ABSENTEE BALLOT CHAOS IN BROOKLYN

Pictures (with personally identifiable information redacted) of the external envelope (addressed to me) and the internal return envelope (with someone else’s name and address on it). Note also how the ballot itself (showing through the window on the external envelope) is labeled “Absentee Military Ballot.”

Last night, a neighbor called to say that she had received her absentee ballot in the mail—but when she opened up the envelope, the name on the return envelope was my husband’s, not hers. Hubby and I immediately opened up the ballots we had also received in yesterday’s mail, hoping it was a simple mix-up and that he had received her ballot. No such luck, however. He received the ballot for someone a couple of blocks away from us.  I received the ballot for a neighbor living five doors up the block.

It turns out, of course, that we are not the only ones to whom this has happened. There are reports of this happening widely in Brooklyn, though it is not yet clear if it has affected literally all of the absentee ballots sent out in the borough of Brooklyn, or only some of them.  Unfortunately, the New York City Board of Elections has a history of mismanaging elections. For example, in 2016 over 100,000 voters were illegally purged from the voter rolls.

The NYC Board of Elections blames the snafu on the Board’s vendor, Phoenix Graphics, a commercial printing company that was hired to send out absentee ballots in Brooklyn and Queens. However, today a BOE executive said the problem was isolated to Brooklyn alone. There is no word yet on whether the vendor is also to blame for the typo that labeled the ballots “Absentee Military Ballot” (instead of Absentee/Military), which is also causing confusion among voters.

Tweet from the New York City Board of Elections.

The Daily News is reporting that the 99,477 voters in Brooklyn who received flawed ballots will get a second mailing with the correct ballot, inner envelope and return envelope. That seems like an awfully precise number: how does the DOE know the number?

Possible Impact on the Election

I have been spending a lot of time volunteering to help get out the vote. Among other things, I have been sending out texts on behalf of various nonprofits around the country urging people who are concerned about in-person voting during a pandemic to apply for absentee ballots and to return them promptly.

Many people have expressed skepticism about using absentee ballots, although the grounds for skepticism have tended to differ based on party: Republicans have said voting by mail is inherently fraudulent (“as opposed to voting by absentee ballot” I’ve heard from more people than you’d think, even though voting by mail is the same thing as voting via absentee ballot), while Democrats have been disturbed by reports about how the U.S. Postal Service may be deliberately slowing down mail delivery in an effort to prevent absentee ballots from being counted. But I have tried to allay those fears. Postal Service issues aside, mail-in voting is actually more secure than in-person voting, since there is a paper trail (and bar codes on the ballot or return envelope) that would prevent people from voting twice.

However, in the Brooklyn scenario I see several dangers. The most obvious one, of course, is that people who did not receive their absentee ballots will simply not vote. In the midst of a dangerous pandemic, many people will decide (not unreasonably) that it is not worth putting their lives—or the lives of family members—at risk by voting in person.

But what if someone sends in an absentee ballot without noticing the wrong name on the return envelope? Presumably if that person tries to vote in person, their vote will be invalidated. Moreover, in theory, I could vote twice: once using the absentee ballot in someone else’s name (preventing them from voting later), and once in person in my own name.

This almost looks like a Russian-funded Republican plot to disrupt voting in the largest Democratic city in America, doesn’t it?

I voted via absentee ballot in the primary this year, and obviously was planning to do so in the general election as well. Due to our age and underlying health conditions, both my husband and I would be at risk of an ugly death were we to contract COVID-19. Waiting in line for hours with other humans inside the gym in our local elementary school just doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do. There will be early voting available in New York starting on October 24, but even so there are likely to be large crowds.

Even with mail-in voting, I have been concerned about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver completed ballots in time, and I was planning on walking my completed ballot to the Board of Elections and submitting it personally (assuming the BOE has a secure process for receiving ballots). As a Democrat, I also know that my vote is unlikely to change Biden’s inevitable victory in New York. However, I refuse to be disenfranchised! I also think that even in New York, every vote counts in case there are Electoral College shenanigans—it needs to be clear and beyond doubt that Biden won the popular vote (by a landslide, I hope).

What Can You Do?

If you live in Brooklyn and you have also received the incorrect absentee ballot, there are a few things you can do:

  • Contact the Kings County Board of Elections at Apply4Absentee@boe.nyc, or call 718-797-8800, option 2, and they will send you a new ballot. (Email is better; nobody ever answered when I called the phone number.)
  • Please also contact Election Protection at (866-OUR-VOTE) and report that you received the wrong ballot. The more reports received, the clearer it will be that this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed globally by the BOE. Election Protection is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

What If This Happens Elsewhere?

Wherever you live, if you have applied for an absentee ballot, please check the ballot and return envelope carefully and make sure you have received the correct materials!

Go to https://866ourvote.org/state/ for election information for your state, including how to vote early where available.

Addendum

Both my husband and I were able to deliver the ballots we received to their rightful owners. And just after I initially posted this, a neighbor came by with my ballot. We have heard of other neighbors running around the neighborhood delivering misdirected ballots. How nice that people care enough to do this! It’s a bit of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy election season.

SURPRISE! KAMALA HARRIS IS ATTACKED AS NOT BLACK ENOUGH, AND NOT A “NATURAL BORN CITIZEN”

File:Senator Harris official senate portrait.jpg

Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his prospective Vice President has Republicans all in a tizzy because they clearly fear that she will be a very effective running mate. Harris checks so many diversity boxes—female, African American, South Asian, Jamaican, child of immigrants and more—that Republicans are right to be scared of how successfully she is likely to appeal to multiple demographic groups who will identify with her personal story. And this is not even to mention that she is whip-smart, an experienced campaigner, and a skilled former prosecutor who will clearly and effectively lay out the case against four more years of Whiney Donny and Sycophanty Mikey.

So naturally, Republicans are questioning both the legitimacy of Harris’ claim to be African American, and even whether she is a “natural-born citizen” (or even a citizen at all!) who is eligible to be Vice President. Because after all … what else they got besides racism?

So let’s set the record straight.

Is Kamala Harris African American?

In immediate response to the announcement of her selection as Biden’s running mate, the right-wing blogosphere went crazy with suggestions that Harris is somehow falsely assuming the identity of African American because her Black father was born in Jamaica, not in the United States.

Nowhere has it been decreed to my knowledge that to be African American you must be a direct descendant of persons held in chattel slavery in the United States. (Okay, there is an American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement that advocates for a narrower, lineage-based identity based on the experience of having descended from Africans who were enslaved in the United States, but Harris has never claimed to be ADOS.) You may recall that Barack Obama, too, was sometimes criticized (by both Blacks and whites) for not being “black enough.” But let’s get real. We still operate under the “one-drop rule” in the United States. Harris is at least partially descended on her father’s side from people who originated in Africa, and she is an American. If she herself has decided that this makes her an African American, then that’s the end of the story.

Interestingly, Harris wrote in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, that her Indian mother (who basically raised Kamala and her sister alone after her parents divorced when Kamala was eight years old) “understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”

For this reason, her mother made a point of embedding herself and her daughters in the Black community in the East Bay area of California where they lived in the 1960s and early 1970s, including participating in civil rights marches, attending a Black Baptist church in Oakland, and being active members in local community organizations in the predominantly Black neighborhood where they lived. When it came time to choose a college, Harris decided to attend Howard University, the famous historically Black university in Washington, D.C. So to the extent that being African American is also a cultural identity, there is no doubt that this is where Harris has always lived. According to an article in the Washington Post, “Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life.”

What if Harris is a Descendant of Slave Owners?

Critics have also sought to undercut Harris’ African American bona fides by claiming that she is a descendent of “Jamaican slave owners.” Specifically, the infamous Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian-born, far-right political provocateur, said on Fox News on August 11, 2020 that “Kamala Harris seems to be descended less from the legacy of, let’s say, Frederick Douglass, than she is from the legacy of the plantation itself.”

Seriously?  Let’s take a closer look.

In 2018, Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote an article in 2018 for Jamaica Global (a website for the global Jamaican diaspora) in which he disclosed that he was descended from a prominent slave owner in Jamaica. Though it has not been definitively confirmed, there is indeed evidence to suggest that Kamala Harris had an Irish great-great-great-great-great grandfather named Hamilton Brown who owned slaves in Jamaica. Harris’ father wrote about his roots going back, in his lifetime, to his paternal grandmother, Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown) and his maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (née Iris Finegan).

Miss Chrishy (left), Donald Harris’ paternal grandmother, and Miss Iris (right), Donald Harris’ maternal grandmother (pictured with a young Kamala). [Both pictures from Donald Harris’ article in Jamaica Global.]

It is bitterly ironic that anyone could believe that this somehow “discredits” Harris’ claim to self-identify as African American. (Whose permission does she need, anyway?) I’m not sure what the Irishman Hamilton Brown looked like, but I’m guessing his complexion was somewhat fairer than those of Harris’ two great-grandmothers on her father’s side, who both appear to be of mixed African and European ancestry. Did Republicans miss the memo about white slave owners routinely fathering mixed race children through coerced sex with enslaved African women? Have they not heard of Sally Hemings?

This ridiculous argument doesn’t deserve another second’s attention.

Birtherism Again?  Really?

As an immigration lawyer whose day job is spent interpreting, arguing and applying U.S. immigration and nationality laws, the “birtherism” argument waged against Barack Obama (largely by none other than Donald Trump) would get me especially incensed.  Well, birtherism is raising its ugly head again, this time wielded against Kamala Harris.

In an opinion piece published in Newsweek on August 12, 2020, John C. Eastman, a California law professor who really should know better, raised the question of whether Kamala Harris is a “natural born citizen” (a requirement for holding the position of either President or Vice President) since her parents were both immigrants, and it was unclear whether they had naturalized as U.S. citizens before she was born. For the record: their immigration status at the time she was born on U.S. soil is irrelevant, unless they were diplomats who were not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. government. (Spoiler alert: they were not diplomats. Her mother was a cancer researcher and her father is an economist.)

Newsweek subsequently published an “Editor’s Note” in response to readers having complained about this apparent attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory, writing, “Dr. Eastman was focusing on a long-standing, somewhat arcane legal debate about the precise meaning of the phrase ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof’ in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya.” No, of course it doesn’t.

In any case, the damage was done. In fact, a few days earlier, a Facebook post along the same lines had already gone viral.

Facebook did not take the false claim down, but it did add links to a number of fact-checking articles to clarify that there is no truth to the claim that the fact of having foreign-born parents disqualifies Harris from serving as Vice President or President (since the VP’s first job is to be ready to serve as President if the President dies or is incapacitated).

To be clear: the United States recognizes two forms of birthright citizenship: jus soli (Latin for “right of the land”), meaning citizenship by right conferred on anyone born on U.S. soil, and jus sanguinis (“right of the blood”), or citizenship by descent, i.e., by virtue of the U.S. citizenship of one’s mother or father, regardless of one’s place of birth. Even if Harris’ parents were not yet naturalized citizens at the time of her birth, she was born on U.S. soil—in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964—and was thus a U.S. citizen at birth.

Barack Obama, of course, was relentlessly attacked by the right wing on “birtherism” grounds, even though he, too, was born in the United States and was therefore a U.S. citizen at birth, end of story. (See the Fourteenth Amendment.) The idea was to suggest that our first Black president was somehow an “illegitimate” president—and these similar attacks against Harris reveal a similar discomfort (no, a better word is rage) among some white people at the fact that a person who is not white can ascend to the highest office in the land. It’s despicable and it’s racist.

On a final note, I’ll just mention that the closer call when Obama was running against John McCain in 2008 was always McCain himself, who due to an odd gap in the law was actually not a U.S. citizen at birth, but acquired U.S. citizenship retroactively thanks to Congressional action granting citizenship to certain children born of U.S. citizen parents in the unincorporated Panama Canal Zone before it was an official U.S. territory. I actually think this was part of the genesis of the birther movement against Obama: it was a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from McCain’s potential ineligibility for the presidency by pointing to the Black guy with the Muslim middle name and the Kenyan father. 

In typical fashion, Trump is now promoting the phony “birther” story about Harris. He is also trying to dub Harris “Phony Kamala.” But we all know who the real phony is.

THE RACIST HISTORY OF SOME COMMON ENGLISH WORDS AND PHRASES

Image courtesy of Shuttershock.

These last few months have been a wake-up call for white people about the pervasiveness of our society’s structural racism. (I say “for white people” because for Black people and other people of color, this is not news.) There is a lot to think about in terms of how even—or perhaps especially—those of us white folks who consider ourselves to be progressive and nonracist can help dismantle barriers that may have been invisible to us. It’s not enough not be racist. We need to become actively antiracist.

Today, as part of my own journey toward becoming antiracist, I’m going to share some commonly used words or phrases that have racist origins or connotations. No, not the obvious words (the N-word, “uppity,” or the like) that no self-respecting liberal would ever dream of uttering. But there are numerous words and phrases in English that turn out to have deeply racist roots, or that have developed racist connotations over the years. I discuss a few of them here. Some of them I’ve long known, and some I have just learned about recently.

When a word or phrase may not have had a racist origin but has taken on racist undertones through usage over the years, I think white people have to follow the lead of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color): if they say the word is racist and hurtful, we must take them at their word.

Please feel free to let me know of other troublesome words or phrases I may have missed by leaving a comment.

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Articulate. The word itself is not racist. But using it to describe a well-spoken Black person is racist. It implies surprise at the fact. Just don’t say it.

Blackball, blacklist, black magic, blackmail, black mark, etc.  All of these terms racialize the use of “black” to describe things that are bad or wrong. They reinforce the notion that black=bad and white=good.

Cakewalk. This term refers to something that is an easy victory, but it originated as a dance that enslaved Black people performed on plantations, where owners would hold contests in which slaves would compete for a cake. The dance, and the phrase, was later popularized through minstrel shows

Cat got your tongue? American slave owners often used a whip called a “cat-o’-nine-tails” to flog victims. The pain was so intense that those on the receiving end couldn’t even speak. Asking the victim “cat got your tongue?” was thus an especially cruel taunt.

Eskimo. European settlers in North America used this word—thought to come from the French word esquimaux (referring to a person who makes the nets for snowshoes)—for the indigenous people living in the Arctic region, who mostly called themselves Inuit. Many colonists used it in the mistaken belief that it meant “eater of raw meat,” connoting barbarism and violence, which means it was deliberately meant to be offensive.

Fuzzy wuzzy. This was originally a term used by British colonial soldiers in the 1800s to refer to members of an East African tribe, and later became a derogatory way to refer to African people’s hair texture.

Gyp or jip. To be “gypped” is to be shortchanged or swindled. But the word comes from “gypsy,” which itself is an offensive term referring to the Romani people, who face widespread discrimination across Europe.

Grandfather clause or grandfathered in: According to a decision recently published by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, “‘grandfather clause’ originally referred to provisions adopted by some states after the Civil War in an effort to disenfranchise African American voters by requiring voters to pass literacy tests or meet other significant qualifications, while exempting from such requirements those who were descendants of men who were eligible to vote before 1867.” I can’t believe I didn’t know this before.

Long time no see. This is a common phrase in American English—I’ve used it myself when meeting up with someone I haven’t seen in a long time—but it may have originated as a way to mimic Chinese or Native American speech patterns in English.

Lynch mob. The literal meaning is fairly obvious, but when not used literally this term can be offensive when used to describe situations that fall far short of the murderous, racist violence that lynch mobs actually perpetrated. Think, for example, of Clarence Thomas describing the congressional hearing in which Anita Hill testified about how he had sexually harassed her as a “high-tech lynching,” or Donald Trump likening his impeachment to a “lynching.”

Master bedroom/bathroom, master/slave. While it’s not clear whether the owner’s bedroom in southern plantations during the slavery era was called a master bedroom, the real estate industry is gradually retiring the term, using the word “primary” instead. Similarly, many tech engineers in computer technology, who have used “master/slave” terminology to describe software and hardware components where one process or device controls another, are now replacing that with “primary/replica.”

Mumbo jumbo. Typically used to suggest that someone is talking nonsense, this derives from contempt for the religious rituals that enslaved Africans brought with them to America—in the Mandinka language, Maamajomboo describes a masked dancer in a religious ceremony. (Note, too, that Little Black Sambo’s parents were named Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo.)

Nitty gritty. This phrase may have its origin in the slave trade, referring to the detritus found in the bottom of slave ships once the enslaved people had been removed from the hold. “Nit” may refer to the parasitic insect of the same name that would likely have been abundant in the abhorrent conditions in the ships making their way across the Middle Passage. Grits, of course, are the inexpensive, coarse-ground grains that were used to feed enslaved people.

No can do. Meaning “I can’t do that,” this is a 19th-century phrase that mocked Chinese immigrants’ speech patterns in English.

Off the reservation. Commonly used to describe someone who is deviating from the norm, this phrase originally referred to Native Americans who refused to accept the limitations on their mobility caused by the creation of reservations where the government forcibly moved them. Historically, Native Americans who were found “off the reservation” were often killed.

Paddy wagon. This was 19th-century slang for the horse-drawn vans police used to round up drunk Irish immigrants. I hadn’t heard this phrase for a long time, until Donald Trump used it when he was exhorting police to be rough when throwing “thugs” into the back of a “paddy wagon.” (See also thug below.)

Peanut gallery. In the days of vaudeville, cheap seats—in the back of a theater, or on a balcony—were called the “peanut gallery.” These were the seats where Black patrons were forced to sit.

Picnic. Some have contended that the word “picnic” has racist origins, but the story is a bit more nuanced. Folk etymology suggests that the word comes from “pick-a-nig,” referring to racist lynchings where a Black person was randomly “picked” and hanged for the entertainment of whites. However, etymologically the word is much older and derives from the French pique-nique, referring to a social gathering where each attendee brings food (from the verb piquer, “to sting” or “to bite,” which may have referred to a leisurely style of eating). Nonetheless, the fact that African Americans were often lynched in settings that were picnic-like, for the entertainment of white people, means that the word “picnic” carries racist connotations for many Black folks in the United States.

Sold down the river. Referring to some kind of devastating betrayal, the origin of this term was literal, not metaphorical. It was commonly known during the slavery era that conditions for enslaved people were increasingly brutal the farther south one went down along the Mississippi River. Thus a person who was “sold down the river” was being sold into inhumane, brutal conditions that often ended in death.

Thug. The word itself—meaning a violent criminal—may not be inherently racist. It comes from a Hindi word, thuggee, derived from ṭhag (ठग), which means deceiver, thief or swindler. (Thugs were professional thieves and assassins who operated in India from the 14th through the 19th centuries.) However, given how the word is now being used by right-wing media and politicians to describe just about every Black victim of racist violence, let’s assume it is being used as a substitute for the N-word, and never use it to refer to any person of color.

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SELECTED SOURCES:

Scottie Andrew and Harmeet Kaur, “Everyday words and phrases that have racist origins,” CNN (July 7, 2020).

Blacks, Picnics and Lynchings,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (Jan. 2004).

Olivia Eubanks, “Here are some commonly used terms that actually have racist origins,” ABC News (July 30, 2020).

Megan Garber, “The History of ‘Thug’: The surprisingly ancient and global etymology of a racially charged epithet,” The Atlantic (April 28, 2015).

Rebecca Hersher, “Why You Probably Shouldn’t Say ‘Eskimo’,” NPR (Apr. 24, 2016).

Alex Nelson, “These 8 common words and phrases have connotations you might not know about,” Pendle Today (July 6, 2020).

Azi Paybarah, “Massachusetts Court Won’t Use Term ‘Grandfathering,’ Citing Its Racist Origins,” New York Times (Aug. 3, 2020).

Brittany Wong, “12 Common Words and Phrases With Racist Origins or Connotations,” Huffington Post (July 8, 2020).

WHICH OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER?

Chart courtesy of Beci Orpin (@beciorpin on Instagram)

A friend posted this useful chart on her Facebook page today. It was created, and posted on Instagram, by a graphic designer. When I first looked at it, it made a lot of sense. It’s simple, easy to follow and clearly sets out the steps one should take after one gets tested for the COVID-19 virus.

Then I noticed one glaring issue that makes clear that this flow chart definitely did not originate in the United States. Before reading on—can you spot which chart applies to the United States, and which one applies to, you know, civilized countries?

Apparently, in Australia (which is where the chart’s creator, visual artist Beci Orpin, resides), state- or territory-level public health authorities contact each patient who gets a positive test result to instruct them on next steps. For example, in Victoria, it is the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)—as listed in the chart above—that performs this function. The point is that in all Australian states and territories, there are public health workers who will follow up with infected patients and make sure they get the advice and care they need. There are also 31 public health networks (PHNs) that coordinate health services in local areas.

Here in the “greatest country in the world” we also have federal and state public health authorities, but their leadership and funding have been decimated, and they are certainly not contacting every person who tests positive for COVID-19. (Why would they? It’s not as if we have a national healthcare system in the United States. And it’s not as if we have a national strategy of comprehensive testing and tracing of COVID-19 cases.)

So I doctored up Beci Orpin’s chart to provide a US version. Good luck.

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SOURCES:

Link to Chart by Beci Orpin (@beciorpin on Instagram)
https://www.instagram.com/p/CC-MCqgJ6N6/?igshid=jgbryw1qke0

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Victoria – Getting Your Results
https://www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/getting-your-results-covid-19

The Australian health system
https://www.health.gov.au/abou…/the-australian-health-system