August 25, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Imagine you are an immigrant who has waited years to become a U.S. citizen so you can vote in elections. You have filed every paper, gone through every required background check, passed a citizenship exam and then the agency that grants that precious voting right can’t process your claim because of a budget interruption.

That scenario will be unfolding over the next couple of weeks.

The Tampa Bay Times has a story that is worth developing where you are. The Times reported that a budget shortfall in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services could mean that starting Aug. 30, more than 13,000 employees could be furloughed. The agency, which is funded by fees, has already delayed a furlough once.

As Congress has been focused on providing emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Services, this issue has likely slipped past your news coverage.

An Aug. 30 furlough would cause huge interruptions in processing citizenship claims. For people who are awaiting citizenship, it could mean they would be denied voting rights for the 2020 election. The Tampa Bay Times reported:

 For more than 300,000 people on the path to citizenship, the coronavirus may take a new toll by robbing them of their right to help choose the next president.

The federal agency in charge of processing citizenship applications stopped conducting interviews March 18, after the pandemic hit, and resumed them on a limited basis in June. That caused a backlog, aggravated recently by a $1.2 billion agency budget shortfall and potential employee furloughs.

The story explained:

If the budget shortfall forces a furlough, the agency said in a statement, naturalization ceremonies will continue “but on a more limited basis.” As of July 28, some 13,400 employees had received notice that without congressional intervention they would be off the job Aug. 30.

But the government said it is moving faster than critics claim:

Citizenship and Immigration Services is moving faster to get people sworn in as citizens than its critics contend, spokesman Dan Hetlage said. A backlog of some 110,000 people nationwide has been eliminated, new applications are being accepted and more of them are coming in online.

“Since reopening our offices to the public and resuming in-person services on June 4, our top priority has been to resume naturalization ceremonies for those who were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hetlage said.

In normal times, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can conduct 63,000 naturalization interviews and oath ceremonies each month. The Times story included questions from an advocate for people going through the immigration process about why the government has not been able to conduct interviews virtually as other services have made the shift.

On Aug. 18, Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services protesting furloughs and pointing out USCIS has enough money to keep operating. Leahy said some people have waited 24 years for their citizenship.

This is just one more thing caught up in the clogged gears of Washington. Roll Call explained:

In May, USCIS, the agency responsible for allocating immigration visas and conducting naturalization ceremonies, asked Congress for $1.2 billion in emergency funding, saying it otherwise would have to furlough about 13,400 employees by the beginning of August.

Last month, however, the agency announced it would postpone furloughs until Aug. 30 after receiving assurances from lawmakers that they would support the emergency funding request. A USCIS spokesperson confirmed to CQ Roll Call, however, that the agency still plans to administer furloughs by the end of the month if Congress does not provide emergency funding.

Beyond denying precious voting rights to new citizens, a shutdown would cause other problems. Roll Call’s report said:

Nandini P. Nair, an immigration attorney based in New Jersey, said that furloughs would be catastrophic for U.S. businesses and immigrants alike.

“The impact is going to be significant for both employers and immigrants who rely on USCIS to get green cards and other visas to come to the U.S.,” Nair said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s important to understand that USCIS processes work permits and work permit renewals. If those are not processed timely, then those individuals will have to lose their jobs and it will add to the unemployment in the country.”

 

The reality of tens of thousands of rejected mail-in ballots this year

There is a lot of hyperbole and misinformation about mail-in and absentee voting in this election year. But here is a truth: More than a half-million mail-in ballots were rejected in the 2020 presidential primaries.

The number of rejected ballots is up by more than 20% this year. Journalists would do a big public service by exploring their state’s figures and explaining the reasons why people had their ballots rejected. The top reasons include missing signatures, signatures that do not match what is on file and ballots arriving late.

NPR checked with every state and put together a list. Here is a sample:

(From NPR)

NPR said, “The numbers compiled by NPR are almost certainly an underestimate since not all states have made the information on rejected mail-in ballots available.” See the full list of rejected 2020 primary ballots here.

NPR reported:

NPR found that tens of thousands of ballots have been rejected in key battleground states, where the outcome in November — for the presidency, Congress and other elected positions — could be determined by a relatively small number of votes.

For example, President Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by almost 23,000 votes. More than 23,000 absentee ballots were rejected in the state’s presidential primary in April. More than 37,000 primary ballots were also rejected in June in Pennsylvania, a state Trump won by just over 44,000 votes.

There are active lawsuits in about half of the states over mail-in voting rules. One of the issues at stake in some of those suits is whether voters should be notified if their ballot is rejected and given a chance to fix the problem.

As NPR noted, the number of how many primary ballots were rejected is almost certainly an underestimate because not all states provide that information, which raises the question of “why not?”

NPR quoted Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida:

Smith added that the rejection numbers are only part of the picture. He said they don’t always take into account mail-in ballots that are initially accepted but then not counted because of other mistakes, such as a voter incorrectly choosing too many candidates or incorrectly circling a candidate’s name instead of filling in the bubble next to it.

Such errors are usually caught at the polling place and can be corrected before voters cast their ballots. Most voting machines will also not allow people to overvote accidentally, or choose too many candidates in a given race.

“Those mistakes are avoided when you vote in person,” Smith said. “You have seven, 10 people who can assist you in terms of making sure that you know about the ovals having to be filled out.” As a result, only about one-hundredth of a percent of in-person ballots are rejected compared with about 1% of mail-in ballots.

Imagine an election night where a margin of victory is less than the number of absentee ballots that had been rejected. The legal battle to unravel that outcome would remind us of the 2000 election — except multiplied by the number of states involved.

The Washington Post put it this way:

Election experts said that the combination of the hotly contested White House race and millions of first-time mail voters could lead to a record number of ballot rejections and trigger a searing legal war over which are valid — and who is the ultimate victor.

“If the election is close, it doesn’t matter how well it was run — it will be a mess,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who studies election data.

Here comes the “student blaming”

228 Ohio State University students have been suspended for violating the school’s COVID-19 guidelines. WBNS-TV reported that the suspensions are connected to big gatherings held in the last week. The school warned a few days ago that it was opening dozens of cases against students.

Meanwhile, bars in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, are closing for a couple of weeks because of a big COVID-19 outbreak around the University of Alabama.

UCLA planned to allow 6,500 students to live in campus housing and dormitories but now local restrictions say they can only offer rooms to students “who have no feasible alternative.”

Meanwhile, schools that moved their classes to Zoom found that on their first day yesterday, Zoom crashed.

New CDC guidance: No need to quarantine after international travel

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just updated its travel guidelines to say that those who travel outside of the U.S. need not quarantine for two weeks after they return unless they are required to do so by state, tribal or local recommendations.

The U.S. still bans the arrival from a number of countries including China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Brazil and a number of other European countries.

Slower borders

ABC News reported:

The U.S. will slow down the flow of traffic at select ports of entry on the Southwest border to further limit the spread of novel coronavirus by travelers coming from Mexico, a Customs and Border Protection official confirmed on Saturday.

Non-essential travel has been limited since March, but the new measures may increase wait times at ports of entry in San Diego, California; Tucson, Arizona; and El Paso and Laredo, Texas. Reuters first reported on the additional lane closures and customs inspections that will likely delay anyone traveling for non-essential reasons.

Will high-profile attention on stuttering increase awareness?

Brayden Harrington speaks during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

I want to circle back to that remarkable young man, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who spoke during the Democratic National Convention about his conversations with Joe Biden about stuttering. Brayden said Biden told him that “we are members of the same club,” as the Democratic nominee for president told the boy about his own stuttering condition. The video has been viewed more than 3 million times.

70 million people worldwide have a similar neurological condition to what Biden has. The Stuttering Foundation said somewhere around 1% of the population stutters, meaning it could affect more than 3 million Americans.

Males are four times more likely to stutter than females and almost 5% of all children under age 5 go through periods of stuttering.

The Stuttering Foundation said:

There are four factors most likely to contribute to the development of stuttering:
-genetics (approximately 60% of those who stutter have a family member who does also);
– child development (children with other speech and language problems or developmental delays are more likely to stutter);
-neurophysiology (recent neurological research has shown that people who stutter process speech and language slightly differently than those who do not stutter); and
– family dynamics (high expectations and fast-paced lifestyles can contribute to stuttering).

Stuttering may occur when a combination of factors comes together and may have different causes in different people. It is probable that what causes stuttering differs from what makes it continue or get worse.

There is no cure for stuttering, but there is therapy. The sooner you get a kid in speech therapy the more effective it can be. Which brings us back around to the pandemic. When kids are not in school, how will schools help with things like speech therapy?

I hope we will not allow brave young Brayden Harrington’s appearance on the national stage to fade but instead use that remarkable moment as a launchpad for awareness.

The times in which we live

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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