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10 delicious food movies
Cakes, from Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles. | IFC A feast of comedies, dramas, documentaries, and more to stream at home. With the arrival of autumn comes a turn toward new culinary adventures — fall produce, warm foods, the inescapability of pumpkin spice, roasty pans of vegetables and meat that remind us of the colder weather coming up. Fall is for feasting, however you can. Of course, cinema has set feasts on screen for a long, long time, using food to evoke desire, love, loneliness, bounty, joy, and a lot more. One such movie coming out this week is Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, a simple documentary about celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi who, in 2018, was tasked by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to create fantastical cakes for the opening reception of its special exhibition on Versailles. Ottolenghi elected to tap chefs from around the world to help, and the results were, indeed, fantastical; the film shows the great variety of creative pastry-making methods around the globe, and it reflects on the excess that an event like the Met’s reception entails.It’s worth a watch if you like seeing people make outlandishly luxurious cakes, and it will be playing in select theaters and various on-demand services like iTunes and Amazon (more details at the film’s website). And there are many more movies to take in if you’re craving a little cinematic confectionery or a grand banquet. Here are 10 great films you can stream about feasts, food, family, and what cooking and eating teach us about being human. For a tale of feasts overcoming ascetic grimness ... Try Babette’s Feast (1987) Based on a story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast is about a sect of austere, severe religious people living on a remote Denmark coast in the 19th century. They are led by the elderly daughters of the sect’s founder, they view pleasures as a distraction from God, and they eat only bland food. But their lives are upended when Babette (Stéphane Audran) shows up at the women’s home, seeking refuge from violence in her native Paris. They’re suspicious of her. But she offers to work for free, and stays with them for 14 years, gaining their trust. One day, she wins the lottery, and instead of using the money to finally go back home, she uses it to prepare a lavish feast in honor of the sect’s founder. And that feast — both in the story and as an on-screen repast — becomes legendary. How to watch it: Babette’s Feast is streaming for subscribers on HBO Max. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. If you want a comedy with heart and a pitch-perfect ending ... Watch Big Night (1996) Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub (need I say more?) play brothers, Italian immigrants to the US, who open a restaurant that is suffering for business because their customers’ tastes lean more toward Italian-American food. Vexed and facing a shutdown, they reach out to a friend who arranges for a famous jazz singer to attend a fancy dinner at the restaurant and thereby drum up business. They prepare a sumptuous meal and invite their friends but, of course, nothing goes as planned. Tucci co-wrote and co-directed Big Night with Campbell Scott, and it’s wonderful: A bittersweet movie about a feast that is, itself, a feast. How to watch it: Big Night is available to stream for Amazon Prime subscribers and for free (with ads) on Pluto. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play. For a satisfying portrait of one of the greatest food critics of all time ... See City of Gold (2016) City of Gold, about the late and beloved Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, is among the best food documentaries ever made, largely because it isn’t just about food; it’s about loving a place through being a critic. Directed by Laura Gabbert (who also directed Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles), the film follows Gold as he drives his green pickup truck through LA, eating at a handful of hole-in-the-wall strip mall restaurants that most people just blithely sail past, talking about his career and his approach to his work. It’s an illuminating portrait not just of a writer but of a city, and it’s a kind of master class in how good critics think, work, and live. How to watch it: City of Gold is available to stream on Amazon Prime for subscribers with the IFC add-on subscription. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase from iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. For an experimental doc-fiction hybrid with a philosophical edge ... Watch Feast of the Epiphany (2018) Feast of the Epiphany is the most experimental and daring of the films on this list, and one that will haunt you after it’s over. The first half is a scripted, fictional drama set in a New York apartment at an Epiphany dinner (celebrated by some Christians on January 6, traditionally the day the Magi arrived at the stable where the infant Jesus lay in a manger). The second half is a documentary centering on Roxbury Farms in upstate New York, where a team of farmers raise food and live off the land. Directed by Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman, it’s a diptych in which the two halves echo and mirror one another implicitly, and make us think about the role that food plays in our lives — both as social beings and creatures of the earth. How to watch it: Feast of the Epiphany is available to digitally rent on Vimeo. For a modest drama about capitalism, male friendship, and baking ...Watch First Cow (2020) Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is set in a 19th-century frontier settlement somewhere in Oregon, near the Columbia River, populated by people who are living in tiny houses and trying to scratch out a living in the New World, as well as the First Nations people who’ve been there for generations. Into that settlement, a cow arrives, setting off a chain of events that are both momentous and small. But the film is about much more than just that. First Cow is also a gentle (and gently devastating) tale about male friendship, about finding someone to share your aspirations and dreams with, and, most deliciously, about cooking. (Don’t be surprised if you have a craving for blueberry clafoutis when it’s done.) And it’s also about the kinds of constructed hierarchies — based on factors like race, class, money, and firepower — that seem to be imposed on the world wherever new civilizations pop up. How to watch it: First Cow is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, or Google Play. For a side of family drama along with a portrait of an artist whose medium is raw fish ...Watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) An entire documentary about sushi? Well, not exactly. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (made by the same team behind Netflix’s Chef’s Table series) is a gentle, meditative, and entrancing portrait of Jiro Ono, considered possibly the greatest sushi chef in the world. He’s been making sushi for a long time in his small, exquisite restaurant, which is inside a subway station in Tokyo. It’s a story of true dedication to art, as well as the pressure his sons feel to follow in their father’s footsteps. Order some tuna rolls beforehand and make an evening of it. How to watch it: Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available to stream (with ads) on Tubi. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. A time-spanning tale of learning to cook and trying to love ...Try Julie & Julia (2009) Meryl Streep as Julia Child may go down as one of the best casting choices of the century, but the entirety of Julie & Julia — written and directed by Nora Ephron — is just as delightful. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell (on whose memoir the movie is based), who in 2002 has a stressful job answering phone calls about plans to rebuild the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terror attacks. She begins cooking (and blogging) through Julia Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, much to the amusement of her supportive husband (Chris Messina). The film cuts between 2002 and the 1950s, when Child and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) are in France, and Child is just learning to cook. The result is a movie about marriage, love, and the healing power of food, and its feeling runs deeper than its chipper exterior initially suggests. How to watch it: Julie & Julia is streaming for free (with ads) on Amazon and for subscribers on Hulu with the Showtime add-on subscription. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. If you’re looking for an unpretentious, outside-the-box romance, try ... The Lunchbox (2013) The Lunchbox is a gentle romance between two people who communicate through food. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is trying to rekindle her husband’s love for her by sending him sumptuous lunches at work. When the courier screws up, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) becomes the accidental recipient of one of these meals and starts to wonder about the cook behind it. When they both realize the mistake, they start sending small notes to one another, and a friendship that fills both their lonely hearts begins to blossom. Not only is The Lunchbox a sweet film, but it’s a delicious one; be sure to have your favorite biryani or saag paneer on hand, or your stomach will be growling. How to watch it: The Lunchbox is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. For a kinky, brilliant reminder of food’s place in our domestic lives ... Watch Phantom Thread (2017) Phantom Thread masquerades as a film about fashion, but everybody who’s seen it knows it’s really about food. That’s clear from the start: The central romance’s meet-cute occurs in a hotel restaurant, in which Daniel Day-Lewis (playing finicky couture designer Reynolds Woodcock) orders a legendary meal of “Welsh rabbit with a poached egg, bacon, scones, butter, cream, jam, a pot of lapsang souchong tea. And some sausages.” And once you’ve seen the movie, you’ll never look at a mushroom omelet the same way again. How to watch it: Phantom Thread is available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. For a family-friendly reminder that cooking is an art ... Watch Ratatouille (2007) Ratatouille is the tale of Remy the Rat, who wants to be a chef but is, well, a rat. Yet through a series of unlikely events, he becomes a chef in the kitchen of an upscale Paris restaurant. As much a reminder of the power of criticism as the power of art, Ratatouille boasts some memorable meals, and an indelible scene in which Remy — trying to coax his fellow rats into actually tasting their food — experiences a true fantasia of flavor, rendered in visual form. It’s a delight to return to again and again. How to watch it: Ratatouille is available for subscribers to stream on Disney+. It’s also available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. 5 more movies to please your palate and whet your appetite ... Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, or Vudu. Read Roger Ebert’s review. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), available to stream (with ads) on Pluto, or digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, or Vudu. Listen to the episode of the Blank Check podcast on the movie. Goodfellas (1990), available to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. Here’s how to cook the pasta sauce from the movie. Tampopo (1987), available for subscribers to stream on HBO Max, or to digitally rent or purchase on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. Read why it’s one writer’s favorite film. The Trip series — including The Trip (2010), The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020) — are streaming for subscribers on Hulu. They’re also available to digitally rent or purchase on various platforms; The Trip, for instance, is on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play. Here’s an introduction to the series following the final installment’s release. 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 truth about violent crime in American cities, explained in 11 charts
Trump speaks of “anarchy and mayhem” in cities. But understanding violent crime is much more complicated than simply looking at numbers. Next week, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face each other for the first time on the debate stage. Some of the most pressing problems of our time will be front and center: the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court vacancy,and the fight for racial justice. So far, the candidates’ discussion of justice issues has focused less on how to address America’s longstanding inequity andmore on how cities are facing a violent crime surge in a time of unrest — and who is to blame. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly spoken of bringing “law and order” to Democrat-run cities that are full of “anarchy and mayhem,” even though racial justice protests around the country this summer have been mostly peaceful. Biden, on the other hand, has mostly skirted talk of unrest, emphasizing that the crime rate dropped while he was the vice president and that a surge of murders happened under Trump’s watch. Wading through these mixed messages of what’s happening in cities, it’s hard to tell just what the data says. Most types of crime decreased this summer, while serious violent crimes — such as aggravated assault and murder — increased, according to an analysis of crime rates in 27 major US cities by the Council on Criminal Justice, a criminal justice think tank. A preliminary crime report published by the FBI earlier this month shows similar trends nationwide. To make sense of what this all means, the Marshall Project and Vox have parsed findings from January to June, as well as decades prior for comparison, of not just crime data but media reports, public opinion polls, and stats on policing and jail populations. Politicians and pundits are pointing fingers at what they believe caused the increase in violent crime rates: the protests against police violence, movements to defund the police, and efforts to release people from overcrowded jails and prisons ravaged by the coronavirus. But the data available thus far does not support that these are the culprits. Understanding what drives crime rates is tricky because there’s no single cause or answer. This is especially true in the pandemic, which has introduced unfamiliar patterns. What is known, however, is that sensational media reports and misleading statements from politicians can blow the degree of violence out of proportion and make the public believe that crime is increasing, even when it isn’t. As the country gears up for the presidential election — and the messaging of politicians and the media that comes with it — here are 11 data visualizations, along with analysis, that can help think through what the summer’s crime trends mean and how to move forward. Violent crime was up in early summer; nonviolent and property crime was down Beginning in late March, cities across the country saw a decrease in most types of crime, including burglary, theft, robbery, and drug crimes, according to the Council on Criminal Justice report. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis who authored the report, said that cities’ shutdowns beginning in March largely drove the decreases this summer. More people staying at home meant fewer houses were broken into; fewer people going out at night meant fewer opportunities for theft and robbery, for example. But for some of the most violent crimes, such as shootings, aggravated assault, and murders, the number of incidents in the cities we examined have increased in the pandemic. Compared with a three-year average between 2017 and 2019, homicides increased 25 percent between April and June. Data included in the Council on Criminal Justice’s report stops at the end of June, and doesn’t include cities like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, where protest tensions rose and shootings occurred, by a counterprotester and a vigilante, respectively, in August. Or in Louisville, Kentucky, where two police officers were shot on Wednesday following a grand jury’s decision not to charge any officers for killing Breonna Taylor. That said, some reports show violent crime continued at elevated rates in July and August and property crime rates have gone down. David Abrams, a law and public policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has examined major cities’ public crime data since the beginning of the pandemic. He publishes real-time crime trends on City Crime Stats, an online data portal that allows viewers to explore how specific types of crime changed in each city. While the data portal shows similar trends in upticks of murder and decreases in other crimes, pinpointing the exact factors that drive up murders is much more complicated than understanding what caused the decrease in crimes like burglaries, Abrams said. One of the main reasons: The motivation behind burglaries or larceny is often money, whereas the motivation behind murders and shootings is more varied, he said. Many factors might play into these increases: A 60 percent surge in gun purchases can be followed by more shootings; trapping domestic violence survivors and abusers under the same roof during the quarantine may cause more assaults and murders; and Covid-19 has made police outreach work even more difficult.The pandemic has also turned families and support systems upside down — unemployment is high, schools and many summer programs have closed, and people, especially from low-income communities and communities of color, have faced illness and death in their families from Covid-19, making routines and structures impossible to maintain. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, a community organizer in Philadelphia, said she is especially troubled by how many shootings and violent crimes involved young people this summer. She noted that not only have schools closed, but so have most youth programs that can give young people a sense of structure and belonging. Johnson-Speight, who founded the violence prevention group Mothers in Charge after her son was killed in 2001 over a parking dispute, believes many of the shootings in Philadelphia this year involved people who are under the age of 18, though official police figures are not available. A recent example was a 16-year-old shot dead on September 21, with an 18-year-old and a 12-year-old shot on the same day. “The anxiety and pain and grief are on steroids because of what’s happening with Covid,” Johnson-Speight said. “People have no way of seeing things getting better, and there is nothing at the end of the tunnel. What I hear from parents that lost one or two or three children is, ‘What’s going to happen next? Will my other children suffer the same thing?’” While the pandemic brings much uncertainty, there is one thing that may lead to a drop in crime: the weather. Historical trends show that the violent crime rate often increases in the summer, reaches its peak in the fall, and drops to the lowest point in winter — as temperatures decrease and people retreat indoors again. Crime increased after protests against police violence … briefly Following the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis in May, protests against police violence and systemic racism quickly spread across the country, from major cities to historically conservative, majority-white towns — more so perhaps than any civil rights protests in the nation’s history. However, with the protests came news coverage focused on riots, lootings, and scenes of chaos, despite an estimated 93 percent of protests being peaceful. President Donald Trump has said little about the police violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and other Black Americans, but has spoken consistently of “law and order.” In July, with Black Lives Matter protests still happening in major cities, Trump sent in federal law enforcement agents to nine cities led by Democratic mayors to stop what the president called “shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence,” whether or not any of those things were happening in those places. “This bloodshed must end,” Trump said during official remarks in July. “This bloodshed will end.” The implication was that the protests had caused the rise in violence, or “bloodshed” — but was that true? The nationwide protests kicked off in late May, when homicides remained low. There was an increase in mid-June, but the Council on Criminal Justice’s data does not break down where the murders happened in each city, which makes it difficult to analyze protests’ direct impact on violent crime. What is known is that Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been mostly peaceful. Researchers at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project analyzed more than 7,750 demonstrations from 2,400 locations between May and August, and found that less than 7 percent of the protest were violent, which the researchers define as where “demonstrators themselves engage in violently disruptive and/or destructive acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.” This can range from vandalism and looting to clashing with the police, a much wider net than police’s definition of “violent crime,” which include rape and sexual assault, robbery, assault, and murder. If anything, aggressive and militarized government response has made demonstrations more violent, researchers concluded. For example, before Trump deployed the federal task force to Portland, Oregon, 17 percent of the demonstrations were violent; after federal law enforcement agents entered Portland, the share of violent demonstrations more than doubled, to 42 percent. Criminologists have warned that sending in federal law enforcement officers, like border patrol agents or Bureau of Prisons guards, with no training or knowledge on local issues can do more harm than good. Another unintended consequence of escalating federal involvement in policing protests is that it hinders people’s trust in the police. Even before this summer, victims of violent crime said some of the most common reasons that stopped them from going to the police were they “dealt with it another way,” “fear of reprisal or getting offender in trouble,” and “police would not or could not help.” An increasing distrust in police may lead to more vigilantism and more unreported crimes. Also, violent crimes are rare enough that small changes in absolute numbers can lead to large statistical swings, and that’s especially true for the most serious kind of violent crimes like murders. For example, homicides in 20 cities tracked in Rosenfeld’s report increased by more than 50 percent around the last week of June, which is an alarming trend compared to the past three years. However, looking at the raw numbers, homicides increased from roughly 70 homicides per week to 101 per week, or fewer than one additional death in each city every day. Most of the increase took place in Chicago. And then there is another historical trend: While the trauma and loss that accompany each murder cannot be measured by numbers, the level of violence in American cities does not come close to the level of violence during the 1990s, where nearly every 30 in 100,000 people were killed. In recent years, it’s been about 10 in 100,000. In all, criminologists say it’s difficult to draw any conclusions between protests and violent crimes — especially during a time when the US coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000, the country was experiencing an unprecedented level of unemployment, and coronavirus-related precautions restricted police’s ability to solve crimes. That said, some more common crimes associated with protests, such as burglary, can perhaps shed more insight on the impact of protests on crime. Commercial burglary — or breaking into a business establishment — is typically associated with what is commonly called looting. Among all types of crimes tracked in the Council on Criminal Justice report, commercial burglary had the most significant spike in the beginning of June, when police violence protests began to spread. Within one week, the number of commercial burglaries in major US cities jumped from nearly 5,000 to almost 10,000. But the number of incidents dropped just as quickly in the following week, back to below-normal levels. The evidence suggests that significant looting was confined to the first wave of protests. But there could be another explanation: Active police enforcement — or an emphasis on enforcing specific crimes — can swing crime rates up and down. Crime trends are affected by police enforcement Something to know about crime trends: They are shaped by police action and inaction. Crime trends reflect crime reports collected by law enforcement agencies. Crime reports are created when law enforcement responds to calls or uses tactics such as traffic stops or stop-and-frisk. While the Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal to stop and frisk someone simply for living in a “high crime area,” research still shows people in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are searched a lot more frequently. Even though most people who are stopped are innocent, their interactions with the police can have lasting effects, including feeling discouraged to report a crime to the police themselves. New York City is a good example of the power of police-initiated actions. When the city began to shut down in April, the number of drug crimes plummeted. Then it began to steadily increase through April and May, as people emerged from lockdown and police officers began patrolling again, getting close to pre-pandemic levels. And when the protests sparked by Floyd’s death spread across the city in late May and early June, the number of drug crimes again dropped overnight. It’s unlikely that drug crime data represents how the number of people consuming and selling drugs changed over this summer, said Alice Fontier, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, a public defender’s office. What the data shows, Fontier said, is how the New York Police Department deployed its officers throughout the summer. When the pandemic first hit, the department was pulling back on drug searches, partially because many officers were under quarantine. Their practice began to return to normal until protests against police violence broke out, when many of the department’s officers shifted to crowd control instead, Fontier said. NYPD did not respond to multiple inquiries by The Marshall Project, but during an interview with the Police Executive Research Forum, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said he found the narrative of police pulling back because of protests “offensive.” New York’s trend in drug crimes is similar to what the data shows in many other cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Memphis. When a significant number of officers are under quarantine for Covid-19, or when police departments shift resources from making drug busts to responding to protests in riot gear, crime trends change accordingly. “What we see and experience over time is that the number of drug arrests is directly correlated to the amount of focus and resources the NYPD puts into these cases,” Fontier told The Marshall Project. Releasing low-risk people from jails and prisons didn’t drive up crime rates As Covid-19 began to spread across the country in April, jails and prison soon became hot spots for the outbreak. It didn’t come as a surprise. Overcrowding in prison and jails means some facilities have people sleeping on the ground, and in most facilities, even basic Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines such as hand-washing with soap or covering your mouth when you sneeze are virtually impossible to follow. At the beginning of the pandemic, some jails moved to cut down their populations, releasing people who were incarcerated for pretrial detention or who were almost finished with their misdemeanor sentences. And some prisons, which incarcerate people who are convicted, followed suit. Public backlash came just as quickly. Some victims of crimes were upset about the early releases, and police departments claimed that coronavirus-related jail releases drove the spike in violent crime. Data contradicts this narrative. A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that in 28 major US cities that saw a decrease in jail population between March and May, all but one (Denver) also saw decreases in the most serious type of crimes this summer. At the beginning of the pandemic, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said he heard warnings that releasing people from jail, or arresting fewer people, would lead to more crimes, and that the price of keeping jail inmates safe from Covid-19 is too high. Yet there was no crime surge. Between March and May, San Francisco’s jail population dropped by more than 40 percent. Its crime rate also dropped sharply compared to the same period in 2019. Both trends, Boudin said, were “unprecedented.” “If fewer people are incarcerated, then more people will be able to keep steady jobs, safe housing, and get the mental health help they need,” Boudin said. “That all leads to fewer crimes.” In Denver, the only city that saw an increase in crime and the largest decrease in jail population (by almost 800 people), the trend is short term, and it’s hard to read too much into the numbers, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen told The Marshall Project. While virtually all types of crimes have gone down in Denver, Pazen said commercial burglaries drove up the crime rates — as businesses closed during the pandemic, his department saw commercial burglaries more than double this summer. More than 60 percent of the stores were broken into by people who are homeless, Pazen said. It’s too early to tell if “defund” efforts have impacted crime rates After the death of George Floyd, “defunding” the police, or moving money from police spending to social services, became central to the police reform conversation. A few cities have started the defunding process, but it’s too early to affect recent trends. For example, Minneapolis City Council members vowed to disband the police department following Floyd’s death, but their effort is facing major setbacks. In New York City, the nearly $1 billion cut to its police budget took effect on July 1, after murders and shootings were already rising in the city. How “defund” policies affect crime remains to be seen. What is clear is the coronavirus is likely to cause the first major drop in police spending in decades, spending that has increased from $220 to $280 per resident from 2000 to 2017, even when violent crime decreased by more than 20 percent during the same time. Nearly half of 258 police chiefs and sheriffs who responded to a recent survey said they are expecting or already receiving budget cuts in the coming year, according to the Police Executive Research Forum. Most of the cuts range between 5 and 10 percent. Many police chiefs who responded to the survey warn that unintended consequences may come out of the budget cuts. Hiring freezes, for example, will mean fewer patrols, longer response time, and less proactive actions from the police department. The domino effect, they warn, will eventually lead to a spike in the crime rate. Richard Auxier, a senior policy associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said payroll costs often take up 60 to 70 percent of the police budget, meaning that things like hiring freezes, pay cuts, and layoffs are likely first steps. But it’s too early to say how those budget cuts will affect crime rates. And even if more policing leads to less crime, activists warn that it carries collateral consequences, such as more arrests and the general harassment of minority communities, that other approaches don’t have. The more important part of the “defund the police” conversation should be about how we should spend the money instead, Auxier said. For example, a 2018 study shows that one-quarter of people who died in police shootings showed signs of mental illness, and the recent police suffocation of Daniel Prude has reignited talk about how mental health professionals are better suited to handle these interactions than police. Alternative programs are not new, and they’ve been proven to create a safer community. In Eugene, Oregon, a 30-year-old program has been successful at reducing police interactions with people who are in crisis, dispatching medics and mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls that are not about crime — like mental illness, homelessness, or addiction. In 2019, they responded to 20 percent of all 911 calls in the town, costing a fraction of the price of traditional police interventions. Cities like Olympia, Washington, and Denver have also adopted similar programs. The way we see crime is politicized and influenced by news sources So is violent crime out of control? That can depend on whom you ask — and which cable news station they watch. For example, this summer, Fox News has spent more time covering violent crime than CNN and MSNBC combined, according to an analysis of data compiled by the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer. Since the police killing of George Floyd, Fox News has leaned into a narrative of looting and property destruction, filling its segments with headlines like “Portland Plagued by Violent Clashes, Riots” and “Businesses Experience Worst Looting in Decades.” While CNN and MSNBC’s coverage of violence and crime also spiked after the Floyd protests took off in May, it has dropped significantly since then. In the 2000s, cable and local TV news became more popular, contributing to a shift in public opinion on crime. Before the early 2000s, more and more people believed there were fewer crimes in the United States, according to Gallup polling data, which matched the truth — that crime rates were decreasing. However, that trend was completely reversed in 2001, and not much has changed since: As crime continues to decrease, more people believe the opposite is true — that crime is up. Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the rise of police television shows, like NCIS and CSI, and how much airtime local TV news gives to violent crime has fed the discrepancy. Romer, who studies media and its social impact, said producers at local TV news stations face daily pressure to fill the evening report with different beats, like sports, local government, news, and crime — and the idea is to capture viewers’ attention. “No matter what is going on, there’s going to be a crime in the news region of the news station,” Romer said. “It can be hit-and-run, it can be shooting — the crime news hole stays consistent over time. Stations get that’s an attention-getter. The crime rates could be changing dramatically, but they wouldn’t know it.” Bias in reporting and story selection can also plague how crime is portrayed in local TV news, Romer said. For example, there has historically been emphasis on stories where the suspect is Black and the victim is white, even though Black men are more likely to be victims of violent crimes. This sways public opinion, too. “People talked about media literacy and teaching it to children,” Romer said. “People need to know even though they see a lot of violence on local news or hero movies, it’s not necessarily what the world is like.” This extends to how politicians paint America. Americans disagree on a lot of things, but a recent poll by Monmouth University shows that Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters all agree that maintaining law and order is a major problem in the country right now. What they disagree about is the root cause of the problem, let alone who is best positioned to solve the problem. For example, while 24 percent of people believe the actions of protesters are fully justified, just as many people believe they are not justified at all. The split on whether Trump or Biden can solve the problem is similarly even. The disagreements often fall along party lines, which may also be influenced by where people get their news. Abrams says the news — as well as politicians — won’t give you the full story when it comes to crime, though. Parsing data is more than just reporting the numbers. “If there is a bad weekend with a lot of shootings, people want to know what happened, and rightfully so,” Abrams said. “But to really understand how crime has changed, let’s look at the week, the month, the year, the decade. Crime has gone way, way down from the peaks in the ’80s and ’90s. Even the highest spikes in a few cities over the summer are small blips in comparison.” Earlier this week, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced six topics moderator Chris Wallace has selected for the first debate on September 29, including “Race and Violence in Our Cities.” This framing, that the two are interlinked, is the problematic narrative that Romer warned about. It is also a near guarantee that racial justice protests and the violent crime streak this summer will be focal points of the debate. Understanding the nuance and context of crime rates is crucial for evaluating each candidate’s story of what the unrest and division in this country is really about. 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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Amazon employees fear HR is targeting minority and activism groups in email monitoring program
Amazon employees participating in the Global Climate Strike in Seattle, Washington in September 2020 | Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images Some workers are raising concerns in light of larger tensions over labor organizing. Some Amazon employees are furious after they discovered the company’s HR department appears to be quietly monitoring a subset of listservs dedicated to employees who are minorities and those who are involved in activism. Earlier this week, a group of Amazon employees discovered that an email alias affiliated with Amazon’s HR team had subscribed to 78 listservs at Amazon, the majority of which are related to underrepresented employees and employee activism issues, such as climate change, Black employee networking, and Muslim employees. Amazon has thousands of internal emailing lists where employees discuss common interests and projects, so the dozens of listservs that the alias was subscribed to are a small subset of the total groups that exist. Amazon denies that its HR teams were tracking emails to monitor organizing, and told Recode that it subscribed to the groups to monitor employee feedback on company culture. Some of the listservs that Amazon HR appears to be monitoring have been used for employee organizing around controversial issues at the company in recent months, such as Amazon warehouse worker rights, corporate carbon emissions, and military technology. Others are less political, such as groups for women in engineering and employees who are parents. Recode spoke with six Amazon employees who said they’re alarmed by the email monitoring when they consider how Amazon has been increasingly cracking down on worker organizing. These employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because of Amazon’s policies against speaking to the press without management’s approval. They told Recode that dozens of other colleagues have also posted messages on Amazon’s internal forums expressing concern about the monitoring, and many more are likely also upset but too scared to speak out publicly. “Most people would just read and go quiet,” said one employee. “It doesn’t seem smart to engage when we’re being told that we are being tracked.” Just last month, Bloomberg News reported that Amazon had posted a job listing (which it later removed) for analysts to research “labor organizing threats against the company.” “If this is what it looks like ... then this is a specific targeting of non-white male groups as potential threats to be observed,” said one employee. “It means that the people responsible for that at Amazon believe that women and people of color are suspicious and threats to the company.” After discovering the alias, an Amazon employee sent a message to all 78 listservs informing them that the company seemed to be watching their activities. “Good day! If you are a moderator or a user of this list, please note that it is being explicitly watched,” started the email. It goes on to state, “Without editorialising (sic), it is difficult to read this project and its initial posting date without also considering the context of the recent job posting for which Amazon has come under fire.” (That’s a reference to the “labor organizing threats” analyst position.) The email noted that while the Muslim employee listserv was on the list of groups that HR was watching, the Christian one was not. Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson said the practice was intended to gather employee feedback to help improve company practices, and that Amazon does not link feedback from the emails to individual employees. She added that the company chooses which listservs to monitor based on the size and level of activity of the employee group, and for no other reason. “We continually work to improve the Amazon employee experience, and with hundreds of thousands of employees located around the world, we use several methods to gather feedback at scale,” Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson said in a statement. “The anonymized feedback that is sometimes shared from these open email forums has helped us improve our employee benefits, further strengthen our COVID-19 procedures, and improve the overall Amazon employee experience.” One of the Amazon employees who appears to be linked to the email alias is a data analyst in the employee relations division. And because some employee relations roles at Amazon involve mitigating the risk of unionization in its massive warehouse network, this detail has fueled corporate employees’ concerns about the listserv monitoring. According to documents reviewed by Recode, the email account subscribed to these groups also appears to be linked to a larger data visualization project run by Amazon’s employee relations team called “SPOC” (geoSPatial Operating Console) which involves monitoring threats to Amazon’s operations — including unionization. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said the program monitors all types of external activity that impacts the safety and well-being of its employees, from weather events to power outages, and is not intended to favor or target one type of external threat over another. Shortly after an Amazon employee emailed documents about the broader SPOC monitoring project to dozens of employee listservs, those documents were deleted from Amazon’s internal network that’s broadly available to employees. In April, Business Insider reported that Amazon was tracking Whole Foods’ workers unionization efforts in a geographic heat map. And Recode has previously reported how as far back as the early 2000s, Amazon has previously tracked worker organizing at its warehouses before using excel to make heat maps. “It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said one Amazon engineering manager about HR tracking listserv emails and broader anti-unionization monitoring efforts. “We are working in corporate America at one of the largest and most technically advanced companies in the world. Always assume big brother is watching.” This employee said they wish the company was as employee-obsessed as it is customer-obsessed, but also acknowledged that the company “overall takes care of their [corporate] employees very well.” Amazon has faced growing tensions within both its corporate and blue-collar workforces in recent years. Tensions peaked during the Covid-19 pandemic as many of its warehouse workers complained about working conditions and pay — and some started nascent talks about unionization. The company came under serious scrutiny when it fired Christian Smalls, a former Staten Island warehouse worker who was organizing his colleagues for safer working conditions at the beginning of the pandemic, and after a report emerged that a top Amazon lawyer called Smalls, who is Black, “not smart, or articulate” in an executive meeting. Amazon said it fired Smalls for violating social distancing rules. The Smalls case, among other factors, prompted many of the companies’ tech employees to advocate for greater workplace protections for Amazon warehouse and delivery workers. The company responded by providing some incremental benefits, such as temporarily raising pay for fulfillment center employees and offering more time off. At the same time, Amazon also fired several corporate employees leading internal activism efforts, who had organized their tech colleagues in solidarity with Smalls and other warehouse workers. “After firing a number of employees organizing for better COVID-19 protections, and getting caught calling a Black organizer ‘not articulate,’ it seems like Bezos decided it was time to form an internal anti-worker police force to frighten employees into shutting up,” one Amazon software engineer told Recode. “That open feeling I had as a tech worker able to freely discuss ideas with coworkers has vanished so fast it’s made my head spin. There’s a real culture shift happening, and it sucks.” In the months since Smalls’ firing, Amazon employee activism has quieted down, at least publicly. But workers’ fears about the company targeting and monitoring minority and activist employees show that tensions still run deep at the company, and if anything, its workers’ trust in their employer continues to erode.
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Amazon’s surveillance cameras fly now — which is terrifying
The Ring Always Home camera drone is meant to autonomously fly around the home and supposedly spot burglars. The company just announced a tiny drone that can carry a Ring camera anywhere in your home. Amazon has announced a new way for consumers to surveil their own homes: a camera-equipped drone that connects to Ring security systems. Ring, which Amazon owns, has a history of enabling controversial levels of surveillance in homes and neighborhoods. So the addition of a flying camera that can venture into new nooks and crannies is, at best, unsettling. The Ring Always Home Cam is designed to fly around different areas of someone’s home every so often, capturing footage before landing back in its dock. The device is meant to stay indoors and fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight paths that navigate between the walls of a house, a Ring spokesperson told Recode. The announcement comes after Amazon last year won a patent for a home surveillance drone; it’s also worth mentioning that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not yet authorized the sale of this device. Amazon says its new Ring surveillance drone is scheduled to go on sale in 2021 for $249 (once FCC authorization is obtained), and the company says it built in the product with “privacy in mind.” In a live blog of the virtual announcement event, Amazon said the Always Home Cam “only records when in flight; when it’s not in use it sits in a dock and the camera is physically blocked.” The company added that the drone is “loud enough so you hear when it’s in motion.” This is illustrated in a promotional video from Ring that shows a hypothetical robbery in which a burglar breaks into a man’s bedroom while the man is not home. The drone then chases off the burglar while the man anxiously watches the action through a smartphone app. On its face, the new Ring drone might seem neat and futuristic, but it also serves as a reminder of the company’s checkered history with privacy and surveillance. Ring has long faced intense criticism over its existing security products, and those concerns only grew after Amazon acquired the company for $1 billion in 2018. One particularly sensitive issue is Ring’s vast and somewhat secretive network of police partnerships, which allow law enforcement to request footage collected by Ring cameras. Ring’s Neighbors app has also been accused of exacerbating racism and capitalizing on fear of crime. Meanwhile, many, including some members of Congress, are worried that the company will soon incorporate facial recognition into the Ring platform. “The introduction of a roving drone security camera inside your own home potentially upends the idea of the very idea of home as a private place,” Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode in email. “Amazon’s new products certainly have the potential to extend what was already an invasive surveillance system into the realm of the absurd.” While a Ring spokesperson told Recode that the Always Home camera footage cannot be requested by police, Amazon has not made a formal commitment not to allow police to request this footage in the future. The announcement of the Ring drone arrives at a time when Amazon is also attempting to expand its products’ functionality in private and public spaces with an update to its Sidewalk project. As Amazon explains on its website, Sidewalk aims to create a shared network that could connect a suite of Amazon’s connected products for the home, like some of its Ring devices and Echo voice assistants. The effort is also meant to operate at a larger scale, potentially connecting devices throughout a neighborhood. For example, Amazon says that Sidewalk would enable certain Ring products to continue sending certain alerts even in the absence of a wifi connection. Eventually, the platform will promote “smart security” and even help find pets and valuables, the company said in a blog post on Monday. “The Sidewalk Project has the potential to extend what is supposed to be home surveillance into community and neighborhood surveillance,” Guariglia said. “With all of these technologies, the individuals who purchase this equipment often are not asking how their neighbors feel about technology that could potentially extend the reach of networked smart devices, including those created for the purpose of recording and tracking well outside of their own property and into public spaces.” So despite the advertised benefits of Amazon’s growing network of gadgets, the company is also setting itself up for more criticism over how these products also seem invasive or even Orwellian, especially as lawmakers face more pressure to regulate surveillance products and limit the technological capabilities of law enforcement. Basically, it seems as though Amazon wants to be everywhere, and it’s working hard to get there. So even while every Ring product might seem useful — even cool — on its own, considered in the aggregate, Amazon is producing a constellation of connected products that could be repurposed to record and surveil us, whether through its microphone- and camera-equipped devices, like the Echo and the Echo Show, or the new Ring cameras for cars Amazon also announced on Thursday. And with each new device, Amazon seems to hold more of the cards, collecting not only data about what’s happening in our homes but in our neighborhoods, too. That may not be the future we want. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. 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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Whose vote counts?
Whose vote counts, Explained/Netflix Additional resources for Vox’s new Explained mini-series on Netflix, starting September 28. America is the world’s oldest democracy, founded on the radical idea that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But around 40% of Americans today choose not to give that consent. That voter turnout rate lags behind most other developed democracies. A majority of Americans now say their government needs a fundamental redesign. American democracy is unique in a lot of ways. You won’t find the “right to vote” in our constitution. And the rules around voting are written by partisan politicians, who sometimes benefit from making voting harder. We let unlimited money flood our elections, which are the most expensive in the world. And at different times in the last few years, the House, the Senate and the presidency have been controlled by a party that most people voted against — the result of compromises made almost 250 years ago, before political parties existed. The Vox/Netflix series “Whose Vote Counts” looks at what impact all this has on the power of your vote, as well as some of the best ideas out there to make our government represent us better. Votes aren’t created equal in America. But they are, in the words of the late civil rights hero John Lewis, who helped expand the right to vote to all Americans, “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to make change in a democratic society.” Make your plan to vote at When We All Vote.
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How the US keeps poor people from accessing abortion
The 2020 US election could decide the fate of a more than 40-year-old ban on abortion funding. For the past 44 years, every US Congress and president have approved a federal budget that includes a ban on federal funding for abortion services, except in extreme cases like rape, incest, and a life threatening situation for the child-bearer. It’s known as the Hyde Amendment, and even politicians who support abortion access generally have a history of voting in favor of it to get spending bills passed. The politics of abortion access in this country have evolved since the introduction of the Hyde Amendment. Progressive Democrats have long been critical of it for singling out Medicaid recipients, who are disproportionately poor and people of color. Presidential candidate Joe Biden supported the Hyde Amendment until 2019, attributing his reversal to the changing landscape of US abortion access. Today, abortion access largely depends on the politics of the state you live in. Because of the Hyde Amendment, it also depends on how much money you have. Banning federal funding for abortion services primarily affects people who rely on Medicaid for their health care: people who are living close to the poverty line in the US or are disabled. This has the effect of preventing some of the country’s most vulnerable people from accessing abortion services, since they are the least likely to be able to afford an out-of-pocket expense. This video is the third in our series on the 2020 election. We aren’t covering the horse race; instead, we want to explain the stakes of the election through the issues that matter the most to you. To do that, we want to know what you think the US presidential candidates should be talking about. Tell us here: http://vox.com/ElectionVideos You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube. 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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Trump is proposing to limit student visas to two years for citizens of 59 countries
Mask-wearing students at the Boston College campus on September 14, 2020, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. | Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald It’s only Trump’s latest attack on foreign students. The Trump administration is proposing a new rule to limit student visas to two years for citizens of 59 countries, potentially complicating the path to an American college degree for tens of thousands of foreign students. Student visas are currently valid for as long as students are enrolled in their course of study. But the proposed rule, published by the Department of Homeland Security, would limit the validity period to two years for certain immigrants under the theory that it will be easier to identify security threats and monitor compliance. The countries targeted are those that are designated as state sponsors of terrorism and those with a high rate of people who come to the US and overstay their visas. After that two-year period, students will have to apply for an extension. It’s not clear whether immigration officials could deny their request even if a student would need it to complete a traditional four-year undergraduate program or a PhD, which can take six years or longer. But if a student is taking longer than the typical time it takes to complete their course of study, they will have to provide evidence of “compelling academic reasons,” a documented medical condition, or other circumstances beyond the student’s control, including a natural disaster or national health crisis, according to the rule. That could potentially dissuade foreign students from enrolling in American universities, which are already experiencing a decline in foreign student enrollment — a critical source of talent and tuition. Foreign students generate an estimated $32 billion in revenue annually and support more than 300,000 jobs, according to the think tank New American Economy. It’s not clear if the rule will go into effect. The Trump administration has only a few months to finalize the rule before January 2021, when a new administration could take over and abandon the proposal. But if President Trump wins a second term in November, time would be on his side. The proposal would affect citizens and people born in countries on the State Department’s State Sponsors Terrorism List, including Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. It would also apply to citizens of another 55 countries with a more than 10 percent rate of visa overstays, including all but a few African countries. Some of those countries send large numbers of foreign students to the US, including Vietnam, Nigeria, and Nepal. During the 2018-2019 academic year, more than 24,000 Vietnamese, 13,000 Nigerians, 13,000 Nepalese, and 12,000 Iranians were enrolled in US universities, according to the Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education. Foreign students who are not from any of the affected countries but are enrolled in schools that are unaccredited or do not participate in the federal employment eligibility verification program E-Verify would also only be eligible for a two-year visa. Targeting countries with high visa overstay rates means targeting African countries The majority of people who overstay their visa in the US are from China, India, Brazil, and Canada —none of which are impacted by the proposed rule. Rather, it targets primarily students from African countries. The countries with the highest visa overstay rates, with the exception of Syria and Nigeria, actually account for only a small proportion of total annual visa overstays. In fiscal year 2019, Burundi, for example, had a 44 percent visa overstay rate for students and exchange visitors — one of the highest worldwide. But it accounted for only 127 of the more than 60,000 total estimated overstays. China, by comparison, had a less than 2 percent overstay rate in those visa categories, but as the top-sending country for foreign students, it accounted for more than 11,000 overstays. Trump has a history of seeking to discriminate against immigrants from African countries. He has sought to keep out Africans from what he called “shithole countries” while suggesting that the US should accept more immigrants from predominantly white nations like Norway. And he’s repeatedly sought to dismantle the diversity visa lottery — for many Africans, the only way they can immigrate to the US. Last year, he also imposed restrictions on citizens of four African countries — Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania — seeking to immigrate to the US permanently as part of an expansion of his travel ban policy. Trump has sought to crack down on foreign students before This also isn’t the first time that Trump has sought to discourage foreign student enrollment. In July, he tried to kick out foreign students who were enrolled in online-only programs, even though many universities had made the decision to suspend in-person classes in the fall in order to protect students, staff, and other members of the campus community amid the pandemic. After universities filed a slew of lawsuits challenging the policy, the administration ultimately backed down. But it rattled students, who might now think twice about staying in the US post-graduation. Trump has imposed restrictions on visa programs that provide a pathway for students to remain in the US long-term, including the sought-after H-1B visa program for skilled workers. It’s a pipeline for foreign talent, particularly in the fields of computer science, engineering, education, and medicine. During the pandemic, Trump signed a proclamation temporarily blocking the entry of foreign workers coming to the US on H-1Bs and other visas through the end of the year. According to a senior administration official, he’s also pursuing reforms to the program that would make it harder for entry-level workers just graduating from US universities to qualify. More than 85,000 immigrants get H-1B visas for skilled workers annually,including thousands of workers at tech giants such as Google and Amazon. Recipients are currently selected by lottery, but Trump is proposing to instead prioritize workers with the highest wages and raise the program’s minimum wage requirements. Trump has also sought to clamp down on student visa fraud, using what many advocates consider to be questionable methods. Immigration and Customs Enforcement came under fire in November after announcing that it had been operating a fake university designed to lure in immigrants seeking to obtain student visas fraudulently — but the students claimed they were the ones who had been deceived. Some 250 students at the University of Farmington in Farmington Hills, Michigan, were consequently arrested. The University of Farmington wasn’t a real educational institution: Although ICE advertisedthe university as offering graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses, it did not have any teachers, curriculum, classes, or other educational activities. Its primary selling point, prosecutors said, was a ticket to an F-1 visa. But attorneys for the students affected say these operations are entrapment, designed to trick unknowing international students into paying thousands of dollars to a university, while having no way of knowing that their actions are illegal. The Trump administration also tried to make it easier for students to face penalties for violating the terms of their visas. US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo in 2018 that meant that mistakes as minor as failing to file an address change report or having to drop a course could have prevented students from applying for a new visa or barred them from reentering the US for up to 10 years. That memo, however, was blocked in federal court before it could go into effect. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Trump made a rare public appearance in DC to pay his respects to RBG. It did not go well.
Trump pays his respects to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court on Thursday. | Alex Brandon/Getty Images The viral footage serves as a reminder that Trump is a historically unpopular president. President Donald Trump was met with boos and chants of “vote him out!” when he went to the Supreme Court on Thursday to pay his respects to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump, who in an unusual twist was wearing a mask, and first lady Melania Trump made a brief appearance besides Ginsburg’s coffin at the top of the Supreme Court’s steps. As the Trumps stood silently, a nearby crowd made their displeasure with their presence known. After just a few moments, the Trumps got back into their limousine. Footage of the incident quickly went viral. As CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak noted along with the video, “it’s rare for this President to see his opposition this up-close and in-person.” Trump at the court as crowd chants “vote him out” — it’s rare for this President to see his opposition this up-close and in-person pic.twitter.com/VEVkRHOkjM— Kevin Liptak (@Kevinliptakcnn) September 24, 2020 Indeed, the clip serves as a reminder that Trump is a historically unpopular president. As Harry Enten of CNN detailed earlier this month, Trump has never once hit 50 percent approval in a live interview poll since taking office. And his average approval rating of 40 percent is 6 points lower than that of Jimmy Carter, who previously had the worst performance in this metric among post-World War II presidents. CNN Trump is especially unpopular in large, blue urban areas like Washington, DC, where he was memorably booed when he was introduced during a World Series game last October. More recently, federal authorities forcefully cleared out protesters so Trump could have a photo op at a church across from the White House in June. Trump almost never makes public appearances in such cities, instead opting to mingle with paying customers at properties he still owns and profits from, hold political rallies in front of his fans in rural or exurban areas where lots of white people live, or participate in roundtable events in front of carefully vetted and friendly audiences. Of course, being historically unpopular didn’t stop Trump from winning the presidency in 2016, when, according to Gallup he was the most unpopular major-party candidate ever to run for office. But a significant factor working in his favor back then was that Hillary Clinton was the second most unpopular such candidate. Trump doesn’t have that working in his favor this time around. While the latest Gallup numbers indicate that Joe Biden’s favorability is underwater, his -4 spread (46 percent favorability versus 50 percent unfavorability) isn’t nearly as bad as Trump’s -16 spread (41 percent favorability versus 57 percent unfavorability). Admirers of Ginsburg who were at the Supreme Court while she was lying in repose on Thursday had specific reasons to boo Trump. By rushing ahead to nominate Ginsburg’s replacement before the election, Trump is disregarding her dying request — “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” she told her granddaughter. Not only is Trump disregarding her final request, but he repeatedly claimed on Monday without citing evidence that it’s somehow a forgery. “I don’t know that she said that, or was that written out by Adam Schiff and [Chuck] Schumer and [Nancy] Pelosi?” Trump said on Fox & Friends on Monday. “I would be more inclined for the second. You know, that came out of the wind. It sounds so beautiful, but that sounds like a Schumer deal.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The most dangerous conspiracy theory in 2020 isn’t about blood-sucking pedophiles
Tara Jacoby for Vox QAnon is scary, but misinformation about voter fraud poses a bigger and more immediate threat to democracy. As the 2020 election enters its final phases, it feels like a lot could go wrong in the United States. Reports warn that hackers from Russia and China are targeting both parties, while the fringe conspiracy movement QAnon slips into the mainstream and possibly influences voters. And millions of people are talking about a different conspiracy theory, one that posits that the election has already been stolen. Believers say this still-unfolding scandal goes all the way to the top. It gets weird, too. According to some, a sinister millionaire is ripping equipment out of post offices so they can’t properly process mail-in ballots. Others say foreign governments are printing millions of fraudulent mail-in ballots, and that “deep state” goons are raiding nursing homes to tamper with senior citizens’ mail-in ballots. One way or another, President Trump is almost always supposedly involved in these plots — either orchestrating the conspiracy or fighting the America-hating intruders. And at the end of the day, this conspiracy theory boils down to one very bad but also mundane thing: voter fraud. Let that sink in. The conspiracy theory that’s catching on — the one to really worry about, as the country gears up to elect its future leaders — is not QAnon, which claims that Satan-worshipping, liberal pedophiles are running the country. It’s the one hiding in plain sight, the one that supporters of both parties are pushing, and the one that’s at the center of the most dangerous misinformation campaigns. The voter fraud conspiracy theory, including related theories about voter suppression, is also what stands to undermine American democracy in a very immediate way, both by suppressing voter turnout and by sowing doubt among voters about the election’s results. That gets even more worrisome when you consider that President Trump continues to suggest that he won’t leave office, regardless of the election’s outcome. When asked on Wednesday if he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power, Trump said, “We’ll have to see what happens.” He added, “The ballots are a disaster.” Up to 80 million people are expected to vote by mail — the most in American history — which is leading to concern about the process. According to data from Zignal Labs, online and social media mentions of mail-in voting, including good old-fashioned voter fraud, are more prevalent than conspiratorial buzzwords like George Soros, the Clintons, or vaccines, including one for the coronavirus. Zignal Labs also calculates that, when looking at online discussions of these topics that are likely to be misinformation, vote-by-mail mentions still outnumber those about these other topics. That said, anxiety about voter fraud is common during any election season — it’s just not this unhinged. In most elections, one side thinks the other side is somehow going to steal the election by ballot-harvesting, double voting, machine-rigging, voter suppression, or any other number of methods, and those fears will either be realized by questions raised after a loss or forgotten in the sweet security of victory. But the pandemic and all the uncertainty it’s created have exaggerated these fears. Just a small number of Americans — especially in states where it’s not yet a widespread practice — have previous experience voting by mail, according to Pew. An intelligence bulletin posted by the Department of Homeland Security has also warned that Russia is likely amplifying misinformation that casts doubts on the integrity of voting by mail. The incumbent president isn’t helping, either. Trump, who has said “mail-In Ballots will lead to massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 Election,” continues to find new ways to discredit the process, as have his lieutenants, like Attorney General Bill Barr. History tells us that the voter fraud conspiracy theory is a bipartisan issue. For decades, competing and even converging theories about voter fraud have come from Democrats as well as Republicans. And according to research, no matter who loses, about a quarter of those on the losing side will likely believe the election was rigged for one reason or another. Believing in a conspiracy theory like this — or any conspiracy theory, for that matter — can be a useful coping mechanism for some. “We like knowing that there are causes, and there’s intentionality behind things that happen in the world, and conspiracy theories help with all of that because they impose some structure on a messy, uncertain, random kind of world,” Adam Enders, a political scientist at the University of Louisville who studies conspiracy theories, told Recode. “They tell a story: There’s a winner, there’s a loser, and there’s a bad guy.” So while it’s tempting to fixate on QAnon and how the many sordid elements of that conspiracy theory might matter in November, that risks missing something even bigger. The conspiracy theory about how voter fraud of some kind will rig the election might not seem so exciting. That might also be why it’s so dangerous. Calm down about QAnon QAnon is wild and scary, which is why it’s getting so much attention right now. The term QAnon refers to a set of far-fetched conspiracy theories about how a cabal of elites — pedophiles who suck the blood of babies to gain special powers — is plotting against President Trump. If you strip out the more salacious words of that description, you’re left with the idea that elites are plotting against the president. The thing is, there’s little concrete evidence that QAnon is attracting huge numbers of believers, though awareness is growing. From March to September, the number of Americans who had heard or read “a lot or a little” about QAnon doubled from 23 percent to 47 percent, according to a Pew survey. (The organization acknowledged that asking the same people the same question twice stands to skew the results.) Regardless, there’s a big difference between knowing about a conspiracy theory and believing in it. Beyond the sheer number of its followers, the QAnon movement presents a different kind of danger. The growth of QAnon, which the FBI has identified as a potential domestic terrorism threat, coincides with a rise in right-wing extremist attacks and plots, and QAnon specifically has been linked to multiple acts of violence. There’s also overlap between QAnon believers and violent militia groups like the “boogaloo” movement. This is all deeply concerning and a threat to our democracy, too. And QAnon is, in fact, finding some legitimacy in politics. Around the same time that QAnon believer Marjorie Taylor Greene won her House primary runoff in Georgia, the social media research company Storyful released data showing that membership in 10 large QAnon Facebook groups increased 600 percent from March to July, and the Instagram followings on top QAnon Instagram accounts quadrupled. On top of that, a Civiqs/Daily Kos poll in early September suggested that a third of Republicans believe the QAnon conspiracy theory is “mostly true.” All of this led to a flurry of reports about how QAnon had gone mainstream. Some conspiracy theory experts, however, have doubts about how the movement factors into the upcoming presidential election. “We’re not finding a movement that’s either big or growing, or well-known,” said Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami political science who has been conducting polling on conspiracy theories for a decade. “This seems to me to be nothing more than a case of a media public, of journalists getting trapped in their own media bubble and just repeating over and over again that this is big and getting bigger and going mainstream.” Some of the most recent polls, Uscinski has pointed out, ask people broadly if they believe things like QAnon and the “deep state,” and then conflate the results to mean that belief in QAnon is on the rise. In fact, this broad category of conspiracy theories about shadowy elites dates back to the Masons, the Knights Templar, longstanding anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and beyond. So it seems possible that people aren’t expressing familiarity with QAnon specifically but rather other longstanding conspiracy theories about a deep state. “Conspiracy theories have always played a role in American politics, as far back as when the Anti-Masonic Party rose to power in the Northeast in the early 19th century,” said Travis View, who co-hosts the QAnon Anonymous podcast. “But even if conspiracy theory belief hasn’t increased generally in the United States, it’s notable that the conspiracy theory community are gathering under the banner of ‘Q.’” Beware the boring conspiracy theory All that is to say that while QAnon certainly isn’t harmless, and may well pose a growing threat — even a violent one — if it continues to spread, don’t let it distract from the more popular, more imminent, and more dangerous conspiracy theories around voter fraud that are taking hold in the US. While QAnon supporters certainly have their own theories about how this year’s election is rigged, voter fraud misinformation has more people, and more prominent people like Trump, promoting it. That leaves both Republicans and Democrats questioning the integrity of American democracy. As a result, discourse about voter fraud and other voting-related anxieties is finding a huge audience across the political spectrum. According to data from the intelligence firm NewsWhip, links shared on social media about voter fraud, mail-in voting, or vote-by-mail gathered nearly 99 million interactions over the past three months, compared to about 74 million interactions for stories about QAnon-adjacent topics like child trafficking. Meanwhile, stories that explicitly mentioned the terms QAnon, wwg1wga (shorthand for the QAnon rallying cry, “where we go one, we go all”), and #SaveTheChildren (a hashtag QAnon followers recently hijacked) had just over 15.5 million interactions over the past three months. Data from Zignal Labs also shows that mentions of misinformation related to voting have continued to spike, again and again, this election cycle. Voter fraud exists, but its prevalence is overexaggerated, particularly in modern US elections. As long as Americans have been voting, there have been reported instances of voter fraud, including some sensational ones that have been proven true. The conservative Heritage Foundation keeps a running tally of these that can be found on the White House website. Many of the cases reported therein are linked to absentee ballots, which provides rhetorical ammunition for President Trump, who has falsely claimed that mail-in voting will lead to a “rigged election” and similarly spent much of his 2016 campaign warning of voter fraud. Trump also keeps encouraging people to vote twice, which is illegal. Republicans nevertheless maintain that, because voter fraud has happened in the past, it’s opening the doors for Democrats to steal this year’s election, when the pandemic is upending many voting norms. Despite Trump’s persistent warnings to the contrary, there were just four documented cases of voter fraud reported in the weeks after the 2016 election. “We know from decades upon decades of data that while there is voting fraud in the United States, it is incredibly rare,” Sam Rhodes, a political scientist at Utah Valley University who studies fake news, told Recode. “It’s very difficult to swing an election by stealing a couple votes, especially when you consider the decentralized nature of the American federal election system.” Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that higher levels of voting by mail will lead to more cheating. In the five states where mail-in voting is the norm — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — there have been virtually no cases of documented voter fraud. What’s ironic is that Republicans historically have cast more absentee ballots than Democrats, which complicates Trump’s claim in August that mail-in ballots “are dangerous for this country because of cheaters.” The president’s rhetoric around voter fraud seems to be resonating within the party. A September Pew survey showed that 43 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe voter fraud associated with mail-in voting is a “major problem” in the election. The voter fraud conspiracy theories conservatives are sharing online are evolving well beyond the president’s statements about mail-in voting, too. The right-wing site Natural News, which has been banned on Facebook after spreading conspiracy theories, has been pushing the baseless claim on its expansive network of sites that Democrats are using mail-in voting to skew the election in their favor. Some of the voter fraud narratives can get pretty wild, too. One conspiracy theory making the rounds online is that arsonists set the recent West Coast wildfires in an attempt to shut down highways and prevent mail-in votes from being delivered and to suppress Republican turnout, according to research from the web intelligence firm Yonder. Meanwhile, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker claimed in a Facebook post that Democrats were spreading a “fake postal controversy in hopes that worried people will vote by mail before the first debate.” Democrats aren’t immune to voter fraud conspiracy theories, though they tend to worry more about the voter suppression side of things. The “fake postal controversy” Walker mentioned is a reference to the disruptions in the US Postal Service that followed the appointment of Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, as postmaster general. Those disruptions included the removal of 711 mail sorting machines from postal facilities and widespread mail delays. Meanwhile, misleading images of collection boxes being removed from street corners went viral on social media. All of this led to allegations that the Trump administration was sabotaging the election by dismantling the Postal Service, claims that were swiftly framed by conservatives as a false conspiracy theory about a far-fetched form of voter suppression. Yet, just as Republicans could claim that voter fraud has actually happened in the past, there was no denying the fact that actions taken by the president had disrupted the Postal Service mere months before an election that could be decided by mail-in voting. Trump even admitted to blocking USPS funding because he didn’t want universal mail-in voting. Conspiratorial thinking of this nature has been a bipartisan issue for decades on both sides, according to a 2017 paper published in Political Research Quarterly. Notably, the authors report, “Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots.” In many ways, conspiracy theories that flirt with the facts are more harmful than those that seem more outrageous. Conspiracy theories about QAnon are not nearly as dangerous to elections as those about voter fraud and voter suppression, because they’re so much more believable and embraced by a much larger share of the population. Even if they’re not true — and even if they’re not completely believed — these conspiracy theories can seed doubt in the minds of millions of American voters about the democratic process, and when the media or the president amplifies these theories, those doubts become much more severe. “The long-term impact of those kinds of stories is that a few weeks after the fact, we know we heard something, and we have a question in our mind,” said Kris Shaffer, technical director of Yonder. “Even if the truth was really clearly laid out, we’ll still have a question in our mind as to what actually happened.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Critical race theory, and Trump’s war on it, explained
President Trump speaks during a White House Conference on American History at the National Archives on September 17. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images Trump has attacked diversity training, critical race theory, the 1619 project, and anything that reckons with America’s racist past. The Trump administration kicked off September by launching an assault on critical race theory and diversity training — and is now capping off the month by doubling down on its promises. After a string of related tweets Tuesday, Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training, emphasizing his desire to stop “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.” The administration’s war against “race-based ideologies” — code for theories and practices that examine the racism in American history and institutions — started on September 4 when Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Russell Vought, at Trump’s behest, released a memo instructing federal agencies to identify any critical race theory and white privilege training within their departmental training plans. According to the memo, the administration’s mission is to stop funding any and all programming that suggests the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Now, with Trump’s newly expanded ban on such training sessions, which he has called “divisive, un-American propaganda,” the administration is signaling that Americans, and even those who run the government, don’t need to understand the country’s racist founding — from the genocide of Native Americans to the enslavement of Africans — and the role the past plays in how racism persists today. On September 17, as part of the White House Conference on American History, Trump went all-in on “defend[ing] the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” taking time to denounce the New York Times’s 1619 project that focused on the lasting impact of slavery in America; historian Howard Zinn, who penned the influential A People’s History of the United States, about America’s story from the perspective of the oppressed; and critical race theory. “They’ve lumped everything together: critical race theory, the 1619 project, whiteness studies, talking about white privilege,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and UCLA and Columbia University law professor, told Vox. “What they have in common is they are discourses that refuse to participate in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that everything is behind us. None of these projects accept that it’s all behind us.” As to why the Trump administration is suddenly up in arms about racial bias training and critical race theory — a framework that’s existed for about 40 years — the OMB memo cites press reports as factors in Trump’s decision. In July, Fox News began airing segments featuring conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, who in mid-August told Tucker Carlson that he was “declaring a one-man war against critical race theory in the federal government, and I’m not going to stop these investigations until we can abolish it within our public institutions.” He tweeted on August 20, “My goal is simple: to persuade the President of the United States to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory in the federal government.” Rufo appeared on Carlson’s show once more on September 2, just two days before the memo’s release. Conservative media celebrated the document as a win; in response to a Breitbart article about the memo, Trump tweeted on September 5: “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!” While it might be tempting to brush off the administration’s latest crusade as inconsequential amid a flurry of other happenings — like his intentionally misleading the American public on the Covid-19 pandemic or the rush to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat — Trump’s directive had already taken effect even before the executive order. A scheduled unconscious bias training, programming meant to help workers recognize and tackle discriminatory behavior, at the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has been postponed, according to MarketWatch. Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has urged a Senate Judiciary hearing on Trump’s push to roll back anti-racial bias training for federal government employees. However, as much as Trump would like to systematically ban critical race theory, it won’t be so easy; the framework is rooted in how a large body of scholars and thinkers see the world. In fact, in a time when systemic injustice has been brought to the fore, the broader public is only just beginning to look at America through such a critical lens. Critical race theory is a framework for grappling with racial power and white supremacy in America Critical race theory grew out of a generational response to the ebb and flow of the civil rights movement, according to a seminal 1993 book on the theory, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. Though the authors — Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw — don’t pinpoint an exact date for when critical race theory first entered the collective consciousness, the book notes the late 1970s as a time when “the civil rights movement of the 1960s had stalled, and many of its gains were being rolled back.” That’s when a post-civil rights generation of scholars recognized that while segregation had been modestly repealed, there was still inequality to be addressed. America wanted to frame itself as a society that was committed to equality, but fewer legal battles were being won by civil rights advocates and white people began claiming that remedies for racial discrimination were violating their civil rights. “Individual law teachers and students committed to racial justice began to meet, to talk, to write, and to engage in political action in an effort to confront and oppose dominant societal and institutional forces that maintained the structures of racism while professing the goal of dismantling racial discrimination,” the authors wrote. Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, and Crenshaw — who identified themselves as a collective of African American, Chicano, and Asian American “outsider law teachers” — defined critical race theory as a movement and framework that recognizes how racism is “endemic” to American life. In other words, critical race theory rejects the belief that “what’s in the past is in the past” and that the best way to get beyond race is to stop talking about it. Instead, America must reckon with how its values and institutions feed into racism. Critical race theory was also a lens through which these legal scholars could analyze policies and the law,accepting that “racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines,” like differences in income, incarceration rates, health outcomes, housing, educational opportunities, political representation, and military service. The ultimate goal was to eliminate racial oppression as part of the broader mission of ending all kinds of oppression — including that based on class or sexual orientation. According to the authors, it’s not enough to just make adjustments within established hierarchies; it’s necessary to challenge the hierarchies themselves. The framework is also skeptical of the belief that colorblindness — not seeing race — is a solution to racism. This stems from the belief that race itself is not biological but socially constructed. In other words, race isn’t inherent or natural. “So if race is not biological, how is being colorblind a solution to the problem of racism?” Crenshaw told Vox. As critical race theory brewed in academic circles for years, its first moment of social action can be traced back to 1981, when students boycotted Harvard Law School to persuade the administration to increase the number of tenured professors of color at the school. When professor Derrick Bell left the law school at the time, there was no one to teach his groundbreaking course “Race, Racism, and American Law.” To fill the gap, students organized an alternative course and invited guest lecturers to teach from Bell’s book by the same name. This course was just one catalyst that developed critical race theory as a movement — and as a community that served as refuge from a largely white legal field. Critical race theorists would come to adopt ideas from a number of schools of thought — liberalism, Marxism, critical legal studies, feminism, postmodernism — to establish itself. There have been previous efforts to eliminate critical race theory prior to Trump, with criticism coming from thinkers on both the left and the right. Critics on the left questioned how scholars could theorize something that is a social construction. “We had significant debate with folks who see class as the singular axis of subordination,” Crenshaw told Vox. “But class is not natural. It’s also a construction that has legal ramifications. If you can analyze law and other systems to show how class relations are reproduced, and you call that critical legal theory, then why can’t we pay attention to the way that racial power is reproduced through law?” Conservatives, on the other hand, claimed that remedying problems like segregation and affirmative action was reverse discrimination, and that race-based remedies were overcorrecting and creating new victims — mostly white men who were made to feel that they had lost what they have long had a right to. Over time, critical race theory has spread to countless disciplines (from education to political science to sociology), looked at race in relation to other constructs (gender, class, and sexuality), and has long crossed international borders. Critical race theory is vast, established, and simply cannot be canceled. Critical race theory is a decades-long response from people who have been historically shut out in all corners of American society. “To think that you’re going to just go and round it all up is like trying to put your hands around water. It just shows you know nothing about water, to think that all you can do is just round it all up with your arms,” Crenshaw said. Trump’s assault on critical race theory shouldn’t be ignored The Trump administration’s attempt to clamp down on critical race theory and unconscious bias training, which are related but in no way the same things, is part of his larger push to convince Americans that there is a conspiracy on the part of academics, activists, and journalists on the left to rewrite history. “Let’s face it, so many people believe in conspiracy theories now. So now that [Trump] has ginned up all this angst over conspiracies to take away people’s rights, he’s really scaling it up,” Crenshaw said. According to Crenshaw, at the foundation of many of these theories is a psychological insecurity on the part of white people who fear their racial status is being threatened. Historically, the tendency has been for white people to align with whiteness, even across class lines, Crenshaw noted. “What remains to be seen is whether the resistance to it is nearly as powerful as the tendency toward it.” Trump drove the tendency home in his address at the White House Conference on American History, acknowledging that he plans to take this fight beyond federal contractors and into America’s schools with an executive order that bolsters “patriotic education.” “Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families,” Trump said. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.” Trump wants his critics to accept the status quo —that we already live in a fair and just America—Crenshaw said. Yet critical race theory remains relevant as people in cities and small towns across the country lead ongoing protests for Black lives following the death of George Floyd in late May. Americans and organizations have pledged to become anti-racist, to actively recognize how silence or inaction amounts to complicity. Activists are also pushing for anti-racist education in schools and anti-racism trainings in workplaces, and many would argue that Trump cannot stop the larger moving tide. “Our failure to cease and desist from linking this present to a problematic past is un-American. It is propaganda [according to Trump],” Crenshaw told Vox. “The best propaganda is something that calls the truth propaganda.” 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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Pennsylvania’s naked ballot problem, explained
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag Here’s how to get your vote to count. If you’re voting by mail in Pennsylvania this year, and you want your vote to actually count, you need to remember one crucial thing: the secrecy envelope. Once you fill out the ballot itself, you must place it inside the provided secrecy envelope, which contains no information about your identity. Then you put the sealed secrecy envelope inside a different postage-paid addressed return envelope, on which you have to sign your name and write your address. If you forget the secrecy envelope — simply dropping your ballot in the ordinary return envelope — your ballot will be deemed a “naked ballot.” And, according to a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, election officials will have to throw it out. The reason for the secrecy envelope, in theory, is to preserve the secret ballot and to prevent potential fraud. That is: once election officials receive the mail-in ballot, they use the outer envelope to verify that the person voting is registered and hasn’t already voted, without being able to see who the vote is for. Only later will the secrecy envelope actually be opened and counted. But the risk is that if the rule is implemented very strictly, many voters’ non-fraudulent ballots will be thrown out on what’s essentially a technicality, simply because they misunderstood the rules. So in the wake of the state Supreme Court ruling on the topic last week, Democrats are calling on the Republican-controlled state legislature to change the law to allow naked ballots to be counted. Yet GOP legislators do not seem eager to take any such step. (Both sides suspect discarding naked ballots will disadvantage Democrats more than Republicans, since more Biden supporters have told pollsters they are interested in voting by mail.) And this could potentially be very consequential. A Philadelphia official recently raised concerns that as many as 100,000 “naked ballots” could be thrown out — and pointed out that Donald Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by just 44,000 votes. This time around, polls and models show Pennsylvania has a relatively high chance of being the “tipping point” state likely to put Trump or Biden over 270 electoral votes. And Dave Wasserman, an elections expert for the Cook Political Report, asserted that we “know” that Pennsylvania’s “rejected ballots will be *heavily* pro-Biden.” Current polls suggest Biden’s lead is probably big enough in enough states that he can overcome this problem — but if polls are underestimating Trump’s support or if the race tightens, the fate of naked ballots very well could decide the presidency. How to properly send back your mail ballot in Pennsylvania As you can see in the image below, when a voter receives a mail-in ballot in Pennsylvania, they’ll receive the ballot itself, and two envelopes. The simple unaddressed envelope at the top here is the secrecy envelope. It contains no address, and all it says is “Official Election Ballot.” The ballot must be filled out, placed in the secrecy envelope, and sealed. Pittsburgh’s Action 4 News Then the sealed secrecy envelope must be placed in the addressed, postage-paid envelope seen at the bottom of this image. On the back of this envelope, the voter must write their address, print and sign their name, and date their signature, before sealing it and dropping it in the mail. How Pennsylvania got here Last year, well before the Covid-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on a a bipartisan election reform bill that Gov. Tom Wolf (D) called “the biggest change to our elections in generations.” The centerpiece of this new law was a major expansion of mail-in voting. Previously, Pennsylvania only allowed absentee voting by mail for people who could provide some reason for why they couldn’t appear to vote in-person. With the new law, no-excuse vote-by-mail was permitted. The new law stated that mail-in voters “shall, in secret ... enclose and securely seal” their ballot in the secrecy envelope, “which shall be placed in the second” addressed and signed envelope for mailing. The call for some sort of “secrecy sleeve” isn’t unique — 15 other states also require it for absentee or mail voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including blue states like New Jersey, New York, and Washington. And it wasn’t particularly controversial when Gov. Wolf signed it into law. Since then, the pandemic has thrown the safety of in-person voting into question, meaning there were far more requests for mail voting than had been expected (the state anticipated 80,000 to 100,000 requests during the primary, but there were more than 1.8 million). Also, President Trump launched a barrage of criticism against mail voting, saying he doesn’t trust it and calling it “dangerous for this country.” This has led to a historically unusual amount of partisan polarization around mail voting, as CNN’s Harry Enten has written — Democrats are now far more likely to say they intend to vote by mail, and Republicans now saying they’re less likely, a new phenomenon. The natural conclusion here is that counting more marginal mail votes will advantage Democrats, while discarding more marginal mail votes could help Trump and Republicans. And the parties are responding accordingly. The naked ballot issue was quickly consumed by legal wrangling Pennsylvania’s first attempt with the new system was for the state’s primary on June 2. And with an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots pouring in, local elections boards had to decide what to do with the many naked ballots lacking secrecy envelopes. Now, the 2019 state law says that if the secrecy envelope contains any “text, mark, or symbol” revealing the voter’s identity, the ballot should be “set aside and declared void.” However, it does not explicitly say that mail-in ballots lacking a secrecy envelope should be thrown out. There was some vagueness there. Different election boards handled the situation differently. The Philadelphia Board of Elections decided it would count naked ballots (as it had done in previous years when the issue arise with absentee ballots), and other counties decided they wouldn’t. This was a primary, so the partisan stakes for the outcome weren’t that high. But both parties were watching closely, in preparation for the general election. In late June, the legal wrangling started. Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a suit in federal court challenging several policies and practices used in Pennsylvania’s primary — among them, the counting of ballots lacking secrecy envelopes. Trump’s federal suit was then put on hold after the Pennsylvania Democratic Party filed their own lawsuit in state court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has a Democratic majority, so Democrats likely expected favorable rulings there. For the most part, they got them, when the justices ruled last week that mail-in ballots can be returned in drop boxes, and that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later will count. On the naked ballot issue, though, Republicans triumphed. In an opinion written by Democratic justice Max Baer, the court decreed that ballots that aren’t enclosed in secrecy envelopes will not count. “Whatever the wisdom of the requirement, the command that the mail-in elector utilize the secrecy envelope and leave it unblemished by identifying information is neither ambiguous nor unreasonable,” Baer wrote. Critics worry that too many legitimate votes will be thrown out on “a minor technicality” The problem, according to critics, is that in practice many well-meaning voters will mess this up. So the main impact of this policy might not be to prevent fraud at all — it might be to throw out tens of thousands of legitimately cast votes due to. Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley (D) sounded the alarm in a letter to state legislative leaders on Monday. “It is the naked ballot ruling that is going to cause electoral chaos,” Deeley wrote. She argues that tens of thousands of ballots are going to “not be counted, all because of a minor technicality.” Estimating how many Pennsylvania ballots will be sent in naked is challenging — the state has never had no-excuse vote by mail for a general election before, the pandemic is an added unprecedented situation, and many counties (including Philadelphia) didn’t keep track of how many naked ballots there were in the primary. However, Jonathan Lai of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who’s been doing excellent coverage of this issue, reports that two counties in the state — Mercer County and Lawrence County — did keep track, and both found that about 5 percent of total submitted mail ballots lacked a secrecy envelope. Deeley’s letter makes the eyebrow-raising claim that over 100,000 ballots could be thrown out statewide. This is based on taking the percent of naked ballots Philadelphia received for absentee votes (before the vote-by-mail reforms) in the city’s 2019 election — 6.4 percent — and extrapolating it statewide. She also points out that there “will be many thousands more voting through the mail for the very first time” in the general election. Deeley other Democrats have called on state legislative leaders to change the law to let those ballots count. But Republicans control the state legislature, and so far, they seem unmoved. So Democrats’ best hope at this point is an education campaign — to remind mail-in voters that, as the narrator in a new Democratic digital ad says, “You must place the ballot in the secrecy envelope first for your vote to count.”
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“It isn’t a question of politics”: Fauci on calling out Sen. Rand Paul’s misinformation
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on September 23 in Washington, DC. | Alex Edelman/Getty Images The country’s top infectious disease expert talks with Vox on Covid-19 science and the case for trusting a vaccine. Six months into the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, remains one of the most visible and steadfast defenders of science in an increasingly politicized environment. On Thursday, Vox and the Today, Explained podcast team spoke to Fauci about calling out Sen. Rand Paul at a Wednesday Senate hearing; his projections for when vaccines may be ready to distribute; his concerns about public mistrust in the vaccine approval process, telling political appointees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “take a walk,” who the real enemy is, and what he would ask for if he could wave a magic wand right now. “The public health response and the public health activities, in fact, have become politicized, which is so unfortunate,” he told us. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length. To hear Today, Explained’s full conversation with Fauci, listen to the episode below or wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Vox The University of Washington’s Covid-19 model is now saying we may see nearly 400,000 deaths by the end of the year. Is that a realistic estimate? Anthony Fauci We really have got to be careful because those are models. Models are based on the assumptions that you make to put into the model. Certainly if things go poorly — if, in fact, we do not get control and people do not cooperate in some of the public health measures — that could happen. Hopefully, as we get toward the end of the year, we’ll know that we have a vaccine, or more than one vaccine, that’s safe and effective. So if we could start vaccinating at least the high-risk people, as well as the front-line responders, by the end of this calendar year and into 2021, we could prevent that surge that everyone is concerned about. But we can’t just rely on a vaccine. We’ve got to rely on [people’s adherence] to the simple recommended public health measures, particularly mask-wearing when you’re inside and may not be able to keep the physical distance that we’d like to see. Vox What is the latest on a vaccine being available in the United States? What do you think the timeline is? Anthony Fauci We don’t know. So when you hear people make projections, they are merely projections. The vaccines that are currently in advanced trials — the Pfizer, Moderna, and now the JNJ Janssen products — are in play. (A fourth [AstraZeneca] is on hold because of an adverse event that took place.) They have anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 people [enrolled] per trial. And given the enrollment and the number of infections, I would project ... that by the end of the year, let’s say November or December, we will know whether the vaccines, plural, are safe and effective. It could be earlier. I mean, if there are enough infections in the trial and you could distinguish between the placebo and the vaccine limb of the trial, you may be able to make a determination early. But let’s assume that it’s November and December. You could ask, what do you think the chances are of it being safe and effective? The first honest thing to say is that you don’t know. But based on the preliminary data that we’ve seen in animal studies, as well as in the phase 1 studies, the vaccines appear to induce a response that’s comparable to a good response to natural infection, which traditionally is always a good sign that you’re going in the right direction. But the proof of the pudding is going to be the result of the [phase 3] trials. Now, if, in fact, it shows to be safe and effective and you start vaccinating people, you could do that as early as the end of this year. We’ve taken a major financial risk of producing vaccines even before we know that they work, which means if they do work, you saved a lot of months. If they don’t work, the only thing you’ve lost is money. And right now, we feel that the investment is really worth the risk financially, because we want to do things as safely but as quickly as possible. Vox Once we have a vaccine in the United States, do we have a plan for how it will be distributed across the country? Anthony Fauci Yes, yes. Traditionally, the final decision on that is with the CDC ... and they rely heavily on the advice of a committee called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. With regard to Covid-19 vaccines, we’ve added an extra layer to that. The National Academy of Medicine is putting together a group of scientists, ethicists, and others to map out what we think is the most appropriate, fair, and ethical way to distribute vaccines in a greater fashion. Traditionally, you start off vaccinating the health care providers and front-line individuals who are putting themselves at risk to take care of sick patients. The other [group] is those at high risk, such as the elderly, those who have underlying conditions and people like that. The final determination has not been made, but that will be coming very soon. Vox How worried are you about faith in the vaccine? Are you concerned that people might not trust a vaccine produced in this country? Anthony Fauci I am very concerned about that. And that’s the reason why I’m right here talking with you. I’m trying to make sure that we can reach out to the community and explain the process, Because when you look at the decisions about whether a vaccine is safe and effective — we spoke about this in detail at the Senate hearing yesterday that many people tuned in to — at least I gathered that from a lot of the tweets following that hearing ... Vox I thought you weren’t on Twitter? Anthony Fauci I’m not. But my staff sends me these emails that say, you got to look at this. The situation is that people need to understand that an independent body, the Data and Safety Monitoring Board [DSMB], is beholden to no one, not to the president, not to the vaccine companies, not to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. Not to me. They are an independent group of established scientists, ethicists, and statisticians. They are the only ones that have access to the data because it’s a double-blind study. And a vaccine has a predetermined set of criteria to determine if it works or not. And the DSMB intermittently looks at that. When they feel it’s reached that point, they will then notify the company. Then the company has the option, which they will certainly do, of presenting it to the FDA either for an emergency use authorization or directly for what we call a BLA, or a biological license application, which essentially is a license. FDA scientists will look at that. Then they will consult with another advisory committee called the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee [VRBPAC], who are, again, advisory to the FDA. Those data will become public so that scientists like myself and my colleagues will have access. Everybody’s worrying that someone is going to make an end run around that and try to get a vaccine out for political reasons. Well, that will not happen, but if it does ... it will be really transparent. Because the scientists will see the data. The FDA has pledged publicly multiple times that they will not approve a vaccine unless they’ve established that nonpolitical scientists agree that it’s safe and effective. And we’ve got to keep getting that message out because it’s totally understandable giving the mixed messages that are coming out that the public might be skeptical about vaccines. And if it turns out somebody tries to force it out, I tell you, I will be one of the first ones that will object to that. Vox So you’ll be out there saying this is not the vaccine we should trust? Anthony Fauci Yeah, I would say that the process is not the right process to do this, and we really need to go back to the right process. Vox Are you worried about how this whole coronavirus pandemic has shaken faith in these institutions that previously had this sort of bulletproof reputation? Anthony Fauci Yeah. Vox Institutions like the CDC. Anthony Fauci Yes, that is unfortunate. There have been some unfortunate things that have happened. There have been people within agencies that have tried unsuccessfully to influence the CDC. In one situation, not to mention any names, one of those individuals tried to influence what I said, which is really a fool’s errand, because I essentially told them to go take a walk. Those people are not there anymore. “I have been in intensive discussions with the director of the CDC and the director of FDA and I really, truly believe that you can trust them” I can tell you, quite frankly, that I have been in intensive discussions with the director of the CDC and the director of FDA and I really, truly believe that you can trust them. And besides the core people, the career scientists at the CDC and the FDA — they do this for a living. They are apolitical and completely devoted to the health of our nation. And those are the people that will speak out. "You misconstrued that, Senator. And you've done that repetitively in the past." -- Fauci is out of patience with Rand Paul pic.twitter.com/6xRoO19ZYL— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 23, 2020 Vox Your Wednesday appearance before the Senate sort of blew up on Twitter. Was it that people finally saw you lose your patience with Sen. Rand Paul? I know from watching you over the past six or seven months how hard you’ve tried to remain above the political fray. And I wonder, six, seven months into it, isn’t it wearing on you? Anthony Fauci Well, the answer is it is certainly possible, and I have been doing this not only over the last six months, but, like, for 40 years. “He was saying things that were not compatible with the scientific data” I do have a great deal of respect for the institution of the Senate, and I do have respect for Sen. Rand Paul. But he was saying things that were not true. And, well, I just couldn’t let that stand because there we were on national TV with a lot of cameras. And I just had to call him on that. I think people are giving him information. It is what’s called cherry-picking information out there. He was saying things that were not compatible with the scientific data. So what the audience saw me do was say, “Whoa, wait a minute, time out. You really can’t say that.” I wasn’t disrespectful at all. I think I was quite respectful. But it isn’t a question of politics because he was saying what he thought was the right thing. And I disagreed with that. Vox Is it impossible to remain above the politics when this pandemic has been so politicized? Anthony Fauci We’re in a highly charged political season with big-time, high-stakes elections. The public health response and the public health activities, in fact, have become politicized, which is so unfortunate. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the bad guy here is the virus. The bad guy is not one side or the other. Public health measures should be the gateway and the vehicle to getting the country’s economy back and opening up the country. And yet there are some who interpret that as an obstacle. It isn’t the obstacle. It’s the solution. “We are at war with a virus. We are not at war with each other.” So we’ve got to keep hammering that message home: We’re all in this together. And when you have some groups of society who make it a political issue, it makes it very complicated to get a uniform, consistent approach in our country. Vox If you could wave a magic wand over the United States and change one thing tomorrow to improve the trajectory of this pandemic, what would it be? Anthony Fauci I think apart from a vaccine, which we’ll have to wait a few months for, if I were to wave a wand now, it would be to get the entire country uniformly pulling together in a public health way to get these cases down. A couple of days after 9/11, we didn’t have any political arguing about what we needed to do, or, you know, December 1941 after Pearl Harbor. Everybody was in it together. That’s really what we’re dealing with. I don’t want to get too melodramatic, but we are at war with a virus. We are not at war with each other. So my magic wand would be ... a spirit of pulling together. For Today, Explained’s full conversation with Fauci, listen to the episode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. 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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No cops were charged with Breonna Taylor’s death. This is how the system was designed.
Demonstrators gather outside the US Department of Justice before marching to the White House in a call for justice for Breonna Taylor on September 23. | Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images People took to the streets Wednesday night to call out systemic injustice. People across the country are outraged that no police officers were charged with killing Breonna Taylor — but many couldn’t be shocked. Those who felt blindsided by the grand jury’s decision haven’t been paying attention. This year alone, the cries of protesters have made it very clear: You cannot reform a system that is working the way it was designed to. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron underscored this reality when he delivered the news on Wednesday: “My job, as the special prosecutor in this case, was to put emotions aside and investigate the facts to determine if criminal violations of state law resulted in the loss of Ms. Taylor’s life.” Jon Cherry/Getty Images Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announces the grand jury’s decision in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor on September 23. In those words, Cameron suggested that the law itself places Taylor’s life below the “duty” of the police officers who entered her property on March 13. The law makes it clear that because the officers were defending themselves, it was justified for Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly to fire his weapon into a Black woman’s apartment six times, while detective Myles Cosgrove simultaneously shot his weapon a whopping 16 times, unleashing the fatal shot that would end Taylor’s life. The police were justified in their actions because the law, and those sworn to uphold the law, made it so. While a criminal indictment in the killing of Taylor might have felt like victory for some, she should not have been killed in the first place. The only justice would be Breonna Taylor still being alive. Brandon Bell/Getty Images Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, poses for a portrait in front of a mural of her daughter at Jefferson Square park on September 21. For Breonna’s family, and for a society that claims it wants to do better by Black lives, questions linger: How many years behind bars would have been sufficient retribution for Taylor’s life? What would the arrest of Brett Hankison, Mattingly, and Cosgrove really mean for the hundreds of other cops who have taken the lives of other Black people just this year? What would it mean for the families of the victims whose names haven’t risen to national prominence? These are questions America is grappling with as we consider what is justice in a criminal system that has been systemically cruel to Black lives. Breonna Taylor became a meme this year. It was impossible to scroll through social media without seeing an image pegged to the words “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor.” People plastered her name on T-shirts and counted the days since she had been shot dead. Meanwhile, Tamika Palmer, her mother, traveled around the country to speak on the sanctity of Black lives, and protesters urged lawmakers to defund the Louisville Police Department. People tried to hold all of these interests: The system, working as designed, needs to be dismantled while simultaneously bringing justice for a young Black woman. Arrests may have seemed like a concrete action, but many knew deep down inside they weren’t coming. There was no way to get justice for Breonna because she was already dead. That people took to the streets once more Wednesday from Washington, DC, to Louisville to Portland also seemed inevitable. Protests largely remained nonviolent: In New York, people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in solidarity and gathered outside the Barclays Center chanting, “What’s her name? Breonna Taylor! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” In Louisville, where tensions have been high for months awaiting the attorney general’s announcement, hundreds of protesters were arrested and two police officers were shot, sustaining non-life-threatening injuries. Around the country, the mood was anger, sadness, and frustration. That people made space to cry into one another’s arms, chant, “Say Her Name!” and hold up signs calling for ways to rethink policing might be one small glimmer that we’re on our way to thinking bigger. John Minchillo/AP Protesters gather in Louisville, Kentucky, after it was announced that no police officers would be charged with the killing of Breonna Taylor. John Minchillo/AP Police push back protesters in Louisville. John Minchillo/AP Police detain protesters in Louisville. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Demonstrators march acroos the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. Natasha Moustache/Getty Images Protesters march in Chicago, Illinois. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images Demonstrators gather in Denver, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images A woman holds a “Justice for Breonna Taylor” sign in Denver. Drew Angerer/Getty Images Demonstrators march near the White House in DC. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Breonna Taylor protestors gathered at the Barclays Center in New York City. Nathan Howard/Getty Images A protester walks toward Portland police in Portland, Oregon. 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 legal theories of Amy Coney Barrett, explained
Judge Amy Coney Barrett is sworn in as a judge for the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. | Julian Velasco An expert explains originalism, the Roberts Court, and what a Justice Barrett might do. With President Trump set to announce his nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court on Saturday, the leading contender, according to reporters close to the White House and betting markets, is Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who sits on the US Court of the Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (based in Chicago) and is also a law professor at Notre Dame. The 48-year-old Barrett was appointed by Trump to the appeals court in 2017, and was also reportedly a finalist for Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat in 2018. She has been portrayed as a favorite of social conservatives seeking to push against the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence. She is unusual, compared especially to famously (and perhaps strategically) tight-lipped recent nominees like Brett Kavanaugh and Elena Kagan, for her extensive paper trail on questions of constitutional law. As a legal academic, she’s written extensively on what obedience to the original meaning of the Constitution requires of judges and members of Congress; how to reconcile the importance of precedent with allegiance to the Constitution’s original meaning; and how precedent can be used to mediate deep disagreements about the law. As a result, we know more about her jurisprudential beliefs than we’ll know about those of any SCOTUS nominee since, perhaps, Ginsburg. We know she identifies as an originalist who believes that the original public meaning of the Constitution is binding law. But we also know that she is skeptical of the radical libertarian originalist idea that economic regulation is presumptively unconstitutional, and that she believes some Supreme Court decisions that originalists may conclude are incorrectly decided nonetheless stand as “superprecedents” that the Court can abide by. Her legal writing has also prompted heated reactions from detractors. One piece (with fellow law professor John Garvey) on when Catholic judges might be obligated to recuse themselves from death penalty cases, prompted criticism from Senate Democrats during her appeals court confirmation hearings, who suggested Barrett was unable to separate her faith from her jurisprudence (a charge she strongly rejected). Another piece (with late Notre Dame colleague John Copeland Nagle on how members of Congress should incorporate the original meaning of the Constitution into their votes has raised the eyebrowsof some commentators, because it begins by noting that there are originalist arguments (which the paper itself does not accept, except for the sake of argument) to think that West Virginia was invalidly admitted as a state; that the 14th Amendment wasn’t properly ratified; and that paper money is unconstitutional, among other surprising conclusions. To better understand her academic writings, I reached out to Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton and a leading expert on originalism and constitutional interpretation. I wanted to get a better sense of what it means that Barrett is an originalist, how her variety of originalism works, and how to understand her most prominent academic papers. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows. If you want to dig deeper, Whittington teaches a course on constitutional originalism and the syllabus is a great place to start. Dylan Matthews Let’s start very basic: What is originalism? Keith Whittington I think of it simply as a commitment to think that one, the meaning of the text of the Constitution is fixed at the time of its adoption, and two, that that has consequences for how judges ought to adjudicate cases. Then there’s lots of wiggle room as to how much consequence that should have for judges in particular kinds of cases, how exactly do we determine what the meaning of the Constitution is, etc. But [University of Virginia law professor] Larry Solum has characterized those as the two central principles of originalism, and I think that’s right. Dylan Matthews Is it possible to divide the current Supreme Court into originalists and non-originalists? Who would fall in each camp? Keith Whittington I think they all act as originalists to some degree, actually. Many different approaches to thinking about constitutional decision-making would say that there are times when originalist arguments are appropriate, and you ought to pay attention to them. So a case I was just writing about recently, the “faithless electors” case from this last term [about whether Electoral College electors can be required to vote for the presidential candidate who won their state], Elena Kagan wrote the majority, Clarence Thomas writes a concurring opinion, and both those opinions are basically originalist in their structure and design. There are moments when all the justices are willing to draw on that kind of argument. Some see it as more foundational than others and draw on it more exclusively. Thomas is clearly the leader on this front. Since Scalia has left the court, Thomas is the one who is most consistently committed to thinking about historical meaning, and is most emphatic that the justices ought to be thinking about the original meaning of the text and trying to apply it to cases before them. I think it’s too early to say the degree to which Kavanaugh is particularly committed to originalism. Gorsuch certainly has indicated that he thinks it’s important. I think both Alito and Roberts, on the other hand, have indicated that they are a little more pluralistic. Originalism is part of what goes into their decision-making, but it’s not the only consideration they have in mind. They’re similar to previous conservative justices. I think Chief Justice Rehnquist was like that. He sometimes talked about originalism, sometimes it’s important, but also sometimes departed from it and didn’t focus on it very much. All the conservative justices would say it’s important, but they aren’t all equally committed to thinking it’s the primary goal that ought to be driving their opinions. Dylan Matthews Let’s talk about Amy Coney Barrett. She’s a legal academic who has contributed extensively to debates about how originalists should act and rule. Where does she fall on some of those questions? Keith Whittington She’s been pretty vocally committed to originalism as really being the guiding light, more so than some others. She is more explicitly committed to the notion that one ought to be an originalist, and that it is the primary principle for judges, than Roberts is, or than Kavanaugh historically was. In that sense, she’s a little more like Thomas and Gorsuch. She has a clear judicial philosophy, and originalism is at its core. I think it’s less clear to what degree she is a pure textualist the way Gorsuch tends to be, and to what degree she’s willing to think beyond the text as she thinks about original principles. I don’t think she’s really emphasized the kind of narrow textualism that Gorsuch has emphasized. I suspect her originalism is going to look a little different than his version. On the other hand, she has also suggested that judges ought to care more about stare decisis [the doctrine that courts should generally abide by their previous rulings] than Thomas tends to. I think she’s a more moderate figure in that regard than Thomas. She would be trying to navigate precedents that are in conflict or in tension with original meaning, rather than just thinking they ought to be tossed overboard. She clearly is a kind of originalist. She doesn’t look quite like either Gorsuch or Thomas, but she’s probably playing in the same sandbox. Dylan Matthews I’m glad you brought up stare decisis. A paper she wrote with her colleague John Copeland Nagle, “Congressional Originalism,” has caused a bit of concern among critics, in part because she leads with a list of precedents that arguably conflict with the original meaning of the Constitution. Brown v. Board of Education is the most incendiary one, but she mentions arguments that West Virginia was invalidly admitted, that the 14th Amendment wasn’t properly ratified, that paper money is unconstitutional, and so forth. She doesn’t say she thinks they ought to be overruled — and indeed suggests that the point is moot in most cases as these issues would never come before the Court — but I think even putting up the examples has raised hackles. How should people weighing her nomination think about that paper? Keith Whittington I tend not to think it’s terribly significant. To some degree, it is an academic enterprise of trying to think about, “What are the tensions here? What are the implications of adopting a certain theoretical perspective? What are the implications if you think there are tensions between the theory and some of these foundational constitutional decisions thathave been made over time, whether they are things like creating the state of West Virginia or things like Brown v. Board?” For her, that’s just a starting point for then trying to think about how to deal with the fact that there are going to be these tensions. Importantly, her view was not, “you’ve got to go overturn all these decisions,” whether it means getting rid of the state of West Virginia, or whether it means overturning judicial decisions that have been made that are hard to justify on originalist grounds. From her perspective, the question is, “What do you do about the fact that there are, from a theoretical perspective, mistakes that have been made over time?” The answer is not always that you’ve got to run out and correct all the mistakes. Sometimes you have to figure out how to live with those mistakes. Part of what’s interesting about her work is that she’s in part concerned with figuring out how to live with our mistakes. That’s not an easy question, from a theoretical perspective. From a judicial perspective, they often don’t have to confront that very directly. An academic is very interested in trying to say, “Let’s look at the creation of West Virginia or the Brown decision and think through the constitutionality of that and what it means about how the system works.” From a judge’s perspective, that’s not much of a practical problem that’s going to come in front of you. But there might be implications in how you think about those issues that do have more practical consequences for how you behave as a judge. I think her enterprise, of trying to think more practically about what those implications are, is helpful. Dylan Matthews A concrete worry a lot of left-of-center people have about Barrett is that a commitment to originalism puts important precedents — Roe v. Wade is the obvious one, but also the cases establishing a right to same-sex marriage, for instance — at risk of being overturned if she concludes they conflict with the Constitution’s original meaning. Barrett’s willingness to concede that we have to live with some decisions she considers “mistakes” in a theoretical sense is pretty interesting then. Why would an originalist think that? Why doesn’t every originalist act like Thomas in consistently putting precedent second to original meaning? Keith Whittington For at least a couple of reasons. One is a practical political one, that you can’t overturn all the mistakes. But the more you think there are quite dramatic mistakes. the more you need a theory about, “How do you live with those mistakes rather than try to overturn them?” If you think all the mistakes that your theory identifies are actually relatively minor and small, you can more easily imagine getting out there and cleaning them up. The more you think they’re actually big and important, then the more important it becomes to try to figure out a theory that allows you to live with those mistakes and figure out how to move forward given the existence of those mistakes. Originalist theory has moved on this front. It’s increasingly become interested in that question of how many and how significant are the mistakes out there from an originalist perspective? And then how do you deal with them and manage them? Some of the early academic literature in particular was often interested in adopting a fairly revolutionary posture and suggesting there’s lots of big, important, mistaken decisions, and we ought to be trying to correct them all. The more recent literature has really moved away from that, in part because it’s become more practical. It’s not just an academic exercise anymore. The other issue that a lot of originalist scholars are starting to circle around is that judges made all kinds of decisions in the past that they themselves did not try to ground in original meaning. It’s an easy instinct to think all those things are mistaken. But instead, we might start analyzing those more closely and finding, actually, it turns out you can build an originalist argument that gets you to a very similar place. So we ought to be trying to think about to what degrees those precedents can actually be salvaged, can be regrounded on better foundations from an originalist perspective, that might provide better guidance as to what you ought to do in the future, given those precedents, and how we ought to be trying to develop them, how they fit more coherently within the overall constitutional scheme. Dylan Matthews The other paper of hers that’s gotten a lot of popular attention relates to how judges should balance their faith and their rulings. She’s responding in part to William Brennan, a Catholic liberal on the Court who spoke about leaving his faith at the door when acting as a justice, and partially disagreeing with him. What do you make of that piece? Does it imply anything important about her jurisprudence? Keith Whittington My impression of that was that she wants to recognize it as being a problem, and therefore try to figure out how it ought to be reconciled. A lot of people have run with the notion that she’s emphasizing the significance of her religious belief and, likewise, the religious beliefs of other judges and justices. But I think it’s one of these cases where that’s the starting point for her, saying, “It is true that judges have religious beliefs. And those religious beliefs sometimes have implications for the kind of issues that come before the court.” And then the question is how judges ought to deal with that. Certainly her conclusion is not simply that judges ought to therefore impose their religious beliefs. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The commodification of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
A bobblehead of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is left outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, as people mourn her recent death. | Jose Luis Magana/AFP The political fandom around the late justice vaunted her to superhero status. That flattens her legal legacy. In the hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the liberal internet was ablaze with social media tributes to her legal legacy, endearing memes, and flattering portraits of the octogenarian. As a sense of dread about the future of the Court and the country settled in, branded merchandise of the late justice began to sell out, from Funko Pops to screen-printed tees, on small Etsy and Amazon shops and in larger, corporate retail stores. This impulse toward political merchandise is likely driven, in part, by grief or a desire to retain memorabilia that would capture this historical moment. For some, buying something can be a comforting activity — a habit those with disposable income have indulged in quarantine. The onslaught of posthumous RBG consumerism is a sign of what the political merch industry relies on: the American desire to believe that these purchases can stand in place of political action. This latest wave of Ginsburg-mania is distinct from the fawning over Fauci prayer candles and “It’s Mueller Time” tees. While Dr. Anthony Fauci and former special counsel Robert Mueller rose to fame amid crises, Ginsburg’s decades-long legacy leaves Americans with more to grapple with — including the pitfalls of political fandom and how valorizing a public figure, even in death, threatens to flatten their life’s impact. There’s a significant amount of capital that goes into the political merch industry, which thrives in the lead-up to an election season or a highly anticipated political event, such as the Mueller hearings. And while some on Twitter took aim at the e-commerce platform Etsy and its sellers, which have become a comedic shorthand for profit-driven “girlboss feminism” in the wake of Ginsburg’s passing, the snarky social media quips directed at consumers haven’t stalled purchases. Some are using this opportunity to sell RBG-branded items, such as a commemorative RBG yard sign ($21.59) or a knit collar pattern ($2), where all proceeds would be donated to Democratic Senate candidates. Marie Lucia, an Etsy seller from Knoxville, Tennessee, was compelled to find a way to raise money for Democrats, while honoring Ginsburg’s memory. “The night Ruth died, I was thinking, ‘What would she want us to do?’” Lucia told me. “Would she want us to grieve or be politically active? That’s why I thought it would be nice to make a memorial sign and donate everything we made from it to Senate candidates, which is where we need the most help.” Ok guys, here are the first RBG items in our etsy store. 100% of all proceeds + shipping will be donated to Dem senate candidates. If you make a purchase please leave me the your choice in the notes section. #RestInPower #RBG https://t.co/9jzHiEyLox pic.twitter.com/fK5Oin5di3— Lucia - Sanity in the South (@ResistSister111) September 20, 2020 Lucia only has two Ginsburg-related items in her shop, which primarily sells Biden-Harris yard signs and other pro-Democrat merchandise. However, this isn’t her full-time gig; she described it as a side hustle that will likely end after the 2020 election. “There’s a lot at stake right now and it’s important to be involved,” she said. “I make a living designing wedding gowns, but with these political items, I feel like I’m making a difference.” But while independent sellers like Lucia also have the ability to politicize their products and donate to a cause they support, that commitment is unlikely among larger retailers, like the Funko corporation. The perils of political consumerism occur when these purchases completely replace political action; when the meme replaces the nuanced reality of the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, in the last decade of her life, did not seem to oppose the commodification of her image among zealous young liberals, even though she did not profit from it. (She told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2014 that she kept “quite a large supply” of Notorious RBG T-shirts on hand.) The feminist blogosphere in the mid-2010s vaunted Ginsburg into political celebrity-dom, alongside then-presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. The online moniker, “The Notorious R.B.G.,” was popularized by a fan Tumblr made by a New York University law student in 2013, and from there, the memeification of the justice’s image took off. A cottage industry of Ginsburg-related bumper stickers, enamel pins, coffee mugs, and books popped up for liberal mainstream consumption. But in 2020, the era of branded resistance merch and girlboss-as-political identity feels like it has reached its expiration date, even as the larger-than-life image of Ginsburg continues to be a pop culture rallying point for ardent liberals. The meme feels somewhat outdated and relies on what some say is a problematic premise. Jeffrey Melnick, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston who has researched Black-Jewish relations, recently published a Twitter thread on the branding of “Notorious RBG,” and how it is reminiscent of a type of minstrelsy popular in the 20th century. “The whole meme is just seen as this cute and funny image, of ‘look at this old Jewish lady and put a crown on her,’” he told me. “But what is the meaning behind this joke? The premise is similar to what blackface minstrel performers have relied on — that it’s funny for a small white woman to be cast in the place of a Black rapper.” [I'm a scholar of Black-Jewish relations and finally have to say that I'm really uncomfortable with the whole minstrelized aspect of the whole "Notorious RBG" thing]— Ask Me About Our Faculty Staff Union! (@melnickjeffrey1) September 20, 2020 Melnick, who said he received an “unsurprising” amount of pushback online, was concerned by the amount of “hero worship” around the late justice. Uncritical idolization of a figure, he said, prevents people from taking a hard look at the work Ginsburg has done and the work that lies ahead: “I think people should really reckon with her work and not rely on these easy, comforting memes and images that portray her as the scrappiest, most down-to-fight justice.” During her life, the consumerist cult of RBG fueled a frenzied sort of political fandom, one that made it difficult for Americans to imagine a Court without her presence: “The more Ginsburg’s persona was revered, the more she appeared to be literally irreplaceable,” the New York Times’s Amanda Hess wrote in August. In the week after her death, more people began to vocally challenge the supporters that blindly lionize Ginsburg and whether she even deserved her progressive superhero status — citing moments like her calling Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful”; her defense of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh; and her concerning lack of Black clerks. No religion should determine law, whether it’s abortion or Indigenous rights. Yet, RBG upheld a fifteenth century papal bull that said Indians barely possess faculties that distinguish them from animals.— Nick Estes (@nickwestes) September 20, 2020 Indigenous people have also pointed to her decision in Sherrill v. Oneida as a sign of her anti-Native sentiments, a case in which the Court decided that the Oneida tribe did not have native sovereignty over parcels of lands they purchased from New York state. The complex reality is that Ginsburg was deeply committed to incrementalism, Vox’s Ian Millhiser reported, so much so that “her preference for gradual change was sometimes confused with conservatism.” She was indeed a talented and necessary liberal force on an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, but the “Notorious RBG” persona misleadingly casts her as a radical and irreplaceable force for good. In hindsight, it’s ironic that Ginsburg’s public profile was elevated by her Supreme Court defeats, namely her dissent in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “the meme was never the big problem with the false idea of Ginsburg as liberal or feminist savior, but it pointed to one — the brand-driven, girl-bossed, leaned-in conception of women’s freedom in which it incubated.” The future of the women’s rights movement, Grant argued, should not have relied on the “life chances of one woman in considerable power.” As President Donald Trump and Republicans prepare to find a replacement for Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, some might argue that there are larger issues to focus on than the consumerist tendencies within political fandom. Yet these criticisms neglect how many well-intentioned Americans purchase items they might not necessarily need — simply to prove a point or display their party loyalty. As I previously reported for The Goods, Americans, regardless of their political party or socioeconomic standing, seem to “take pride in wearing hacky tag lines or garish emblems that seemingly portray their values.” For some, these consumerist tendencies — even donations garnered through an Etsy purchase — stop short of actual organizing. But in times of crisis, people appear more willing to open their wallets for a cause they support. After Ginsburg’s death was announced on Friday, ActBlue reported that Democratic donors gave more than $100 million, breaking several hourly donation records the site has received since it first launched. It seems that Ginsburg’s imperfect legal track record hasn’t trumped her social influence, at least among Democrats. But the many RBG knickknacks that seek to commemorate her death, as these products championed her in life, should serve as a warning — that Americans should be wary of placing their political faith into one influential figure. 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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Postal workers say they are ready for the mail-in voting surge
Tara Jacoby for Vox Unless Postmaster General Louis DeJoy gets in the way. Over the last few months, Lori Cash has watched US Postal Service management remove mail sorting machines, curb after-hours pickups and deliveries, and limit overtime work in the Upstate New York region where she has worked for more than 20 years. These kinds of operational changes in the USPS, which rolled out across the country, have caused significant mail delays — and legitimate concern that they could interfere with an expected surge in mail-in voting for this November’s general election. Many have speculated that the postal service slowdowns were intended to interfere with the election because some of these controversial cost-cutting measures were initiated after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a top Trump donor, took over in June. And President Trump stoked these concerns when he admitted in August that he was blocking new funding for the postal service in part to sabotage universal mail-in voting. So how worried should we be — if you vote by mail this election, will your vote get counted? Cash told Recode that despite the hurdles and delays these changes have caused, she haslittle doubt that she and her colleagues around the country are ready for the expected mail-in voting rush ahead of the historic presidential election. “Where we stand right now, I feel confident that we can handle the amount of ballots,” Cash, a postal worker and local union leader with the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), told Recode in early September. “We can definitely handle the volume even with the machines that have been removed.” Yet Cash’s confidence comes with one big caveat: She fears that DeJoy, who paused the controversial initiatives last month in the wake of congressional pressure and a media firestorm, may still institute more disruptive changes between now and November 3. If that happens, she believes all bets are off. About a half-dozen other rank-and-file postal employees in New York, Florida, Montana, and New England echoed Cash’s perspective in conversations that took place after DeJoy committed to pause the disruptive measures in August: They are adamant that they and their colleagues are prepared to handle the barrage of ballots — so long as DeJoy stays out of the way. “My biggest concerns are people not mailing ballots in early enough. If there are delays in some areas, and if DeJoy makes any more significant changes out in the field, that would definitely disrupt the [mail-in voting] operation,” Cash said. “My advice to people is to make sure you know what your due date is and get that ballot in the mail two weeks early. I want people to still be proactive and mail their ballots in early — because just because [DeJoy] is quiet right now, doesn’t mean that at the last minute he won’t make any drastic changes.” But the biggest challenge mail-in voting faces is one of trust, perhaps more than anything else. Even if DeJoy keeps his word on pausing the cost-saving changes until after the election and the USPS handles tens of millions of ballots without a major disruption, will the general public trust the results? Sowing that doubt appears to be a goal for Trump, who has for months been pushing baseless, misleading claims about how susceptible mail-in ballots are to fraud. And it seems to have worked: Conspiracy theories about the process abound. As a result, for government officials in states where voters will rely heavily on voting by mail, educating the public about how and when to vote by mail is more crucial than ever. With the Covid-19 pandemic making in-person voting a potentially risky activity, as many as 80 million people could end up voting via mail-in or drop-off ballots ahead of the election, according to a New York Times analysis. Such a surge in mail-in voting would mark more than a 100 percent increase from mail ballot totals in 2016. That kind of spike would apply massive pressure to the USPS and its 500,000 employees even in normal times. And these times are anything but normal at the United States Postal Service. DeJoy, a top Republican donor and former logistics company CEO, took over as the USPS chief in June and has since overseen a series of cost-cutting measures that worried postal employees, union leaders and some politicians, who feared that the accompanying deterioration in mail and package delivery times would cause a mail-in voting fiasco. The delays have also disrupted the lives of Americans who rely on timely postal service deliveries for prescription drugs, social security checks, and other important goods. Still, America’s postal workers are committed to getting the job done. “I think and hope [DeJoy] is hiding and going to let us do our thing and get all election mail delivered like before,” a veteran postmaster in New England, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, told Recode. “We get daily emails [from management] to make sure all election mail, incoming or outgoing, is clear everyday.” Joanne Borell, a 25-year veteran of the USPS who is a postal clerk in Billings, Montana, says she has no reason to believe the postal service won’t handle mail-in voting on time, even with increased demand. More than half of all voters in Montana voted by mail in 2016, and Borell said she has never witnessed or heard of significant issues with handling ballots. “We deal with passports, live animals, and other things people really care about,” Borell said in an interview. “We are always watching for things that we have to take special care of.” What does concern Borell is how some mail delays and misleading claims about vote-by-mail fraud has caused many Americans to lose confidence in the postal service. Recently, a family member of Borell told her they were worried postal employees with a political bias would discard or tamper with ballots to try to give their chosen candidate and party a boost. Such conspiracies are not surprising at a time in which Trump has routinely publicly attacked mail-in voting. But Borell was offended by the suggestion. “Never in my entire career have I seen anybody do something like that,” she said of tossing ballots in the trash. Another postal clerk, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters, said a deluge of Amazon packages is what is currently overwhelming the post offices where the employee works. But the USPS has actually seen a decline of customers sending first-class mail like bills and letters during the pandemic, which presumably would allow the postal service to more easily process a surge of mail-in ballots, which are also typically treated as first-class. “From what I can see, we are perfectly capable of handling [a surge of mail-in ballots],” the worker said. “But we’re getting destroyed with packages. It’s like Christmas never ended.” Nate Castro, a mail processor in Tampa, Florida, and a local APWU leader, said election ballots, which get labeled with a red tag to denote their importance, will get processed quickly and accurately — barring unforeseen changes by DeJoy or other top management to existing USPS processes. “You want to vote in-person? So be it; that’s your voting right,” Castro told Recode. “But it should also be the right for every person to vote by mail.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The first big test of Facebook’s oversight board will be the US election
Facebook’s oversight board, which has independent authority to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether controversial posts should remain up or get taken down, will launch in October. | Tobias Hase/picture alliance via Getty Images The board — which has the power to overrule Mark Zuckerberg on content decisions — will start up as soon as mid-October. Facebook’s much-anticipated independent oversight board — a group that will be able to overrule Facebook’s leaders, even CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about whether controversial posts should stay up or be removed— announced its plans to start making decisions on contested content by mid to late October. That means the board may be called on to make decisions about important Facebook posts related to the US presidential election. In recent months, some have criticized the long-awaited board for not moving quickly enough to deal with issues around misinformation, hate speech, and extremism on the platform, and doubted whether it would be functional before the November election. But as long as internal testing of its technical systems goes well, the board says it will start accepting contested content cases around mid to late October. That means that if President Trump or any other candidate declares a premature victory on Facebook on election night, the board could potentially take on that case and decide whether that post should stay up or come down. While the board is still determining the specific criteria for how it will prioritize cases, it generally will take on “difficult, significant and globally relevant” cases “that can inform future policy,” according to its website. “The go-live date is not connected to any specific case that the board is seeking or not seeking to take,” Facebook oversight board’s director of administration Thomas Hughes told Recode. “That said, the type of case you just described [in which a politician declares a premature election victory], would be in scope, and could be referred to the board by Facebook, or potentially in time, referred to by a user.” Here’s how the board will work once it goes live: It will take cases both from users and Facebook itself. Facebook the company can refer any kind of contentious post to the board it wants an outside opinion on, and the board will have 90 days (or 30 days if the case is expedited) to rule on the decision. For Facebook users, they can only go to the board if something they personally posted was taken down and they want to dispute it. In later months, the board plans to expand its purview and allow users to request for other people’s content to be taken down if they believe it violates Facebook’s policies against things like hate speech or harmful misinformation. At a time when Facebook is being attacked by both Republicans and Democrats for how it’s been handling politically contentious speech in the US, the board is meant to add oversight to the company’s decision-making. But it won’t solve the lion’s share of Facebook’s problems around how to deal with hate speech and misinformation. For one thing, the board will only take a small number of cases a year, likely “tens or hundreds” according to Hughes, out of the tens of thousands of annual cases that are expected to come its way. And it won’t be all about the US, either. Facebook’s oversight board is made up of 20 lawyers, academics, journalists, and policy experts from all over the world — collectively, its members speak 27 different languages and have lived in 29 different countries. “Obviously, the US election has an enormous impact on the world,” said Hughes, “But there will be a quite a broad range of things that the board I think would be very keen to get stuck into early on.” Facebook first floated the idea of an independent oversight board back in 2018, as it was facing scrutiny for its handling of Russian interference on the platform during the 2016 US election. Almost two years later, the board in January announced its governing rules, and in May announced its members. Ruling on specific controversial posts is one thing, but actually getting Facebook to rethink its policies is another challenge. Some social media researchers have questioned the power of the board to dictate Facebook’s policy, and how much the company will listen to its recommendations. Now, the election could turn out to be the first big test of how impactful this oversight board will truly be in practice. In fact, whether or not the board accepts a case related to controversial election content is a test in and of itself. 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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What happens to the law in a world without Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, celebrating her 20th anniversary on the bench, posed for a portrait in Washington, DC, on August 30, 2013. | Nikki Kahn/Washington Post/Getty Images Sloppy, purely partisan arguments are likely to prevail. Barring a miracle or an asteroid strike, the Supreme Court is likely to have a 6-3 Republican majority very soon. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has signaled he intends to back his party’s plan to swiftly confirm a yet-to-be-named replacement for Justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg — and it’s exceedingly unlikely that Democrats can block Trump’s nominee without Romney’s vote. So the small but significant check Chief Justice John Roberts previously placed on his Republican colleagues will likely soon be gone. Roberts, frequently the median vote on the current Supreme Court, is very conservative, but he is both less partisan and less aligned with movement conservatism than his fellow Republican justices. He sometimes rejects conservative legal arguments that are poorly reasoned or transparently partisan, or that ask him to move the law to the right faster than he is willing to go. With a sixth Republican on the Court, however, this limit on Republican power is likely to disappear. Trump spent the past three and a half years filling federal appellate courts with staunch conservatives, often with the guidance of conservative organizations such as the Federalist Society. That gives him a deep bench of potential Supreme Court nominees who are unlikely to disappoint the GOP in the future. The Court has already moved significantly to the right since it handed down some decisions protecting LGBTQ rights, limiting police surveillance, and preserving most of Obamacare, among many other things. If Trump fills Ginsburg’s seat, those decisions could be in grave danger. To be sure, there’s always some amount of unpredictability in the Supreme Court. Sometimes, a conservative justice is torn between competing ideological commitments, some of which lead them to form occasional alliances with their liberal colleagues. And it’s always possible that one or more conservative justices could be forced to leave the Court shortly after a Democratic president takes office. But realistically, unless Democrats trounce Republicans in the upcoming election and win enough congressional seats to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices, Republicans are likely to hold a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court for a long time. And with six votes, Republicans could afford to have one of those six cast an occasional, futile vote for a liberal outcome. Roberts is less tolerant than his fellow Republican justices of bad lawyering by conservatives It’s difficult to predict the full consequences of an additional Republican on the Supreme Court. Many of the differences between Roberts and his fellow Republican justices are less ideological than temperamental. Roberts shares most of the same policy goals as his Court’s right flank, but he is more likely to be turned off by bad lawyering, by transparently partisan arguments, or by calls to flout the Court’s ordinary procedures. In a Court led by Chief Justice Roberts, Republican lawyers who wanted the Supreme Court to implement Republican policies still had to wrap these requests in somewhat plausible-sounding legal arguments. It’s far from clear that these lawyers will face similar constraints in a 6-3 Republican Court. The Supreme Court completed its most recent term a little more than a week ago, a term that featured several high-profile — if narrow — losses for conservative causes. Notably, Roberts broke with his fellow Republicans in two cases where conservative advocates presented unusually weak arguments to his Court. Roberts typically votes to limit abortion rights, and his recent opinion in June Medical Services v. Russospends several pages criticizing the Court’s decisions protecting those rights. Nevertheless, Roberts reluctantly voted with his four liberal colleagues to strike down a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — a credential that is very difficult for these doctors to obtain and that does little or nothing to improve health outcomes in abortion clinics. The reason for Roberts’s vote was simple: The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical was, in all relevant respects, identical to a Texas law the Supreme Court struck down four years earlier in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016). “I joined the dissent in Whole Woman’s Health and continue to believe that the case was wrongly decided,” Roberts wrote in his June Medical opinion. But he concluded that the principle of stare decisis — the doctrine that courts should generally be bound by their prior decisions — compelled him to strike down Louisiana’s law. A similar dynamic played out in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, where Roberts joined his four liberal colleagues in holding that the Trump administration didn’t complete the proper paperwork when it decided to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States. The striking thing about Regents is the utter pointlessness of the Trump administration’s decision to bring this case all the way to the Supreme Court. If the administration wanted to end DACA, it should have corrected its paperwork error instead of spending years unsuccessfully trying to convince the courts to excuse this error. In many cases, Roberts’s insistence on legal and procedural regularity will only delay conservative outcomes — Roberts, for example, is still overwhelmingly likely to dismantle the constitutional right to an abortion once abortion opponents bring him a better case. But his formalism also places significant constraints on the Court’s Republican majority, and on the Republican Party’s ability to set policy through litigation. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 1989: when, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule, and say, “This is the basis of our decision,” I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well. If the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences; I have committed myself to the governing principle. Roberts appears somewhat committed to this same principle, that procedural rules and inconvenient precedents cannot simply be tossed aside because they stand in the way of a conservative outcome. The other four Republicans appear far less committed to this principle, given their willingness to cast aside principles like stare decisis in cases like June Medical. With six Republican justices, Roberts will no longer be the swing vote. So it is likely that a majority of the Supreme Court will ignore many of the constraints that, as Scalia wrote a generation ago, prevent judges from ruling by fiat. The fate of the 2020 election could be up to Trump’s new appointee Republicans owe their power to a constitutional system that increasingly allows them to govern even when the voters prefer Democrats. Americans have a president who received nearly 3 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent in 2016. In the Senate, because of malapportionment, the Republican “majority” represents 15 million fewer people than the Democratic “minority.” Both of Trump’s justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the nation. Trump’s new nominee is likely to become the third justice who owes their job to these anti-democratic pathologies in our constitutional system. That nominee is likely to join a Court that is already fairly hostile to voting rights. And one of their first tasks in their new job could be deciding an array of disputes related to the upcoming presidential election. Republicans have a $20 million war chest they plan to spend on lawyers seeking to shift this election in the GOP’s favor, and the Biden campaign has its own army of lawyers planning to fight back. Trump’s lawyers are already litigating a wide range of cases seeking to make it harder to vote, from an effort to shut down voting by mail in Nevada to a suit seeking to ban drop boxes for absentee ballots in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the post-election period is likely to feature a blizzard of lawsuits seeking to declare some ballots invalid, or to require states to count other ballots that otherwise would not be counted. And the specter of Bush v. Gore (2000), where five Republican justices halted a ballot recount in Florida and effectively threw the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, looms over all American elections. If the newly reconstituted Supreme Court intervenes in this election on Trump’s behalf, that intervention could take one of two forms. The election could end in a single, closely watched decision like Bush v. Gore. But the Court could just as easily throw the election to Trump by a series of decisions — a few ballots tossed out here; a higher standard for counting absentee ballots there — that have the aggregate effect of changing the result of the presidential election. America becomes even less democratic in a 6-3 Republican Court Setting aside the upcoming election, the fairness of future elections is likely to suffer — possibly severely — in a 6-3 Republican Court. Under Roberts’s leadership, the Supreme Court dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act. It’s neutered most of the nation’s campaign finance laws. And it’s permitted laws that serve no purpose other than voter suppression. But it can get worse. “There are already five conservative votes on the Supreme Court to dismantle campaign finance reforms,” according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University and an expert on money in politics. In this sense, Torres-Spelliscy told me, a third Trump justice would only provide a “superfluous sixth vote” for the Court’s decisions undermining these laws. But there is one area of campaign finance law where the current Supreme Court has stayed its hand: disclosure laws. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court’s landmark decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that his Court should have also tossed out many laws requiring many donors to disclose their donations. At the time, Thomas was the only justice who took this position, but the Court has changed significantly in the decade since Citizens United was handed down. Justice Neil Gorsuch frequently provides a second vote for Thomas’s most radical opinions. Similarly, as an aide to then-President George W. Bush, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a 2002 email that there are “constitutional problems” with laws imposing limits on how much donors can give directly to candidates — one of the few campaign finance laws left untouched by decisions like Citizens United. That suggests Kavanaugh could join Thomas in striking down more campaign finance laws. And then there’s Justice Samuel Alito. Though Alito did not join Thomas’s opinion in Citizens United, he is arguably the most reliable Republican partisan on the Supreme Court. As Adam Feldman, a lawyer and political scientist who runs the website Empirical SCOTUS, told me, Alito “is the sole conservative justice on the Court not to join the liberals in a 5-4 decision” — meaning that he has never once cast the deciding vote for a liberal outcome. (The one plausible exception to this trend is Alito’s brief opinion in Gundy v. United States (2019). But, in Gundy, Alito endorsed a conservative deregulatory project that is rejected by all four of the Court’s liberals.) It is unlikely, in other words, that Alito would cast a liberal vote in a campaign finance case if four other justices already support a conservative outcome. A third Trump justice could also erect new barriers before the right to vote. Although the Roberts Court has already dismantled much of the Voting Rights Act, the primary law preventing racial voter discrimination, it has thus far left in place the law’s “results test,” which prohibits any law that “results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Thus, while the Act is much weaker than it was just a decade ago, it still retains some vibrancy. Many state laws that disenfranchise voters of color remain illegal. But Roberts is a longtime opponent of this safeguard against racism in elections. According to the voting rights journalist Ari Berman, Roberts was the Reagan Justice Department’s point person in a failed effort to scuttle the results test. As a young lawyer, Roberts “wrote upwards of 25 memos opposing” such a test, according to Berman. Roberts may have the votes right now to effectively dismantle what remains of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court has not heard a major Voting Rights Act case since the relatively moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy was replaced by the hardline conservative Kavanaugh, so we don’t know how far the current Court is willing to go in dismantling what remains of the Voting Rights Act. At the very least, however, every Republican added to the Supreme Court increases the likelihood that the remainder of the Voting Rights Act will fall. 20 million Americans could lose health coverage in the pandemic Chief Justice Roberts famously broke with his fellow Republicans in NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), a decision upholding most of the Affordable Care Act. Three years later, in King v. Burwell (2015), Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy broke with their fellow Republicans again to reject a new attack on Obamacare. But Kennedy is no longer on the Court. Without Ginsburg, it’s far from clear that there are still five votes to preserve the landmark legislation that provides health coverage to approximately 20 million people. And, with a third Trump justice on the Court, Obamacare could fall quite rapidly. The Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments in California v. Texas, the latest case seeking to repeal Obamacare by judicial decree, in the fall. The plaintiffs’ arguments in Texas are, frankly, outlandish. They rest on the assumption that, when Congress repealed a single provision of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, that requires the courts to dismantle the entire law. But the fact that these arguments are widely viewed as ridiculous — even by many conservative legal scholars — won’t necessarily deter most of the Supreme Court’s Republicans from voting to strike down Obamacare. On the eve of oral arguments in NFIB, the first Obamacare decision, the plaintiffs’ arguments in that case were also widely viewed as misguided. An American Bar Association poll of Supreme Court experts found that 85 percent believed the Affordable Care Act would be upheld, and another 9 percent believed the Court would dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. That didn’t prevent four justices from voting to repeal the entire law. And, with another Trump justice on the Supreme Court, that four could become five. LGBTQ Americans could be stripped of their constitutional rights The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which held that federal civil rights law prohibits workplace discrimination against LGBTQ workers, is probably safe. That decision was 6-3, with both Roberts and Gorsuch voting with the majority. But the Court’s constitutional decisions protecting LGBTQ rights stand on far more precarious ground. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court’s landmark decision establishing that same-sex couples enjoy the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples, was a 5-4 decision with Kennedy in the majority. Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which placed strict limits on the government’s ability to prohibit sexual activity between consenting adults, and Romer v. Evans (1996), which held that the government may not pass laws solely to express “animus” against gay people, were both 6-3 decisions with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Kennedy in the majority. O’Connor and Kennedy were replaced with hardline conservatives. It’s possible, in other words, that all three of these decisions could fall even if Trump’s nominee is not confirmed — although, for that to happen, a state would likely have to pass a law that violates Obergefell, Lawrence, or Romer to test whether the Supreme Court would strike that law down. With a third Trump justice, it is even less clear that the Court’s new majority will value stare decisis more than it values a conservative approach to LGBTQ rights. It’s also possible that the Court could leave decisions like Obergefell nominally in place, but allow states to deny many rights to LGBTQ Americans. The Court, according to Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, “might permit states to undermine Obergefell by treating married same-sex couples differently in some ways — for example, by permitting states to favor straight couples in adoption or family benefits or even in the definition of who is a legal parent.” Minter’s view was echoed by Josh Block, a lawyer with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. While Block said he does not think a newly constituted Court “would vote to overrule Obergefell completely and allow states to ban marriage outright,” he fears the Court’s new majority “could allow states to treat those marriages differently.” Indeed, that’s more or less the approach that Gorsuch took in Pavan v. Smith (2017). Obergefell held that the Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” In Pavan, a majority of the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas law that treated married same-sex couples differently than married opposite-sex couples with respect to which names appear on a birth certificate. Gorsuch dissented, in an opinion joined by Thomas and Alito. His opinion suggested that states may be able to discriminate against same-sex couples so long as they argue that “rational reasons exist” for the discrimination. The EPA could become a hollow husk As a general rule, Congress may legislate in two different ways. The simplest way is to enact a law commanding certain individuals or businesses to behave in a certain way. Thus, for example, if Congress wishes to limit pollution, it can pass a law commanding power plants to install a particular device that reduces emissions. But Congress may also lay down a broad policy and instruct a federal agency to issue relatively easily updatable regulations implementing that policy. The Clean Air Act, for example, provides that certain power plants must use “the best system of emission reduction” that currently exists, while also taking into account factors such as cost. It also gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to issue binding regulations instructing energy companies on which systems they must use to limit emissions. That way, the regulations can adapt as technology evolves. Congress still sets the overarching policy — the impacted power plants must use the “best system of emission reduction” — but the EPA determines what that “best system” is at any given moment in time. In Gundy v. United States (2019), however, Gorsuch called for vague new limits on Congress’s power to delegate regulatory power to agencies. And, while Gorsuch’s opinion in Gundy was technically a dissent, all five members of the Supreme Court’s current Republican majority have since signaled they are supportive of Gorsuch’s approach. Existing precedents typically require courts to defer to Congress’s decision to delegate regulatory power to an agency. Gorsuch would replace these precedents with a new standard providing that a federal law permitting agencies to regulate must be “‘sufficiently definite and precise to enable Congress, the courts, and the public to ascertain’ whether Congress’s guidance has been followed.” Under Gorsuch’s approach, judges — and ultimately, Supreme Court justices — would get to decide which federal laws delegating power to an agency are “sufficiently definite and precise,” and which ones should be struck down. So it will matter a great deal who sits on the Supreme Court. In a post-Gundy world, courts will have far more power to make discretionary calls about which regulations they wish to uphold and which ones they wish to strike down. That means that a more conservative Court will tend to strike down more regulations favored by Democrats. Police could gain far more power to engage in surveillance The current Supreme Court is arguably more friendly to criminal defendants than it was 20 years ago. For many years, the Court was dominated by conservatives incubated in the “tough on crime” rhetoric preferred by presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The current Court, by contrast, is more likely to see criminal justice cases through a libertarian lens. A big reason for this libertarian turn is that individual conservative justices hold defendant-friendly views on certain criminal justice issues. Roberts often votes with his liberal colleagues in cases where police use new technology to conduct intrusive searches. Gorsuch wrote the lead opinion in a case holding that criminal defendants may only be convicted by a unanimous jury. Kavanaugh is a long-standing opponent of racial jury discrimination. While it’s important that justices like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh sometimes take a broad view of the rights of criminal defendants at trial, Roberts’s support for limits on police conduct is likely to prove more consequential — because the overwhelming majority of criminal suspects never receive a trial to determine their guilt. “97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, with defendants pleading guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence,” according to a 2012 analysis by the New York Times. So Supreme Court decisions protecting trial rights only impact a small minority of defendants. The gap between Roberts and his fellow Republicans was most on display in Carpenter v. United States (2018), where Roberts voted with his four liberal colleagues and held that police “must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause” before obtaining cellphone records that can be used to track an individual’s movement. Carpenter was a significant case because, as Justice Kennedy wrote in dissent, the Court has typically held that “individuals have no Fourth Amendment interests in business records which are possessed, owned, and controlled by a third party.” But Roberts recognized that, as police gain more and more technologically sophisticated methods of tracking criminal suspects, the Constitution must recognize new limits on these methods. It’s one thing to say that police can track every number dialed on a particular phone, but it’s another thing altogether to say that police can turn each individual’s cellphone into a homing device that monitors their every move. If Roberts is no longer the swing vote, Carpenter could potentially fall. At the very least, the Court is likely to grow less skeptical of police overreach and less fearful of the awesome surveillance power given to police by new technology. 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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How Mitch McConnell is changing the Democratic Party
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on March 18. | Win McNamee/Getty Images What Senate Democrats are learning from Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnell was elected to the US Senate in 1985. He was named Senate minority leader in 2007, and Senate majority leader in 2015. It was, for McConnell, the culmination of decades of planning, labor, and, when necessary, self-abasement. “The ultimate goal of many of my colleagues was to one day sit at the desk in the Oval Office,” McConnell writes in his memoir, The Long Game. “That wasn’t my goal. When it came to what I most desired, and the place from which I thought I could make the greatest difference, I knew deep down it was the majority leader’s desk I hoped to occupy one day.” And oh, what a difference McConnell has made. He will go down as one of the most consequential Senate leaders in history. But his legacy isn’t defined by bills passed or pacts struck. McConnell’s legislative record, in terms of both his accomplishments and those he’s shepherded through as leader, is meager. He has passed tax cuts, cut regulations, and confirmed judges. He failed to repeal Obamacare, shrink or restructure entitlements, or pass infrastructure or immigration reform. Historians will not linger long over the laws McConnell passed. As McConnell himself has said, his most consequential decision was an act of negation: blocking Merrick Garland from being appointed to the Supreme Court. McConnell’s legacy, rather, will be in transforming the United States Senate into a different institution, reflecting a different era in American politics. Historically, the Senate has been an institution unto itself, built around norms of restraint and civility, run according to informal understandings and esoteric rituals, designed around the interests of individuals rather than the stratagems of parties. This is the Senate McConnell claimed to revere, naming Sen. Henry Clay — known as “the Great Compromiser” — as his model and promising a restoration of the old traditions. This is the Senate McConnell has eviscerated, through his own actions and those he has provoked in the Democrats. Despite his theatrical embrace of sobriquets like “Darth Vader” and “the Grim Reaper,” McConnell isn’t an evil genius. He is a vessel for the currents and forces of his time. What sets him apart is his fulsome embrace of those forces, his willingness to cut through the cant and pretense of American politics, to stand athwart polarization yelling, “Faster!” Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is seen after the Senate Republican policy luncheon on March 17. Under McConnell, the Senate has been run according to a simple principle: Parties should use as much power as they have to achieve the outcomes they desire. This would have been impossible in past eras, when parties were weaker and individual senators stronger, when political interests were more rooted in geography and media wasn’t yet nationalized. But it is possible now, and it is a dramatic transformation of the Senate as an institution, with reverberations McConnell cannot control and that his party may come to regret. Indeed, McConnell’s single most profound effect on the Senate may be what he convinces Democrats to do in response to his machinations. “What makes McConnell successful is he gets his party colleagues and the Democrats to buy into his vision of the Senate rather than trying to change it,” says James Wallner, a fellow at the R Street Institute and a former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee under Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Mike Lee (R-UT). I will confess to a deep pessimism about American politics right now. We stand on the precipice of a legitimacy crisis — minoritarian rule has become the norm, an unpopular president has all but promised to refuse to accept a loss at the polls, and a political system that has only ever worked with weak parties is proving unable to govern amid the collisions of strong ones. But there is a glimmer of an optimistic tale that can be told, too. And, to my surprise, it revolves around McConnell, and the vision of the Senate that he is convincing Democrats to embrace, the reforms he might, at last, convince them to make. What did Mitch McConnell do wrong? Rewind the clock to 2016. Justice Antonin Scalia has died. President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, a moderate Democrat whose confirmation would end conservative dominance over the Court, to replace him. Mitch McConnell commands a 54-vote Senate majority, lifted into office by conservative voters who loathe the idea of a liberal Supreme Court. McConnell does two things here, and they are worth separating. One is philosophical, and even principled. He decides to treat Supreme Court nominations as what they are: one of the most ideologically consequential votes the Senate takes. The other is cynical: He refuses to even hold a hearing on Garland, instead inventing an absurd rule, one that he will later break, that states that Supreme Court seats shouldn’t be filled in presidential election years. McConnell’s calculation was simple: If Garland was permitted to testify, some Senate Republicans might revert to treating the nominee on his merits and swing to support Garland. McConnell needed Republicans to act like a caucus, not individual senators. And so he froze the process on a vote that united his party rather than one that divided them. “It’s a question of power and only secondarily of explanation,” says Steven Smith, author of The Senate Syndrome: The Evolution of Procedural Warfare in the Modern US Senate. “But politicians need to talk, so they need explanations.” Liberals focus on the wanton hypocrisy of McConnell’s comments. “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said at the time. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” But focusing on what McConnell said obscures the underlying logic of what he did: Republicans didn’t want Obama to fill Scalia’s seat, they had the power to stop him, and so they did. All the rest of it was just mouth noises. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images McConnell in 2016 tells reporters that support among Senate Republicans has not waned for his refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland. This is the true McConnell rule: What parties have the power and authority to do, they should do. And to give him his due: It is much stranger, by the standards of most political systems, for the reverse to be the case, for senators to refuse to use their power to pursue their ideological ends on a question as important as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. But that’s how American politics has traditionally worked. It worked that way because the parties, and their Supreme Court nominees, were different than they are now. The parties were ideologically mixed rather than ideologically polarized, and Supreme Court nominees were ideologically unpredictable rather than heavily vetted and ideologically consistent. From the 1950s through the 1990s, knowing the party that nominated a justice told you little about how that justice would vote. All of that lowered the stakes on each nomination. Today, we have ideologically disciplined coalitions naming their most reliable foot soldiers to lifetime appointments to the most powerful judicial body in the land. Those changes predate McConnell; his contribution was taking them to their logical conclusion in the Senate: Treat Supreme Court nominees like any other major ideological vote, and do whatever you need to do to win. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell” This attitude also drove McConnell’s record-breaking use of the filibuster during the Obama era. The Senate has long had a filibuster, and it was technically more powerful in the past than today. Until 1917, there was no procedure by which any number of senators could vote to end a filibuster. From 1917 to 1975, it took a two-thirds supermajority to close a filibuster. Even so, filibusters were rare in this period — with the gruesome exception of the Southern bloc of Dixiecrats who used them to block civil rights legislation. But as the Dixiecrats proved, it was relatively easy for a united group of senators to block any and all legislation, if they so chose. The rules gave them that power, and the minority party could’ve used it with abandon. The norms, and the diffuse nature of the parties themselves, kept them from routinely using it. What’s changed the US Senate isn’t changes to the rules, and it’s not just McConnell. It’s been the sorting of the parties into ideologically and demographically distinct coalitions. And it’s this trend that McConnell has, depending on how you look at it, harnessed for his ends or embraced because of his weaknesses. Either way, he has wrenched the Senate away from its traditional role as an institution unto itself, governed by norms of restraint and civility, and midwifed its transformation into another forum for party combat. He has created a parliamentary environment in an institution where the rules were designed for comity and cooperation. The result has been gridlock, fury, and confusion. “I am not sure that any majority leader in history has had less regard for the institution than Mitch McConnell,” says Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). “He claims he’s an institutionalist, but that’s a lie. Instead of having any shred of responsibility for the institution, he simply has done what he believes he can get away with and still win. And up until now, that’s been true. But I think the cost of that is going to turn out to be extraordinary.” What McConnell has wrought Over the past few months, I’ve been talking to Senate Democrats about the future of the filibuster. To my surprise, something had cracked in the ice. Moderate members who used to dismiss calls to abolish the filibuster were taking them seriously, predicting or even advocating its fall. And the reason they gave me was always the same: Mitch McConnell. The singular lesson Senate Democrats learned from the Obama years was McConnell simply wouldn’t let them govern if they retook the majority. The hope that their cross-aisle friendships, technocratic compromises, open committee processes, or informal “gangs” could break McConnell’s obstruction had dissolved. And with the world warming, and the virus raging, and millions unemployed, they knew that if they retook power, they would have to govern. “We’re not going to pass on a historic set of opportunities to allow garden-variety obstruction,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). “We’re going to get this done.” I want to note, here, that both sides have their narratives of persecution and blame. Republicans believe Democrats broke norms, abused rules, corroded traditions. In 2013, for instance, Democrats nuked the filibuster on executive branch appointees and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations. They argue, I think correctly, that McConnell forced their hand, filibustering an unprecedented number of appointments and making it functionally impossible for Obama to govern. Republicans argue that Democrats changed the rules rather than naming more moderate choices to key positions and have reaped what they sowed. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images President Obama greets Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol in 2013 to discuss tax reform, spending cuts, gun control, and immigration. I think Democrats have the better of this argument, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the underlying dynamic that’s important. Smith calls it “Senate syndrome.” In a 2010 paper that is all the more useful for predating the past decade of escalation, he wrote, “In today’s Senate, each party assumes that the other party will fully exploit its procedural options — the majority party assumes that the minority party will obstruct legislation and the minority assumes that the majority will restrict its opportunities.” What Democrats now believe is McConnell won’t let them govern if they win, and in the aftermath of Garland and of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, he won’t show them any quarter if he wins. Republicans, to be fair, believe the same about Democrats. Compared to the Senates of yore, both sides are right. McConnell has gone further, faster, than the Democratic leaders in torching old precedents and making the realpolitik principles of the new era clear. But in doing, he’s potentially done something that liberal activists and pundits were never able to achieve: convince Senate Democrats that the Senate is broken, and that new rules are needed. In this, McConnell’s strengths are also his weaknesses. He possesses a brazenness about American politics, a cynicism about the use of power, that lets him execute stratagems other leaders would be constrained by their reputations or fear of backlash from attempting. But that same comfort with the dark side, that willingness to play the Grim Reaper of politics, robs his opponents of their excuses for inaction, of their comforting belief that comity and compromise waits around the corner. “It is a little bit frustrating when liberals complain, because McConnell is not doing anything wrong per se, he’s just using his power very aggressively in ways that are permitted by the rules,” says Adam Jentleson, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and author of the forthcoming book Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy. “You can complain about that all you want, or you can respond by doing the same thing when you have power. And Democrats are starting to realize they have a responsibility to the health of our democracy to pass the structural reforms that will make the Senate, and thus the government, more reflective of the country.” In the long run, McConnell may reshape the Senate more completely through what he compels Democrats do than through what he himself does. Could McConnellism lead to democratization? I began this piece by saying my optimistic vision for politics revolves around McConnell, and it’s time I made good on that argument. Before I do, let me state the obvious: Crisis is not always opportunity. Sometimes, it is just crisis. And America may simply fall into fracture or illegitimacy. If it is to avoid these fates, it will require actions that few politicians enjoy contemplating, and the safest bet is always that politicians will duck hard choices. What follows here, then, is not a prediction but a possibility. Representative democracy is a good system, provided it is both sufficiently representative and sufficiently democratic. America, in 2020, is neither. The Senate gives the Republican party a 6- to 7-point advantage. The Electoral College gives the Republican Party a 65 percent chance of winning elections in which it narrowly loses the popular vote. Because of these advantages, the Republican Party has managed to secure startling dominance of the Supreme Court, despite rarely winning a majority in national elections. And that same Supreme Court then delivers rulings that further help Republicans win elections; in fact, President Trump has said explicitly he is counting on the Court to help him challenge mail-in ballots. "We need 9 justices. You need that. With the unsolicited millions of ballots that they're sending ... you're gonna need 9 justices." -- Trump suggests he's counting on SCOTUS to have his back when he makes claims of election fraud following November's election pic.twitter.com/Ju8ShMe8MN— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 22, 2020 Democracy works because it disciplines politicians and parties: It forces them to hew closer to what the voters want, and punishes them when they diverge too far. But that disciplining function dissolves when the pathway to minoritarian rule strengthens. That’s broadly understood. What’s less understood is that it also dissolves when the mechanisms of governance weaken, when government begins routinely failing to deliver voters the change that has been promised. “It’s very difficult right now for Americans to see why it is that they go to the polls and — maybe — the people they vote for get elected, but then not much seems to change,” says Suzanne Mettler, co-author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. “They don’t follow the fact that, well, there weren’t 60 votes for cloture in order to bring something to the floor in the Senate.” The Senate sits at the center of both these currents of dysfunction, and its toxic role in American politics, and American life, has been protected by the thick shroud of mythos and tradition that surrounds it. It is why American citizens in DC and Puerto Rico remain disenfranchised. It is why reforms to make democracy more responsive, to protect it from the flood of cash and the perversions of gerrymandering and voter suppression, have no chance of passage. It is why, even on the occasions when one party holds both chambers of Congress and the White House, so little gets done. “One of the worst things about the filibuster is it allows senators to say they support something without ever having to stand behind a vote,” says Stasha Rhodes, director of the 51 for 51 campaign, which advocates for a DC statehood vote free from the filibuster. “It’s one thing to say you support DC statehood and another to say you support bypassing the filibuster to see it actually happens. It is one thing to talk about the need to reduce gun violence in America. It’s another to say you’re going to remove the hurdles that stand in that bill’s way. The difference between removing the filibuster and not is the difference between theory and action.” McConnell’s use of the filibuster, and his approach to Supreme Court nominations, is heightening the contradictions. Democrats are now considering reforms that are, from the standpoint of democratic governance, overdue, but that were, from the standpoint of Senate traditions and mores, unthinkable: eliminating the filibuster, adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, even changing the composition of the Supreme Court. To Republicans, these reforms would represent escalation. To Democrats, they would represent the only path forward. Perhaps both are right. Drew Angerer/Getty Images McConnell has been adamant that the Senate will vote this year on President Trump’s nomination to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The fundamental conflict in American politics is whether we will, going forward, be a true multiethnic democracy, or whether we will backslide into something closer to minoritarian rule. The crisis McConnell has forced can play out in many ways, some of them terribly destructive. But the certain path to backsliding is simple inaction, in which the status quo persists, minoritarian rule perpetuates itself, and the 20th-century understanding of the US Senate is used to choke off multiethnic democracy in the 21st century. “When I got to the Senate, people used to say, ‘If anyone can do it, Mitch can do it,’” recalls Wallner. “They stopped saying it after he failed a lot.” But in this case, it may be true: If anyone can get the Democrats to take the urgency of reinvigorating democracy seriously, Mitch can do it. 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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Can Democrats pull off another Senate win in Arizona?
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly with his wife, former Congress member Gabrielle Giffords, in 2017. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images The same voters who helped Kyrsten Sinema win could boost Mark Kelly, too. The Senate race in Arizona is giving a lot of people déjà vu. Just two years after running — and narrowly losing — to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Martha McSally is running again, this time against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, in an attempt to keep her seat. In a unique twist, McSally was appointed to an open Senate seat by Gov. Doug Ducey to serve out the term of the late Sen. John McCain after she’d previously lost. And experts say McSally’s candidacy isn’t the only thing that feels familiar. “I would be willing to wager Sinema just handed Kelly her playbook and said, ‘Here you go, here’s how you win the US Senate in Arizona,’” quipped OH Predictive Insights pollster Mike Noble. Many of the dynamics that defined 2018 — and contributed to the state’s shift to the left — have only become more apparent in the two years since. Independent voters, which make up about a third of the state’s electorate, are still dissatisfied with President Donald Trump and likely to favor Democrats this fall. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden led Trump 57 percent to 38 percent among independent voters in the state. Democrats are also making inroads with moderate Republicans, particularly suburban women, who are interested in less polarized leadership and concerned about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. And the state’s growing population of Latinx voters is continuing to skew Democratic. Caitlin O’Hara/Getty Images Sen. Martha McSally speaks during a rally for President Trump in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 19. “The shift is these Ducey-Sinema voters. You’re a Republican and you’re willing to vote for a Democrat. That’s where I think the most growth has been,” said Lorna Romero, a former communications director for McCain’s 2016 campaign. There are some key differences this cycle that are poised to have major implications on the race, too. The state, like the rest of the country, is still grappling with the public health and economic consequences of a devastating pandemic, which hit Arizona particularly hard this past summer. Plus, the presidential election is poised to loom over any down-ballot races. Strong anti-Trump sentiment in the state, driven by his divisive rhetoric and poor handling of the pandemic, could ultimately amplify the same trends already evident in the last two cycles. Although Sen. Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 points in the 2012 presidential race, Trump only took it by 3 in 2016. Sinema then won the state’s Senate seat by 2 points in 2018. Following her defeat that year, members of McSally’s team put out a memo that touched on the reasons behind her loss. In it, they summed up several issues — including her decision to align herself closely with the president — that could well lead to the same outcome again. “A significant segment of the AZ GOP was hostile to the President,” the memo read. “This segment of moderate Republicans, especially [women], proved very difficult to bring home to a Republican candidate that supported President Trump and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh.” In addition to maintaining her steadfast backing for Trump, McSally is poised to take another potentially polarizing Supreme Court vote in the coming weeks, making some of the circumstances she’s dealing with very similar to 2018. Democrats are making gains with moderate Republicans in Arizona According to exit polling from the midterms, Sinema won 12 percent of Republicans as well as 50 percent of independents and an overwhelming majority of Democrats. That same coalition of voters could be the ones to buoy Kelly to victory this cycle. In the RealClearPolitics average, Kelly is ahead of McSally by more than 6 points. And an OH Predictive Insights poll published in mid-September found that 15 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents would support him. “Sinema voters — they are the Jeff Flake Republicans, they are the John McCain Republicans who want civility,” says Derrik Rochwalik, a political consultant based in Phoenix who was previously chair of the Maricopa County Young Republicans. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. Kyrsten Sinema departs from the Senate floor after a vote on September 16. Trump’s hardline stances on immigration and racist comments about Mexican immigrants are among the factors that have turned these voters away. And McSally’s willingness to back Trump on issues including the national emergency for his border wall and the recent Supreme Court vacancy means many view her as just another extension of his administration. “I want a candidate that will represent my family and that will make decisions based on personal convictions and not just follow the President from their party,” said Mark Tucker, a resident of Gilbert, Arizona, in a recent statement that included a hundred Republicans backing Kelly. While McSally has made a more partisan appeal, experts in the state note Kelly’s messaging has been designed — much like Sinema’s — to reach a specific subset of crossover Republicans and independents. “When you look at his ads, he’s not talking about Democrat-this or Democrat-that. He’s running largely as somewhat of an independent,” says Joe Garcia, the executive director of the Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund. McSally herself nodded at Kelly’s approach in an August event, going so far as to suggest that some people may not be aware he is a Democrat. “Somebody actually could vote Trump-Kelly,” she warned. Carolyn Kaster/AP Mark Kelly takes the stage during the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Kelly’s policy positions, like his messaging, hew to the center: He’s supportive of a public option and reducing drug prices through Medicare negotiation, and he has called out the need to generate more clean energy jobs while stopping short of backing the Green New Deal. Much like many Democrats did in 2018, he’s made defending protections for people with preexisting conditions a centerpiece of his campaign. Kelly is also married to former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, and the two have been leading gun-control advocates in the wake of the 2011 shooting during which a gunman shot Giffords in the head at a constituents’ meeting in Tucson. Presently, he backs universal background checks and red-flag laws, which enable law enforcement to bar individuals from accessing firearms if they are flagged as a danger to themselves or others. “I’m running — to be an independent voice for Arizona,” Kelly has said. Kelly’s campaign declined to make him available to Vox for an interview. McSally’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kelly’s focus on his independent streak echoes messaging Sinema once used about being able to work with “literally anyone” to get policy done, and it’s one that has played well with Arizona voters, who often boast about how independent they are. McSally, meanwhile, has continued to link herself to Trump in a bet that this connection will be enough to rally members of the GOP’s conservative base in November, even as she’s lost moderates. She’s focused some on her biography as the first woman to fly in a combat mission for the Air Force, but much of her messaging has been dedicated to emphasizing her conservative bona fides. Latinx voters are poised to have huge influence over the election, which could bode well for Democrats A big factor in Arizona’s leftward shift is the uptick in Latinx voters in the state. In 2018, Latinx voters overwhelmingly favored Democrats, with 70 percent supporting Sinema while 30 percent backed McSally. And since the last presidential election, Latinx voter share in the electorate has grown from 19.6 percent to 24.6 percent, with thousands of younger voters reaching voting age. According to Garcia, more than 100,000 new Latinx voters have turned 18 in recent years — and Latinx voters are younger, on average, than white voters in the state. It’s important to note that Latinx voters are not a monolith; the majority who live in Arizona are Mexican American and more likely to be left-leaning. According to the ABC News/Washington Post survey this week, a higher proportion of Latinx voters in Arizona favored Biden than in Florida, for example, a trend that’s indicative of the diversity among members of the group. The pandemic is ultimately an issue at the forefront for all Arizonans, including Latinx voters, who have been disproportionately impacted by it. “For the most part, Covid-19 and the cost of health care are overwhelmingly top issues,” says Edward Vargas, a researcher for polling firm Latino Decisions. “What we’ve seen in our polling is that they trust Democrats much more in addressing issues toward Covid-19.” Both campaigns have focused more of their efforts on reaching Latinx voters — including participating in a virtual forum that will air in October — who historically haven’t seen as much formal outreach from candidates. In 2018, because of more dedicated organizing driven by advocacy groups including LUCHA and Mi Familia Vota, Latinx voter turnout saw a spike compared to 2014. Experts say they expect this same energy — if not more — in 2020. “I think it’s going to be a record-setting election,” says Vargas. The fight for control of the Senate and the presidency looms over this race Because of how she’s positioned herself, McSally’s fate is viewed as inextricably tied to Trump’s. “I do think that the strategy for the president — and Martha McSally — is making sure that the Trump supporters came out of the woodwork to support him in 2016, the play right now is to make sure that those people turn out,” says Romero. McSally has also repeatedly emphasized that her seat is a bulwark against potential Democratic control of the Senate, an effort aimed at targeting those same Republicans, especially as the GOP seeks to confirm a Supreme Court nominee to take the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. “Arizona is the tipping point for whether Chuck Schumer is going to be in charge in the Senate,” McSally said during an August appearance on CBS News. “A vote for Mark Kelly is a vote for ... the radical left agenda.” Matt York/AP Vice President Mike Pence greets Sen. Martha McSally at a Veterans for Trump campaign rally in Litchfield Park, Arizona, on September 18. In the past week, the two candidates provided a glimpse of how they’d handle the Supreme Court nomination: McSally swiftly backed a vote on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, while Kelly argued that a nominee should be put forth by whoever wins the general election. One of McSally’s chief arguments is, “Let’s make sure we don’t lose that second seat and that the Republicans don’t lose the Senate in 2020,” says Rochwalik, the Phoenix political consultant. The pivotal role Arizona could play in determining control of the Senate has also meant that an overwhelming amount of funding has been flowing into this race, with Kelly, in particular, raising a staggering sum. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Kelly had raked in more than $45 million as of a July report, dwarfing McSally, who had brought in $30 million as of a September report. If Kelly can channel this support as effectively as Sinema did, he could see a repeat of her success, too. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The election result the stock market is really afraid of
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 9, 2016, after Donald Trump’s upset White House victory. | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president”: Wall Street’s biggest 2020 fear is a contested result. Wall Street’s nightmare scenario on Election Day isn’t really a Donald Trump or a Joe Biden victory. It’s one where there’s no clear winner, or a result one side refuses to accept. “We’re kind of preparing for Armageddon on November 3,” one senior vice president at a major quant firm, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely about the matter, told me. “If it’s close, there’s a decent chance that, like, who the fuck knows? Are markets going to be down 20 percent on Wednesday?” One of the higher-ups at his firm recently sent an email asking about a what-if scenario where President Donald Trump sends in the National Guard post-election. At the very least, there are some concerns about possible presidential tweets. Investors are bracing for volatility. Most of the time, markets are not super impacted by who is in the White House, at least in the long term. At a press conference in September, President Trump said that a Biden victory for the presidency would cause “stocks to crash like you’ve never seen before.” But many people predicted the same thing about a potential Trump win in 2016, and about Barack Obama years before. Under both men, stocks climbed, and Wall Street did just fine. “Markets don’t give a shit about who’s president,” Barry Ritholtz, the founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management and a columnist at Bloomberg Opinion, told me. In recent weeks, I spoke with multiple insiders, analysts, and experts about their take on Trump vs. Biden. The takeaway is a complex one — after all, Wall Street is hardly a monolith, and they’re not all giving off Gordon Gekko vibes. Most acknowledged that Trump has been largely favorable to the markets because of tax cuts and his administration’s deregulatory bent. A Biden win would likely mean an increase in taxes, which investors wouldn’t love. And even if the anti-billionaire rhetoric hasn’t been flowing from Biden directly, they’ve heard it from other prominent Democrats. “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them” “Rich white guys watch way too much cable news and think everyone is after them. I don’t get it, but these guys are all doing fine in the markets and live in their bubble,” one Palm Beach private equity associate said in an email with regard to their bosses’ dislike of Biden. “They really only care about taxes and it’s quite infuriating.” But many aren’t looking at a potential Biden win as a doomsday scenario. There are plenty of sectors that could do well under the former vice president — green energy, for example — and investors think a Biden administration would likely cool it on tensions with China and be more dovish on immigration, both welcome moves. Plus, markets and big corporations like stability, which it’s hard to argue the current administration is consistently delivering. “Wall Street sees advantages and disadvantages to both candidates,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “It’s not as clear cut as you might normally see in an election.” What Wall Street is weighing isn’t really “Trump vs. Biden,” it’s “Trump vs. Biden vs. ???,” and that third option is the scariest, though not the likeliest. “A recipe for the market getting shellacked” Wall Street prefers certainty, and an undecided election means anything but. Imagine the United States hits November 4, 14, 24, even December, and it’s still not clear who won the presidential election or which party will have control of Congress. Especially with mail-in voting, it’s a real possibility. Or, say there is an outcome but one side refuses to accept it. Trump and Republicans are already starting to set the stage for casting doubt about a Biden victory, and there are concerns about domestic and foreign actors potentially confusing the outcome of the election. Some Democrats say they won’t trust the results if Trump wins. “One of the foundations of a democracy is fair and objective voting, and if that’s now not perceived to be the case, then who knows,” said Jack Ablin, founding partner of Cresset Capital. There is recent precedent for an uncertain outcome: George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000. The weeks after the election, while the country turned its attention to the outcome in Florida, was not a great time for investors, as Stephen Mihm at Bloomberg recently explained. By the end of November of that year, the S&P 500 was down by 10 percent, though markets were bouncy, depending on the news of the day. Once the Supreme Court issued its decision in the matter, the markets recovered, at least for a while (they later declined, but for other reasons). As Mihm outlines, it sort of comes down to a philosophical divide between risk you can measure and uncertainty you cannot, outlined by economist Frank Knight in 1921. “The first could be calculated and a wager made based on the odds; the second was a genuine shot in the dark,” Mihm wrote. “The stock market would rather be handed what is perceived as bad news so that people can make an educated decision,” said Ken Greene, a financial adviser based in Nevada. In the 2000 election, the issue wasn’t really figuring out the risk of a Gore presidency compared to the risk of a Bush presidency, it was that nobody had any idea what was going to happen day to day or how things might shake out. This time around, we could see something even more chaotic. Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research a Compass Point Research & Trading, told me that he has discussed a number of election-related issues with clients: what’s going on with deal-making and antitrust scrutiny, what to expect from the housing market, how to think about the banking industry and trade and taxes. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner,” he said. And it isn’t just the presidency. The outcome of the Georgia US Senate race might not be known until 2021 — and, therefore, potentially which party controls Congress. “The No. 1 worry that I’ve heard over the last few weeks is not knowing who will be the winner” “If everybody is adult and calm and rational and says let’s count all the votes and figure out who won, it will be fine,” Ritholtz said. “If the crazies come out, and there are a lot of crazies … Mr. Market will not be happy with that at all.” His takeaway: “That kind of unrest and turmoil, that’s a recipe for the market getting shellacked.” Donald Trump has been good for the stock market. Joe Biden will probably be fine, too. President Trump would like everyone to believe that he is 100 percent responsible for the stock market when it goes up and that he has nothing to do with it when it goes down. The truth is neither. The market is influenced by a lot of things day to day, some related to politics, some not. Trump, overall, has been favorable to corporate America and Wall Street. In 2017, he signed into law a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill that disproportionately benefited corporations and the wealthy. (After signing the law, he literally told friends at his Mar-A-Lago resort that they “just got a lot richer.”) His administration has also taken a deregulatory approach to most industries. A Biden administration is likely to change course on some of that. He has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent (Trump reduced it from 35 percent) and increasing the top individual income tax rate, among other measures. The former vice president has pledged not to raise taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year. A Biden administration would also likely bring about tougher regulations on certain industries, such as fossil fuels and coal. “When you implement a higher corporate tax, that means [corporations] are not going to be investing as quickly, which means the multiple on the market might compress,” said Luke Lloyd, a wealth adviser at Strategic Wealth Partners. Ablin estimates that a corporate tax increase of the size Biden is proposing could be worth about 10 percentage points in the market. “That said, if Vice President Biden were to win, he would need Congress’s help,” he said, and it’s not clear Democrats will have a majority. “I think investors are taking more of a wait-and-see approach on that one.” If the market does indeed contract around a Biden win, if past serves as precedent, it will eventually come back and do just fine. In fact, historically, investors have done better under Democratic leadership. Getting past the top line, Trump and Biden mean different things for different sectors. Trump has done a lot of defense spending; Biden would likely be better for green energy. Those in private equity would rather not see an increase in capital gains taxes that could potentially come under Biden. Companies with more exposure to China may also benefit from an administration with a less rocky relationship with the country — Wall Street has reacted negatively to the US-China trade war. “If you look at Chinese equities over the last couple of months, they ebbed and flowed with Biden’s improving or trailing chances,” Ablin said. “Both candidates present risks,” Hooper said. She also noted that much of what’s been driving Wall Street, especially lately, has nothing to do with the president at all but instead has been tied to the Federal Reserve, which has made enormous efforts to boost markets. “It has very little, if anything, to do with the occupant of the White House.” White House chaos is not fun for anyone — and election chaos could be even worse The conventional wisdom is often that Republicans mean good for Wall Street and business and Democrats mean bad, but that’s not necessarily the case. And not everyone in the arena agrees. As some billionaires were lighting their hair on fire over the prospect of a Warren presidency during the Democratic primary, she was amassing plenty of fans in finance, too. Despite his working-class roots,the former vice president was largely Wall Street donors’ preferred candidate among the 2020 Democrats, and he and the Democrats are doing quite well with them in the general election, too. Paul Thornell, a former managing director for federal government affairs at Citigroup, told Politico that part of it is that the big banks, for example, aren’t just worried about taxes. “They’re looking at character and how these two conduct themselves as leaders,” he said. Billionaire hedge funder Leon Cooperman, who during the primary crusaded against Warren, in a recent interview with CNBC said that while he thinks Trump has “good economic ideas,” he also has “limited character.” Cooperman said he hasn’t made up his mind on who to support and added that he’s not sure what Biden stands for — a coded, but not uncommon, sentiment among investors worried about how much progressives have the former vice president’s ear. When I emailed him asking him if he had made up his mind, he responded, “I have a firm view but no need to go public!” The Biden campaign is leaning into the theme that Trump is too erratic for anyone to stomach, rich or poor. “Like everything else that’s been handed to him, Trump inherited a strong economy and squandered it, plunging us into a recession,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin in an emailed statement to Vox. She added that the former vice president “knows that the words of a president matter and have the power to move markets, which is why Americans — regardless of their pocketbooks — are crying out for his stable leadership.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. It’s hard to look at the Trump presidency objectively and think it hasn’t been good for corporate America and Wall Street’s bottom line. It’s also impossible not to recognize it’s been chaotic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead in a pandemic, and the economy is deeply troubled — millions of people are out of a job, small businesses are suffering, and state and local governments are flailing. One investment bank vice president who focuses on commodities and oil laid out how he sees the stakes even for giant oil companies: “A Green New Deal or what have you is an existential threat to the fossil fuels business, but the thing is, what’s much more likely to happen is the pandemic rages indefinitely, and no one goes anywhere,” slowing consumption of those fossil fuels anyway. He is a Biden supporter and has given money to Democrats this election cycle. But a Biden loss isn’t his worst-case scenario. “I would much rather Trump win handily and demonstrably than any kind of ambiguity,” he said. “It is the worst possible thing.” 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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How to fix our broken democracy
John Lewis and others leading several thousand people in the 1965 Selma, Alabama, march. | Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Voting rights lawyer Janai Nelson lays out a possible path forward. It’s too damn hard for too many people to vote in the United States, and that’s no accident. Voters in predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods often have to wait hours in line to cast a ballot. Lawful voters can be purged from the voting rolls without adequate warning. States enact laws that serve no purpose other than to make it harder to vote — and they often do so with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Help, however, is potentially on the way. In the first episode of By the People?, a new podcast miniseries that I’m hosting, I spoke with voting rights lawyer Janai Nelson about a pair of ambitious bills that could pass Congress very quickly if Democrats take back the White House and the Senate in November. These bills offer solutions to a wide range of problems facing American democracy, including gerrymandering, voter purges, and other intentionally efforts to prevent American citizens from casting a ballot. Nelson, who is associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also walked me through several steps that Americans can take so that their votes are counted in 2020. An edited transcript of our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on By the People. By the People? is a special podcast miniseries associated with Vox’s podcast The Weeds. You can listen to future episodes of By the People? by subscribing to The Weeds wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. Ian Millhiser So I want to start with a fairly optimistic future. Imagine that it’s January. We have a different president and we have a Congress that is really itching to pass a really strong voting rights bill. What should be in that new bill? Janai Nelson The good thing is we don’t really have to invent a bill out of whole cloth. There are two comprehensive and transformative bills that have already been passed by the House and provide a really excellent starting point to build a new and improved democracy. Those two bills are the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, also known as HR 4, and the For the People Act, known as HR 1. Ian Millhiser Yeah, let’s drill down a bit into them. So, one perennial problem we see is that a state will pass something, a law that’s already unconstitutional. Maybe it’s a racial gerrymander, maybe it’s just a way of disenfranchising people — but it could take the courts years to strike that law down. And in those years, the state’s running elections under this law that shouldn’t exist. How do you prevent that from happening? How do you prevent lawmakers from enacting a law and running several elections under that law, and then maybe enacting something slightly different when the courts get around to striking it down? Janai Nelson Yeah, we have seen that happen time and again. Probably one of the most vexing problems for voting rights advocates is the idea that an election can take place under a law that is later found to be discriminatory. The great thing is that the VRAA, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which has been named after the late and legendary civil rights hero John Lewis, contains a “preclearance” provision that restores the powerful tool that was in the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court disabled it in 2013. So states like Georgia and Texas and Alabama and Louisiana and many others would have to seek federal approval before they make a voting change. And that’s critical to prevent elections from occurring under laws that should never have been in place in the first place, and that serve to disenfranchise communities and largely Black communities. Ian Millhiser The first election I was really old enough to pay attention to was the 2000 election and specifically the 2000 election in Florida. I mean, it was a nightmare. And one of the things that made it a nightmare is that there was this purge list of voters who were kicked off of the voter rolls. We don’t know how many people were purged who shouldn’t have been purged. But Bush’s margin of victory was about 500 votes. So there’s a decent likelihood that Al Gore would have become president if not for this purge list. Why is voter registration still a thing that can be used to disenfranchise people? Why is it the case that your right to vote still depends on your name appearing on this registration list? And what does the legislation Congress is considering do to deal with that problem? Janai Nelson The 2000 election was the election that really was pivotal for me as well. In fact, it was the very first voting rights case that I ever litigated — to protect Black and Haitian American voters in Florida who had been disenfranchised, some because of the very practice that you mentioned, the voter purge. So let’s just start with voter purging and then go back to voter registration issues in the 2000 election. There’s something called list maintenance, right? And it’s something that we want to see happen in our states where election officials ensure that the people who are registered to vote are still alive, that they still live in the appropriate jurisdiction, and that they meet all the qualifications that we have for voting. And that’s something that’s perfectly legitimate and fair. The problem is that many election officials use what should be an innocuous process of just cleaning up the voter rolls to purge people intentionally from the rolls, to actively remove people from the rolls and to target particular groups that they don’t want to vote. We saw that in the 2000 election where at the time [Florida’s] governor instituted a purge process that targeted people with felony convictions. If you happen to be a member of a community that has a disproportionate number of people with felony convictions, in that case the African American community, also the Latinx community, then you stand a greater likelihood of being kicked off of the rolls as part of that sweep. Not only if you happen to have a felony conviction, but even if you don’t. You may share a name with someone who has a felony conviction. You may be misidentified as someone who has a felony conviction. Now, if we look at the question of voter registration, why do we need to affirmatively have citizens of this country bear such a disproportionate burden and onus to register? In my mind, it’s such an antiquated process. We’re one of the few democracies that places such a burden on voters to participate in our democracy. What a growing number of states is doing now is allowing automatic voter registration. So when you turn 18 and you’re a citizen of this country, you can automatically be added to the voter rolls, and different states do it in different ways. Oregon was the first state to do it in 2015. But since then we have 18 states [and the District of Columbia] that have some form of automatic voter registration, which has increased the voting rolls in many of those states. And there are estimates that suggest that in the first year alone, if we had national automatic voter registration, we might be able to add something like 22-27 million new voters to our voter registration rolls, which could be transformative, especially because it brings a lot of new younger voters into the electorate. And many of them happen to be people of color where we have the largest growing demographic of young people in this country. Ian Millhiser Gotcha. And if HR 1 passes, would it require states to have some form of automatic registration? Janai Nelson Yes, HR 1 would include nationwide automatic voter registration. It also includes what is all-important, early voting, two weeks of early voting in every state, which takes the burden off of our election system on a single day, which still exists in some states. It also marks Election Day as a federal holiday, which again eases the burden on individuals to participate in our democracy by making it a holiday and giving them the time that they need in order to cast their ballots. And finally, the For the People Act also places some limitations on voter purges, which, again, for the reasons we discussed, is quite important. Ian Millhiser So let me switch to a different problem: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is, I think, a bipartisan problem. But because Republicans happened to have a very good year in 2010, which was the year before the new maps were drawn, they got to do an oversized amount of gerrymandering. And so we’ve seen that in the elections we’ve had for the last 10 years. What can be done? And what specifically is Congress considering right now to deal with this problem of gerrymandering? Janai Nelson Well, it takes us right back to the For the People Act, HR 1, which also deals with partisan gerrymandering. It institutes nonpartisan commissions to draw electoral districts. And there are roughly 20 states that are already using either bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions to play some role in the redistricting process, which helps to reduce the partisan overreach that occurs, as you noted, from both parties, but has been exacerbated and just exponential in the hands of the Republican Party in recent years. Ian Millhiser There’s something that Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, said that stuck with me, which is that a lot of these laws that are being enacted by state legislatures and upheld by the courts are written to make voter suppression look like “user error.” It’s not that you were denied the right to vote — it’s that you didn’t bring the right ID. It’s not that you were denied the right to vote — it’s that you didn’t sign your ballot in the right place. What we see going on now, I think, is different than what happened in Mississippi in the 1950s in that it’s not a wholesale, “Well, I look at the color of your skin so you can’t vote.” It’s an attempt to make it look like it is the voter’s fault. I guess given that framework, does that mean that voters have more control? Can they take matters into their own hands and make sure that they don’t get trapped by those sorts of things? Janai Nelson Voters in this country bear such a significant burden in ensuring that they have an opportunity to participate in our democracy. That said, the reality is, in this moment, voters must be prepared to vote. There [are measures] that voters can take to do everything within their power to make sure that they are checking their registrations, that their registration is up to date, that they notify election officials if they move, that they know when early voting starts, that they know how they can cast a mail-in ballot. All of that is information that is readily available to voters if they seek it. It’s unfortunate that they have to seek it. There should be means for voters to receive every possible entry point into our electoral system from state officials. But to the extent that that’s not happening, we’re asking that all voters do whatever it takes to ensure that they can cast a ballot this November. Ian Millhiser In the 1980s, the RNC had a scheme where they recruited a bunch of off duty police officers and I believe gave them armbands identifying them as election security with the apparent intent of intimidating Black and brown voters against voting. And for many years, the RNC was under a court order saying, “Don’t do that.” The court order has now been dissolved. And this will be the first presidential election without that court order in place. So how worried are you about voter intimidation? And what steps can be taken right now to make sure that voters aren’t scared out of casting their vote? Janai Nelson Voter intimidation is as old as this democracy. And the intimidation of Black voters in particular is as old as the 15th Amendment, granting black men the right to vote in 1870. As you pointed out, there has been something of a control on voter intimidation since the 1980s where you mentioned the off-duty police officers who not only were wearing blue armbands, but they were also armed with service revolvers and they swarmed precincts, many of which were in Black and brown communities in New Jersey and other neighborhoods like that to intimidate them and to deter them from casting their constitutional right to vote. It took a lawsuit to disband this so-called National Ballot Security Task Force. And what’s interesting is that — I think not so coincidentally now that that consent decree has expired — Trump stated very recently that we are going to have sheriffs, law enforcement, US attorneys, and attorneys general at the polls. That in and of itself is voter intimidation. To suggest that you have to navigate law enforcement and people who could prosecute you in order to cast a ballot is intimidation on its face. And just recently, Michigan voters received robocalls misinforming them that voting by mail might expose their personal information to creditors and to law enforcement and even to the CDC for purposes of a forced vaccination. It’s that type of misinformation that groups like the Legal Defense Fund are combating by telling voters to be discerning, that if they have a question about a voting rule or law or barrier that they hear about, that they check it with a trusted source. Which is why we are part of an election protection network and force that will have people on the ground on Election Day, that will have people available by phone at 866-OUR-VOTE in order to field calls and complaints and to hopefully get relief, and to go to the court, if necessary, to prevent any further intimidation from happening from the polls. Ian Millhiser So that number that you just said. 866-OUR-VOTE. If I receive a call telling me if I vote, then there’ll be some terrible consequence, that’s the number that I can call to get credible advice on whether I actually need to worry. Janai Nelson That’s right. You can get credible advice on whether that is a legitimate instruction. And it’s also very helpful for us to be able to track what intimidation tactics are being used. And there are many places to go for information if you want to know your polling site, if you know your registration status, there are all sorts of government, as well as civil rights funded sites that can give you that information Ian Millhiser Can you name a few of those sites? Janai Nelson All voters can go to usa.gov/confirm-voter-registration to check and see if they’re registered to vote. And you can just type in basic information about where you’re located and your name and find out immediately if you are registered to vote. And the Legal Defense Fund recently launched a microsite that is devoted to voting and voting rights information. It’s a one-stop shop for everything you might want to know about voting rights, including census and redistricting, which is all tied in to this intricate election system that we have. And that voting site is voting.naacpldf.org. Ian Millhiser And that’s a good reminder that anyone listening who hasn’t filled out their census form, go do that. Janai Nelson Yes, that is critical. Be counted. Ian Millhiser So: What is your plan to make sure that your vote is counted? Janai Nelson Well, I’m proud to say that I’ve already requested my absentee ballot here in my home state of New York. Early voting here begins October 24 and it ends November 1. And I intend to physically turn in my ballot at a precinct during that early voting period to ensure that it is received and counted. And frankly, that’s the recommended plan that we have for anyone who plans to vote by mail, that you request your ballot early, if your state requires that you request and not receive it without any demand, and that you physically turn it in to a designated local election drop off or precinct that will take your ballot. Of course, if you are planning to vote in person, you know, gear up that day and be prepared to face whatever obstacles may come up, including long lines and other issues, ID, if that’s required in your state. And everyone should be reaching out to their networks to make sure that everyone they know is also equally prepared to vote. And finally, one of the things that the Legal Defense Fund is working on with the More Than A Vote organization that was started by LeBron James is a poll worker recruitment drive. If you have the ability to serve as a poll worker in this upcoming election, please do so. We are facing a shortage of poll workers. You can go to powerthepolls.org and sign up to find out more about how to become a poll worker in your jurisdiction to help ensure that everyone can cast an equal ballot and receives the assistance that they need in this election. 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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How do you cover a presidential campaign during a pandemic?
Doug Chayka for Vox What happens when the campaign trail is an ethernet cable? Olivia Nuzzi was covering a Donald Trump rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this summer when the New York magazine reporter had an idea. Why not go talk to the Trump fans at the gathering, most of whom had been spending hours packed together, mask-free? Then she reconsidered. “I’m not going over there today. I’m not fucking going over there and talking to people who don’t have masks on,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t think the news value of my dumb little idea of a news story is worth the risk.” Interviewing a campaign rally attendee is a staple of campaign journalism. But not in 2020. In addition to killing 200,000 Americans and putting millions out of work, the pandemic has upended how campaigns are run — just like everything else, they’ve now mostly moved online — which means it’s changed the way they are covered. Which isn’t necessarily bad. But it is unsettling for many political journalists (again: join the club) who are trying to figure out how to do their job in the most unusual of circumstances. And they’re thinking about what all of this means — both for this year and for future campaigns. “You’re just seeing the press release that goes out, you’re tuning into the livestream of the speech, you’re making as many phone calls as possible,” says BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer, who is covering her third presidential campaign this year — and has been in her Brooklyn apartment, except for a single trip to see Joe Biden accept the Democratic nomination, since March. The question that journalists and politician, and eventually voters will have to reckon with is whether the distance between the reporters and the people they’re writing about matters: If you can’t be on the road with Joe Biden because Joe Biden’s not on the road, does it make a difference in what people are going to learn about Joe Biden between now and November 3? And if it doesn’t, should journalists and politicians permanently rethink the way campaigns are run and covered, even when we can (hopefully) gather in person again? A standard pandemic cliché, at this point, is to note that it has accelerated a shift that was already underway. Go ahead and use campaign journalism as another example. You may have a hazy understanding that the most important coverage comes from Important Journalists who travel alongside candidates on the trail, pestering them and their staff for tidbits of news, access, and interviews. That’s the idea behind Boys on the Bus, Tim Crouse’s famous book about the 1972 presidential campaign and the men who covered it. But that notion hasn’t synced up with reality for some time. Yes, sometimes candidates say things at campaign events that become news stories, and may even affect their candidacy — think of Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of American voters in 2012, or Hillary Clinton dismissing Trump voters as “deplorables” in 2016. But there aren’t many of those moments, and they certainly don’t have much to do with day-to-day campaign trail reporting. Which is one of the reasons why reporters who cover candidates on the road in recent campaigns have been “embeds.” They tend to be earlier in their careers and lower in the journalistic pecking order (and more likely to put up with the indignities of constant travel). More important, though, is that campaigns have realized they can use Twitter, Instagram, livestreams, and any other tech they want to bypass reporters and go straight to their intended audience. Reporters who travel with the campaign can be tolerated, but they’re much less likely to get access to the candidate. “The curtain at the front of the plane separating the senior staff from the press corps has been drawn for a couple of campaigns now,” says Peter Hamby, a former CNN reporter. He says the utility of the campaign trail coverage has been minimal for years. The shift was clear enough for Hamby to see back in 2013, when he produced a 95-page research report titled “Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?” Hamby apparently reached his own conclusion: He’s now Snapchat’s chief political correspondent, and does little reporting from the campaign trail. “It was a visceral thing to watch” So even without a virus tearing through America, you’d hear and see reporters talking about the way campaign coverage has been, and should be, changing in 2020. But the strain of working in the pandemic underscores the weirdness. Now you not only have to question the value of interviewing a Trump voter at a Trump rally — it’s a Trump voter at a Trump rally, so what could they say that would surprise you at this point? — you have to worry about whether doing so will make you sick. And that internal discussion is happening after years of Trump himself, who has overturned every bit of conventional political wisdom, going back to his initial campaign. In 2015, for instance, everyone knew that the one thing you couldn’t do in American politics is to cast aspersions on decorated, wounded veterans. But Trump announced that Sen. John McCain, shot down in Vietnam, held in captivity and tortured for years, was “not a war hero,” because Trump liked “people who weren’t captured.” For any other candidate, in any other year, that would have been the end of the campaign — and precisely the reason you cover every word a presidential candidate says. But now, we’ve learned that this stuff is intrinsic to Trump. You expect it. You hear it all the time. Why bother going on the road to hear him say it again? Because maybe you’ll still learn something, say reporters who’ve worked the campaign trail. Yes, you can see a lot of the campaign on Twitter and TV. But if you’re not there, they say, you can’t get the details that let you know what’s really going on — or at least the details that make a great story. “Texture” is the word that comes up a lot. “It’s sort of like this intangible quality that’s only present in person,” says Cramer. “And it has to do with a feeling inside a room, or the way campaign staff are shuffling back and forth in the hallway while the candidate is speaking.” Cramer recalls a scene from this year’s Democratic primary, as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy evaporated over the course of a couple days: “I remember getting off the bus and seeing one of Sanders’ senior people visibly shaking. He was shaking from the realization of what was happening, and there was nothing he could do to change it. It was a visceral thing to watch.” That scene made it into her story about the campaign’s collapse. “Every story I wrote, it was hugely beneficial to be on the road,” says Amy Chozick, the New York Times reporter assigned to the Hillary Clinton campaign from 2015 to 2016; Chozick says she traveled 523 days during that stretch. “There’s huge value in seeing the candidate that you’re covering every single day — if Hillary changed two words in a speech, I would know,” she says. And being around an event is different than watching an event. Chozick said she could sense a swell of emotion and excitement, which the Clinton campaign hadn’t generated much of before, in the last two weeks of the 2016 campaign — which she readily admits didn’t tell you anything about how Clinton fared on Election Day. Campaign reporters also lament that limited travel and limited events mean limited chances to talk to voters at those events. Yes, someone who goes to a Trump event isn’t representative of the electorate — it’s someone who likes Trump so much they’ll leave their house to go see him. Still, “you’re able to interview voters, and see how they’re responding. I basically haven’t had the chance to talk to any voters at any rally, to see what they think” about campaign messaging, says Alex Thompson, who is covering the election for Politico from afar. “I’ve been stuck in DC. I’m not going to go through the phone book of Milwaukee and call voters.” Instead, Thompson says, he’s trying to figure out how to cover something that’s happening virtually. In a normal year, he says, he’d be trying to figure out how to sneak into a volunteer training session for a Democratic door-knocking campaign; now he says he’s “sneaking into a virtual digital training session, about how to text and share things on Facebook.” The Times’s Maggie Haberman, who covered the Trump campaign in 2016 and followed him to the White House, has plenty of access to people around Trump. But she also misses talking to regular humans. “One thing that I think is missing from the coverage right now is that you can get more of a sense for parts of the race by being in person, talking to voters,” she says. “That I really do miss. I really got a lot out of voters when I talked to them.” The gotta-see-it-live faction is getting more of their wish lately. Over the last few weeks, Trump has revived his campaign rallies, which give him a chance to rile up his base and antagonize everyone else. Just days ago, Trump gloated to a crowd in Minnesota about watching MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi get injured during a protest; since then he’s also been to Ohio and Pennsylvania, where his crowds were large, densely packed and largely unmasked. But cable TV networks no longer reflexively cover them live, and Trump’s provocations don’t make news — perhaps because the news has plenty of other things to cover, like mass death and unemployment. Joe Biden, meanwhile, has made very few public appearances at all — a move that’s partly a concession to a virus that thrives in large gatherings, and partly a calculation that he’ll be better off letting Trump talk his way out of votes. Meanwhile, there are plenty of journalists who say the absence of live events hasn’t made a difference in coverage — or, crucially, in the way the public learns about the candidates. “I think the idea that it’s tremendously valuable to your understanding of an election, to be able to go and shoot the shit with a mid-level communications flack at a bar, is overstated,” says New York’s Nuzzi. Though she did that kind of reporting herself during the 2016 campaign — and this one too. In February, for instance, she filed from the lobby of the Marriott in Des Moines, Iowa, where lots of mid-level campaigners were bemoaning that state’s caucus debacle. But by August, after the general campaign had been almost entirely shut down for months, Nuzzi decided she’d have a better chance of understanding Trump’s reelection chances if she got on the road and visited campaign staff and volunteers in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state. In a series of vignettes, Nuzzi describes finding nearly empty election offices and campaign events. In one of them, she drops by a training session for volunteers in Harrisburg: I imagined a lot of Trump supporters, maskless and seated close together, breathing heavily on a reporter leaning in to record their comments. But the office was quiet. I walked through the arch of books by right-wing personalities (Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh) and past the portraits (George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan) and maps of Pennsylvania voting precincts. I didn’t see anyone there. If this had been a normal campaign, Nuzzi said, she would have never gotten in her car. “I wouldn’t have thought about it. There would have been so many rallies to go to.” You’re watching TV. Are you also covering the election? The 2020 general election hasn’t been completely virtual. In place of their usual, week-long summer conventions — impossible to pull off in a social-distancing era — both candidates staged muted, made-for TV presentations that used both live and taped segments to make their case to the country (or, at least, people who watch political conventions). Normally reporters flock to the Democratic and Republican conventions because it’s a rare chance to get extended face time with a wide swath of Important Political People. But since very few people, period, actually showed up live in Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden’s event was anchored, reporters who attended the event had little to do. One of the most striking moments I’ve seen in this year’s campaign was Kamala Harris’s DNC speech — not because of the content but because of the context. The vice presidential nominee stood on a stage, at a podium, just like a normal speech. But when the camera pulled back, you could see the room she was in was nearly empty, save for a handful of socially-distanced reporters, taking notes on a speech they could have watched on their couch. Just like I was doing. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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Marvel pushes Black Widow to 2021, delaying the MCU’s future even further
Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow, which has been delayed twice now. | Marvel Studios/Disney Shang-Chi and The Eternals, the beginnings of Marvel’s Phase 4 set of movies, will be delayed as well. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been stopped in its tracks until 2021. On Wednesday, Variety reported that Disney has again delayed the release of Black Widow, the next scheduled Marvel film, from November 6, 2020, to May 7, 2021. That’s the second delay for the film, which stars Scarlett Johansson as her Avengers character. It was originally scheduled for a May 1, 2020, release, before the Covid-19 pandemic led Disney to bump it to the fall. Now the film will premiere more than a year after its original date. And with Black Widow’s rescheduling comes a domino effect for the other Marvel films in the queue: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. Eternals had been moved from a November 6, 2020, release to February 12, 2021. Now it has again moved to November 5, 2021. Shang-Chi was first scheduled for February 12, then moved to May 7. It will now premiere on July 9. The delay of these three movies is just the latest in a series of postponements and reactions to the worldwide pandemic. Movie theaters involve large gatherings of people, and while many theaters are now open again in the US and around the world, there isn’t a general feeling that everyone’s ready to go back to seeing movies the way we used to before the coronavirus. That “let’s all go to the movies” moment may not even come until there’s an accessible and successful vaccine. For studios like Disney, which owns Marvel, lockdowns and social distancing have created a situation where they must decide between a few options: delay a movie; release a movie anyway; or maybe release a movie directly onto a streaming service like Disney+. Disney released New Mutants, a long-delayed X-Men spinoff it acquired when the company bought Twentieth Century Fox, in theaters in August. Disney then chose to release Mulan, first slated for theaters in March, at a premium on its Disney+ streaming service and in some theaters worldwide earlier this month. New Mutants hauled in $35 million worldwide, and while Mulan’s official digital download haul has yet to be released, it’s only made $57 million in its international box office — a disappointing figure when you consider it cost around $200 million to make. The lack of box office enthusiasm and low prospects for budget recuperation, as well as factors like some theaters not being open and people still having qualms about sitting in a theater for two hours, may be the reason Marvel decided to push Black Widow to 2021. But because this is Marvel, and Marvel has a connected universe and a lengthy schedule of movies ahead, a Black Widow push means a push for every subsequent Marvel film. Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first superhero movie with a predominantly Asian and Asian-American cast, was originally set to follow Black Widow’s and Eternals’ 2020 releases. Both Shang-Chi and Eternals, the latter of which is helmed by award-winning director Chloé Zhao, are set to introduce new characters to the MCU and perhaps give us more forward-looking stories than Black Widow will. (Black Widow is a prequel of sorts, and takes place before the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.) Eternals also stars big-name actors including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, and Kumail Nanjiani, fueling further interest. There’s an added layer of excitement surrounding that film because of Zhao’s talent and rising profile. Zhao’s new film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, is set for a December 4 release and is considered an Oscar frontrunner after winning the coveted Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. With these delays, the first glimpse into a post-Endgame Marvel Universe may be the weird and wacky Disney+ TV series WandaVision. It has no release date yet but is expected to hit Disney+ by the end of this year. Marvel has said its television shows will tie into the movie universe — a universe we’ll have to wait a few more months to pick back up again. 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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One officer charged, 2 others not indicted in Breonna Taylor’s killing
People gather in Louisville, Kentucky, awaiting word on charges against police officers on September 23. | Darron Cummings/AP Officer Brett Hankison has been charged with first-degree “wanton endangerment.” After a months-long investigation into the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a Jefferson County grand jury announced on Wednesday that it would indict one officer in the shooting death of the 26-year-old EMT. Former Louisville Metro police officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment,which by Kentucky law means he consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk. The two other officer who fired shots that night — Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove — were not indicted. Ahead of the announcement, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer instituted a 72-hour curfew beginning Wednesday night at 9 pm, while Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Robert J. Schroeder announced a state of emergency for the police force on Tuesday in anticipation of riots and protests. The police also restricted access to downtown Louisville beginning on Tuesday, according to the Courier Journal. The Kentucky National Guard was activated on Wednesday afternoon. The nation has been awaiting the decision in the criminal investigation all summer. It’s been nearly 200 days since Taylor was shot dead by police while she was asleep in her apartment on March 13. When news of the incident drew attention in early May and picked up steam after the death of George Floyd later that month, protests broke out across the country. Over time, the phrase “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became a rallying cry for activists — as well as the focal point of countless memes. The phrase was plastered on T-shirts worn by athletes at sporting events and big-name actors at the Emmys. Many pointed out that Black women killed by police don’t often receive as much attention, or justice, in matters of police violence, and now was the time to correct that. Darron Cummings/AP The scene outside Jefferson Square where people were awaiting word on charges against police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the days leading up to Cameron’s announcement, Taylor’s mother, Tamika L. Palmer urged the attorney general to charge all of the officers involved in the shooting — Brett Hankison, Jonathan Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove. “It’s crunch time, and we’re putting our faith and trust in you,” Palmer wrote in an Instagram post directed at Cameron. “Do you have the power and courage to call my child yours, the power to see that my cry and my community’s cry is heard, and the power as part of a village who raises our children to do right by one of our daughters?!” On the night of her death, police relied on a no-knock warrant to enter Taylor’s apartment in search of two people suspected of selling drugs, neither of whom was Taylor. While police say they announced themselves, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, who was inside the apartment at the time, disputes that claim. Police fired 20 rounds into the apartment, hitting Taylor eight times. In a lawsuit filed in late April, Taylor’s family alleged excessive force and gross negligence on the part of the officers who fired their weapons into Taylor’s apartment that night. A court filing submitted by the family in July alleged that Taylor did not receive emergency medical aid after she was shot, and that the drug raid on her apartment was part of a government-backed development scheme to clear out a block in Taylor’s neighborhood. A week ago, the city of Louisville announced that it had reached a $12 million settlement with Taylor’s family and attorneys — the largest sum the city has ever paid out for a police misconduct suit. While the settlement included a list of police reforms, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said it was not an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the city’s part. Cameron was assigned the case as special prosecutor in May and in the past five months revealed very few details about the independent investigation. “To all those involved in this case, you have my commitment that our office is undertaking a thorough and fair investigation,” he said. “This is also a commitment that I’m making to the Louisville community, which has suffered tremendously in the days since March 13,” he said in mid-June. During the course of the investigation, the Louisville Metro Police Department terminated Hankison because he “displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life” when he “wantonly and blindly” fired ten rounds into Taylor’s apartment, according to his termination letter. Mattingly and Cosgrove were placed on administrative reassignment. Throughout the protests, activists have also pressed lawmakers to defund the local police department. While the Louisville’s Metro Council did vote unanimously to ban no-knock warrants in June, it also approved a budget that wouldn’t even begin to defund LMPD. The new spending plan will merely “require police to put the money toward recruiting a more diverse force, additional training and exploring co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Taylor’s death is also being investigated by the FBI for civil rights violations. 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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Troubled Blood sees J.K. Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses
J.K. Rowling at HBO’s Finding The Way Home world premiere at Hudson Yards on December 11, 2019, in New York City. | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images In her latest detective novel, Rowling spends most of her time explaining why she’s mad at modern feminism. J.K. Rowling’s latest novel made headlines for generating controversy well before its US release date of September 29. That’s becauseTroubled Blood, the newest installment of the detective series Rowling publishes under the pen name Robert Galbraith, features a serial killer who lures his victims into a false sense of security by dressing as a woman. Fears of a bad man in a dress are one of the main justifications for anti-trans legislation across the globe. In the US and the UK over the past few years, that’s taken the form of the bathroom bill controversies: Trans people want to be able to use public restrooms and changing rooms that correspond to their gender identity. But opponents argue that if trans people were allowed to use the public bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity, women and children will undoubtedly be menaced by sexual predators using this legal loophole to ogle women in their most vulnerable state. In practice, however, US states that have allowed trans people to use the facilities corresponding to their gender have seen no increase in sexual harassment or assault in public restrooms. Rowling, however, has stated that it is “the simple truth” that allowing trans women to use women’s bathrooms will lead to violent men using those loopholes to attack “natalgirls and women.” She began outlining her views on gender in a series of tweets last fall, then elaborated on them in a long essay published this June. There, Rowling perpetuated a series of outdated myths about trans people while repeatedly stating that she’s not transphobic, because she knows and likes trans people. She just also thinks that trans women aren’t real women, that they’re taking advantage of resources meant for “biological women,” and that they are enabling predatory men to commit violence against those “biological women.” To be clear, regardless of Rowling’s personal feelings toward trans people, all of the ideas she expressed in her essay are transphobic. They actively seek to take rights away from trans people, and they treat trans identity as something that is up for debate, rather than an intrinsic part of human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. But Rowling has threatened to sue publications who describe her and her views as transphobic, forcing at least one children’s site to issue a public apology. So to some critics, Troubled Blood is just the latest sign of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly outspoken and retrograde ideas about gender. Others havecountered that the book contains no trans characters, that detractorswere judging the book without reading it, and that dismissing Troubled Blood before its publication over worries about a trope is cancel culture at its worst. What it would mean to cancel J.K. Rowling, a billionaire with theme park attractions built around her intellectual property, remains unclear. But in any case, Troubled Blood debuted at No. 1 in the UK. I’ve read all of Troubled Blood’smany pages, and I can say that this book is transphobic. But it’s also just not very good. What Troubled Blood is, above all else, is an example of Rowling at the mercy of all her worst impulses. Troubled Blood is the fifth volume in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike books, a series of noir-inflected murder mysteries. The name of the series comes from their protagonist, a grizzled army police officer-turned-private detective named Cormoran Strike, who solves crimes with his partner/obvious eventual love interest, Robin. The Cormoran Strike books have never been perfect, but they’re usually fun. The part of writing that Rowling is best at is constructing a mystery, so her whodunnits are always absorbing and twisty. And writing under a (masculine) pen name seems to grant Rowling freedom to be playful and flippant in a way she hasn’t been since the very first Harry Potter novels. (Rowling published the first volume in the Strike series, 2015’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, in genuine anonymity. She was unmasked a few months after the book came out, but she’s continued to use her Robert Galbraith pen name for all the books in the series that have followed.) But Troubled Blood is not fun, and it’s not playful. It feels bloated and resentful, turgid with an ethos of grim duty. It’s the writing of someone who feels she has no choice but to bring some home truths to you, the reader, and damn the consequences. Troubled Blood also reads like nothing so much as astylisticsequel to Rowling’s incredibly boring 2012 novel Casual Vacancy. Casual Vacancy was a dour class satire that seemed to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to be taken seriously as an author of literary fiction for adults. Troubled Blood seems to be animated most strongly by Rowling’s desire to share her political opinions on feminism and other gender issues with the world. It features Strike and Robin setting out together to solve the disappearance of one Margot Bamborough, a feminist doctor who vanished from the world in 1974. The police strongly suspected that Margot was abducted by the serial killer Dennis Creed (the one who wears women’s clothes), but they were never able to solve the case. And now,40 years later, Margot’s daughter Anna — a lesbian, Rowling notes with an air of triumph, as if to say, see, she’s not homophobic — has hired Strike and Robin to try to bring her closure on the mystery once and for all. Over the course of the year-long investigation that ensues, Strike and Robin manage to establish the following: Fourth-wave feminism, with its Slut Walks and pro-porn stance, is nothing but a bunch of idiotic children having airy, academic discussions about words, while enabling the sexual assault of women and the sex trafficking of children. In contrast, Margot’s brand of ’70s second-wave feminism was correct and righteous, except for its lamentable pro-choice stance. (All sympathetic characters in Troubled Blood, except for poor misguided Margot, are pro-contraception but anti-abortion.) Moreover, women are all bound together by their biological destiny, which leaves them in danger of being victimized by predatory men. And the most dangerous predator of all is the predator who cloaks themselves in femininity. This final category of dangerous predators includes Creed the serial killer, who is obsessed with women’s clothing. Creed wears a wig and a women’s coat and lipstick to abduct his victims, because his disguisemakes the drunk women he targets perceive him first as another woman and then as a harmless drag queen. But his interest in cross-dressing isn’t purely utilitarian. He also steals trophy garments from his victims and masturbates into them. “I felt I stole something of their essence from them,” says Creed of his penchant for taking women’s underwear, “taking that which they thought private and hidden.” (Per Rowling’s Galbraith website, Creed is loosely based on two real serial killers. Per the Guardian, both of them stole women’s clothes from their victims, and one of the two may have worn them, although the evidence there seems to be fuzzy.) But there are other predators besides Creed in this most dangerous category of deceptive femininity, and one of them manages to fool Strike. “Like the women who’d climbed willingly into Dennis Creed’s van,” Strike muses of this villain at the end of Troubled Blood, “he’d been hoodwinked by a careful performance of femininity.” This particular predator who manages to best Strike is cis. But within the world of Troubled Blood, it’s this predator’s cold-blooded and inauthentic performance of femininity that makes them monstrous. And in her nonfiction writing, Rowling has strongly suggested that she believes trans women are cold-bloodedly performing a gender identity that does not truly belong to them, and that, in the process, they are stealing away resources that exist to help what Rowling calls “biological women” cope with the world’s misogyny. In Troubled Blood, the overt performance of gender is done with an eye to deceive, to misdirect, to harm. Cis women may experiment with their femininity — there’s a recurring motif that sees Robin test driving different perfumes as she decides what kind of woman she wants to be in the wake of her divorce — but men who take an interest in femininity are dismissed even by open-minded Robin as “camp.” Meanwhile, the good gay man who Robin lives with is clean-cut enough to get an acting job playing a straight army vet. Anna the good lesbian is non-threateningly feminine, by which Rowling usually means pretty. (When Rowling writes a woman in touch with her masculine side, the result tends to look like Harry Potter’s wicked Aunt Marge.) And anyone in this book who wields their gender across boundaries with deliberate intent is a monster. All of these political ideas are what Troubled Blood is, broadly speaking, “about:” They are where the narrative tension lies, where the juice of the book is. But Troubled Blood is also ostensibly a murder mystery, and the murder plot provides the skeleton from which the political ideas are hung. So is it a good murdermystery? Not really. It is way, way, way too fucking long. Rowling’s always had a tendency to go long and sprawling whenever the pressure is on. The Harry Potter books turned into doorstoppers with Goblet of Fire, right at the time they’d become such a phenomenon that the midnight release parties were starting. And Troubled Blood, which comes just as Rowling is beginning to speak more and more publicly about her views on gender, is even longer than they are, clocking in at a hefty 927 pages long, and with the plot stretchedout across a full year. Within that year, Strike and Robin sift their way through innumerable red herrings. Ordinarily, this is a part of plotting at which Rowling excels; she’s very good at flashy authorial sleight of hand, directing the reader’s attention this way while she seeds the information that will turn out to be vital just where you’re not looking. But in this case, the red herrings pile on so heavily and for so long that they begin to feel meaningless. There’s no pleasure to be had in trying to sort through them to figure out what’s worth paying attention to and what can be discarded, because there’s just more information than any reader could possibly hold on to. I began to feel unpleasantly reminded of that part of Deathly Hallows that turns into a long, sad, pointless camping trip where nothing happens: Are we really just checking every random tree in this forest for clues? That’s how we’re going to solve this one? But in a way, the plotting in Troubled Blood is even less satisfying than it is in Deathly Hallows and its fellows. While the second half of the Harry Potter series is bloated, there’s still pleasure to be had in those books from all the genre-blending Rowling is doing. When the mystery fails, the fun of the magic and the friendships and the boarding school coziness can take over. Maybe you don’t particularly care about where Voldemort’s Horcruxes are, but there’s still magical camping and teen angst and wizarding revolutionary radiosto be had, right? Maybe you’re getting distracted by the frankly wild ethics of the house-elves and their slavery, but boy, that Marauder’s Map sure is a blast, right? In Troubled Blood, when the mystery falters and you aren’t taken by the political ideas animating it, what’s left for you to care about is the long slow-burn romance between Robin and Strike. And I do more or less want Robin and Strike to be together, in the same way I sort of vaguely wanted Ron and Hermione to be together but never particularly bothered too much over it either way. But I definitely don’t care about them one-thousand-pages-of-refusing-to-talk-about-feelings much. At this point, with both of them single and both of them gazing endlessly at each other, what is even keeping them apart anymore? It’s exhausting just to contemplate. There’s a plotline in the Cormoran Strike books that I’ve been thinking about ever since Rowling first began to talk about trans issues in public. Other critics have already discussed the way she treated trans women in the second volume of the series, The Silk Worm. In that book, the two trans women Strike meets in the course of his investigation are ostensibly sympathetic characters, but Strike treats them as mockable. When one of them isn’t forthcoming with the information he wants, he casually threatens her with prison rape. But what’s been haunting me is a subplot from the series’s third volume, Career of Evil. In Career of Evil, Strike’s investigation leads him to a subculture built around people who want to become physically disabled. On hidden forums, they discuss the operations they plan to get in order to manifest the disabilities they believe they already spiritually possess, and they complain bitterly that the rest of the world doesn’t understand their plight. Does anyone think they would choose to live like this, with such inaccessible and easily mocked desires? Don’t people understand that they were born with these wishes, that these desires are an intrinsic part of their identity? Strike, who lost a leg in the war, takes this group’s obsession personally. He is incensed and offended by them. How dare they try to playact at an identity which became his so painfully, at such great cost? How dare they try to appropriate his own personal, private pain? He has lunch with two people from the forum, and they rudely force him to pay while ordering the most expensive options on the menu. One of them is in a wheelchair. Strike at last loses his patience and pushes her out of the chair, only to find that she can walk just fine without it. I don’t know what’s going on in J.K. Rowling’s mind or how she sees the world. But she writes about trans people the way Strike thinks about this particular subculture: as people appropriating a disability — and Rowling does write about womanhood, and its attendant dangers, as if it were a disability — that is rightfully hers. And that idea is becoming more and more central to every book she writes. I don’t know what to do with J.K. Rowling anymore. I don’t know what anyone should do with her and her books. I don’t believe that it’s sustainable or valuable or even really possible to ask every author you follow to enact some sort of ideologically pure, progressive worldview in every book they write. Most readers, I think, would agree with me on that. That’s part of why so many readers stuck with Rowling despite the politics embedded in the subtext of the Harry Potter novels, which have always been centrist at best, and through the increasing crankiness of the Cormoran Strike series. I don’t think that you have to throw away the Harry Potter series to prove you’re a good person. I don’t know if it’s even possible to avoid those books: They’re so embedded into the grid of pop culture by this point that they feel like a utility, like an electric company. How do you avoid electricity every single day without becoming a hermit? How do you choose to throw out a series you grew up on, that you built beloved childhood memories around? Every reader has to have their own dividing line between what they are willing to work with and what they are not. Every reader has to choose the way they will approach a text, and what they’re going to take out of it and what they’ll leave behind. And that’s a choice you have to make for yourself. I’ve written positively about the Cormoran Strike books before, despite what happened to the trans women in book two and that bizarre trans-disability subplot in book three, and despite that ongoing thing where Rowling always treats fat people as inherently grotesque and probably evil. I thought the mysteries were fun, and I found it easy to ignore the politics. That was a choice I was used to making after growing up on Harry Potter, and because I am a thin cis non-disabled woman, it was easy for me to make that choice without thinking too hard about it. But I can’t ignore the politics of Troubled Blood, and I don’t think that’s just because of all of the essays and tweets Rowling’s written over the past year. I think that’s because the politics are the only part of Troubled Blood she really cares about, and that shows in the writing. So here is what I do know. Troubled Blood is a book in which aesthetics have been rendered subordinate to politics. There is no “there” there besides Rowling’s political ideas. And those ideas are reactionary and hateful. I don’t see anything left in this book worth sticking around for.
vox.com