It’s time for all good people to come to the aid of election offices

Plus, TSA checkpoints are finding a lot of loaded guns, how the feds plan to reopen offices, the economic hit to agriculture, and more.

August 11, 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.

Journalists could do a lot to raise interest in younger people volunteering to work at polling places around the country.

The Pew Research Center found that the majority of poll workers are older than 60 — and they are saying that they cannot work at precincts this year because of COVID-19.

(Pew Research Center)

Look at this quote from a Politico story:

“We need 39,870 people for Election Day and early voting, and we don’t have anywhere near that. We have 13,021 vacant positions, (about) 32% statewide,” said David Garreis, the president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials. “The hardest thing that we have to do in any election is to recruit election judges. And in this year, it’s impossible.”

There is an online move to recruit a quarter of a million younger poll workers in a very short time. The website Power to the Polls pointed out why it is such a critical time:

The consequences have already been felt in several recent primaries, where poll worker shortages led to long lines and voter disenfranchisement. For example, 95% of past poll workers in Anchorage, Alaska, declined to work the polls this year and the state of Kentucky consolidated in-person voting in each county to a single polling place during the primary due to poll worker recruitment concerns.

NPR reported:

“We’re talking about enormous numbers of poll workers who are not going to feel comfortable, and already have shown it in the primary, being in the polling places in the midst of a pandemic when they have concerns about their health,” says Bob Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Center.

Brandon says even in normal times, convincing people to sign up to staff the polls can be challenging. It’s usually a 12-hour-plus day, with minimal pay and a fair amount of stress. Add in all the health concerns a pandemic brings, and it’s even harder to attract new workers.

And although voting by mail is expected to increase dramatically this fall, Brandon says robust, in-person voting remains essential.

“If you have a disability that requires you to be on an accessible machine to vote, you need to be there in person,” he says. “If you’re in a community that has terrible mail service, which many poor communities complain of, that’s an important need. Many people in the African American community have a distrust of anything different than taking a ballot and putting it into a machine, because of the history of voter suppression that they’ve encountered.”

Politico offered some ways to solve the shortage:

Election officials across the country have turned to various populations to try to fill in the gaps. A popular choice is lawyers, with a handful of states pushing their state bar associations to give attorneys continuing education credits for serving as poll workers. They are also looking at high school and college students who can be lured with the promise of extra credit or some extra spending money for a day’s work.

Election officials are also engaging local businesses to give “civic time off” to employees to work as poll workers, along with pushing for local and state government employees to serve.

Even with fewer fliers, there are still a lot of loaded guns at airport TSA checkpoints

Almost every day in July, Transportation Security Administration agents at the Atlanta airport found a weapon tucked inside somebody’s luggage. During the pandemic, a lot fewer people are flying, but the TSA reported Monday:

Transportation Security Administration officers detected firearms in carry-on bags at a rate three times higher this past July than the same month in 2019, though passenger volume is significantly lower.

TSA officers detected 15.3 guns per million people last month compared to 5.1 guns per million people screened during July 2019. The rate is particularly alarming, given that TSA screened about 75% fewer passengers in July 2020, over the previous year’s volume.

TSA said about 80% of the weapons it found at the airport security screenings were loaded.

Some of the most recent cases were in Pittsburgh (two cases already in August), New York, Detroit, Chicago, two guns in Norfolk, Harrisburg, Boston, Nashville, Philadelphia, Richmond, Salt Lake City (three guns and a stun gun) and Milwaukee. That list is just what I found listed in the last few weeks.

How the federal government plans to reopen offices

There is no single plan to bring federal workers back to offices. You may find that even different agencies in the same city may have different plans.

It could be two months before U.S. passport offices return to normal. The Federal News Network said, “When the State Department reopened 11 passport agencies in June, it had a backlog of 1.8 million passport applications, but has since reduced that backlog to about a million cases.”

The U.S. Department of Energy said it is open to employees asking for permission to keep working from home as schools change their plans to take classes to virtual delivery.

The Environmental Protection Agency is telling employees to return to its D.C. offices, but the union is calling the move reckless. The EPA advised:

For those on a flexible work schedule, extended workday hours of 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. will be available for the days an employee is in the office. This would create a greater range of arrival and departure times to assist with elevator capacity concerns and commuting outside the normal rush hour. For those exercising dependent care flexibilities, extended workday hours of 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and voluntary Saturday hours will remain in place (though hours worked in the office would be limited to 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays).

Government Executive, a website that covers government employment issues, reported:

Federal employee unions and groups such as the National Safety Council have pushed for a specific set of standards agencies should meet before calling workers back, such as sufficient personal protective equipment, testing capacity, office remodelings to enable social distancing and established benchmarks for COVID-19 spread in the relevant region.

The COVID-19 economy hits U.S. agriculture

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s latest survey shows another increase in farm bankruptcies. Wisconsin led the nation with 69 filings, followed by 38 in Nebraska, and 36 each in Georgia and Minnesota.

The Payment Protection Program, forbearance on loans and direct stimulus payments to farmers helped them get through the past few months. But now that those programs have all expired and with nothing in the immediate pipeline to replace them, tensions on the farm are rising.

Imagine you are a farmer in Illinois. A University of Illinois study estimated, on average, Illinois farmers can expect to lose about $30 an acre on corn in 2020 and $75 per acre in 2021, according to a balance sheet from the department. Imagine working as hard as a farmer works to grow a crop only to understand that every acre is a money-losing crop.

Progressive Farmer reported:

The COVID-19 shutdown at meatpacking plants and a reduction in production capacity once they reopened, led to an oversupply of animals. As a result, more than 3 million animals have been euthanized.

“A euthanized animal is a loss to the producer, both in unearned revenues and direct costs associated with the euthanasia,” the KC Federal Reserve report said. “Government payments appear likely to offset revenue losses somewhat, but depopulation is still a financial strain for livestock producers.”

What happened to that big trade deal with China?

President Donald Trump promised that the trade deal he signed with China before COVID-19 would be a boon to American farmers. The U.S. Agriculture Department said China promised to buy $36 billion in U.S. agriculture products this year. In the first six months, China purchased $6.6 billion in farm goods. They have made big orders for delivery next year, but they have a long way to go to meet the phase one U.S.-China trade deal.

AgWeek included this passage:

“We need to see exports of other commodities explode,” he told Agri-Pulse. “When we’re today sitting at close to $7 billion, that’s a long way away from the more than $30 billion, including freight and insurance, that was agreed on.”

China is giving exemptions to importers for some tariffs on U.S. commodities, but other tariffs are still preventing purchases of commodities such as ethanol and distillers grains.

Tariffs are arising again as a 2020 presidential campaign issue. Last week, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said, if elected, he would not continue the tariff war with China.

Agriculture.com put the data in perspective:

China was the No. 1 customer for U.S. agricultural exports before the trade war, buying an average of $21 billion a year of the products. The USDA estimates exports to China will total $13 billion this fiscal year. The “phase one” trade agreement calls for China to buy $36.6 billion worth of U.S. food, agricultural, and seafood products this calendar year. Through June it had imported just $8.7 billion worth of the goods.

CNBC said that U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators will meet Saturday to assess how the agreement is going midyear. But given President Trump’s heated political rhetoric blaming China for COVID-19, and his move to ban Chinese-owned TikTok, the future looks dim for any talks that would lead to a phase two deal to remove more tariffs and increase trade.

Why men don’t wear masks: they fear masks make them look “weak”

Here are three sad paragraphs from a Vox exploration about why one in five American men do not wear masks: because they think wearing a mask makes them look weak.

The term for this phenomenon is called “precarious manhood,” coined by Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson, researchers from the University of South Florida. In their research, they found that past studies show men experience anxiety when it comes to their manhood and masculinity, or masculine gender identity. Vandello and Bossun posit that this is because masculinity, or what society thinks is “manly,” is something that’s hard to achieve and easily lost. And when masculinity is slighted, men compensate by acting out in risky ways.

“(M)en experience more anxiety over their gender status than women do, particularly when gender status is uncertain or challenged,” they wrote in their 2012 research paper. “This can motivate a variety of risky and maladaptive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of behaviors that might otherwise prove adaptive and beneficial.”

In the U.S. specifically, American culture has a history of framing disease as an individual battle or competition in which there are victors and losers, triumph and defeat. More recently, right-wing pundits and Republican lawmakers turned masks into a political issue, often framing masks as a slight on manliness. Gestures like Vice President Mike Pence’s maskless visit to the Mayo Clinic in April and actions like Trump calling Dr. Anthony Fauci’s credibility into question strengthen the mask-is-weakness connection. Especially among men who see Trump as a leader they want to emulate.

When I read these kinds of things I can usually find examples on Animal Planet or the National Geographic channel late at night of elk, hyenas or lions doing something similar to human male behavior. So, during Shark Week, I will be watching for examples of “precarious manhood” that play out in creatures acting out in risky ways to prove their sharkhood.

Best reaction to the Vox story:


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