highways and transportation, education, public housing, as well as unemployment insurance and public safety — among other programs. An undercount could reduce communities’ resources and political power for the next decade. Trump administration officials knew the cutting short census operations could lead to inaccuracies in the count and what that could mean for historically hard-to-count populations. Internal Census Bureau communications released in court filings show career civil servants warned that a shortened counting period would “result in a census that has fatal data quality flaws that are unacceptable for a Constitutionally-mandated national activity.” But the administration decided to move forward with their plan anyway. Current response rates suggest census takers do, in fact, need more time for collection. As of September 25, the current nationwide self-response rate is 66.3 percent, slightly below the 2010 rate of 66.5 percent and 2000 rate of 67.4 percent. But at the local level, response rates can vary widely. For instance, in parts of Texas along the Mexico border, the self-response rate is still 15 percent or lower. In order to capture households that have failed to self-report, census workers haveto rely on alternate strategies for counting people, such ason reports from their neighbors, which are not always accurate. The bureau can also attempt to use administrative records, including Social Security and IRS data, to fill in the gaps in responses. That could be a problem — hard-to-count households are precisely the kind of households for which the federal government lacks reliable administrative records. For instance, unauthorized immigrants do not have Social Security numbers and may rely on a cash economy without filing taxes with the IRS (though many of them do file taxes). A reliance on methods like these could also lead to housing units being categorized as vacant when there are people living there, particularly if a census taker cannot reach them due to factors like natural disasters, and does not have the opportunity — or the time — to follow up. All of this can lead to inaccuracies and undercounts that will strip communities of the political representation and the federal dollars they deserve.
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