Control of the Senate–and hence what the Biden administration will be able to get done–both depend on the outcome of the two runoff elections in Georgia, where polls suggest those races are extremely close, according to FiveThirtyEight. The stakes are high not only globally but locally; just this weekend, Kelly Loeffler posed with a former KKK leader.
1. Georgia on our minds
Despite the good news coming out of Georgia, where the Republican attorney general and governor have refused to capitulate to Trump’s claims of voter fraud there, the state serves as an example of Republican efforts to win elections by limiting the franchise and impeding voting. Cobb County, the third-largest county in Georgia–which has a large Black and Latinx population and is a Democratic stronghold–had 11 early voting sites for the November election.
For the January runoff, which will determine that party that controls the U.S. Senate, only five early voting locations had been scheduled–though under pressure from the NAACP and other voting rights organizations, elections officials have added two more. The Washington Post reports that civil- and election-rights groups are protesting these cuts, many of which are in Black or Latinx neighborhoods. The cuts mean those voters will now have to travel 5-12 miles to access an early voting location—and the county has limited public transportation options. The Republican National Committee, the Georgia Republican Party, and other Republican organizations have also filed suit to require additional signature reviews on absentee ballots and stricter limits on the use of ballot drop boxes. These moves demonstrate the continued need for a new voting rights act. S-HP
Is it time to call for new voting rights legislation or an executive order to prevent these kinds of efforts to disenfranchise voters and impede voting? Here’s whom you can contact.
2. Senators in Georgia runoff sold stock based on insider information
You’ll likely remember that Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are currently in runoff elections in Georgia., were among those Congressmembers investigated for selling stocks likely to be`hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. The inquiries were dropped, but served as another reminder of the kinds of insider information Congressmembers have access to and of the possibility that they might take advantage of this information—whether deliberately or unintentionally—to make a profit. There have been regular calls for legislation that would ban Congressmembers from trading stock while in office or would ban stock holding by Congressmembers altogether. Now the Washington Post reports on research by political scientists Jordan Carr Peterson and Christian Grose published in Legislative Studies Quarterly which found that Congressmembers tend to vote in ways that benefit their portfolios. The Washington Post quotes these researchers as noting that Congressmembers’ votes are “significantly associated with the legislators’ ownership interests in the very companies subject to regulation, intervention, and potential rescue…. [and they tend to] maximize their wealth and the size of their asset portfolios.” The 2012 Stock Act prohibits insider trading by Congressmembers, but does not prohibit their voting in ways that profit them financially. S-HP
You can tell current House and Senate leadership that you want to see significant legislation prohibiting Congressmembers from voting on legislation that could benefit their stock portfolios—whether this means selling off portfolios or recusing themselves from such votes.
3. 19 Attorneys General ask for votes to be voided
No doubt you’re aware of the lawsuit the Texas Attorney General filed asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the Presidential Election Results in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Yes, the Supreme Court treated it like the non-starter it was, but it’s deeply disturbing to think that not just Texas’s Attorney General, but also the Attorneys General of 18 other states joined this suit asking for millions of votes—legally cast according to the rules of the voters’ states—to be invalidated. We need to reckon with the fact that 19 of the top lawyers in this country could take such a stance.
See Heather Cox Richardson’s December 11 column for historical context on all this. S-HP
If you find it appalling that these state Attorneys General were willing to betray the Constitution in the effort to give Trump a second term in office following an election he clearly lost, you can tell them so. Their addresses are here. The good news with regard to the Texas lawsuit is that a larger group of Attorneys General from 24 states and territories joined the Attorneys General of the affected states in condemning this unconstitutional move. If you want to thank these Attorneys General for their defense of the Constitution, their addresses are here.
4. US is taking DNA samples from asylum seekers over 14
We’ve previously written about proposals to collect DNA samples from asylum-seekers entering the U.S. and about the problematic nature of facial recognition technology as it currently exists (there was that embarrassing moment in 2018 when an Amazon-produced facial recognition algorithm incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress, who were predominantly people of color, as other individuals who had been arrested for a crime). Such DNA collection and use of facial recognition algorithms are no longer just proposals. Recent press releases from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) describe the ways the techniques are currently being put to use.
One press release describes a “pilot program” in use by CBP to “collect DNA samples from certain populations of individuals in [CBP] custody for submission to the Combined DNA Index Systems (CODIS) maintained by the FBI.” Who are these individuals? Those between ages “14-79, who are a [sic] non-U.S. citizens detained under United States authority and are being processed for inadmissibility or removal.” Now that the U.S. is using COVID-19 as an excuse to refuse admission to asylum seekers, forcing them to stay in Mexico, that means basically every individual hoping to claim asylum in the U.S. And what is CODIS? A criminal database, meaning that these individuals are being treated as criminals simply for applying for asylum as they are allowed to do under international law.
DNA has been collected and added to CODIS by many government agencies, but until this year the Department of Homeland Security, and therefore Customs and Border Patrol, had been exempt from the requirement. Now DHS has been given a three-year timeline to put a DNA sample gathering program in place. The press release, issued on December 3, describes a pilot program for DNA collection that began on January 6 in accordance with the publication of a Department of Justice (DoJ) final rule issued on March 9 that was to go into effect on April 8. In other words, the DNA collection began before the DoJ rule was in place.
A second press release describes a new “Simplified Arrival” program being introduced at Las Vegas’ McCarren International Airport. Simplified Arrival is presented as “touchless experience”—clearly playing on fears of COVID-19 transmission. However, Simplified Arrival doesn’t involve social distancing or mask wearing. What it does involve is photographing individuals entering and leaving the U.S. so that those photos can be compared with passport and visa photos already on file. CBP assures us that the algorithm they’re using is “one of the industry’s highest ranked facial recognition algorithms (as assessed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology).” U.S. citizens and “select foreign nationals” may opt out of the program by notifying a CBP officer as they approach the “primary inspection point” that they do not want to be participate and be photographed. CBP promises that “New photos of U.S. citizens will be deleted within 12 hours. Photos of most foreign nationals will be stored in a secure Department of Homeland Security system.” S-HP
If you want to object (yet again) to DNA collection from asylum-seekers and to government use of demonstrably unreliable facial recognition algorithms, addresses are here.
5. Hate groups got Paycheck Protection Program funds
As part of the government’s COVID-19 response, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds were supposed to keep small businesses and their employees afloat. But new data from the Small Business Administration makes it clear that these intentions were not carried out. One of the most disturbing stories comes from NBC News, which reports that at least $4.3 million of PPP funds were given to organizations recognized as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Recipients of PPP funds include:
◉The American Family Association (received $1.39 million), which leads national boycotts of businesses with what they call “pro-gay policies”;
◉The Federation for American Immigration Reform (received $683,600), an anti-immigrant group with ties to white supremacists and eugenics supporters;
◉ Liberty Counsel, (received almost $428,000), which pursues an anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ agenda;
◉The Church Militant/Saint Michael’s Media, (received $301,000), which supports “gay conversion” therapy and equates homosexuality with pedophilia;
◉The American Renaissance/New Century Foundation (received $51,600), a “think tank” promoting “scientific” studies that purportedly demonstrate white superiority over Blacks;
Other groups receiving PPP funds include the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, the Ruth Institute; the anti-LGBTQ Pacific Justice Institute, the American College of Pediatricians, the anti-immigrant Remembrance Project; and the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy. S-HP.
If this list troubles you, you could object to this use of federal funds to support hate groups and call for more careful vetting of groups receiving COVID-19 relief in any future legislation.
6. Being Evil: Google’s employment practices
Google’s record as an employer has been something less than stellar. In 2018, after management failed to seriously address claims of sexual harassment by senior executives, thousands of employees walked out in protest. Reporting by Ars Technica reveals that in 2019, the company took several actions that either impeded unionization by workers or failed to follow through on agreements the company had made after previous NLRB complaints (Ars Technica does not make clear the sequence in which these actions were taken):
◉Google lost an NLRB case, which was settled when the company agreed to inform employees of their rights under federal labor law—and of their right not to be retaliated against for exercising those rights.
◉Google brought in IRI Consultants, a firm well known for impeding unionization efforts.
-◉Google fired several workers during unionization attempts. Four of these workers went on to file the unfair labor practices complaint that resulted in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint upheld against the company. While Google claimed these employees were violating data security policies, the NLRB has now found that these policies were created in order to “discourage employees from forming, joining, [or] assisting a union.”
◉Google separately fired an employee who had developed a Chrome tool that would notify workers of their right to organize. This employee has also filed a NLRB complaint.
Columbia Journalism Review now reports that just this month Google fired one of the key members of its AI (artificial intelligence) ethics teams: Dr. Timnit Gebru, a Black, female researcher and founder of the Black in AI research initiative. Gebru has posted to a Google employee group, Brain Women and Allies, complaining about “all the micro and macro aggressions and harassments I received after posting my stories here” and telling others to “stop writing your documents [here] because it doesn’t make a difference… they don’t matter. Because there is zero accountability. There is no way more documents or more conversations will achieve anything.” Dr. Gebru followed this up with an email to company leadership outlining conditions that would have to be met for her to continue working at Google. Rather than engaging with Dr. Bebru, the company treated her email as a letter of resignation and fired her, effective immediately, because her posts to Brain Women and Allies “reflect behavior that is inconsistent with the expectations of a Google manager.” Some 1,200 Google employees and 1,500 academic researchers have protested her firing. S-HP
You can object to Google’s union-busting and violations of federal labor law and also insist that Dr. Gebru be rehired. Addresses and phone numbers are here.
7. Police hold scientist at gunpoint for insisting on the truth
Holding her and her children at gunpoint, police raided the home of Rebekah Jones, who was fired from Florida’s Department of Health for refusing to change information on the Department’s public portal, the Washington Post reported. Jones said that the portal undercounted cases and overcounted tests in order to justify reopening, according to the Washington Post. After she was fired, she set up her own dashboard; she also is the co-founder of covidmonitor.com, which tracks cases in schools across the U.S. Police took her computers and her phone–which she said she would replace and get back to work. A Republican lawyer resigned from a Florida judicial panel in protest, saying the raid was “indicative of the state’s ‘reckless and irresponsible’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” according to another article in the Post. On Twitter, Jones wrote, “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power.” RLS
If you want to condemn this harassment of Dr. Jones for her efforts to provide Floridians with accurate COVID-19 data, addresses are here.
SCIENCE, HEALTH, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT
8. The media are the message
In the midst of this pandemic that has resulted in almost over 1.6 million deaths worldwide and almost 300,000 U.S. deaths, too many Americans are COVID-19 deniers, refusing to socially distance and to wear a mask. The longer it takes to convince these people to take COVID-19 seriously, the longer it will take to get the disease under control. One way of accomplishing this might be a commitment by news sources to increase their coverage of what life is like for front-line healthcare workers and for patients on COVID-19 wards—and to be sure this coverage reports on a wide variety of U.S. regions, both urban and rural. The Johns Hopkins’ map makes the magnitude of the problem unmistakable. S-HP
You could ask these news outlets for increased coverage of the real life battle against and consequences of COVID-19.
9. The effectiveness of masks demonstrated
Preliminary research from the Mayo Clinic demonstrates that the combination of a mask plus a distance of six feet really does reduce the transmission of particles. However, a piece in the Washington Post piece uses infrared photography to watch breath particles; the videos you’ll see make it clear that more distance is preferable and that snug-fitting masks are more effective than regular surgical masks. RLS
10. Meat-packing workers endure bloody masks, must work while ill
We’ve reported earlier on the way meatpacking plants have become COVID-19 hotspots, on efforts to close plants or provide strict worker-safety measures, and the decision to classify meatpacking workers as essential employees, expected to continue working during the pandemic. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has now filed suit against meatpacking company Noah’s Ark Processors for its egregious disregard of worker safety, alleging that the company offers “a glaring example of the dangerous and abusive treatment meatpacking workers have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Specific allegations against Noah’s Ark Processor include:
◉pressuring workers to remain on shift when symptomatic;
◉failing to replace blood-stained masks during worker shifts;
◉failing to take any social distancing measures;
◉failing to provide onsite testing to identify emerging infection clusters. S-HP
Meatpacking work is dangerous even during healthy times. To increase its danger during a pandemic is unconscionable. You can excoriate Noah’s Ark Processors for their failure to provide reasonable pandemic protections for workers [be sure to mention the Hasting, NE plant as Noah’s Ark Processors operates many plants around the country].
The Americans of Conscience checklist offers quick, clear things you can do to feed hungry families this winter, advocate for COVID-19 relief for families and for prisoners, and volunteer to help with the Georgia runoff.