Pennsylvania’s naked ballot problem, explained

“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.”

The rise in murders in the US, explained

“A new report, by the Council on Criminal Justice, found that the homicide rate increased sharply this summer across 27 US cities: “Homicide rates between June and August of 2020 increased by 53% over the same period in 2019, and aggravated assaults went up by 14%.” Other data, from crime analyst Jeff Asher, found that murder is up 28 percent throughout the year so far, compared to the same period in 2019, in a sample of 59 US cities. A preliminary FBI report also found murders up 15 percent nationwide in the first half of 2020.

The increase in homicides is large and widespread enough to raise serious alarms for criminologists and other experts”

“Some experts have cited the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and others — which could’ve had a range of effects, from officers pulling back from their duties to greater community distrust in police, leading to more unchecked violence. Others point to the bad economy. Another potential factor is a huge increase in gun purchases this year. Still others posit boredom and social displacement as a result of physical distancing leading people to cause more trouble.

Above all, though, experts caution it’s simply been a very unusual year with the Covid-19 pandemic. That makes it difficult to say what, exactly, is happening with crime rates.”

“There’s a lot of variation from city to city. Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York City, and Philadelphia are on the high end of homicides or seeing a flat-out increase. Baltimore, Boston, and Columbus are in line with historical trends or actually down.”

What Trump’s taxes tell us about his foreign entanglements

“Trump has back-slapped the authoritarian leaders of the three main countries cited by the Times’s report: the Philippines, India, and Turkey. It’s less clear now if the bonhomie stems from their diplomatic relationships or because they lead nations that are lucrative for the president.

Turkey is perhaps the best example of this conundrum.

Trump said last year that he was a “big fan of” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but their relationship hit some snags over Ankara’s attacks on US allies in Syria and its unlawful imprisonment of an American pastor.

When US-Turkey ties were low, the Times recalled a few curiosities:

“[In 2018,] a Turkish business group canceled a conference at Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel; six months later, when the two countries were on better terms, the rescheduled event was attended by Turkish government officials. Turkish Airlines also chose the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Virginia to host an event [in 2017].”

In other words, countries like Turkey can potentially find ways to Trump’s heart by ensuring money goes into his family’s pocket in hopes of altering US foreign policy. The Trump Organization, then, gives nations an unprecedented extra leverage point to influence an American president.”

“If the president makes decisions based on his private interests, and not the public’s, then he’s subjugating the demands of US foreign policy for the bottom line of his family’s business.”

“That issue becomes more acute when you factor in Trump’s $421 million in debt, much of it owed in the next four years. It’s unclear exactly who he owes that money to, but it’s not unreasonable given the scope of the Trump Organization’s foreign business to assume some of the debt is held by foreign lenders”

What Trump has done to the courts, explained

“In less than four years as president, President Trump has done nearly as much to shape the courts as President Obama did in eight years.

Trump hasn’t simply given lots of lifetime appointments to lots of lawyers. He’s filled the bench with some of the smartest, and most ideologically reliable, men and women to be found in the conservative movement. Long after Trump leaves office, these judges will shape American law — pushing it further and further to the right even if the voters soundly reject Trumpism in 2020.”

“Both Obama and Trump appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, but Trump’s impact on the highest Court far exceeds Obama’s, because Trump replaced the relatively moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy with the hard-line conservative Brett Kavanaugh (after appointing conservative Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat). Obama’s appointees — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — largely maintained the balance of power on a conservative Court, while Trump has shoved that Court even further to the right.

And that’s not counting Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who is likely to be confirmed soon.

On the courts of appeal, the final word in the overwhelming majority of federal cases, more than one-quarter of active judges are Trump appointees. In less than four years, Trump has named a total of 53 judges to these courts, compared to the 55 Obama appointed during his entire presidency.

In their first terms, Obama appointed 30 appellate judges; President George W. Bush filled only 35 seats on the federal appellate bench; President Clinton, 30; President George H.W. Bush, 42; and President Reagan, 33.”

“Before he became president, Trump promised to delegate the judicial selection process to the Federalist Society, a powerful group of conservative lawyers that counts at least four Supreme Court justices among its members. “We’re going to have great judges, conservative, all picked by the Federalist Society,” Trump told a radio show hosted by the right-wing site Breitbart while he was still a candidate.

The Federalist Society spent decades preparing for this moment, and they’ve helped Trump identify many of the most talented conservative stalwarts in the entire legal profession to place on the bench.”

” “The average age of circuit judges appointed by President Trump is less than 50 years old,” the Trump White House bragged in early November, “a full 10 years younger than the average age of President Obama’s circuit nominees.”

Trump’s nominees will serve for years or even decades after being appointed. Even if Democrats crush the 2020 elections and win majorities in both houses of Congress, these judges will have broad authority to sabotage the new president’s agenda.

There is simply no recent precedent for one president having such a transformative impact on the courts.”

“Broadly speaking, there are two reasons Trump has had such an outsize influence on the federal courts.

The first reason is the effective blockade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell imposed on appellate court confirmations the moment Republicans took over the Senate. McConnell’s effort to block Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland is well-known. Less well-known are the many lower court nominees who received similar treatment. Under Trump, McConnell has turned the Senate into a machine that churns out judicial confirmations and does little else — he’s ignored literally hundreds of bills passed by the House. Under Obama, by contrast, McConnell’s Senate was the place where judicial nominations went to die.

The numbers here speak for themselves. In the final two years of the Obama presidency, when Republicans controlled the Senate, Obama successfully appointed only two federal appellate judges — and one of those judges, Kara Farnandez Stoll, was confirmed to a highly specialized court that primarily deals with patent law.

By contrast, 10 such judges were confirmed during the same period in the George W. Bush presidency, a period when Democrats controlled the Senate.

The second reason for Trump’s outsize impact on the judiciary is that when Democrats last controlled the Senate, one especially important Democrat — Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (VT) — took an unusually expansive view of the rights of the minority party.”

“Leahy, who chaired the Committee for most of the Obama presidency, gave home-state senators a simply extraordinary power to block judicial nominees. Under Leahy, a single senator of either party could veto any nominee to a federal judgeship in their state”

“Red-state Republicans used the power Leahy gave them to hold many judicial seats open until Obama left office. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) effectively held a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit open for eight years until Trump could fill it.”

“The Eastland Rule also weakened Obama’s hand in negotiations with Senate Republicans, and sometimes forced him to name relatively conservative judges in order to placate senators who could veto judicial nominees.”

“While Trump has been very successful at filling the bench with brilliant Republican partisans, a Democratic president is unlikely to enjoy similar success.

A badly malapportioned Senate means that to get even a bare majority in the Senate, Democrats have to win commanding popular vote majorities — and if Democrats don’t control the Senate, Democratic nominees could face the Merrick Garland treatment. Just look at the last two years of the Obama presidency if you want to know how a Republican Senate is likely to treat Democratic judicial nominees.”

The K-shaped economic recovery, explained

“wealthier people and those with white-collar jobs are doing fairly well during this — their jobs are sticking around, they’re cutting some spending, and life is generally fine. Stockholders’ wealth is even going up.

But for less well-off Americans and people who have lost their jobs, it’s different. The stock market isn’t helping them, and for those who are unemployed, expanded unemployment benefits dried up at the end of July. With Congress not in a particular hurry to provide fiscal support, that means a drag on the economy.”

Demonizing Somalis is at the heart of Trump’s Minnesota strategy. His Duluth rally showed it.

“During a rally in Duluth, Trump accused Democratic nominee Joe Biden of having a plan “to inundate your state with a historic flood of refugees,” prompting his fans to boo. He then turned his ire on one of his frequent targets of abuse: Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee who now represents Minneapolis in Congress.

“And what about Omar? Where she gets caught [ballot] harvesting. What the hell is going on? I hope your US attorney is involved,” Trump continued, referring to a newly released Project Veritas video that alleges (without any evidence) that Omar is involved in election fraud; the video has been dismissed as a “coordinated disinformation campaign” by researchers.

As “lock her up!” chants rang out, Trump added, “I mean, frankly, harvesting’s terrible, but it’s the least of the things that she has done. How the hell — then she tells us how to run our country. Can you believe it? What the hell is wrong with you people? What the hell happened?”

Before his rant was through, Trump suggested that another Congress member of color — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — should also be imprisoned for no reason in particular.

“[Omar’s] been crooked for a long time. This is the least of it. It’s time, and you know what, AOC also. It’s time. It’s time. If you take a look at what they — the corruption. The disgusting corruption,” he said. “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.”

Wednesday’s rally marked the second time in less than a month that Trump viciously attacked Omar in particular and the Somali community in general during a speech in Minnesota. On September 26 in Bemidji, Trump alluded to Somalis and asked his fans, sarcastically, “Are you having a good time with your refugees?”

Toward the end of that speech, Trump turned the white supremacy up to 11, telling his almost entirely white audience, “You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.”

Over a 24-hour period before Trump’s speech in Duluth, his campaign spent more than $10,000 on Facebook ads demonizing refugees. Those ads were ultimately taken down by Facebook for violating the company’s advertising policies.”

The Big Tech antitrust report has one big conclusion: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are anti-competitive

“The 400-plus page report, written by the majority staff of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, is the result of a 16-month investigation into whether these corporate giants abuse their power, and whether the country’s antitrust laws need to be reworked to rein them in. The report released Tuesday cites numerous examples of each tech titan engaging in acts that the lawmakers believe have hurt innovation and impede competition. While the anti-competitive behaviors cited vary from company to company, they are all linked by the allegation that the four giants abuse their gatekeeper status in various internet industries to secure and grow their market power in those sectors and others.”

How chicken plants became more dangerous places to work than coal mines

“because chickens and pigs (and cows and lambs and turkeys … ) are living things whose shapes and sizes vary, cutting and pulling breast meat from chickens, for example, can’t be done with machines or robots. It has to be done by human beings, and to achieve the output that slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants want, it has to be done quickly.

The plants’ practice of placing workers shoulder to shoulder, while doing exhausting work that leads to heavy breathing, has made them epicenters for the coronavirus outbreak this year. The Trump administration has tried to keep the mostly low-income workers in these plants working all the same out of fear of a “meat shortage,” putting the workers at considerable risk.

That’s hardly the only risk, however, that workers in these plants face. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in animal slaughter and production face higher rates of injury than coal miners or construction workers. Poultry processing in particular is the leading occupational cause of finger amputations in the US.”

The best case for and against a fracking ban

“Though hydraulic fracturing as a technique has been around since the 19th century and the first commercial fracking for gas took place in the 1940s, the most recent fracking boom started in earnest around 2005. That’s when the rising prices of oil and gas forced energy companies to look for other sources, when related techniques like horizontal drilling and low-cost slickwater fracking matured, and new estimates revealed the gargantuan amounts of gas stored in formations like Marcellus Shale.

Fracking has now become the dominant technique for extracting oil and gas in the US.”

“During much of the fracking boom, the US economy grew and emissions declined. One study found that between 2005 and 2012, fracking created 725,000 jobs in the industry, not counting related supporting jobs. “This has been one of the most dynamic parts of the U.S. economy — you’re talking about millions of jobs,” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Markit and founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told CNBC.

That’s largely due to natural gas from fracking displacing coal in electricity production. Natural gas emits about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal per unit of energy. It doesn’t have the massive land footprint that open pit mines or mountaintop removal coal mines do. While it has its own pollution problems, burning natural gas doesn’t produce pollutants like ash and mercury, which can pose health and environmental hazards for years.”

“Natural gas’s flexibility has also eased the integration of variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. When the breezes slow down and clouds form above, natural gas steps in. This has reduced the need for other ways to compensate for intermittency, like energy storage.”

“fracking has helped insulate the US from global economic shocks, particularly in oil markets. US shale oil has provided more than half the growth in global oil supplies, so rising tensions and disruptions in countries like Iran, Libya, and Venezuela have barely moved the needle at the gas pump.”

“natural gas obtained by fracking has reduced emissions, aided the economy, and helped clean energy rise, while costing less than dirtier fuels.”

“while low natural gas prices have helped knock dirty coal off the market, low oil prices driven in part by fracking have encouraged more travel. In fact, transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gases in the US. And after years of decline, US emissions in 2018 rose by 3.4 percent.

Low oil prices have undermined the business case for cleaner transportation alternatives, like electric cars and fuel cell-powered buses. Instead, the United States has experienced a growing appetite for larger, thirstier cars and more air travel.

Meanwhile, low natural gas prices have had some collateral damage for nuclear power, the largest source of clean electricity in the US. Some of the nuclear power plants that have announced early retirements are likely to see their capacity replaced by natural gas. So while replacing coal with natural gas often leads to a reduction in emissions, replacing nuclear energy leads to an increase.

Natural gas itself can also become a climate problem. Methane, the dominant component of natural gas, produces less carbon dioxide than coal when burned. But if methane leaks, which it often does in some quantity during normal gas extraction operations, it becomes a potent greenhouse gas. Over 100 years, a quantity of methane traps more than 25 times the amount of heat compared to a similar amount of carbon dioxide.”

“then there’s the technique of fracking itself. It requires a massive volume of water. Wells can release toxic chemicals like benzene into the air. Fracking sites can experience explosions and fires. They can contaminate drinking water. More than 17 million people in the US live within a mile of an active fracking well, and research shows that fracking can lead to low birth weight in infants born in that radius.

Many of these environmental risks, on balance, are less than those associated with mining and burning coal. However, the sudden surge in fracking means many people are being confronted with its impacts for the first time, making it a more vivid political concern. That’s in contrast to coal hazards, which are mostly familiar to the public consciousness.”

“when it comes to limiting climate change, a key factor is time. Methane leaked from gas wells can stay in the atmosphere for a decade. Carbon dioxide from burning it can linger for a century. So it is imperative to ramp down greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Yet every new natural gas power plant represents a decades-long commitment to continue using the fuel. That means gas plants will have to install carbon capture systems, which would add to their operating costs and worsen the business case further, or some poor investor is going to be left holding the bag.”