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The price — and big potential payoff — of turning Texas blue

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When Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost a Senate race to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in 2018, it was a blow not just to his political prospects but to the long-held Democratic dream of turning Texas blue.

O’Rourke, fueled by a record-breaking $80 million in individual donations, lost to Cruz by less than 3 points. Now he’s arguing that in 2020, presidential nominee Joe Biden could achieve what he failed to do — but only if Democrats are willing to pour resources into the state.

“I don’t see any signs that the national party is taking Texas as seriously as they should,” O’Rourke said in an interview in mid-August. “I don’t know that they realize the huge victory that Texas could give the national Democratic Party.”

There are now some signs Democrats are taking Texas more seriously, with the Biden campaign running TV ads and hiring staff on the ground over the past six weeks. A Democratic super PAC focused on Texas launched a month ago with an aim to augment Biden’s paid-media presence.

A drive-in Democratic National Convention watch event in Houston on August 20.
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Political analysts have said it’s only a matter of time before Texas becomes a battleground state. The state last backed a Democrat for president in 1976, and Republicans have held state legislative chambers and the governorship since 2003. But its demographics are quickly changing. Texas is becoming increasingly urban, and Hispanics are on track to become its largest population group by mid-2021, two trends that generally favor Democrats.

The long-promised transformation has been slow to arrive, however, even if the state is clearly shifting leftward: Trump won the presidential election by 9 percentage points in 2016, a much smaller margin of victory than Mitt Romney’s 16 points in 2012.

This year, the polls show former Vice President Joe Biden nipping at Trump’s heels in Texas, and Republicans are worried about their down-ballot candidates. Biden’s campaign in the state says they believe they can win in November and remake the Electoral College map for good.

“Texas is a true battleground state,” Rebecca Acuna, the Biden campaign’s Texas state director, said in a statement to Vox, “with an increasingly young, diverse, and fast-growing population and the potential to change the map for future election cycles.”

But money and effort spent in Texas are money and effort not spent in other places. There is an opportunity cost to investing in a state that is unlikely to be the tipping point to a Biden victory. He can beat Trump and win the presidency by flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania away from Republicans, and Arizona and Florida look like more favorable territory.

Still, Democrats who want the party to compete in Texas argue a strong Biden showing could help down-ballot House and state legislative races and accelerate the state’s transition to a true battleground.

A victory in Texas, O’Rourke said, would drive home the magnitude of a Biden victory and give him an unquestionable mandate: “The country would be forced to accept it in Texas,” he said, “because, even beyond the size of the Electoral College windfall, it’s psychologically so important to the national political landscape.”

Local Democrats want Biden to take Texas seriously as a battleground state

Every presidential campaign, there is speculation about one side or the other “expanding the map,” campaigning in states that would have once seemed like a long shot.

And the playing field for the Electoral College is always changing. States are considered unconquerable strongholds until, suddenly, they’re not. California voted just once for a Democrat for president between 1952 through 1988, and hasn’t voted for a Republican since; Ohio has been trending away from Democrats and toward Republicans. Trump won Pennsylvania and Michigan, which were supposed to be bedrocks in Hillary Clinton’s foolproof blue wall in the Midwest.

Barack Obama pushed his campaign into North Carolina, Missouri, and Montana in 2008. Mitt Romney made a last-minute stop in Pennsylvania in 2012. Trump campaigned in Minnesota a few days before the 2016 election.

“Expanding the map serves two purposes. The first is to keep your options open to make a move late, if the numbers move from possible to promising,” David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime political adviser, told Vox. “The second is to force the other campaign to spend to defend a must-have state for them.”

But focusing on “reach” states does come with some risks. Hillary Clinton’s campaign famously dabbled in Arizona and Texas while the candidate herself did not visit Wisconsin, a state considered a sure thing for Democrats. Losing it helped doom her White House dreams.

And big states like Texas can be a serious drain on a campaign’s money and time. Buying TV ads in the biggest markets and trying to scale up a voter turnout operation costs more in Texas than it does in Minnesota.

Joe Biden supporters take photos during the drive-in DNC event in Houston on August 20.
Go Nakamura/Getty Images

“No campaign should spend money in any state that it doesn’t think it has a reasonably good chance of winning,” Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, says. “That is even more important when looking at a state like Texas, which is just a huge money suck.”

So one line of thinking is: Don’t waste too much money or energy on Texas, when your winning Electoral College map should be built with the Midwest and maybe Arizona, Florida, or North Carolina.

“You don’t need the Texas icing to bake this cake,” Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who has advised George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell in his career, says. “The main trade-off is in money. It costs a ton to play seriously in Texas. … It’s an expensive stretch when there are other, cheaper, and more likely options on the board.”

But the 2020 election is not occurring under normal circumstances. In-person campaigning is severely limited by the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden just raised a record-breaking $365 million in August, which was $150 million more than Trump’s haul. Spending more of that money on TV ads in Florida or Michigan or Wisconsin might not make much of a difference, given that some political science research indicates diminishing returns on television once a certain level of saturation is reached.

So, the counterargument goes, why not make a play for Texas? Trump can’t win the White House without it, but more important, every dollar and minute spent there is one his campaign can’t dedicate to shoring up the Midwestern states that flipped in 2016 or trying to expand the map in its own way in Minnesota.

“Given the August numbers from at least the Biden campaign, they have plenty to spend and can afford to attempt to expand the map,” Josh Putnam, a political scientist who runs the website Frontloading HQ, says. “But that speaks to financial resources and not the candidate’s time nor attempts to mobilize voters on the ground in the more traditional ways.”

Texas Democrats think the state should be given meaningful attention.

“I think what we saw in 2018 is that it requires serious investment to make Texas competitive,” Zack Malitz, co-founder of the progressive Real Justice PAC and a former adviser on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, said. “But if you spend seriously here, Texas is a competitive state.”

Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said the party sees a clear path to victory in the state that involves holding on to their advantage in major cities and their suburbs, chipping away at Republicans’ margins in rural areas, and targeting the South Texas borderlands, where a little investment can go a long way.

Texas voter rolls have grown by 2.1 million people since 2016, 89 percent of whom the party estimates to be Democrats. Texas Democrats have shattered fundraising records and attracted a recent $6.2 million investment from the Democratic super PAC Forward Majority across 18 statehouse races, prompting the Republican State Leadership Committee to vow to exceed that investment and make Texas its “biggest spend” this election cycle.

“We’re getting the money we need, just not from traditional sources,” Rahman said.

Joe Biden campaigns at Texas Southern University in Houston on March 2.
Michael Wyke/AP

But O’Rourke worries the Biden campaign isn’t doing enough in Texas. He said that the national Democratic Party has historically only seen Texas as a “piggy bank” from which to draw funds to spend in traditional battleground states. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton raised more than $13 million in Texas, but spent only $1.5 million on ad buys in the state.

Last month’s Democratic National Convention didn’t give much airtime to Texans, despite the protests of Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. Biden has recently bought TV ads in Texas, but isn’t putting too much money behind them, making a mere $65,000 buy initially, according to the Texas Tribune.

O’Rourke and other Texas Democrats want to see more investment because they believe that — win or lose — investing time, money, and attention in Texas can pay off for Democrats in other ways too.

Where Democrats could gain ground in Texas

Democrats expect to compete in a lot of Texas races in 2020, and they hope a strong performance at the top of the ticket could trickle down. Five House races are rated toss-ups or Lean Democratic by the Cook Political Report, meaning election forecasters think Democrats have an even better chance to flip those districts than Biden does to flip the state (which they categorize as Lean Republican). Another two House elections fall into the Lean Republican category, setting up a potential blue wave across Texas if Democrats overperform overall.

If momentum for Democrats gets big enough, they could even have an outside shot at winning the state’s US Senate seat; Democrat M.J. Hegar has trailed Republican Sen. John Cornyn by single digits in some August polls. Cook has slotted the race in the somewhat competitive Likely Republican category. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is investing heavily with a seven-figure investment in the state, a record.

But Texas Democrats’ biggest priority this election cycle is winning a majority in the state House of Representatives, a goal that could be within reach with a strong performance on Election Day: Democrats need to pick up nine additional seats, all of which are Republican-held districts that O’Rourke carried in 2018.

“I think that people are going to be very surprised on election night at the number of Democrats who pull out big wins in Texas,” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said.

O’Rourke said those pickup opportunities could give Democratic voters a reason to show up at the polls and draw them back into democracy — and give Democrats more power over the 2021 redistricting process.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified 10 US House districts in Texas as targets this year. Republican Reps. Kenny Marchant in the 24th District and Pete Olson in the 22nd District are both retiring. Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a former school board member who is running to replace Marchant, could become the first Afro-Latina in Congress. And Sri Preston Kulkarni, who is vying for Olson’s seat in a district that is rapidly diversifying, has a 10-to-1 cash advantage over the Republican candidate, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls.

Republican Rep. Will Hurd, who has often spoken out against Trump’s rhetoric, is also retiring, and the race to replace him in the 23rd District between Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones and Republican Tony Gonzales will likely be close (though it appears to be tipping blue.)

And in the 21st District, Wendy Davis — a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who attracted national attention as a state senator when she held a 13-hour filibuster over restrictive new regulations on abortions — is looking to unseat Rep. Chip Roy.

Democrats are also aiming to flip the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 25th, and 31st districts.

Flipping Texas requires Democrats to overcome long-term turnout challenges

Texas has historically low turnout, especially among Hispanic voters. That’s been a major obstacle to Democratic hopes of flipping the state.

O’Rourke has often said that Texas isn’t a red state, but rather a “nonvoting state.” Turnout among eligible voters jumped significantly in 2018, spurred largely by enthusiasm for O’Rourke’s campaign to unseat Cruz, but it was still almost 4 points behind the national average, putting Texas ahead of just 10 states. In 2014, under a third of eligible voters cast a ballot.

History shows that this dismal turnout is by design.

As soon as post-Civil War Reconstruction began, the Texas state government, like many other former Confederate states, sought to disenfranchise Black and Mexican American voters in the form of a poll tax and Jim Crow laws imposing racial segregation, which persisted through the 1950s.

In 1923, the legislature instituted “white primaries” for the Democratic Party, the controlling party at the time, that excluded Black voters — a practice that the US Supreme Court finally struck down more than two decades later. And in yet another attempt to keep Black voters off the rolls, the legislature enacted a law in 1966 requiring voters to register to vote annually, which remained in effect until 1971.

Modern voter suppression in Texas has taken the form of racial gerrymandering (at times by both Democrats and Republicans). Most recently, Republicans were accused of diluting the power of nonwhite voters with their plans to redraw congressional districts in 2003 and 2011, spurring protracted legal battles. The redistricting process next year, which will begin after the results of the 2020 census comes in, will likely be similarly contentious.

Texas has also adopted the nation’s strictest voter ID law and began closing polling sites in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision vacated a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that had required that jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices, including Texas, get the federal government’s approval before changing their election rules.

Within hours of the decision, Texas implemented a law substantially restricting the kind of identification documents voters were required to present at the polls in order to cast a ballot. Some 600,000 registered voters in the state were estimated to lack acceptable ID under the law, which lower courts had previously prevented from going into effect on the grounds that it could discriminate against African American and Latino voters.

The state also started closing polling sites in a way that disadvantaged minority voters. Texas has closed about 750 polling sites since 2012, including 542 sites in 50 counties where African American and Latino populations have significantly grown in recent years. That led to long wait times at some polling sites in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods during the Democratic primaries earlier this year.

The situation isn’t likely to improve this fall, especially given that Texas has banned counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters to make it easier and safer to vote this November amid the pandemic. Harris County tried to send applications for mail-in ballots to all 2.4 million people on its voter rolls, but the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled against the move in a lawsuit filed by state Republicans.

“That shit is not accidental,” O’Rourke said. “Republicans have been really good at shrouding this racist voter suppression by saying, ‘That’s just the way shit happens in Texas,’ and it isn’t the way that they designed it to happen.”

Democrats also can’t rely on a physical presence in communities to get out the vote during the pandemic. That makes it harder to beat incumbents, who have the advantage of name recognition. (Americans for Prosperity, a super PAC with ties to the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, has nevertheless resumed door-knocking for Cornyn.)

“I think not canvassing is absolutely the right decision, but it’s definitely a disadvantage,” Malitz said.

Castro said he was still encouraged by Biden’s investment in the state so far in 2020, the largest any other Democratic presidential candidate has made in decades.

“The Texas Democratic Party right now is in a stronger position than it’s ever been this close to the election,” he said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of work to do with places like the Rio Grande Valley in voter registration and voter outreach and mobilization.”

Visitors shop at Don Caple’s roadside Trump-themed trailer in Amarillo, Texas, on July 31. Don, a staunch Trump supporter, sells T-shirts, hats, and masks while helping register people to vote.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images

To increase voter turnout and have a better chance of turning the state blue, Biden’s campaign needed to invest early in building a serious voter contact program and hiring and training staff to recruit volunteers, Malitz said. O’Rourke’s campaign, which drew 20,000 volunteers, excelled at that.

It’s expensive and requires year-round engagement, but the size of the prize in Texas means that it deserves serious attention over future election cycles, he added.

“If Biden does win Texas, it’ll be in spite of his campaign and the national party,” he said. “I’m sure that they’ll do a victory lap. But the foundation was laid by Texans. … And I hope that if it does happen, it shakes up the dynamics a bit in terms of who formulates national strategy and what we think of as being the key components of that strategy.”


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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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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.

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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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