Voting Is Now a Public Health Issue
Georgia's mid-June primary was the latest example of pandemic-induced voter suppression. Long lines at polling stations stretched for blocks and blocks as socially distanced voters waited for several hours to vote in person. In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta and is the state's most populated county, some voters waited past midnight to cast their ballot.
Scenes like the one in Georgia—and Wisconsin before that—have ignited a national conversation about voting by mail. In response, President Trump has claimed that voting by mail "will lead to massive fraud" and favor the Democratic Party. Notably, Twitter even placed a fact-checking warning on one of Trump's tweets about voting by mail, breaking with its previous practice of not calling out Trump's falsehoods.
Vote by mail does not favor one party over another, a 2020 study from Stanford University found. Additionally, a recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that 70% of Americans favor allowing people to vote by mail. Even when broken down by political party, 87% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans favor expanding mail-in voting.
"Undermining voter confidence in the system is a form of voter suppression," said Raúl Macías, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Millions of Americans have voted by mail safely and securely for decades."
The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, has recommended states provide a universal vote-by-mail option to hold fair elections during the pandemic.
As of May 2020, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have "no excuse" absentee voting, and five other states conduct elections entirely by mail with limited in-person voting options. However, 16 states still require voters to provide an "excuse" to receive an absentee ballot. While most of the "excuse-required" voting states have ruled the novel coronavirus outbreak is a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot, four of them—Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas—have not made the necessary changes to allow absentee voting widely available during the pandemic.
In Texas, the state Supreme Court went as far as to block a ruling that would allow Texans to use the pandemic as a reason to vote by mail. As it stands, Texas will only send absentee ballots to voters who are 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county during the election period, or confined to jail.
According to MOVE Texas, a nonprofit organization focused on civic engagement for youth in Texas, the ruling is anti-voter and could lead to voter suppression by forcing residents to choose between their health and voting. But, seeing anti-voter decisions from the state government is not a surprise to the MOVE team.
"In the past, we've seen elections as a statewide issue," said Raven Douglas, political director of MOVE Texas. "But, after the 2019 legislative session where we were able to defeat […] a really bad anti-voter bill, we came together with a number of ally organizations and decided we could no longer rely on our state government to pass pro-democracy reform."
So, in addition to starting a petition to voice the organization's disappointment in the Texas Supreme Court ruling against mail-in voting, MOVE Texas is turning to local officials to help voters in other ways. Douglas noted that county officials can greenlight curbside voting options, extend clerk's office hours, provide extra drop boxes, and more.
"You don't have to wait on your governor or your secretary of state to pass guidance, you can do that directly with your elections administrator and your county clerks," Douglas said.
Macías also acknowledges the need for in-person voting expansion during the upcoming elections.
"We think it's really important that every voter has the opportunity to vote by mail this election, but also in-person voting has to be maintained," Macías said. That means modifying polling places to fit social distancing guidelines, expanded early voting, making voter registration easier online or by mail, and investing in education programs about how this election might be different from what voters are used to.
Additionally, Macías notes that for most states to scale up their vote by mail systems to handle a much higher volume of ballots, they will need new equipment, such as ballot sorters, signature-verification software, optical scanning devices, and enough printers to handle the expected increase of applications and ballots.
"We really want to see Congress send more money to help elections officials conduct their elections," Macías said. "This is really the time when the federal government needs to step up. It's too important."
In Michigan, Voters Not Politicians, a pro-democracy organization, is advocating for an even more radical solution: skipping the application process and just sending absentee ballots to all voters, with postage-paid return envelopes, for the November election, through a campaign called VoteSafe.
"We're running out of time," Nancy Wang, Voters Not Politicians' editorial director, said. "Our campaign started seven weeks ago and with every day it's becoming harder and harder."
VoteSafe is asking state officials to take other measures to fight voter disenfranchisement, such as supplying secure ballot drop boxes and accessible polling locations that follow protocols for sanitization and social distancing, increasing funding for ballot security and tracking, and expanding access to local clerks' offices leading up to Election Day.
"We wouldn't be blazing trails here, we would really be following best practices," Wang said, citing the expert advice the organization received from the former elections director for Denver. Colorado is seen as a leader in election integrity and pro-voter policies.
One of those best practices is running a culturally competent education campaign, meaning that Wang and her team must be sensitive to different communities' history with voting and cater to that. For example, Wang says, some people don't trust the U.S. Postal Service, so there must be enough drop boxes for physical ballots and in-person polling sites for voters who may be deterred by having to send their ballot through the mail.
"You need to make sure you're creating a system that doesn't disenfranchise voters for other reasons," Wang said. To do this, Voters Not Politicians has partnered with community groups across Michigan to make sure the messaging and education surrounding the election is sensitive and resonates with the state's communities.
"This issue is really a concern for organizations that work not just in voting rights spaces," Wang said. "There is a lot of really great work being done by other groups in the state."
Partnerships with organizations that don't strictly deal with voting rights can also help show that voting by mail is not a partisan issue, Wang says. A majority of Michigan voters are supportive of expanding voting options—67% of voters approved a 2018 proposal to expand voting by mail.
"We should be trying to make it easier to vote for everyone, particularly in this election cycle," Macías said. "We shouldn't be asking voters to choose between their health and their vote."
That same sentiment is what prompted the nonpartisan organization Democracy North Carolina to join several other voting and elections organizations in a lawsuit demanding that the state take "necessary steps to guarantee a fair, safe election in November."
"The decision to sue came down to the fact that our general assembly has a history of either inaction on voting rights issues, or outright hostility to voting rights," said Tomas Lopez, the group's executive director.
What's needed, according Democracy North Carolina's suit, is a relaxation of voter registration requirements, making in-person voting safer and ballot drop boxes available, and easing the process of absentee voting. While North Carolina is a no-excuse absentee voting state—meaning anyone can apply to receive an absentee ballot in the mail—absentee voters must get the signatures of two witnesses or a notary for their absentee ballot to be counted.
According to Lopez, 4% of North Carolina voters voted by mail in 2016, but the state board of elections predicts 30% to 40% of voters will vote by mail this year. Lopez fears that with social distancing orders, absentee voters won't be able to acquire two witnesses, or a notary, and will either not submit their ballot, or submit it and have the ballot rejected.
"All the stuff that we're doing is about trying to make sure that our election rules are responsive to the reality that people are having to live in," he said.
"One of the really concerning parts of this is that, absent the kind of changes we are putting forward, voting access for Black and brown North Carolinians is going to take a double hit, from COVID and all the ways which it's hitting communities, and from all the ways the election rules are failing to respond," Lopez said.
"The election is already different, the question is whether the rules are going to respond to it or not," Lopez said. "All of these COVID response issues are rooted in things we'd like to see in November."
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine.
ISABELLA GARCIA is a former solutions journalism intern for YES!.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
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Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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