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Despite virus threat, Black voters wary of voting by mail in this year's election

DETROIT — Despite fears that the coronavirus pandemic will worsen, Victor Gibson said he’s not planning to take advantage of Michigan’s expanded vote-by-mail system when he casts his ballot in November.

The retired teacher from Detroit just isn’t sure he can trust it. Many Black Americans share similar concerns and are planning to vote in person on Election Day, even as mail-in voting expands to more states as a safety precaution during the pandemic.

For many, historical skepticism of a system that tried to keep Black people from the polls and worries that a mailed ballot won’t get counted outweigh the prospect of long lines and health dangers from a virus that’s disproportionately affected communities of color. Ironically, suspicion of mail-in voting aligns with the views of President Donald Trump, whom many Black voters want out of office.

Trump took it a step further Tuesday, suggesting a “delay” to the Nov. 3 presidential election — which would take an act of Congress — as he made unsubstantiated allegations in a tweet that increased mail-in voting will result in fraud.

“I would never change my mind” about voting in person in November, said Gibson, who is Black and hopes Trump loses. “I always feel better sliding my ballot in. We’ve heard so many controversies about missing absentee ballots.”

Decades of disenfranchisement are at the heart of the uneasy choice facing Black voters, one of the Democratic Party’s most important voting groups. Widespread problems with mail-in ballots during this year’s primary elections have added to the skepticism at a time when making Black voices heard has taken on new urgency during a national reckoning over racial injustice.

Patricia Harris of McDonough, Georgia, south of Atlanta, voted in person in the primary and said she will do the same in November.

“I simply do not trust mail-in or absentee ballots,” said Harris, 73, a retired event coordinator at Albany State University. “After the primary and the results were in, there were thousands of absentee ballots not counted.”

In Georgia, roughly 12,500 mail-in ballots were rejected in the state’s June primary, while California tossed more than 100,000 absentee ballots during its March primary.

Reasons vary, from ballots being received after the deadline to voters’ signatures not matching the one on file with the county clerk. Multiple studies show mail-in ballots from Black voters, like those from Latino and young voters, are rejected at a higher rate than those of white voters.

In Wisconsin’s April primary, thousands of voters in Milwaukee said they didn’t receive absentee ballots in time and had to vote in person. Lines stretched several blocks, and people waited two hours or more.

In Kentucky’s June primary, more than 8,000 absentee ballots were rejected in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville.

Many people in Louisville’s historically Black West End neighborhood voted in person because they didn’t receive an absentee ballot or simply wanted to vote in a way that was familiar to them, said Arii Lynton-Smith, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Louisville.

“That’s particularly why we knew we had to have the poll rides as an option,” she said, referring to groups offering voters free transportation to polling places. “It’s not as easy to do an absentee ballot and the things that come along with it than it is to just go in person.”

Mistrust by Black voters runs deep and is tightly bound within the nation’s dark past of slavery and institutional racism.

Black people endured poll taxes, tossed ballots, even lynchings by whites intent on keeping them from voting. Over the decades, that led to a deep suspicion of simply handing off a ballot to the post office. Black people were the demographic least likely to cast votes by mail in 2018, with only 11% using that method, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, 24% of whites and 27% of Latinos reported voting by mail that year.

“For Black folks, voting is almost like a social pride because of the way they were denied in the past,” said Ben Barber, a researcher and writer for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.

Among the places where Black voters say they have had to overcome institutional obstacles is Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis. In the past, voters have received ballots for the wrong district, and groups have sued to challenge the security of electronic voting machines, invalidation of voter registration forms and failure to open polling places near predominantly Black neighborhoods.

The Rev. Earle Fisher, senior pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis and a prominent Black civil rights activist, is one of the plaintiffs in a state lawsuit calling for mail-voting access for everyone. He said he’s not pushing his community to vote by mail but wants to ensure it’s an option given the health dangers.

To ease doubts, he wants voters to be able to drop off their ballot at a polling place so they won’t have to worry about the post office delivering it on time.

“I would like to see every righteous and creative method and measure taken, but we are up against a voter suppression apparatus that oftentimes is orchestrated by, or at least sustained by, people who are elected or appointed to office,” Fisher said.

Trump has made clear he believes widespread mail-in voting would benefit Democrats. He has alleged — without citing evidence — that it will lead to massive fraud, and the Republican National Committee has budgeted $20 million to fight Democratic lawsuits in at least 18 states aimed at expanding voting by mail.

The extent to which Black voters adopt it in November is likely to be dictated by the coronavirus. As infections surge, there are signs more Black voters may be willing to consider the option. In Detroit, for example, about 90,000 requests for mail-in ballots have been made so far — the most ever, City Clerk Janice Winfrey said.

How well the option is promoted also is important. In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams’ campaign mailed 1.6 million absentee ballot requests to Georgia voters during her unsuccessful bid for governor, emphasizing that it was a safe, easy way to vote.

Record numbers of Black voters voted by mail in that election. That shows they will embrace the process if they hear from friends and family that it works, said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson praised how Abrams was able to bridge that gap but said this year is different. The model can’t be replicated nationwide before Nov. 3, he said.

“Stacey did a good job in the four years leading up to 2018 to build out a program to get it done,” Johnson said. “The runway between now and November isn’t long enough to get it done.”

Uncle Bobbie's Coffee & Books vandalized days after burglary

The popular bookshop Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books was vandalized days after the Germantown shop was burglarized.

A glass window of the shop at 5445 Germantown Ave., was broken into around 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday, according to police reports. Police did not report anything stolen from the bookstore.

The vandalism incident came after the bookstore was burglarized on Sunday around 1:30 a.m. The bookshop is owned by academic, author and activist Marc Lamont Hill.

A glass window was broken, and $650 and an iPad were stolen from inside, according to police reports.

Police said the investigation into the burglary was ongoing.

Hill did not respond to requests for comment.

Sarah Bianco, 30, said she came upon the busted out window at the Germantown bookstore early Thursday morning.

While smoking a cigarette outside the store on Friday, Bianco said broken glass covered the outside bench and interior of the store located at the corner of Germantown Avenue and Church Lane.

Bianco, who said she was in the area nearly every day, said she helped clean up the broken glass both on Thursday as well as on Sunday after the burglary.

Three windows at the bookstore were boarded up on Thursday with a sign that read “WE’RE NOT OPEN YET” posted on the door.

Hill was forced to temporarily close the coffee shop and bookstore in March after officials closed down non-essential businesses following the arrival of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the city.

Hill said in March the decision to close his doors was not easy and his priority was to help his 19 employees.

A fundraiser was set up on on March 21, which has raised more than $82,000 from 1,800 donors as of Friday. He said he will use the funds to provide relief to staff, and pay vendors and other bills, according to the fundraiser page.

Katrina Carr, who was on her way to work at a nearby business on Friday, said it was “surprising” and “frightening” that the bookstore was struck twice in one week. Carr said the neighborhood was generally a safe area.

Carr hoped the cafe and bookstore would eventually reopen, saying it offered a “quick fix” for people in the neighborhood.

Booker: Biden’s plan is more than economics, it's also racial justice

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) outlined on Friday presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan to not only restore the economy but to make it better.

The “Build Back Better” economic recovery plan for working families was introduced during a roundtable hosted by local Senator Sharif Street.

During the one-hour event, Booker outlined Biden’s plan to get the economy back on its feet in a post-coronavirus world and listened to Philadelphia-area Black and Hispanic business owners give their thoughts on the Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee’s plan.

Booker said Biden’s plan is more than economics and also about racial justice.

Curve Conscious clothing boutique owner Adrienne Ray and La Mega Radio CEO and President Victor Martinez joined to represent Black and Brown businesses across the country.

Earlier this week Philadelphia businesswoman Jenea Robinson was featured in social media videos for Biden’s campaign.

“We see a vacuum world leadership in this time and a colossal failure making this economic crisis worse,” Booker said. “We know that this virus is also exposing the fragility of our society where we fall short of being who we say we are as a nation of liberty and justice for all.”

The senator said communities of color are most often the hardest hit during times of economic crisis.

“We know that Black and Brown Americans are more likely to have been laid off and had their hours slashed during this crisis,” he said. “We know that Black-owned and Brown-owned businesses have been more likely to close.”

Booker said this is especially true in Pennsylvania when it comes to pandemic recovery help.

“We know that here in Pennsylvania and America, as a whole Black- and Brown-owned businesses have been far less likely to receive those PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans in general,” he said.

Adrienne Ray, owner of Curve Conscious, said that while talking about inclusion is great, the real healing starts with implementation.

“Equity Plans are great but they have to be more than words,” Ray said. “Joe Biden’s campaign has put that into action. Look at someone like Miss Sanders, I believe. She’s one of Biden’s campaign managers or organizers. He decided to hire a black woman, put her in place to help him and the staff to understand the needs of the Black and Brown communities.”

The plus-size shop owner said she likes what she has seen so far from Presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden’s campaign.

“I like the plan he put forth a few days ago,” Ray said. “It really reflects the work done in the campaign, that’s what speaks loudest to me, a plan that gives folks a seat at the table.”

Martinez said the next president needs to be more inclusive.

“This election is important for us, for our mental health, for our physical health, for our peace of mind and to be able to get up tomorrow morning,” the CEO said. “We need to know that we have a president that is going to be looking out for us, protecting us, defending us and trying to look out for all of us.”

Booker stressed the importance of the upcoming election and how the election is bigger than any one political party.

“This is not about Democrat, Republican, left or right, it is a moral moment and about right or wrong, it’s about understanding the now more than ever,” he said. “We have got to unify this country, lock arms and march forward to a much better tomorrow.”

Fauci confident virus vaccine will get to Americans in 2021

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that he remains confident that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by early next year, telling lawmakers that a quarter-million Americans already have volunteered to take part in clinical trials.

But if the future looks encouraging, public health alarms are still going off in the present. Officials testifying with Fauci at a contentious House hearing acknowledged that the U.S. remains unable to deliver all COVID-19 test results within two or three days, and they jointly pleaded with Americans to comply with basic precautions such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and washing their hands frequently.

Those simple steps can deliver “the same bang for the buck as if we just shut the entire economy down,” said a frustrated Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that he has studies to back that up.

Looking ahead, Fauci said he’s “cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021. I don’t think it’s dreaming ... I believe it’s a reality (and) will be shown to be reality.” As the government’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Under White House orders, federal health agencies and the Defense Department are carrying out a plan dubbed Operation Warp Speed to deliver 300 million vaccine doses on a compressed timeline. That will happen only after the Food and Drug Administration determines that one or more vaccines are safe and effective. Several candidates are being tested.

Don’t look for a mass nationwide vaccination right away, Fauci told lawmakers. There will be a priority list based on recommendations from scientific advisers. Topping the list could be critical workers, such as as medical personnel, or vulnerable groups of people such as older adults with other underlying health problems.

“But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021,” Fauci said.

Fauci, Redfield, and Department of Health and Human Services “testing czar” Admiral Brett Giroir testified at a moment when early progress against the coronavirus seems to have been frittered away. High numbers of new cases cloud the nation’s path. The three officials appeared before a special House panel investigating the government’s pandemic response, itself sharply divided along party lines.

Nearly 4.5 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 150,000 have died. In recent weeks the virus has rebounded in the South and West, and now upticks are being seen in the Midwest. Testing bottlenecks remain a major issue.

Asked if it’s possible to deliver coronavirus test results to patients within 48 to 72 hours, Giroir acknowledged “it is not a possible benchmark we can achieve today given the demand and supply.”

But rapid, widespread testing is critical to containing the pandemic. It makes it easier for public health workers to trace the contacts of an infected person. Delayed test results only allow more people to get infected.

Giroir said a two- to three-day turnaround “is absolutely a benchmark we can achieve moving forward.”

While hospitals can generally deliver in-house test results within 24 hours, large commercial labs that do about half the testing for the country take longer, particularly if there’s a surge in new cases.

The latest government data shows about 75% of test results are coming back within 5 days, but the remainder are taking longer, Giroir told lawmakers.

The bitter politics surrounding the U.S. response to the coronavirus was evident at the hearing by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

As the health officials were testifying, President Donald Trump in a tweet repeated a false claim that high numbers of U.S. cases are due to extensive testing. Committee Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C., tried to enlist Fauci to rebut the president.

And Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio tried to press Fauci into saying that demonstrations against police violence toward Black Americans spread the virus and should be curbed. Fauci didn’t bite.

“You make all kinds of recommendations,” Jordan said, taking aim at Fauci. “You made comments on dating, baseball, and everything you can imagine ... I’m just asking should we try to limit the protesting?”

Fauci said it’s not his role to opine on curbing political protests. But Jordan shot back, noting that church services have been shut down due to virus precautions, and implying that Fauci has a double standard on two First Amendment rights, religious liberty and freedom of expression.

“I’m not favoring anybody over anybody,” Fauci answered. “And I don’t judge one crowd versus another crowd. When you’re in a crowd, particularly if you’re not wearing a mask, that induces the spread.”

Some Trump supporters have urged the president to sack Fauci, and the president’s tweet raised the stakes.

During the hearing Clyburn had displayed a chart showing rising cases in the U.S. juxtaposed with lower levels across Europe. That caught the president’s eye.

Trump tweeted: “Somebody please tell Congressman Clyburn, who doesn’t have a clue, that the chart he put up indicating more CASES for the U.S. than Europe, is because we do MUCH MORE testing than any other country in the World.”

Clyburn turned to Fauci for a real-time fact check.

“Now Dr. Fauci,” the chairman intoned, “do you agree with the president’s statement, or do you stand by your previous answer that the difference is caused by multiple factors including the fact that some states did not do a good job of reopening?”

Fauci answered directly.

“I stand by my previous statement that the increase in cases was due to a number of factors,” he said. One was “that in the attempt to reopen, that in some situations, states did not abide strictly by the guidelines that the task force and the White House had put out.”