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One Good Thing: The trick uniting the internet’s funniest videos
YouTube screenshot How “the Vine cut” reflects our own mortality (yes, really). One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend. Pay close attention to the very end of comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s annual “September 21” video this year, and you’ll catch an example of my favorite online editing technique. It’s one that never fails to make me laugh, one that seems to have only become more prominent in these pandemic-laden times. The video’s last 70 seconds are taken up by Adejuyigbe, having celebrated the 21st of September (in honor of the first line of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s venerable hit “September”) by dancing around in a truck, shaking a tambourine, and playing a trombone, saying he’ll only continue this annual tradition in 2021 if viewers donate $50,000 to charity. (Donations comfortably exceeded that number in the first day of the video’s release.) And then, almost as an afterthought, Adejuyigbe says, “Also, please vote!” The word VOTE appears onscreen as an offscreen chorus of voices says “VO—” but the final T sound gets cut off, the word left unfinished. I. Love. This. Style. Of. Edit. While it’s not native to the internet (you can find plenty of examples of movies and TV shows cutting away from the ends of words and sentences in the name of comedy, drama, or whatever this is), it’s something people who make videos on the internet have turned into a kind of poetry. As it’s used on the internet, I’d call this edit the Vine cut, after the late, lamented platform that made finding ways to tell great visual jokes in under six seconds an imperative. As such, a joke implied by a seemingly ill-timed cut to black could be even funnier than stating the joke outright. For example: The famed “Back at it again at Krispy Kreme,” perhaps the best Vine ever recorded, is barely three seconds long, half the length of Vine’s six-second maximum. But it uses every moment of those three seconds to tell an entire story about a young man who, indeed, is just excited to be back at it again at Krispy Kreme, before he launches into a complicated tumbling pattern, his feet connecting with an overhanging neon sign. The video cuts away at the exact moment of impact. We know what comes next, but we don’t see it. The shock — both at the crash and at the sudden cut — drives our laughter. The Krispy Kreme Vine dates to January 2014, and the Vine cut was already well in use on the platform before that point; nothing about it is new. On YouTube, in particular, the edit has been used to devastating comic effect in video essays, particularly from the channel H. Bomberguy, who loves to use this edit within his videos instead of just at the end. Take, for instance, an example from his video on flat Earth theorizing, in which he derives as much humor from cutting off the final consonant in “globe” as he does from his delivery. (The clip in question starts at 2:22 in the video, embedded below.) And yet even if this technique is old hat at this point, I’ve seen an increased use of it during quarantine, as if the sudden, jarring edit replicates the instability of life right now. Comedian Kylie Brakeman, for instance, uses this kind of edit in nearly every video she posts on her Twitter feed, and it’s always great. (And if she’s not cutting off the last consonant in a word, she’s cutting away as quickly as she possibly can from that final consonant to achieve roughly the same effect, as in this video.) AUNTS WHO GET ALL THEIR NEWS FROM FACEBOOK @blaireerskine pic.twitter.com/3uAFT9dI5E— kylie brakeman (@deadeyebrakeman) September 22, 2020 The Vine cut is also extremely popular on TikTok, a platform that is very similar to Vine in the ways it forces users to make the most out of limitations and restrictions placed on their content. Take, for instance, this extremely good cat. Tried this TikTok strategy to stop cats from lying down on your keyboard when doing work - it actually worked on Ram pic.twitter.com/MIhNUv0XED— Helter Skelter (@Roshinee_M) September 19, 2020 Or this little boy, who’s not as invincible as he would like: pic.twitter.com/8LrGzN6Z4L— Fid (@Violet_Fid) September 22, 2020 Finally, there’s an entire subgenre of this kind of edit that just cuts off screams at the exact moment when they will be funniest. This type of video is so popular, there’s a whole subreddit devoted to it. But here’s my favorite from YouTube: What accounts for the popularity of this type of cut? Platform limitations, certainly, and an inherent understanding that it’s part of the internet’s cinematic grammar. But I think that the more chaotic and hectic life becomes, the more this kind of abrupt cut just makes sense on some intrinsic level. Having the last bit of a word get swallowed by the end of a video, or having a scream be interrupted by a black screen, or having somebody’s foot connect with a neon sign just before the whole video stops implies something in progress that is brutally halted in its tracks. Disaster might be averted — that Krispy Kreme sign never falls — but it’s always understood to arrive just after the camera stops recording. Even when we’re laughing at the sudden disruption, we have a sense that something is left unfinished, trapped in the void. This kind of cut is so funny to me because it reinforces how, on some level, we never know when everything is going to abruptly stop, when the timer restriction on our own lives will suddenly arrive. No, I don’t think that every time we watch a funny video like these we consciously think about death. But there’s a reason I find the Vine cut so amusing, why I laugh when things just stop out of nowhere. We know where all of this is headed. And in 2020, we know it more acutely than ever. 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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Daniel Cameron, the Trump-supporting attorney general in the Breonna Taylor case, explained
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announces a grand jury’s decision to indict one of three Louisville Metro Police Department officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor on September 23, 2020, in Frankfort, Kentucky. | Jon Cherry/Getty Images Trump once called Cameron a “star.” Now many question the Kentucky attorney general’s handling of the Taylor case. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron began his announcement of the grand jury decision in the Breonna Taylor case on Wednesday by offering condolences to Taylor’s family. “Every day, this family wakes up to the realization that someone they loved is no longer with them,” he said. “There’s nothing I can offer today to take away the grief and heartache this family is experiencing as a result of losing a child, a niece, a sister, and a friend.” But, Cameron went on, “the criminal law is not meant to respond to every sorrow and grief.” The first Black attorney general of his state and a rising star in the Republican Party, Cameron had taken the podium that day to announce that no one would be directly charged in Taylor’s killing by Louisville police officers (former officer Brett Hankison was indicted on three counts of wanton endangerment for putting Taylor’s neighbors at risk). Cameron described this outcome as the only one possible under the law, but many have questioned his handling of the case. Some wonder if the attorney general, a protégé of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who spoke glowingly of President Trump at the Republican National Convention, truly did his best as a prosecutor to secure indictments in the Taylor case. “There are questions as to whether he really did the job he could’ve done,” Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, told Vox. Cameron’s handling of the Taylor case has also thrown a spotlight on the role of attorneys general — elected officials who may not be above partisan politics — in leading investigations when Black Americans are killed by police. And it’s raised questions about whether Cameron will pay a political price for the appearance of partisanship — or be rewarded for it. Cameron has ties to both McConnell and Trump At just 34, Cameron has risen swiftly to power in Kentucky. While in law school at the University of Louisville, he interned for McConnell’s Senate office, according to the Washington Post. In 2015, he became McConnell’s general counsel, and a few years later, the senator encouraged him to run for attorney general. McConnell’s help was likely instrumental to Cameron’s campaign, many say. The majority leader “is a master politician,” Clayton said. “I’m sure that helped open some doors for him.” Cameron also earned Trump’s admiration when McConnell brought him to the White House in July 2019. The president reportedly asked Cameron, “Did you see what I’m doing for A$AP Rocky?” — a reference to Trump’s effort to get the rapper released from prison in Sweden. The president later endorsed Cameron, tweeting, “the Republican Party has a new STAR.” Cameron won his race handily, becoming not just Kentucky’s first Black attorney general but also its first independently elected Black state official (other Black politicians have been elected as running mates). He’s also the state’s first Republican attorney general in more than 70 years. Beyond his closeness with McConnell and, apparently, Trump, Cameron hasn’t yet established a clear political identity, many say. He was seen as less conservative than his primary opponent, state legislator Wil Schroder. But as one Kentucky Republican told the Post: “people in the party still don’t know what he stands for.” However, there have been clues. In March, Cameron joined top officials in other conservative states by calling for a ban on abortion during the pandemic. “Abortion providers should join the thousands of other medical professionals across the state in ceasing elective procedures, unless the life of the mother is at risk, to protect the health of their patients and slow the spread of the coronavirus,” he said in a statement. Cameron also attempted to overturn Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19, filing a motion calling them “an arbitrary and unreasonable burden” on Kentuckians. He has also made his support among police officers a point of pride, noting in his official biography that he was endorsed by his state’s Fraternal Order of Police. “He is tough on Crime, Strong on Borders, and will fight for our Second Amendment,” Trump tweeted in his July endorsement. “Daniel will never let you down.” As the investigation into Taylor’s death dragged on, Cameron appeared at the Republican National Convention The president had already put Cameron on the nationwide stage to some degreelast year,but he became the subject of more public attention when, in May, his office opened an investigation into Taylor’s killing. Taylor was fatally shot at her home on March 13, but her death received little official response until her family filed a lawsuit — and until protesters around the country began demanding justice in her case, as well as those of George Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police. Getting justice in Taylor’s death became a key focus of many protests throughout the summer, with her name trending across social media and her image becoming a symbol of Black lives ended too soon by police violence — her portrait was even on the cover of Vanity Fair. Meanwhile, the Louisville Courier-Journal and others pushed for more records to be made public, but for months, Cameron’s office remained relatively silent on its findings in the investigation. In August, however, Cameron appeared at the Republican National Convention, where he decried protesters and praised the president and his party. “Even as anarchists mindlessly tear up American cities while attacking police and innocent bystanders, we Republicans do recognize those who work in good faith towards peace, justice, and equality,” he said. “Joe Biden would destroy jobs, raise our taxes, and throw away the lives of countless unborn children,” he went on, claiming that Trump has built “an economy that worked for everyone, especially minorities, and he will do it again.” The speech mentioned Taylor only once, alongside David Dorn, a retired police officer killed in a burglary during protests in St. Louis in June. Some questioned Cameron’s decision to speak at the convention while the investigation into Taylor’s death was ongoing. “It was a misstep,” Clayton said, explaining that in the Taylor investigation, “his role is trying to be an independent arbiter,” not a political figure. But now some are questioning whether Clayton has been able to leave politics aside in the Taylor case. With no charges filed in Taylor’s death, some are questioning Cameron’s role Ultimately, the decision on charges for the three officers involved in Taylor’s death rested with a grand jury. But as attorney general, it was Cameron’s job to act as prosecutor, making the state’s case in an effort to, if appropriate, gain an indictment. “Normally as prosecutor, his or her role is to gain a conviction, and you start that process by gaining an indictment,” Clayton said. The question, given Cameron’s closeness to police in Kentucky, as well as to Trump, who has dismissed those protesting the deaths of Taylor and others as “thugs,” is whether Cameron really fulfilled his role as prosecutor to the best of his ability. Indeed, several Kentucky Democrats, including Amy McGrath, who is running for McConnell’s Senate seat, have called on Cameron to release the grand jury report in the case, so that the public can see how the decision was made. “AG Cameron needs to release the grand jury report now, including what evidence and recommendations he chose to present,” McGrath tweeted on Thursday. “We shouldn’t have to take his word for it.” And Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, made her feelings clear at a memorial for her daughter on Thursday, wearing a T-shirt bearing Cameron’s face and the words “Mitch bitch.” The attorney general says politics never entered into his work. “My team set out to investigate the circumstances surrounding Ms. Taylor’s death,” he said on Wednesday. “We did it with a singular goal in mind: pursuing the truth.” But despite these assurances, Taylor’s case has become part of a pattern — in which police officers are rarely charged in killings of civilians, and even more rarely convicted. Though about 1,000 people are killed by law enforcement officers every year, only 121 officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges since 2005, according to the New York Times. And just 44 have been convicted, often on lesser charges. These numbers speak to the difficulty of holding officers accountable in a system that gives them disproportionate power. And attorneys general like Cameron, even if they profess to impartiality, are a part of that system too. As for Cameron himself, it’s not clear how his role in Taylor’s case will impact his political future. On the one hand, “there are a lot of Republicans in this state, and they like hearing what they hear from him,” Clayton said. “He’s been a ‘law and order’ type of candidate and attorney general.” On the other hand, there are plenty of voters who may remember his decision to speak on behalf of Trump at the RNC while his investigation into Taylor’s death dragged on. “There is some behavior on his part now that he will in essence have to answer for later on in politics,” Clayton said. “This may come back to haunt him.” But with the next election for attorney general not until 2023, it will be a while before voters get a chance to have their say. 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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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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What we can learn about QAnon from the Satanic Panic
Demonstrators at a #SaveTheChildren rally in Keene, New Hampshire, on September 19, 2020. | Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images You Wrong About’s Sarah Marshall explains why debunking #SaveTheChildren and human trafficking statistics is so difficult. For many supporters of the #SaveTheChildren movement, face masks are part of the problem. Rather than saving lives by slowing the spread of Covid-19, proponents argue, letting your child wear a mask makes it harder for them to cry for help, which they will need to do, because there are evil people, right now, coming to kidnap them. “Save the Children,” like so many other moral panics, sounds like such a plainly obvious force of good, that to question it feels like you are marching under the banner of “Fuck the Children.” What do you say, for instance, to someone who believes that there are 800,000 children being trafficked every year, and that the government does nothing to stop it? Yet it’s still important to question their claims, because “Save the Children” is part of a new, more palatable branch of the alt-right conspiracy theory of QAnon, and its misleading name is part of why its traction with women and mothers has skyrocketed. “Save the Children” is less of an organization than a hashtag-able rallying cry, a call to action to investigate what many believe is a national emergency. Mom influencers, who until recently were known mostly for sharing cute photos of their kids at pumpkin patches, have been crucial to its spread, sharing aesthetically pleasing infographics of human trafficking statistics and scary stories of attempted kidnappings. View this post on Instagram A post shared by a s h l e y h o u s t o n (@ashleyjoyhouston) on Jul 14, 2020 at 1:19pm PDT While the bedrock of QAnon — the theory that an anonymous Trump insider is sending coded warning signs about a forthcoming “awakening” that will culminate in the mass imprisonment of Democratic public figures — might sound a bit kooky to an average Facebook user, Save the Children “has succeeded in mainstreaming the QAnon movement by representing its most sanitized aspects, pushing its more unsavory facets to the back burner,” explains EJ Dickson in Rolling Stone. The problem is that these hundreds of thousands of supposedly missing children are a product of unreliable statistics and misleading anecdotes on social media. These memes and posts are popping up all over Facebook, pointing to what QAnon supporters believe is an elite child sex trafficking ring comprised of Democratic politicians and celebrities. That there is no elegant way to fact-check the concerns of Save the Children without sounding dismissive of human suffering is part of why it is so difficult to talk about, and why people who attempt to do so are often targeted as enablers or complicit in pedophilia. There is some sort of clarity to be found, however, within the moral panics of the past. Over the course of quarantine, I’ve become a fan of the popular podcast You’re Wrong About, in which journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes delve into misremembered historical events and figures, including the frenzies over Stranger Danger and the Satanic Panic (wherein dozens of daycare workers were falsely accused of using children in Satanic rituals) in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as episodes on why so many statistics about human trafficking and sex offenders are inherently misleading. In other words, they’re professional debunkers. I called Sarah, who’s currently working on a book about the Satanic Panic, to chat about what Save the Children gets wrong and why a fight against mostly imaginary predators has captivated so many seemingly well-intentioned people — particularly as a pandemic unfolds before our eyes. We talked about why people feel the need to protect against an invented threat while a botched government response to the coronavirus has left hundreds of thousands dead, and about how a metaphor about rat milk can help us understand why it’s so difficult to have these conversations. View this post on Instagram A post shared by #informedmothers (@informedmothers) on Aug 19, 2020 at 3:04pm PDT As you’re working on this book about the Satanic Panic, are you seeing any notable similarities or differences between that moment in the ’80s and ’90s and right now? Oh, yeah, it’s totally the same. It’s driven by genuinely concerned and terrified parents who are feeling insecurity for the welfare of their children for extremely good reasons. This is a terrible time to be a parent in America. If you’re asked to send your child to school, then you’re potentially signing the death sentence of your child or of the people in your child’s family and community that they’re going to transmit potentially a deadly disease to. The amount of abuse that the American government has perpetrated on its citizens is just amazing, especially in the past few years. Trump is so interesting as a president because he has the behaviors of an abusive father figure in so many ways. Even if you believe in him and feel like he’s carrying out policies that you want, he’s still lying to you. People must be feeling the effects of that, to some extent, even if they’re among his supporters. So I feel like this QAnon panic is so interesting to me because it really began as an elaborate fanfiction to explain how Trump was doing a good job and then it evolved into this. I’ve seen so many memes on Instagram about how “the real problem” is the pedophiles, not the pandemic. One idea that you tend to come back to on the podcast is that moral panics often claim that we as a society are not paying enough attention to “the children.” Do you see that as a Trojan horse to get other extreme theories into public consciousness? I do. One of the really dynamic ways we can see that functioning, which I’ve seen on Twitter and stuff, is the automatic argument ender that you have by being like, “Well, 800,000 children disappear every year. So how can you dismiss that? Don’t you care?” It’s very interesting, because it’s like me saying to you, “One out of every 10 American schools is serving its children rat milk instead of cow milk. How dare you say there’s not a milk problem in this country?” And you’re like, “Well, I’m saying that I doubt the rat milk studies. I’m saying this is fake rat milk data that’s been making its way around social media, because it’s so shocking when you see it. But it turns out to be an unreliably reported version of an unreliable data point and an unreliable study whose conductor has disavowed it since publication.” I would think it was horrible if a ton of American children were being fed rat milk, but it turns out that it happens very, very, very rarely. Maybe at one school every year. This metaphor is falling apart, but when one sort of unwell cafeteria lady is like, “Time for rat milk,” it’s not a systemic problem. You’re just in this impossible bind, because even if the statistics have any truth to them, they’re misleadingly stated and no longer relevant, but the person who’s citing them is so attached to the figure of the children. They’ve already bonded with this idea of 800,000 children who are trafficked each year, or whatever it is — all these incredibly high numbers that have generally no basis in reality, or a very slight basis in reality. If it feels true to you, as though it has happened in the way you see in movies, and then someone tells you, “Actually, it’s more like roughly 115 children a year in America are kidnapped under classic Stranger Danger circumstances,” that is horrifying to the person who has come to believe in that statistic. That would be like someone saying to me, “You know, actually, only 115 people in America have died of coronavirus,” because the fact that coronavirus is dangerous and that people should be taking precautions against it has become a central fact of my life. I would find that upsetting, perhaps in a similar way to the way people find it upsetting when you question the statistics that they’re citing. Your episode on human trafficking was so informative, but at the same time frustrating in the sense that there’s no one easy and elegant way to debunk these statistics. But can you give an overall picture of why human trafficking statistics are almost always wrong? Every so often, there’s a study that guesstimates or offers a statistic on child abuse that has some basis in fact, but it’s based on, for example, a survey that goes to like, 100 girls. Then based on that, they’ll say the percentage of these girls that experienced something that we define as sexual abuse was 40 percent, so 40 percent of girls have been sexually abused in their life. That’s not a good study. It’s data of some kind, but it’s not the most useful kind of data. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Little Miss Patriot (@the.little.miss.patriot) on Sep 9, 2020 at 8:27am PDT There have been cases similar to this, where you have a small sample size and some kind of upsetting percentage comes out of it and then that makes headlines and circulates around. People don’t know the circumstances of the study, they just know the percentage. It indicates a real problem in the world, but then it gets inflated into this idea of a crisis. We have these numbers that, if we looked at them, would indicate the complexity of the real problems that generate them. But we instead, I think, choose to selectively interpret them to support the idea of this very dangerous world where children just need to be rescued from monsters, rather than have their daily lives improved in a way that involves listening to them. You don’t have to listen to someone when you’re “rescuing” them. The Satanic Panic ended up causing real material harm to so many adults who were accused of doing horrible things they never did. With human trafficking, the laws we put in place often end up hurting immigrants and sex workers. Who do you think QAnon and Save the Children will end up really harming (besides the people who have literally already been killed by proponents)? I think it will be children, because I think that increased paranoia about children often manifests in ways that don’t involve listening to the child or trying to understand what your children’s needs are. Right now, I think a lot of kids would like to avoid contracting or spreading coronavirus. But if their parents subscribed to a horror story where wearing a mask means they’re going to be abducted, then they’re not going to be able to do that. I’m sure there have been many children in America who have spread a virus to elderly family members, or to people with compromised health to whom it proved deadly, or to people who were completely healthy and died anyway. This is what happens with this virus. We know the Satanic Panic was, in many cases, harmful to the children that it was attempting to help. They have to figure out what to do with memories that they underwent therapy to “retrieve,” in a way that made these memories feel as real as any of the things that they knew with a greater degree of clarity had happened to them. If you retell a story over and over, it turns into a real-feeling event, especially if you’re a young child being led by an adult who’s highly invested in you producing a specific story for them. I think that the children, once again, are going to be the primary victim here. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Kate Oseen (@katejoseen) on Sep 9, 2020 at 1:44pm PDT What do you do in your own life when you’re in a social situation and someone says something that they believe to be true, but you know they’re going in a potentially harmful direction? The “Wayfair is selling children in $10,000 cupboards” thing comes to mind. I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, and I think one of the things that draws me to journalism is that the best interview skill you can have is just to not interrupt someone and to just go, “Hmm,” and they’ll just keep talking, potentially forever, and get deeper and deeper into what they believe. When I’m talking to someone who espouses a belief in something that is confusing to me, I often feel like I want to know more. I’ll say things like, “Does this part make sense to you? How does this work?” to gently kick the tires of the logic. There is probably a self-protective strategy to put your journalist hat on and be like, “Say more about that!” But I am curious. I can never guess at the reasons that people have for believing what they do. 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 Vox Senate interview: John Hickenlooper believes he can help revive bipartisanship in the Senate
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to members of the media in front of the state Capitol on August 4, 2019, in Denver. | Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images Hickenlooper wants to work with Republicans, but he won’t rule out filibuster reform. “If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question.” The United States Congress is more polarized and deadlocked than it’s been in generations. Still, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper remains stubbornly optimistic that Republicans and Democrats can work together. “Maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed. But I don’t think so,” Hickenlooper told me in a recent interview. “I honestly believe Congress is going to have to go back to the more traditional approach of doing several things at once. I know it sounds heretical, but we’re facing serious timelines.” Hickenlooper also says he isn’t blind to what’s going on in the US Senate. The power of individual senators and committees has diminished over the years, becoming concentrated in the hands of the Senate majority leader — currently Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Under McConnell’s leadership, the bulk of the Senate’s work has been confirming judges rather than passing legislation. “In the vast majority of cases, the problems have been the leadership. People like Mitch McConnell just trying to stop everything,” Hickenlooper said. “America is sick and tired of that, and I think there will be enormous pressure on Republicans to find places where they can collaborate. We’ve got to build infrastructure, we’ve got to address climate change. Well over 50 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is a serious issue. We don’t have to get everything done in a day, but we do have to take significant steps.” Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images From left Gov. John Hickenlooper, campaign co-chair Kent Thiry, Sen. Steve Fenberg, House Speaker Crisanta Duran, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, and campaign co-chair Joe Zimlich stand to listen to Senate President Kevin Grantham as he speaks at the Colorado State Capitol on May 16, 2018. I pressed Hickenlooper on whether he’d support eliminating or curtailing the filibuster if Democrats are in the majority and Republicans in the minority refuse to cooperate. He wants to try bipartisan legislating first, he said, but “if push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question.” Hickenlooper is one of four Democratic Senate candidates running in the Mountain West or southwestern United States, along with Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana, former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in New Mexico. Lujan is expected to keep the New Mexico seat blue, and Hickenlooper and Kelly look to be the most likely Democratic challengers to flip Republican seats. Both Arizona and Colorado are rated Lean Democratic by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. If they win, they would make moderate Western Democrats a powerful bloc in the Senate. Already the group includes Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. All are focused on issues such as health care, the economy, and solving climate change — which has led to droughts and wildfires in many of their states. “We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature,” Hickenlooper said, pointing to the bipartisan work he and Bullock achieved as governors. “That’s exactly what the Senate needs. I’m old enough, I’m never going to get seniority, I’m not going to be fighting to be the chair of a committee. I’m going to be that foot soldier in the trenches that takes the time, weeknights, and weekends to build relationships with people in my party and the other party.” I recently interviewed Hickenlooper on his first priorities if elected, the Senate filibuster, and how he plans to fight climate change. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity. Ella Nilsen What would your first policy priority be if you take office next year? Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper I don’t think we have the luxury of having just one. But obviously, in the middle of a pandemic, we’ve got to confront Covid-19 — stamp it down, get on top of it. Even as we’re doing that, we’ve got to address the damage that has been done: The long period of inaction from the White House that I call their negligence. And then once they finally took on Covid-19, the incompetence; so many people have been brought in as budget cutters, but not really having the necessary skills to deal with a pandemic like this. I mean, this is the worst economic situation — this is the most significant level of economic damage, even worse than the Great Recession. Ella Nilsen Talking to a few other Democratic Senate candidates, I’ve heard from a lot of folks who think that passing an anti-corruption bill, similar to House Democrats’ HR 1, should be the first priority. With limited political capital if Democrats flip the Senate, how does that idea stack up to Covid relief and a jobs bill in your mind? John Hickenlooper I absolutely believe that you’ve got to do more than one thing at once. The necessity to get dark money out of politics is a priority for everyone. But I don’t think that it’s going to be the only thing that we address in those first six months. I honestly believe Congress is going to have to go back to the more traditional approach of doing several things at once. I know it sounds heretical, but we’re facing serious timelines, whether you’re talking about health care and actually getting to universal coverage, which Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of that. We’re also going to have to rebuild the economy, and rebuild it in a way that respects the environment, respects the American worker, but begins to address the issues of equity. Why is opportunity still so unequal in this country? Ella Nilsen You were Colorado governor for quite a while, and you previously talked about your executive experience as a reason that you initially didn’t want to run for the Senate. If elected, how do you plan to operate in a space where you’re one of 50 people and Senate leadership obviously has a large role in deciding what bills come to the floor? John Hickenlooper Sure, and this is one of the things that a couple of my neighbors and an old friend, Ken Salazar, this was how they persuaded me and got me excited about running. The skills that you need to be successful in the Senate are exactly the skills you need to be successful as a mayor, as a governor, and as a small-business owner. In other words, those skills revolve around being able to bring people together and really hear what their concerns are. By making them feel heard, by putting yourself in their shoes, you’re able to get to a place where you could begin. You change the line you weren’t going to cross, and they change where the line is that they wouldn’t cross, and you begin to work together. When I ran for mayor of Denver in 2003 — I’d never run for anything, I’d never run for student council — I ran on the premise that the city of Denver, which had been at war with the more conservative suburbs for over a century ... the city of Denver could never succeed, never be a great city without great suburbs. Republicans, Democrats, before we got involved, they had hated each other. They think Denver had always thwarted their water rights, which is a big deal in the West. I went out of my way to make sure that we were responsible in our water use, and that we tried to do everything we could to make sure there was more water for farmers and ranchers. And that’s a big part of it. Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper talks about the economic development that will come with the announcement that Panasonic Enterprise Solutions Company will be the anchor tenant of the Peña Station site Thursday, December 18, 2014, at the Denver City and County Building in Denver, Colorado. When I got elected governor in 2010, I was the first Denver mayor in 120 years to get elected governor of Colorado. I look at what I did to bring those warring factions together. That’s exactly what the Senate needs. I’m old enough, I’m never going to get seniority, I’m not going to be fighting to be the chair of a committee. I’m going to be that foot soldier in the trenches that takes the time, weeknights, and weekends to build relationships with people in my party and the other party, and really find out where are those places [for compromise]? They seem impossible now. But I can tell you, when I ran for mayor, people said what I was saying was impossible. We would never get the metropolitan area to work together, it would never happen. Sometimes you look at things in a different way. And I’m not naive, and don’t think that I don’t recognize that Mitch McConnell is an immovable barrier to collaboration in the Senate. For the last long period of time, he has staked his reputation on making sure that nobody ever works with anybody else. I think he’s going to be gone. That’s why I’m working so hard to make sure that the Democrats get the majority in the Senate. Ella Nilsen If you and your colleagues are in the majority, and you’re facing a situation much like in the first Obama administration where Republicans in the minority are blocking everything that you want to do — if it got to that point, do you think Democrats should consider curtailing or eliminating the filibuster? John Hickenlooper Well, I think that more often than not, in the vast majority of cases, the problems have been the leadership, people like Mitch McConnell, just trying to stop everything. America is sick and tired of that, and I think there will be enormous pressure on Republicans to find places where they can collaborate. We’ve got to build infrastructure, we’ve got to address climate change. Well over 50 percent of Republicans believe that climate change is a serious issue. We don’t have to get everything done in a day, but we do have to take significant steps. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a small-business person. When I get there, assuming I win, there are only five small-business people who actually started and managed a business from scratch. I’d be the sixth, and when you’re a small-business person, you’ve got to get people to work together. There’s no other choice! To be an entrepreneur, you’ve also got to be an optimist. So maybe I’m going to be cruelly disappointed. But I don’t think so. I think this is that moment in time where the American people have had enough, and they’ve been pushed into these two tribal camps that won’t speak to each other. That’s a guarantee that you’re not going to get make progress on any of these major issues — which pretty much everybody accepts are significant issues. Ella Nilsen But if you get there and you’re cruelly disappointed, as you say — and Republicans still don’t want to work with Democrats — then would you consider curtailing or eliminating the filibuster? John Hickenlooper There are certain things we’ve got to address. We’ve got to address Covid-19, we’ve got to rebuild the economy. I think that we’re going to have a strong group of principled and progressive but moderate Democratic voices there. If Steve Bullock wins in Montana, and Mark Kelly wins in Arizona, and I win — we’re going to have 10 Democratic senators from the Rocky Mountain West. We are pragmatic. We are problem solvers, by nature. Look at Steve Bullock, who as governor, all the things that he got done in the state of Montana where sometimes he felt like the only person on the boat, but he still got an amazing amount of stuff done. If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question. Ella Nilsen Do you support Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate and clean energy plan? I read on your website that your standards for net-zero emissions is the year 2050. Some of the targets Biden has in his plan are a little bit more aggressive, including standards for the country’s power sector, targeting net-zero emissions by 2035. And so I wanted to ask you if you’re supportive of that plan, or if you have any critiques of it. John Hickenlooper I have not had time to go into [it] — it’s a long, detailed plan. We do have a couple staffers who are working on it; we should get to that pretty quickly. In Colorado, we closed two coal plants — we’re right in the process of closing them right now and replacing them with wind, solar, and batteries. We have every confidence that the monthly electric bill is going to go down. Once we’ve proven that there’s the ability to bring market forces to bear on accelerating the transition from coal into wind and solar and batteries — to clean energy ... once you’ve done that, the transitions are going to happen a lot faster. Again, we might have to spend tons of money to build these things, but that money will be paid for. It’s not like it’s got to come out of the taxpayers’ pocket. People are gonna be paying just what they were paying before for their electricity, even a little less. But the difference will be they’ll have absolutely clean energy. Same thing with electric vehicles. People are going to spend millions of dollars buying new cars and electric vehicles, but that transition is going to happen over a number of years. Electric vehicles are a lot less expensive to operate; they have far fewer moving parts. They perform better. People like driving them. Once we make sure that we have rapid recharging stations and a network together, and as they scale up, the cost of electric vehicles comes down. Again, that’s going to be a natural acceleration. I look at the rate of innovation being a key component of how we make estimations of timeline and cost. I think it’s going to happen much faster once we get going. Now, I’ve put myself at 2050, but it could easily be 2040 or 2030 because I think the innovation is going to come quickly. There are already people working and making great progress in agriculture, in industry, finding replacements that are better and less expensive for concrete — which gives up a bunch of CO2. How did we eliminate fugitive emissions like methane, which is 80 times worse for climate change than CO2? We did that in Colorado, it was cost-effective. It cost the oil and gas industry almost nothing. It’s now national policy in Canada, it was national policy here until Trump pulled back. I think we’re going to get there faster than people think. Certainly, we will be spending a bunch of money, but we’re going to be creating not just hundreds of thousands and millions of jobs, we’re going to be creating whole new professions. We’ve got to make sure we ramp up our skills training, so people can transition to these new professions rapidly. Ella Nilsen I know that Colorado is a big oil and gas state and certainly was when you were governor. Have your positions on climate and how bold the US needs to be in order to tackle it evolved since you were governor? The wildfires in California and in Oregon have been so devastating this year; you’ve had wildfires in Colorado. Has your thinking on this changed at all since you were governor? John Hickenlooper We have had the worst wildfires in the state’s history, in 2002, 2003, 2012, 2013, and now 2020. I think that’s five of the six worst wildfire seasons. The wildfire season now starts earlier and runs longer. There’s 40 extra days in the wildfire season. When I was in office, we were spending $2-3 million, maybe $4 million for wildfires. Now we’re spending 10 times that sometimes. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images A wildfire burning in the Evergreen area of Jefferson County on July 13, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. I got a master’s [degree] in what they called Earth environmental science, back in 1979. We didn’t call it climate change, we called the greenhouse effect, but we knew it was a threat to life on Earth as we know it. That our entire ecology and how we live would change. And I’ve been fighting climate change ever since. When I opened my brewpub, one of the first brewpubs in the country, we recycled our wasted heat when we would brew, or our spare heat. We did natural carbonation. We were one of the first green craft breweries in America. When I became mayor, we were one of the first major cities to have an office of sustainability. We made a pledge to plant a million trees in 2004. We rehabilitated and did energy conservation in pretty much every city building, every library, every recreation center. We made this a full-court press. Then when I became governor, within a year and a half, we took on the oil and gas industry and we became the first state in the country to create methane regulations. That was no easy feat. The animosity between the environmental scientists and the oil and gas scientists was decades-long. No trust; both sides felt they had been betrayed many times. And yet we created methane regulations. I’ve been endorsed by every major, you know, environmental [groups]: the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC, the Sierra Club. What I’ve done consistently for 40 years is tried to address climate change. 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. 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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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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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“I don’t want to be a nurse, a purse, or worse”: 5 seniors on dating online
Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox What it’s like to try online dating for singles who are 65 or older. Swiping, chatting, ghosting, and scammers — online dating is complicated for digital natives used to communicating mainly online. But what if you’re giving it a shot for your first time in your 60s? “I felt a little too old to be out in bars trying to pick up women,” said Bruce, a 66-year-old from Long Island, New York, who started online dating using Zoosk more than two years ago (Zoosk is a general dating website, but one that’s popular among older singles). “I was a little hesitant because I hadn’t dated in a long time — I was married for 26 years or so — but I thought online dating would be a good way to break the ice, and everybody’s equal on the internet.” For those 65 and older, a group with much higher marriage rates than young adults, online dating can be an easier way to meet other singles and people outside of their friend groups. According to Pew Research, the rate of people ages 55 to 64 using dating sites and apps doubled between 2013 and 2016. And as of last fall, 13 percent of people 65 and older have gone online to find love compared to 48 percent of those aged 18 to 29. That number is likely increasing, especially now that the pandemic has forced everyone, but especially higher risk seniors, to socially distance. “As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people,” says Rita, 67, from Long Island. “I always had luck just running into people — I met my second husband at a record shop — but after he died, I was lonely for sure.” She found that browsing online became the new spontaneous meet-cute. (Spoiler alert: She met and then started dating Bruce on Zoosk!) As these seniors prove, the highs and the lows of joining a dating website can happen at any age — even in the middle of a pandemic. Here, five people over 60 share their experiences with finding love on the internet. “Sometimes I feel like part of it is my age, that people might think that I’m either gullible or a target financially” Janet, 68, New York, New York I went back on dating sites a little bit more seriously in the last year because you hear so many success stories, so you think, “Okay, fine. Maybe I’m just not doing it correctly.” But personally, I haven’t had too much success. I was on Zoosk for about a year, and I had three scammers. In two of the cases, I found out it wasn’t their real pictures. In this day and age, you only have to Google somebody’s name. Or you’ll try to make plans — this is pre-pandemic — and they’ll say, “No, I can’t do it. Oh, I’m traveling. Oh, I’m stuck here.” I also found that anybody who says they’re a civil engineer is a scammer because they have to go to places like Malaysia or Indonesia to build some roads or a bridge — and then they need money because they can’t get back. Sometimes I feel like part of it is my age, that people might think that I’m either gullible or a target financially. But I don’t want to be a nurse, a purse, or worse. I’m actually speaking with somebody tonight that I met on Coffee Meets Bagel who seems pretty normal. But I suggested a FaceTime first so I can actually see if he matches his picture. “In my profile, I said that I wasn’t looking for drama” Bruce, 66, Long Island, New York I wanted to try online dating because I felt a little too old to be out in bars trying to pick up women. I’m youthful, but you know, it’s just not easy for me at this point. I wasn’t nervous, but I was a little hesitant because I hadn’t dated in a long time — I was married for 26 years or so — but I thought online dating would be a good way to break the ice, and everybody’s equal on the internet. I tried Zoosk because I heard it was better for older people. In my profile, I said that I wasn’t looking for drama, just looking for somebody with similar interests. Oh, and no Trumpers! I actually put that in there, because prior to meeting my girlfriend Rita, I went on a date with a woman who was very sweet, but she said she prayed for Trump every morning. Really. It was a turn-off. After that, I tried talking at first with someone to make it a little bit more comfortable for when we did meet in person. But it hasn’t been all bad — Rita and I are about to celebrate our two-year anniversary. I don’t tell people what to do in general, but if a friend is struggling, I say, you know, online dating worked for me. And there’s always a chance you meet a good friend. “As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people” Rita, 67, Long Island, New York The night I met Bruce, I had gone on a date with another man who sounded very athletic, and he was a professor, too. I thought, “This sounds like an interesting person!” Well, the minute I met him, I was like, “No, no, no.” He was very forward, and it made me uncomfortable. So I told him I was getting tired, even though it was only 6:30 pm. I got in my car and remembered that I had spoken to Bruce earlier in the week, so I called him and said, “What are you doing?” I just had to shake that other guy from my psyche. Bruce and I met up, and it was a completely different experience. We just felt comfortable. I decided to do online dating because my husbands kept dying. I’ve had a really bad run. My first husband died when I was 40, and I had just started having children with him. And then I met somebody 10 years later, and then he died in 18 months. And then I did finally remarry somebody else. And then he died about, I think this is nine years now. As you get older, it’s much harder to meet people. I always had luck just running into people — I met my second husband at a record shop — but after he died, I was lonely for sure. I had a full life otherwise, but as a widow, my kids were in school and all the other parents were double-dating and going out with each other, and they just didn’t ask me to come. So what do you do? You look for somebody that’s really compatible and hope that they like to do the same things you do. But unlike meeting someone in your 20s, when you meet somebody in their 60s, they’re coming in with a whole set of experiences and likes. And sometimes it’s pretty hard to embrace it. One guy called me up and he said, “Listen, I love to sail, and my friends and I are going out on a weekend adventure, are you up for it?” Like, what do you think, I’m nuts?! Risk my life? I couldn’t get over it, but I guess that’s just the way he was! “I really would like a younger man in his 70s because too many men in their 80s have just let themselves go” Elaine, 82, Spring Lake, Michigan I’ve been widowed now five years since my second husband passed away. I know I don’t want to get married again, and maybe this sounds horrible, but I really just want to have a man in my life. Both of my husbands were very loving and affectionate men, and I miss that horribly. For my dating profile, I have a girlfriend that helps me get hooked up on a site and then she takes my pictures and tells me, you know, we’ll put that in there and put that in there. I know a lot of women who are younger than me, and in my mind, they look older than me because I keep myself current. I’m not dead yet! And so I really would like a younger man in his 70s because too many men in their 80s have just let themselves go. You can’t believe some of the, um, some of the pictures that come up on my accounts, and I just think really? One time I went on a lunch date, I’m sitting there waiting for him, and pretty soon I hear this click, click, click. I glance up and here comes this man with a cane! I had no idea. Online dating during the pandemic can be frustrating because I’m more of a face-to-face person. I don’t want to talk on the phone for a long time because you can’t see the other person’s expressions. And I’m not quite into the Zoom thing yet, so I would be very willing to, you know, meet for a lunch or glass of wine or whatever, even right now. In the very beginning, after their father passed away, my children didn’t like the idea of me having anybody in my life. But I explained to them, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be alone and not having that partner.” And now I just tease them about it. This is who I am. So they just roll their eyes and think, “Oh, mother.” “I know what I want, and what I don’t want” Kathee, 65, Grand Haven, Michigan I actually started online dating way back in 2008. I was getting divorced, and so I was on Match. I’ve also been on eHarmony, and that didn’t work out well. I found out that there’s a lot of scamming going on on these websites. That why I stopped eHarmony. This one guy was getting pushy and then he disappeared completely. It was because they kicked him off the site! That’s why I started using Plenty of Fish. The older you get, the pickier you become. I have a boyfriend now, but when I was online dating, I was looking for someone in my own age category who had a job or was retired — not anyone who needed someone to put a roof over their head. I wanted someone who was able to take care of themselves. At this age, you end maybe living with someone versus marrying them just because of all the money that gets involved and gets tangled up, like 401ks and Social Security. If the guy I’m dating now doesn’t work out, I don’t know if I’d do it again, because as men get older, they want someone to just take care of them. I remember even my mom was a widow at 70 and she joined a golf group. She gets there and it’s mostly men in their 70s, and she goes “Oh, this one’s got this pain, and this one’s got this ache. I’ve done my deal with having a sick husband and I am not doing it again.” I just know myself better now, and I know what I want, and what I don’t want. 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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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 comp