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Federal judge blocks a Texas order limiting ballot drop-off locations

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A federal judge has blocked a Texas order that limited the number of drop-off locations for mail-in ballots to one per county.

That order was put in place on October 1 by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott when he issued a proclamation that allowed for only one drop-off location in each of Texas’s 254 counties, regardless of population or geographic size. Abbott cited election security as a justification for the order. But it eliminated multiple drop-off sites available for Texans; for instance, Harris County — the third most populous county in the country — had to shut 11 of its 12 drop-off sites.

Abbott’s decision immediately drew legal challenges from advocates and voting rights groups, who sued to reinstate the drop-off locations, arguing that Abbott changing procedures in the middle of the election — after people have already started requesting their ballots — put an unreasonable burden on voters and ultimately undermined faith in the electoral process at this late stage.

US District Court Judge Robert Pitman sided with those groups, saying that Abbott’s order put an undue burden on older voters and voters with disabilities, who make up the majority of absentee voters in Texas. Pitman wrote that Abbott’s restrictions would cause “absentee voters, if they choose not to return their ballots in person to avoid exposure to Covid-19, to face the risk that their ballots will not be counted if the USPS is unable to timely deliver their ballot after it’s been requested or unable to timely return their completed ballot.”

“These burdens fall disproportionately on voters who are elderly, disabled, or live in larger counties,” Pitman wrote.

This battle over Texas drop boxes represents just one of the fights over voting in the state this election season, and one of hundreds of legal challenges over elections across the country.

Friday’s decision was a victory for voters, and for advocates and some county clerks in Texas, who wanted to see the drop-off locations reinstated. The governor’s office is likely to appeal the decision. (Vox contacted Abbott’s office for comment, and we will update when we hear back.) So the fight over these drop-off locations is not quite over, and the final outcome could make a difference in how easy it is for Texans — particularly older ones — to vote in this unprecedented election year.

The fight over the Texas drop-off locations, explained

The Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, right in the middle of primary season and ahead of a contentious general election. All states had to consider the administration of their elections, whether by adopting additional safety protocols for in-person voting and vote-counting, expanding mail-in voting, extending deadlines for ballot counting, or implementing cure processes so voters could fix mistakes on their mail-in ballots.

In Texas, Abbott expanded the state’s early in-person voting period by nearly a week; it will now begin October 13. That proclamation also expanded the period when Texas voters could deliver their mail-in ballots in person to the clerk’s office. Previously, voters had only been allowed to drop off mail-in ballots to the county clerk’s office on Election Day.

Voting by mail in Texas is still pretty restricted: Unlike other states, Texas did not loosen its mail-in voting requirements, which only allow people to vote absentee who are over the age of 65, who have a physical disability or ailment, or are in jail or temporarily out of the county. Texas Democrats tried to challenge the age rule, but the courts denied the change. (There have also been other lawsuits around mail-in voting, including a recent one where the Texas Supreme Court blocked Harris County from sending mail-in ballot applications to registered voters.)

So the Texas drop-off locations are strictly for absentee voters to hand-deliver their ballots, offering an alternative for those who do not want to send their ballots through the United States Postal Service because of questions about the USPS’s capacity to handle the influx of election ballots this year, or who just want to know, for sure, that their ballots have been received by election officials.

In Harris County, for example, 11 locations drop-off locations were clerk’s offices around the county. The Harris County clerk’s office designated the 12th spot, at NRG Arena, as the main drop-off headquarters because, an official told me, it allowed for social distancing and more space to process applications in what was expected to be record election turnout. Travis County, another blue-leaning area, had four drop-off locations.

But on October 1, Abbott said, sorry, one drop-off location only. According to a court filing made on Wednesday, Abbott argued that no Texas counties, except for Harris County, had ever had multiple drop-off locations before the July 2020 primary.

Abbott’s administration argued that having multiple drop-off locations was bad for election security, arguing in a court filing that they provided “inconsistent safeguards to preserve the integrity of the election, such as a lack of poll watchers overseeing ballot deliveries.” It also claimed that “election fraud, specifically vote-by-mail election fraud, has proven to be a frequent and enduring problem in Texas.”

Advocates, however, say this security argument is not grounded in reality. Each drop-off location is staffed with sworn clerks, and voters must show a valid ID and give their signature at all locations.

“There was no legitimate justification to reduce the number of ballot drop-off locations,” Ravi Doshi, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups bringing a legal challenge, told me before Friday’s ruling. “That has been said by county election officials, who are the ones that actually administer this election.”

Doshi added that some county clerks see the drop-off locations are more secure since the ballots are going directly into the hands of election officials, avoiding the middleman of the USPS, and voters have to provide identification when they drop off their ballot.

Voter fraud in general is rare, and Texas’s attempt to investigate voter fraud unraveled after reviews of the citizenship status of voters swept up thousands of legitimate voters. Abbott has echoed President Donald Trump’s false claims about fraud in mail-in voting, but many of the fears he has highlighted — say, someone filling out a ballot for someone else — are highly unlikely to happen at drop-off locations given the ID requirements.

Rather than being about election integrity, voting advocates say Abbott’s order was created to disadvantage populous counties by making drop-off sites difficult to access and increasing wait times.

“It is just plain and simple voter suppression,” Grace Chimene, the director of the League of Women Voters of Texas, one of the groups that joined a lawsuit against Gov. Abbott, told me earlier this week. “There is no other word — and it’s voter suppression that impacts people with disabilities and elderly voters.”

Harris County, for example, represents about 14 percent of Texas’s entire electorate, with 2.4 million registered voters. Harris and Travis counties — where Houston and Austin are located, respectively — also have large swaths of Democratic voters, including many Black and Latino voters.

Luis Roberto Vera, senior legal adviser to League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), another party to the Texas litigation, told me earlier this week that Abbott’s order is directly targeting Democratic strongholds, and the many Black and Latino voters in those districts. They want, he said “people who aren’t going to vote for Republicans, not to cast their vote. That’s all this is designed for.”

The constant changing of the rules and locations is also confusing, complicating attempts by voters to make and execute plans. This, advocates say, is part of the goal: not just to make it more difficult for people to vote by eliminating locations, but to make the process so convoluted that it may depress turnout.

“If you can’t find a good rationale based on security,” Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School and former Justice Department official who worked on voting rights cases, told me, “And you can’t find a good rationale based on administrative necessity, then what you’re left with is the rationale which is, ‘We’re doing this, because we believe they’ll help us get reelected by ensuring that fewer people are able to cast votes.’”

Judge Pitman ultimately agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments, that shuttering the drop-off locations would disproportionately burden voters who are older or have disabilities in large population centers. He also called Abbott’s arguments about security a “pretext,” finding that Abbott’s order did not promote security, since all of the drop-off locations follow the same protocol.

“On the one hand, the State argues that satellite ballot return centers cannot be used during the early voting period because of ballot security concerns,” Pitman wrote. “Yet, the State authorizes counties to use satellite ballot return centers on Election Day without regard to those ballot security concerns. It is perplexing to the Court that the State would simultaneously assert that satellite ballot return centers do not present a risk to election integrity on Election Day but somehow do present such a risk in the weeks leading up to November 3, 2020.”

Texas, a battleground

Attempts to limit the vote are often done under the guise of guarding against voter fraud, and 2020 is no different. As in Texas, officials in Pennsylvania, Montana, and New Jersey, among other states, have faced legal challenges citing fraud and security on new voting accommodations.

Using allegations of voter fraud to restrict voting isn’t new, even if GOP attacks on mail-in voting are outsize in a year when many millions more voters plan to vote by mail — and in an election where the president is currently trailing in many polls.

But what’s happening in Texas, and really across the country, has deeper roots. Changes in voting procedure — particularly changes that could expand the electorate or make it easier to vote — are often seen as threats to those with easy paths to election and reelection under the status quo.

“The common element, unfortunately, is incumbents terribly interested in clinging to power and attempting to use their incumbency, to rewrite the rules for the election process in a way that changes the electorate, rather than changing hearts and minds of voters,” Levitt said.

Texas is no different. Its changing demographics and politics mean the state is trending bluer in a way that could remake the electoral map. Trump remains ahead in most Texas polls, but Democratic candidate Joe Biden is not far behind, and he’s investing money there.

This political context matters for Texas’s case. The state is “becoming much younger, much more ethnically and racially diverse, and much more common,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor and expert in Texas politics at the University of Houston, told me. “Those voters are more likely to support Democrats.”

Using voting rules to entrench power has historically been a bipartisan exercise, but Republicans are upholding that legacy in Texas right now. The Republican-controlled legislature has used its power to try to add constraints on how Texans can vote, particularly over the past decade or so. “I can definitively say that Texas does not make it easy to vote,” Rottinghaus said. “And it is happening concurrent with massive changes in Texas politics.”

This context helps makes sense of why Texas would attempt to shut drop-off locations in areas where they’re needed the most. But some advocates have argued that the attempt to shut down the drop-off locations and other battles over making it easier to vote in the pandemic may backfire, motivating voters rather than turning them away.

“I know that voters really care a lot about this election,” Chimene, of the League of Women Voters of Texas, said, “And they’re not going to let anything stand in their way of voting in this election.”


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Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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