Friday, November 06, 2020

Ballot measure roundup: Coloradans approve restoration of gray wolves, paid family and medical leave

Colorado voters approved the restoration of gray wolves and mandated paid family and medical leave Tuesday, the first time any state has done such things in a referendum, on Tuesday.

Those were just two of 184 statewide ballot measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Here are a few others, courtesy of NCSL:
  • Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota approved efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, while voters in South Dakota and Mississippi approved medical marijuana programs.
  • Oregonians decriminalized small amounts of certain controlled substances, such as heroin and cocaine, and the Beaver State also legalized psilocybin—become the first state ever to do so. The drug comes from mushrooms and is used in rituals by some Native American tribes.
  • Ranked-choice voting, which was adopted in Maine recently, failed in Massachusetts and looks likely to fail in Alaska.
  • Virginia voters adopted a redistricting commission, and that change means most states will now have a commission of some kind, though some are merely advisory, or only come into being if the legislature fails to pass maps.
  • Voters approved taxes on tobacco and electronic-cigarette products in Colorado and Oregon. Washington will require public schools to provide comprehensive sex education beginning in 2022. 
  • California voters rejected stricter parole and sentencing policies and stopped the legislature’s efforts to replace cash bail with pretrial risk assessments.
  • Kentucky passed Marsy’s law, the crime victims’ bill of rights.
  • Florida voters raised the minimum wage.
  • An effort to overturn California’s affirmative action ban failed.
  • Two “Stand Your Ground” Rights measures pass in Alabama.
  • Mississippians approved the state’s new magnolia flag design, which was put before voters after the legislature decided to replace the previous flag feature the confederate battle emblem.

Election misinformation is widespread; local news media could help with fact-checking

Misinformation about the election has been running rampant on social media since the election, driven mainly by President Trump and his allies. "This is a critical time for local news organizations to call out misinformation about the election," said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Karen Mahabir, the fact-check and misinformation editor for The Associated Press, said "It's been a really busy time for us." Much of the misinformation she and her team are seeing right now center on ballots and the voting process, AP reports. 

Mahabir said that, in the coming days, "I think we’re going to see a lot more claims that are focused on the states that are still counting the votes. We’ll see anecdotal situations that are probably going to be blown out of proportion. All of this is kind of typical. It’s taking reality and twisting it into something that it’s not, creating an impression of impropriety."

Trump and his allies are boosting the signal for false claims and conspiracy theories from others, Matthew Rosenberg, Jim Rutenberg and Nick Corasaniti report for The New York Times. They say Fox News and conservative talk radio have helped spread Trump claims.

Social media platforms have stepped up efforts to curb misinformation, Mahabir said, but it remains to be seen how much impact such efforts will have, the AP reports.

For a better understanding of how misinformation and disinformation are affecting this election, tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET Nov. 18 for a News Literacy Project webinar. Host Darragh Worland will moderate a panel discussion featuring Jane Lytvynenko of BuzzFeed News and Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

In the meantime, here are some trustworthy fact-checking sources:

Drug distributors, J&J agree on $26 billion opioid settlement, but lawyer for W.Va. local governments says it's not enough

The nation's three major drug distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson "are closing in on a $26 billion deal with state and local governments that would end thousands of lawsuits over the companies’ role in the opioid epidemic," reports Jan Hoffman of The New York Times. "The deal is $4 billion more than an offer made a year ago, that was rejected by many states and municipalities. A major difference in the latest offer is $2 billion earmarked for private lawyers who represent cities, counties, and some states."

But now those lawyers have to get their clients to accept the deal, and in West Virginia, probably the state most damaged by opioids, there is resistance. The state government settled its part of the case long ago, but local governments still have their own lawsuits in federal court, and one by the City of Huntington and Cabell County is set for a bench trial Jan. 4. "The lead lawyer, Paul T. Farrell Jr. has not agreed to the offer," the Times reports.

“West Virginia fully supports the national settlement on behalf of every other state,” Farrell told the Times. “It’s just not good enough for us.” Eric Eyre of Mountain State Spotlight notes, "The companies have made clear that they want a national deal that resolves all lawsuits against them, not a patchwork of settlements."

The proposed settlement involves four of the top defendants in the nationwide litigation: J&J, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. "Other drug manufacturers and the national pharmacy chains are still facing thousands of such cases," the Times notes. "Most of the money from the settlement deal is intended to help pay for treatment and prevention programs in communities ravaged by addiction and overdoses."

"West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, and overdoses have increased this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to preliminary data from the state Office of Drug Control Policy," reports Eyre, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his opioid coverage and wrote a book about it, Death in Mud Lick.

Rural Democratic officeholders are effectively extinct in Oklahoma, probably in many other rural areas too

Shift in presidential margins, 2016-20; blue arrows show Democratic shift and red arrows Republican. Arrow length is strength of shift. New York Times map; click image to enlarge it or click here for interactive version with county-level data.

One thing the 2020 election has made clear: rural areas are becoming increasingly Republican.

In Oklahoma, for example, Democrats controlled the state legislature for nearly a century, mostly with lawmakers from rural areas (though it should be noted that "Democrat" has not always meant "liberal"). But "on Tuesday the party transition in Oklahoma became complete when the last Democrat from a rural district lost his reelection bid while the GOP picked up five more House seats to extend its advantage over Democrats to 82-19," Sean Murphy reports for The Associated Press.

Matt Meredith, a two-term state representative who lost his seat to a Republican challenger by more than 10 points, said he was swept up in the tide of Oklahomans voting for national politics. "There were mailers sent out with me and (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and me and (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer," Meredith told the AP. "I've never even met Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer."

Trump solidified Republicans' hold on rural Iowa, possibly helped by messaging about the economy. "The president dominated in rural counties that he took from the Democrats four years ago," Chris McGreal reports for The Guardian. "Opinion polls said that in recent weeks voters’ primary concern shifted from coronavirus to the economy which helped swing independent voters the president’s way to supplement his core support."

Though Iowa was not a critical state for Biden, "his failure to significantly reduce the size of Trump’s 2016 victory there is evidence that the Democrats failed to persuade swaths of rural America that the party had much to offer them or was even paying attention to their communities and concerns," McGreal reports.

Trump saw only weak rural gains from 2016 in crucial battlegrounds Michigan and Wisconsin, which helped flip those states blue, Tim Marema, Tim Murphy and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder.

Quick hits: Rural coroners often have little training; fears about food are driving shortages of canning supplies

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A rural woman's volunteer efforts to make masks have won her the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Ag Hero Award. Read more here.

In Washington state and others, many rural coroners have little to no training in forensic pathology, leading to questionable or shoddy work. Read more here.

Appalachians working to save wild ginseng from being overharvested. Read more here.

Urban and suburban fears about food-chain shortages are driving shortages of canning supplies, long a rural norm. Read more here.

A partnership between the Okeechobee County Public Library and the University of Florida Health Science Center Libraries aims to improve access to quality health information in rural areas through expanding the Little Free Library system. Read more here.

Mountain Valley Pipeline developers have once again pushed the project's completion date back and the estimated cost up. Read more here.

The Trump administration demoted Neil Chatterjee, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, after he suggested taking action on climate change. Read more here.

New research suggests treating all aspects of opioid abusers' lives to help them beat addiction

University of Kentucky researchers are working on an innovative plan to treat opioid use disorder that, they say, could help greatly in rural areas. "The researchers hope to be able to curb opioid use disorder by providing patients at infectious disease clinics with access to mental health therapists, relapse prevention services, and medications," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "The new opioid treatment is based on approaches spelled out in the groundbreaking HIV-treatment legislation called the Ryan White Care Act. That HIV treatment model provides not only medical care but mental health care, case management, social workers, and others."

Read more here.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Investigative journalists uncover public officials' racist or racially unbalanced actions in Alabama and Virginia

Two stories from the South illustrate the power of investigative local journalism to uncover questionable actions by public officials.

In Alabama, a Talladega police dog sent at least nine people to the hospital in a year spanning the summer of 2014 to 2015. A veteran police sergeant testified under oath that the police specifically wanted a dog that would attack Black residents, Challen Stephens reports for, in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

Brad Zinn of the Staunton News Leader in Virginia contrasted how two magistrates treated two defendants: a young Black man reportedly armed with a skateboard, and a middle-aged white man allegedly armed with two rifles and a handgun. Neither had a prior criminal record, 

Devin Turner, 22, was arrested after throwing his skateboard at a passing car. At his arraignment, one of the Augusta County magistrates ordered him held without bond at a nearby jail. He was eventually granted a $5,000 bond and released after spending the weekend in jail, Zinn reports.

Douglas Truslow, 57, aimed laser-sighted firearms at neighbors, including an elderly woman and a 5-year-old, and threatened to start shooting them. The sheriff's office and Charlottesville police responded. During the eight-hour standoff that followed, Truslow allegedly threatened to kill several officers. A different local magistrate gave him a $1,000 unsecured bond and he was immediately released. Truslow is the lone caregiver for his spouse, according to court records, Zinn reports.

When the News Leader asked the magistrate's office why the two suspects were treated so differently, Chief Magistrate Robyn Wilhelm said the magistrates stick to a rigid script when making bond decisions, and said neither the police nor the commonwealth attorney's office spoke up with concerns about either Truslow or Turner's bonds. Zinn reports.

Wilhelm said she couldn't comment on ongoing cases but told Zinn: "We're dealing with humans, so oftentimes there could be imperfections ... Certain judges will find people guilty of one thing but another judge ... could find someone innocent."

As covid-19 patients fill larger hospitals, small hospitals must care for critically ill patients, and that's not for the best

The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately hitting rural areas, but cases are still rising in many metropolitan areas. That means trouble for many small, rural hospitals. 

Hemphill County, Texas
(Wikipedia map)
In Hemphill County, Texas, pop. 3,807, seriously ill patients are usually transferred from Hemphill County Hospital to a larger, better-equipped hospital in Amarillo, Lubbock or Dallas. But these days, many of those hospitals are full largely because of covid-19, so critically ill patients must remain at HCH, which lacks the staffing and equipment to fully care for them, writes Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor and publisher of The Canadian Record in the county seat of Canadian (named for the Canadian River).

Hospital Chief of Staff Tony Cook said the hospital tells covid-19 patients: "We will do what we can do . . . but you will not get the standard of care you may need." He speculated that non-covid patients may have died, and will continue to do so, because the hospital was swamped with covid patients.

Hospital staff are doing what they can to prepare for the worsening pandemic. They've improvised an covod ward by draping off a hallway with plastic curtains. "They have supplemented two old ventilators with new ones, which they hope to be trained to use next week," Brown reports. "They have also ordered high-flow nasal oxygen for use in treating covid patients." The hospital has also acquired four temporary nurses to provide relief to the exhausted staff. 

"I just don't think people understand how bad it really is," Cook told Brown. "This is a critical situation. . . . People are going to die. That is the bottom line."

Brown wonders why people don't understand the seriousness of the situation by now: "Maybe all they need to do is imagine being wheeled on a gurney through those plastic curtains into the improvised covid unit at Hemphill County Hospital, because there's nowhere else to go to get the care they need."

Food insecurity worse in rural America during pandemic

Projected rates of food insecurity in 2020 (Feeding America map; click the image to enlarge it.)

"Rural areas make up a disproportionate share of the counties where residents have high levels of food insecurity, according to a national hunger-relief organization," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Research from Feeding America shows that while 63% of the counties in the U.S. are rural, 87% of those counties had the highest rates of overall food insecurity."

The trend was improving in 2019, but it's getting worse again during the pandemic because of unique challenges rural areas face. "These challenges include an increased likelihood of food deserts with the nearest food pantry or food bank potentially hours away, job opportunities that are more concentrated in low-wage industries, and higher rates of unemployment and underemployment," said the report.

Rural voters appear to have stopped the 'blue wave' in 2020 election, though the final numbers are unclear

"The 2018 mid-term election saw a blue wave that strengthened Democratic control of the House. Despite pollster speculation that the wave would continue into 2020, the scenario did not play out, with the GOP holding some key, targeted Senate races and making gains in the House," John Herath reports for AgWeb.

It's unclear how much rural voters helped President Trump and down-ticket Republicans, but "an exit poll by Edison Research for the National Election Pool reported that 54 percent of small-city or rural residents voted for Trump while urban and suburban voters favored Democrat Joe Biden," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. But Trump appeared to have coattails in other races.

"Democrats were not able to hold on," Karla Thieman of The Russell Group, a bipartisan lobbying and consulting firm focused on food and agriculture, told Herath. "The 2018 wave that they were brought in on did not last this time. And the reason they weren't able to get re-elected is in large part, at least based on the data that I've seen, the number of rural voters who turned out for Donald Trump this time."

Thieman served as chief of staff to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Krysta Harden under President Obama, and served as senior staff in the Senate Agriculture Committee for more than five years.

Though the final vote tallies aren't in yet in several states, rural and small-town voters proved decisive for President Trump in Ohio and led to House Agriculture chair Collin Peterson's defeat in Minnesota. 

Tune in on Nov. 18 for rural health chat on Twitter, just ahead of National Rural Health Day

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, the Rural Health Information Hub and the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health will co-host a Twitter chat with health experts from across the nation talking about social determinants of health in rural America. Social determinants of health are factors beyond medical care that affect health and well-being, such as education, discrimination, poverty, and more.

The Twitter chat will begin at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. It's being held in conjunction with National Rural Health Day, which is Thursday, Nov. 19. 

The chat will use the hashtags #RuralHealthChat and #PowerofRural. Click here to register for the chat or for more information, including a list of participating guests and their Twitter handles. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Strong rural support for Trump helped carry Ohio, led to defeat of House Agriculture chair Collin Peterson in Minn.

Though not all the election results are in, it seems clear that President Trump enjoyed broad rural support, sometimes enough to prove decisive in contentious races. 

Votes from small cities and rural areas helped Trump carry Ohio. He "won every category of county except the urban core counties of major- and medium-sized metropolitan areas, just as he did in 2016. He made up losses in core counties in large- and medium-sized metros with strong support in suburbs of those urban areas.Tim Marema and Tim Murphy report for The Daily Yonder. "His advantage of more than 2 to 1 with voters in small metros (less than 250,000 residents) and rural areas put him over the top. In small metros and rural areas, Trump ran up a 560,000-vote lead, and that margin gave him statewide lead of about 470,000 votes."

Another sign of how Trump has made rural America more Republican: House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson, a Blue Dog Democrat from Minnesota, lost his seat after three decades in the House. The winner, Michelle Fischbach, is "a well-financed Republican and former Minnesota lieutenant governor endorsed by President Trump," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. The result wasn't entirely unexpected; Peterson was said to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the House before the election, since his district is strongly conservative. But at a time when the top of the ticket increasingly drives voter choices, Trump probably made the difference.

It's unclear as of publication time whether Trump's rural edge will help him carry the battleground states that helped win him the election in 2016. By late Tuesday evening, "it became clear the high numbers of mail-in ballots in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- which collectively account for 46 electoral votes -- would likely decide the election. Trump carried those three states by close margins in 2016 predominately because of strong support in rural counties," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Among some states Democrats hoped to flip, Trump maintained strong support among rural county totals in general, which helped him hold on to Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas despite polls suggesting Democrats could take those states. Georgia and North Carolina were both leaning Trump's direction early Wednesday morning, but neither state had declared a winner."

Most rural counties lost jobs from Sept. 2019 to Sept. 2020, but metro counties did worse; see county-level data

Map shows percentage change of employment rate from September 2019 to September 2020, compared to the national average of 6.47% loss during the 12-month period. Daily Yonder map; click here for the interactive version.

Most U.S. counties had fewer people working in September 2020 than in September 2019, but rural counties lost a smaller percentage of jobs than the largest metropolitan counties, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics employment figures. That's likely because jobs in many rural areas, especially those that rely on agriculture instead of tourism, are somewhat insulated from nationwide employment trends. 

"In fact, rural counties are slowly adding jobs as the country’s major metro areas continue to struggle," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "Rural counties lost a little over 4% of the jobs they had in September 2019. In contrast, the metropolitan counties that contain the urban centers of cities of a million or more people have lost nearly 8% of the jobs they had a year ago. The nation as a whole lost 6.5% jobs over these 12 months."

In September 2019, the average unemployment rate in major metropolitan areas was at or below 3.5%, slightly lower than in rural counties. But in September 2020, the unemployment rate in rural counties was 6%, compared to 9.7% in the central counties of the largest cities, Bishop reports. Click here for more analysis, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Difference in rural and urban mortality rates will be topic of Nov. 16 webinar

On Monday, Nov. 16, the Rural Health Information Hub will host a webinar with a panel of experts discussing National Center for Health Statistics research on rural-urban differences in mortality, including suicide, alcohol-related deaths, motor vehicle traffic deaths, and drug overdose deaths. the webinar will also feature insights from a program to reduce substance-use mortality in rural Pennsylvania.

The webinar will begin at 3 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. Admission is free, but registration is required. If you're unable to attend, a recording will be made available afterward. Click here for more information, including a list of featured speakers.

Upcoming reapportionment and redistricting make statehouse races even more important this year

The nation's attention is focused largely on the presidential and Senate races, but more than 5,000 state legislative races are arguably as important, collectively, Sabrina Tavernise writes for The New York Times. For one thing, this is a census year. In most states, that means that whoever wins control of a state's legislature in this election will be in charge of "redrawing state and national electoral maps next year, an exercise that can give one political party a deep and enduring advantage in lawmaking for years." 

After their electoral gains in 2010, Republicans used their power in statehouses to disproportionately empower rural voters in redistricting. Before legislatures redistrict, the census will determine how many seats in the U.S. House each state will get.

Tavernise notes that state legislatures will also decide critical issues relating to abortion, guns, police funding and accountability, schools, health care, and the pandemic.

Pandemic highlights need for better rural broadband

"Talk about pouring salt into an open wound. Even prior to covid-19, everyone knew the state of rural broadband was not good. What this pandemic did was not only expose how deep the digital divide truly is between rural residents and their city cousins but also widened it by a country mile," Steve Cubbage writes for AgWeb. Cubbage is a consultant who helps farmers implement tech solutions. "As business, school and nearly all aspects of daily life for most Americans went virtual and online, this shift put an unbelievable amount of strain on the communication infrastructure that we depend on to function as a modern society. Rural areas were much less prepared for this accelerated warp-speed digital transformation."

Cubbage shares some blunt illustrating numbers:

  • Americans relied way more on broadband in 2020: Digital conference software Zoom's parent company saw a nearly 600% increase in its stock in 2020, online gaming activity increased nearly 115%, and Netflix usage jumped 40% during the pandemic, all of which require broadband.
  • 60% of farmers say they don't have enough internet connectivity to run their business, and more than 50% said their farms can't implement the latest agricultural technology without better broadband. 
  • According to the most conservative estimates, at least 21.3 million Americans, or 6.5% of the population, lacks broadband access. However, that's according to the Federal Communications Commission's maps, which are widely acknowledged to be faulty. Third-party research indicates the real numbers are at least twice as high.
  • The new 5G network is supposed to operate 20 times faster than the current 4G LTE network, but 5G requires more relay stations and is much more expensive to implement. That could be a problem in cash-strapped rural areas.
  • The federal government spent $47.3 billion on rural broadband improvement programs between 2009 and 2017, but rural areas still lag substantially in connectivity. 
Cubbage expresses doubt that the federal government is spending its money wisely on rural broadband, insinuating that major telecoms companies have not delivered on their contracts. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Emboldened right-wing militias, with many rural adherents, are an increasing threat, Dept. of Homeland Security says

Emboldened far-right militias, many dominated by rural residents and some affiliated with white supremacy groups, are increasingly threatening racial-justice protests, intimidating voters and more.

"Throughout the West and beyond, in a summer marked by protests seeking racial justice, armed vigilantes also have shown up at Black Lives Matter events in small towns and big cities alike. Their presence in some places has the tacit support of law enforcement or even local elected officials," Erika Bolstad reports for Stateline. "Now, experts who monitor right-wing vigilantes and white nationalist organizations are on even higher alert for the possibility of violence at political rallies. They also fear vigilantes or armed groups might show up at ballot drop-off locations and outside of Nov. 3 polling places to intimidate voters and increase paramilitary activity afterward if election results are disputed or seen as illegitimate."

During a presidential debate, President Trump urged supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully" and told white nationalist group the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," which their leader interpreted as a call to intimidate voters, according to his social media posts, Stateline reports.

Election officials across the nation have stepped up training and strengthened ties with local law enforcement to prepare for possible violence or intimidation. Still, threats have persisted. Voter intimidation has been reported in several rural areas in Oregon, from individuals who were armed or blocking ballot dropboxes with vehicles, Lizzy Acker reports for The Oregonian. And in Georgia, a rally was canceled after threats of a large militia presence.

However, sometimes militias have tacit or explicit support from local officials. In Virginia, a few rural counties have officially recognized local militias as organizations that enhance public safety and security, Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post.

Federal authorities are paying attention, especially to militias affiliated with white supremacist ideology. "White supremacists represent the top and most lethal domestic terror threat to Americans, the Department of Homeland Security said Oct. 6, when it released its first-ever Homeland Threat Assessment," Bolstad reports.

It is easier for paramilitary groups to form and act in the U.S. than in other countries because of easier access to firearms, writes Vasabjit Banerjee for policy magazine Just Security. Banerjee, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, studies insurgencies in developing nations. The increase in militias and other paramilitary groups in the U.S. is cause for concern, he writes. 

Mask-mandate decision, punted to local Iowa officials by governor, causes political upheaval in at least one county

Dubuque County, Iowa (Wikipedia map)
The question of whether to wear masks in public has unexpectedly become a political issue in one Iowa county, and likely in others across the country, Dan Diamond reports for Politico.

The issue was politicized from the beginning, after President Trump expressed disdain for masking early on in the pandemic, even after leading scientists supported it, Diamond notes. In June, Vice President Mike Pence said each state could decide its masking policy. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, refused to enforce a statewide policy, saying it was a "feel-good" measure that wouldn't save lives.

That left major debates on pandemic response with county and small-town officials, "who have little or no formal health training, may be working as volunteers or part-time and admit to scrounging the internet as they try to shape what experts portray as life-and-death choices," Diamond reports.

In Dubuque County, the all-volunteer health board has been urging the county supervisors to mandate masks since early August. Since then, the county's coronavirus infections have more than tripled and deaths have more than doubled, Diamond reports. But two of the three supervisors have sided with Wayne Kenniker, a local utility owner and small-town mayor who opposes such a mandate.

Now more than a dozen small-town mayors in the county "have banded together to cast doubt on the legal authority of a mask mandate and the health board's own procedures," Diamond reports. In an Aug. 26 letter to the supervisors, the mayors wrote that a mask mandate "would demonstrate a use of questionable authority and it would undermine the core values that define rural Iowa."

The masking debate "has animated the politics of a state that was thought to be in the bag for President Donald Trump but now appears to be a seesaw battle, with Trump making a last-minute visit to Dubuque on Sunday," Diamond reports. Kenniker "worried that a mask mandate would eventually lead to a vaccine mandate too. He also cast doubt on the county's official covid-19 data, claiming the figures were inflated to inspire fear and even make Trump look bad."

Rural counties break virus-case record for 6th straight week

New coronavirus infections by county, Oct. 25-31
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The coronavirus pandemic "continued its rapid spread in rural America last week, setting a record for new infections for the sixth consecutive week and placing three out of every four rural counties on the red-zone list," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. New infections reached 110,130 for the week of Sunday to Saturday, October 25-31, an increase of 16% from the previous week. An additional 154 rural counties were added to the red-zone list last week, bringing the total to record high of 1,502."

The White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red-zone counties as those with at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people in a week.

"October has been the worst month so far for the spread of covid-19 in rural counties," Murphy and Marema report. "Covid-related deaths totaled 5,950 in rural counties during the month, an increase of 30 percent from September. During the same period, deaths in medium and large metropolitan areas declined by 11%."

Coronavirus-related deaths fell slightly last week from 1,558 to 1,535. A disproportionate number of those deaths, and new infections, are rural. "Although about 14% of the U.S. population lives in nonmetropolitan counties (which is the definition of rural this story is using), 20.5% of the new cases and 24.3% of the new deaths occurred in rural areas," Murphy and Marema report.

Click here for more data and insights, including an interactive map showing the latest county-level data.

Amazon reportedly planning new service for rural deliveries, cutting out U.S. Postal Service, which needs its money

Amazon may be looking to handle its own deliveries to rural areas rather than relying on the U.S. Postal Service, Kim Lyons reports for The Verge. "The e-commerce behemoth would rely on shipping hubs in rural areas under a plan called 'wagon wheel,' a reference to Amazon’s hub-and-spoke supply chain. In Amazon’s terminology, a wagon wheel station provides support for smaller shipping facilities."

It's unclear when or where the program would be launched, "but Amazon executives said on the company’s third quarter earnings call last week that it expects to continue putting money into its shipping and delivery infrastructure for years to come," Lyons reports.

The Postal Service received $3.9 billion in revenue from Amazon in fiscal 2019 for delivering 1.54 billion Amazon packages. That's about 30 percent of Amazon's total volume, Lyons reports. Amazon is more likely to rely on USPS for rural deliveries than its own couriers, since such deliveries are more time-consuming and thus less profitable. 

Drug overdoses on the rise in rural America

Drug-overdose deaths increased during the first months of the pandemic, especially in rural areas, according to preliminary numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase may not be correlated with the pandemic, since overdose deaths have been on the rise since before the pandemic. 

"The U.S. had record-high drug overdose deaths in 2019, according to CDC data, with opioids involved in 2 out of every 3 drug-related deaths," Noah Fish reports for the Duluth News Tribune. "If the trend shown in the most recent CDC study continues, the country will set a new record for drug overdose deaths again this year.

The biggest increase in fatal overdoses happened in rural South Dakota, where drug-related fatalities increased by nearly 50 percent," Fish reports. "There were over 19,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. from January through March of this year, according to CDC data, which is close to 3,000 more deaths than the same time frame last year."

Monday, November 02, 2020

Rural New Mexico county has picked every president since 1952; reporter spoke to locals to find out how they're leaning

Valencia County, N.M.
(Wikipedia map)
Valencia County, New Mexico, has an unusual claim to fame: it has the longest active streak of picking presidents in the nation's history. Valencia voters have correctly chosen the president in every election since 1952, a 68-year run, Tim Alberta reports for Politico.

Alberta visited Valencia and spoke to voters to see what makes it a bellwether. The county of 76,688 is mostly rural; its largest town and county seat, Los Lunas, has just over 14,000 residents. Valencia is a cultural melting pot of white, Hispanic, and Native American culture, and Alberta noted that voting preferences cut across racial and ethnic lines. 

Valencia Democrats and independents tend to be more conservative than in the rest of the U.S. One independent, Victor Lewis, said he voted for Obama twice, but increasingly felt that liberals looked down on his culture and now supports Trump. Almost all voters Alberta spoke to said they worried about climate change, but many said they felt that renewable-energy goals and environmental rules hurt the local economy and the environment, and some said they feared that Democrats would turn the U.S. into a communist or socialist country.

Valencia is showing signs of a rightward shift. "Registered Democrats used to outnumber registered Republicans here by a 2-to-1 ratio," Alberta reports. "But that gap has closed dramatically: Of the 48,824 total registered voters for this election, 18,918 are Democrats, 16,583 are Republicans and 9,353 are independents. (The small balance is made up of third-party registrants.)"

Republicans won all but one county office in 2016, though Democrats fared slightly better in the 2018 midterms. President Trump won 48% of the vote in Valencia in 2016, on par with how he did nationwide. But Hillary Clinton got 39%, nearly 10 points less than her share of the national vote. About 13% of Valencia voters went for a third-party candidate, Alberta reports.

The higher-than-average share of independent votes is unsurprising, said Valencia County clerk Peggy Carabajal; she thinks Valencia voters aren't as partisan as those in other places. "It’s kind of mind-boggling how many voters here have bounced back and forth between parties over the years," Carabajal told Alberta. "But I will say, this year seems much more polarized than it’s been in the past. It’s the pandemic, the economy, the protests—all of it.”

Valencia's not just a microcosm of the nation's votes, but of the neighbor-against-neighbor tensions that have increasingly roiled the U.S. "Whatever happens, it’s not going to be good," retired lineman Kenneth Tiger told Alberta. "I’ve already lost 30 friends in the past four years. It’s going to get worse. And I just can’t understand it. We’re not fighting a civil war over some great cause; we’re fighting a civil war over a man who has no principles and stands for nothing."

Based on his conversations with voters, Alberta predicts that Trump will carry Valencia County, but he also thinks Trump will lose the election and end the county's 68-year streak. "Maybe that means I didn’t talk to enough people. Maybe that means I didn’t go to the right places. But I think it probably means Valencia County, the most exceptional voting jurisdiction in America, a place that has resisted political tribalism for so long, is becoming like the rest of the country—predictable, polarized and loyally partisan," Alberta writes. "I hope I’m wrong. We need places that swing dramatically from one election to the next. We need voters who move frequently between parties. We need a country where fidelity to shared values trumps allegiance to partisan affiliation."

Counties that supported Trump most in 2016 are seeing higher coronavirus infection rates recently

Counties that voted by more than a 20-point margin for Donald Trump in 2016 "have a recent infection rate 75 percent higher than counties that voted by a landslide for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016," Tim Marema and Tim Murphy report for The Daily Yonder. "That could have an impact on the presidential election." Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says when polls control for party affiliation, people in places with surges in coronavirus cases are more likelier than elsewhere to say they intend to vote for Joe Biden.

Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas agreed in a Rural Assembly panel last week that Trump will win the majority of the rural vote. "But the margin is likely to be closer than the 2 to 1 gap he had in 2016," Murphy and Marema report. "Trump’s rural support has softened among women and senior citizens, primarily because of the pandemic and Trump’s leadership style, Lake and Goeas said." Click here for the full article with interactive charts. 

Wildfires threaten rural areas with expensive, lingering damage to water utilities

"When wildfires spread across California, they leave a cascade of water problems in their wake: Some communities have their drinking water poisoned by toxic substances. Others wrestle with ash and debris washed into reservoirs and lakes. And many living in remote stretches of the state struggle with accessing enough water to fight fires," Rachel Becker reports for Cal Matters. "Drinking water has been contaminated with hazardous chemicals after at least three California wildfires in recent years: in Santa Rosa after the Tubbs Fire in 2017, in Paradise after the Camp Fire in 2018 and now in parts of the San Lorenzo Valley burned by the CZU Lightning Complex Fires that began in August."

Fixing the damaged water systems can cost up to $150 million for a single small town, Becker reports.

Further complicating matters, "Towns and water agencies also are grappling with advice to give residents in fire-ravaged areas, who are confused by warnings that seem to continuously change about whether their water is safe," Becker reports. "In a state already plagued by water shortages, the problems in rural California are likely to happen again and again as climate change primes the West to burn."

Current drinking-water regulations can't handle the scope of California's problems, said one state official. “The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t have a clause like, ‘This is what you do in a fire when a community is completely burned to the ground," Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, told Becker.

Rural voters in four key swing states could help fuel key Biden victories, policy analyst writes

Net Democratic minus Republican votes by urban status; 
Brookings Institution charts; click the image to enlarge it

"The key to Donald Trump’s surprising 2016 victory was his outsized performance in nonurban parts of the electorate, especially whiter rural counties in the critical states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In 2020’s race, Trump is again focusing his attention on this base—but voting patterns from the 2018 midterms and recent surveys indicate support for him in these places could be weaker than four years ago," writes William H. Frey, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "The 2018 midterms led to a 'blue wave,' sending 40 additional Democrats to the House of Representatives. It also cut Republican voting margins in the vast majority of small metropolitan and rural counties, including those in northern battleground states."

Recent polls nationwide and in that trio of battleground states, plus Iowa, show a sharp shift among white voters towards Joe Biden and away from Trump. "Especially important for the 2020 election is the trend toward weaker Republican support in the vast majority of suburban, small metropolitan and rural counties. Among the 3,013 such counties, 2,436 showed rises in the D-R margins between 2016 and 2018. Many of these voted Republican in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, but with weaker—sometimes much weaker—Republican support in 2018," Frey reports. 

"The trends revealed here point toward an electoral pivot in rural and small towns since 2016—if not to full-throated Biden support, then certainly to weaker Trump support," Frey reports. "While the 2018 midterm elections may not be a completely accurate predicator of county-level support for the president on Election Day 2020, it does indicate weaker Republican support among many small metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties than what existed in 2016. Declining support for Trump among non-college whites in recent polls would seem to reinforce this trend."