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What poll watchers actually do, and Trump’s troubling rhetoric about them, explained

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“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen,” President Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate last month. “I am urging them to do it.”

To facilitate that, the Trump campaign has launched Army for Trump, an effort to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts, including poll watching. A Trump campaign spokesperson told Vox that it hopes to fill 40,000 poll-watching shifts, and expects to exceed their goal of recruiting 50,000 volunteer poll watchers.

This isn’t unique to the Trump campaign; the Biden campaign is also recruiting tens of thousands of poll observers.

Laws governing what, exactly, observers can do at polling stations, and who can serve as one, vary by state. Unlike poll workers, who assist and engage with voters, partisan poll watchers are mostly just that — the eyes and ears of the political parties, looking for or documenting potential irregularities that may affect the outcome for their party, candidate, or ballot initiative.

Poll watching is part of the democratic process, but it has gotten even more attention in 2020 because of the rhetoric around the election. The president has repeatedly made unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud. Trump’s ire is mostly directed toward mail-in voting, but his claims that the election may be stolen from him and calls for people to keep an eye on polls (if not exactly new) have whipped up political tensions even more and increased fears of possible voter intimidation at the polls.

Designated poll watchers — which, again, both parties have — usually have to be officially selected by a party or candidate, and often have to be registered voters, or even registered in the voting precinct they’re assigned to watch. In many cases, they are restricted from interacting with voters, but depending on the jurisdiction, they can potentially challenge the eligibility of other voters. Those kinds of objections can slow down the voting process for everyone, when some voters already face long waits at the polls.

But Trump’s rhetoric has raised concerns that partisan poll-watching activities will extend beyond these legitimate, designated poll watchers, with private citizens or even armed militia groups taking it upon themselves to police the polls.

Voter intimidation is illegal, and states have strict buffer zones around voting sites. But, as Nicolas Riley, senior counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown University Law School, told me, “Simply by virtue of the fact that the more people you put in and around the polls on Election Day, the more likely you are to have chaos and other types of shenanigans that lead to all kinds of problems.”

More than 50 million people have already cast their ballots in early voting for the 2020 election. There have been a few incidents of possible voter intimidation, most notably a report in the New York Times that said the Trump campaign was videotaping voters bringing ballots to drop-off boxes. But for the most part, Americans are successfully casting their ballots, and that’s a reassuring sign ahead of Election Day.

But there’s still a chance we could see some, well, “shenanigans.” So with that, it’s worth it to understand what poll watchers are — and aren’t — legally allowed to do. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why America even has poll watchers

Poll watchers, in the best of circumstances, are there to guarantee openness and transparency in the democratic process.

In America’s early days, elections were kind of free-for-alls, sometimes literally drunken parties, where people got together and cast their ballots in public. It was all done out in the open, which meant everyone could see or hear who their fellow citizens (then, white men) voted for. Even when paper ballots came into fashion, political parties handed them out — basically, you take the party ballot you want, put it in their box, and that was that.

But that began to change in America in the decades after the Civil War, when voting became much more professionalized. A big part of this was the adoption, in the 1880s and 1890s, of what’s known as the “Australian ballot” — or secrecy ballot — which basically scrapped the old system for something similar to what voters are used to today.

Instead of political parties running the show, state officials designate polling areas and distribute ballots with all the candidates. And, most importantly, the voter marks it in secret.

This is obviously the condensed version, but as experts told me, this is where you start to see all the different kinds of rules governing polling stations, including who can be there and who can’t. So the role of poll watchers evolved from here. Before voter registration systems were adopted, they might ID voters and, after, check their names on a list.

There was also a dark side to this: As Riley told me, some of these laws that allow voters to challenge the voting eligibility of fellow citizens came about as a result of Jim Crow-era policies, and were specifically designed to target Black voters.

But broadly, when it came to partisan poll watchers, the thinking behind it was largely that parties or candidates wanted a guarantee against any funny business that might disadvantage their candidate. Having representatives for different parties also helped ensure legitimacy — if everyone agrees on the outcome, and any potential disputes are resolved, well, that bolsters faith in electoral outcomes.

“Even though we take for granted that our elections are run according to the rules,” Larry Garber, an international elections expert and consultant at the Carter Center, told me, “I think there is still lingering concern that if no one’s watching, someone can stuff ballots or prevent people from voting or whatever. And therefore, you need to have your representatives present to prevent that kind of chicanery.”

Beyond possible chicanery, problems do happen at voting sites.

Maybe the printed ballots misspell the name of a candidate; if voters are confused, the campaign in question may want to know that. Maybe a polling place runs out of ballots for a few hours; poll watchers can document how long that lasted and how many voters might have been turned away. And they can communicate with party officials and campaign lawyers. For example, maybe the polling station was out of ballots long enough that parties might sue to keep the polling place open a little later.

Or, say some votes are discarded because a voting machine can’t read them; poll watchers might be able to note that, actually, you can clearly see what the voter marked and thus the ballots should be counted. Or if a candidate loses in a close race, they can potentially use poll watchers’ testimonies for grounds to challenge the results, and maybe demand a recount.

You get the picture. Political campaigns and parties can’t keep track of every voting precinct, so partisan poll watchers are kind of like an on-the-ground liaison for anything that might go awry.

Who is allowed to watch the polls, and what they are (and aren’t) allowed to do

Poll watchers can be nonpartisan, such as members of civic groups, or partisan. Partisan poll watchers usually represent political parties, candidates, or even ballot initiatives. Some states also allow for private citizens to observe polling places and other election processes such as testing voting equipment and examining absentee ballots. (The US allows for international poll observers, too.)

Each state has its own laws governing who can and cannot be at polling stations. When it comes to partisan poll observers, states have rules about who can be appointed. For example, many require poll watchers to be registered voters themselves, sometimes in the jurisdiction where they’re serving, or at least in the state.

Some states limit the number of partisan poll watchers, such as restricting them to one observer per party/candidate, per precinct. States usually require that observers clearly identify themselves and whom they’re representing, and no campaign swag is allowed.

States also have guidelines for which parts of the election process watchers can observe and exactly what poll watchers can do during voting. Some states may allow poll observers to watch over poll workers’ shoulders as they check IDs; others may designate locations for observers to stand close by but out of the way of the action.

Most of the time, poll watchers are not permitted to interact directly with voters, or even election officials, unless they have a specific complaint or challenge — and states all have rules on how any challenge can be made.

Poll watchers, of course, can never follow someone into a voting booth. Some states bar observers from taking photos or videos. This year, some states have also added guidelines related to the pandemic, such as asking poll watchers to wear face masks or stand 6 feet away from others.

Some states also allow private citizens to observe stages of the voting process, sometimes under similar guidelines as partisan observers, other times with slightly different restrictions. In many states, both designated poll watchers and regular citizens can challenge the eligibility of voters.

States have laws governing these types of challenges. For example, sometimes the challenger also has to be a registered voter in the precinct, or submit their request in writing. But you get the gist: different states, different rules.

Overzealous poll watchers are a concern, but probably not a huge one

There are downsides to this kind of voting transparency. Overzealous poll workers do have the potential to slow down the voting process at precincts if they’re being overly aggressive or, as is allowed in some states, challenging the eligibility of voters.

And in an election year where turnout is expected to be much higher than usual, and where polling places are seeing hours-long waits for early voting, this can just jam things up.

“You can’t object for bogus reasons, but it’s pretty easy to claim that you’re objecting for a legitimate reason, right?” Garber told me. “And that gums up the process, causes delays, creates lines, creates frustration, makes people feel like the process is somehow not working.”

Garber emphasized that polling officials who are running these sites have the power to intervene if a poll watcher is really overstepping their role or mounting frivolous challenges.

“State law varies across the country as to what level of proof the poll watcher would have to have in order to challenge the person who’s getting ready to cast their ballot,” Julie Houk, managing counsel of election protection at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me. “Some states have criminal penalties associated with making invalid or intentionally false challenges to harass or intimidate voters. But, again, that depends on the state law.”

Such challenges can potentially disenfranchise individual voters. If, say, a voter waits in line for hours only to find out they’re being challenged, they may not be able to gather the evidence they need to refute the claims, which sometimes involves providing additional identification or witness testimony. The concern is that the voter may just give up, said Houk, though she pointed out that organizations like hers are there to intervene if that happens on Election Day, to protect voters’ rights.

Some voting rights groups are also concerned that partisan poll watchers could single out certain voters for additional scrutiny, something that could be intimidating for voters, especially if a poll watcher is singling out minorities or non-English-speaking voters as ineligible.

Vincent Hutchings, a political science and Afro-American and African studies professor at the University of Michigan, told me this is especially problematic given the geographic and racial divides between the parties. “In such a world where you can visually identify — typically — someone’s racial or ethnic background, and when there’s such a high correlation between race and ethnicity and partisanship, then that is a recipe for potential disaster,” he said.

But the biggest worries over poll watchers in 2020 have less to do with the legitimate ones dispatched to voting places by their party or candidate, and more to do with, well, everyone else.

Trump’s calls to watch the polls are what people are really worried about

In September, during early voting in Virginia, a group of Trump supporters stood outside a polling place in Fairfax, shouting “four more years” as voters entered the polling station.

The laws differ state by state, but all voting sites have buffer zones around them in which people who are not in line to actually vote aren’t allowed to stand. Beyond the buffer zone, however, people can more openly electioneer — wave a Trump flag, hand out pamphlets for a Democratic candidate, etc.

In Virginia, that buffer zone is 40 feet, meaning that

During the times the polls are open and ballots are being counted, it is unlawful for any person (i) to loiter or congregate within 40 feet of any entrance of any polling place; (ii) within such distance to give, tender, or exhibit any ballot, ticket, or other campaign material to any person or to solicit or in any manner attempt to influence any person in casting his vote; or (iii) to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place.

Election officials said the Trump supporters in Fairfax were about 100 feet from the building, so outside the buffer zone. But officials still had to open up another portion of the building so voters could wait inside, just to prevent anyone from feeling as if they were being harassed.

To some, this incident looked like a potential first act in a tense and highly polarized election year, with a potential for a wave of private citizens intimidating voters at polling stations under the guise of poll watching.

Trump’s general reluctance to condemn white supremacy, as well as his comments that the far-right Proud Boys group should “stand back and stand by” on Election Day, has forced election officials and law enforcement to prepare for possible voter intimidation at the polls. (Trump later said he meant to say “stand down.”) And some militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers, have already said they will patrol polling sites on Election Day.

The fear over this “army” of poll watchers Trump is recruiting, then, might be that there will be a blurring of the lines for poll watchers, or that it might attract regular citizens or militia groups who feel called to patrol or police voting precincts for voter fraud, particularly in majority Black or brown or Democratic neighborhoods.

“And that’s the concern,” Houk told me, “where they’ve been sort of encouraged to go out and watch the polls but they don’t know what they’re watching for, because they don’t know what the law says.”

“There is a role for poll observers to observe what’s going on, and to make sure that elections are proceeding fairly,” Kathleen Roblez, a staff attorney at Forward Justice, a nonpartisan racial, social, and economic organization justice organization in the US South, told me.

“But,” she added, “I think that some of the concern of the real intimidation will come from people who are outside of the polling places, who have little bit more power and are less regulated.”

When it comes to carrying weapons, some states bar people from bringing firearms into polling stations, but it varies by state. However, it is always illegal for an individual to use a firearm to intimidate a voter.

“Even if one leaves aside the inflammatory rhetoric of the president — because, of course, it didn’t begin with him — this process of sending poll watchers, oftentimes to Democratic neighborhoods, which of course are minority neighborhoods, in many instances, is an opportunity to engage in some of the most egregious violations of people’s civil rights,” Hutchings said. “It leaves open the possibility that this could occur because indeed it has occurred before, and it’s occurred before in my lifetime, not 100 years ago.”

There are a few egregious examples in recent history, but maybe none more relevant to 2020 than what happened during a New Jersey gubernatorial race in 1981.

On Election Day, about 200 armed men, including many off-duty police, patrolled primarily minority and Democratic-voting neighborhoods like Newark and Trenton. They wore armbands and identified themselves as part of the “National Ballot Security Task Force”; some also wore Republican Party branding, according to news reports from the time. And they were the creation of, and very much linked to, the Republican Party.

“WARNING,” one of their posters read. “This area is being patrolled by the National Ballot Security Task Force. It is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws.” The posters reportedly offered rewards to people who turned in improperly registered voters.

In court documents, one of the plaintiffs, a Black woman from Trenton, said she had been asked to show her voter registration card and told by someone from the task force that she could not vote without it. The NBSTF also actively tried to drive voters from the polls, including, in one instance, chasing voters away from the polls in Newark.

That election was extraordinarily close. The Republican candidate, Thomas H. Kean, led his Democratic opponent, James Florio, by fewer than about 1,750 votes initially. A recount still put Kean in the lead, by fewer than 1,800 votes, and Florio conceded.

But even though Democrats didn’t challenge the final result, they ultimately did take Republicans, specifically the Republican Party in New Jersey and the Republican National Committee, to court for voter intimidation. Plus, before the actual intimidation at the polls, Republicans had been engaged in what’s known as “voter caging,” where they send mail to registered voters, keep track of what mail is undeliverable, and try to purge those voters from the rolls. Ahead of the 1981 election, they did this to thousands of voters in primarily Black and brown neighborhoods in New Jersey.

So civil rights activists helped gather testimony and affidavits about the NBSTF’s tactics, and the Democratic National Committee sued the GOP for voter intimidation and illegal harassment under the Voting Rights Act.

In 1982, the two sides settled, and the RNC entered into a consent decree that barred the committee from engaging in any ballot security measures that might deter qualified voters from voting.

In practice, this prevented the RNC from coordinating ballot security activities nationally; the consent decree could be enforced in court if any groups engaged in any such intimidation or harassment and the RNC was found to be behind it. It was extended in 1987 and again in 2009.

But at the start of 2018, the consent decree expired, despite Democrats’ attempts to extend it. Which means that, for the first time in decades, the RNC is not restrained by the limits of consent decree, including getting prior approval for any poll-watching activities.

“The expiration of the consent decree looms large in this election,” Angelo J. Genova, chair and managing partner of Genova Burns and one of the attorneys who represented Democrats in the litigation, told me.

The expiration of the decree meant that an incredibly powerful check on potential voter suppression was now gone. “For decades, the consent decree effectively checked the RNC and its agents from engaging in purported ballot security measures whose purpose or effect was to suppress minority voters from exercising their right to vote. This consent decree was made for this moment,” Genova said, “a moment one would think was long gone.”

For Republicans, though, the expiration meant they were finally back on equal footing with the Democrats, as they didn’t have to follow additional restrictions to their campaign activities and the RNC can coordinate nationally, something the consent decree really hindered. But as election expert Rick Hasen told NPR in 2018, there was a reason for the unequal footing. In recent years, Republicans, not Democrats, have a documented history of trying to make it harder for minority voters to vote.

Mark Krasovic, an expert in US and New Jersey history at Rutgers University, told me that beyond the threat of direct voter intimidation, the concern is that partisan election monitoring activities will be used to just slow down the process — “to gum up the works as much as you can” — and to delegitimize the electoral process.

“That was something that people were saying in ’81: It’s not necessarily that they turned people away, but they slowed things down, and people didn’t get to cast their votes,” he said. “And then just to delegitimize the entire process — to raise questions about it, to promote skepticism of the process.”

Despite concerns, voters should feel confident about going to the polls

Delegitimizing the voting process, as Krasovic said, is not a small thing. That’s partly why Trump’s rhetoric is so dangerous. It’s not just about rallying a few die-hards to the polls; it creates the specter of intimidation. If voters are nervous or fearful about voting, they may be dissuaded from doing so altogether. That, in itself, can suppress the vote.

There are very real concerns about what might happen outside polling stations, experts said, but it’s important to recognize that despite a few tense incidents so far in 2020, the worst-case predictions are not actually happening right now.

A Trump campaign spokesperson said its “poll watchers provide confidence in an election when they can say that all rules and laws were applied equally,” and added that they’re all trained in the proper conduct of a polling location or other election facility. And though not all states require trainings, the Trump campaign is providing training for everyone.

CNN reviewed 17 poll watcher training videos posted by the Trump campaign, and the instructions did not match the rhetoric of the president.

“Simply because someone has out-of-state plates or they don’t speak English, those are not reasons for a challenge,” the narrator says in the Colorado video, according to CNN. Another says to be nice to everyone, and makes clear the job isn’t to stop legitimate voters from voting. Although a video of a training in Nevada had a Trump campaign lawyer telling the group that the “the main goal is electing the boss,” he also said watchers shouldn’t interfere with voters, and should kick any issues up to the lawyers.

And in any election, there are going to be cadres of lawyers on the lookout for both sides. The Biden team is also recruiting poll watchers, and there will be tens of thousands of poll observers associated with the campaign deployed across the country, both as designated partisan poll watchers inside precincts and as volunteers outside the buffer zone, who can answer voter questions.

“We’re making sure that everybody that shows up and wants to cast their vote in person that’s eligible is able to do so, and that vote counts. We do that everywhere and anywhere we can,” Rachana Desai Martin, director of voter protection and senior counsel for the Biden campaign, told me.

In that sense, 2020 is just like any other election year. But, of course, it isn’t in a lot of ways — the biggest aberration of course being that one of the two candidates at the top of the ticket (along with many of his allies) is trying anything and everything in his power to undercut the voting process.

And, again, that includes rhetoric around poll watchers. In September, unauthorized poll watchers associated with the Trump campaign showed up at satellite offices in Philadelphia, where voters could register or drop off mail-in ballots. Election officials asked them to leave, because the satellite offices were not official polling locations but were just providing voter services.

But Trump allies, and the president, tried to gin up suspicions around the Philadelphia election officials asking the unauthorized poll watchers to leave.

Trump repeated that claim during his debate with Biden in September, saying “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” The Trump campaign also sued, but a state judge sided with the Philadelphia officials, and just this week, a higher court affirmed that ruling. But the damage was sort of done: Right-wing circles had picked up on this idea that somehow Trump campaign observers were being barred from election sites.

The poll watchers aren’t really the problem, then. It’s the misinformation and rhetoric around them. And that, more than anything, may be the most potent force in undermining the vote this year.


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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.

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


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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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