Thursday, April 29, 2021

Yes, we do count in census, elections -- April 29, 2021 column


Dozens of New Yorkers are probably kicking themselves for not filling out their census forms last year.

The Empire State is losing a congressional seat by 89 people. That’s not a typo.

If the census had counted just 89 more New Yorkers, the state would have retained its 27 seats in Congress, the Census Bureau reported this week.

The once-a-decade census may seem an administrative chore, but it’s in people’s self-interest to participate, even during a pandemic.

The census determines congressional seats for each state by population. It also allocates each state’s share of more than $800 billion in federal funds – your tax money – each year for food stamps, healthcare, housing assistance, job training and other services.

Census numbers are also used to create districts for the U.S. House and state legislatures, which often draw redistricting maps for future elections. The bureau will release detailed numbers this summer to guide redistricting efforts.

So, don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter if you fill out your census form – or if you vote. Elections also are often won – and lost -- on the margins.

A handful of states could have changed the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Joe Biden won the White House because he flipped several states Donald Trump won in 2016 – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In Arizona, Biden won by just under 10,500 votes out of nearly 3.4 million votes cast. Another audit, or recount of votes by hand, began April 23 in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, and is expected to last until May 14.

No widespread election fraud has been found in Arizona or anywhere else, and the audit will not change the outcome of the election there, state officials say. Claims on the Internet that the audit has found 250,000 fraudulent votes are false, according to USA Today factcheckers.

In Georgia, Biden won with about 11,780 more votes than Trump out of 5 million votes cast. Several recounts there confirmed Biden’s win.

We’ll never know for sure how many New Yorkers, or Californians, for that matter, failed to fill out their census forms. California is losing a congressional seat for the first time. Also losing one seat each are Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The big census winner is Texas, which is gaining two House seats. Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gain one seat.

Virginia, where growth slowed over the last decade, held onto its 11 congressional seats.

Since Republicans need a net gain of only five seats to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrats in 2022, the census is particularly significant this year.

New York gained population in the last decade, but other states grew at a faster rate, which means the New York delegation will shrink to 26 House seats.

“It’s obviously not desirable, and the last thing we want to do is to lose representation in Washington,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “So it’s not good news for the state.”

Cuomo is weighing a lawsuit to contest the count, although it’s an uphill fight. New York has sued unsuccessfully in the past over lost congressional seats.

Cuomo’s critics blame him for not doing more to gin up participation in the census during the pandemic. He blames the federal government for a chilling effect on participation.

Hispanic groups believe Hispanics were undercounted in key states like Arizona, Texas and Florida. They contend then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to put a question about respondents’ citizenship on the census discouraged immigrants from participating.

After two dozen states and many cities sued the Census Bureau and Commerce Department, the administration withdrew the question.

The Census Bureau indicated it was confident apportionment numbers were correct. Most states’ official population tallies were within 1 percentage point of independent projections.

It’s too late for the 2020 census, but voters in Virginia will pick a new governor, members of the House of Delegates, mayors and other local officials this November. An independent commission is redrawing state district maps for future elections.

Not only is it in our civic interest to participate in the census and to vote, it’s in our personal interest. Let your voice be heard.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Saving biodiversity one backyard at a time -- April 22, 2021 column


Joni Mitchell got it right.

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” she sang in “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Mitchell wrote the song in 1969 during her first trip to Hawaii. More than half a century later, we’re still paving paradise, or what’s left of it.

Most people don’t think of it this way, but some “paving” is not even hardscape. It’s green.

Our well-manicured lawns are the equivalent of parking lots – dead space – to most insects, entomologist Douglas W. Tallamy and other ecologists say. And insects, as naturalist E.O. Wilson memorably observed, are “the little things that run the world.”

Insects pollinate more than 80% of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants. Without insects, the “food web” that support humans and other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and freshwater fishes would disappear.

But Americans love their lawns – 40 million acres’ worth. Homeowners east of the Mississippi typically have 90% of their yards in lawn, and only 10% in the tree biomass that was there previously, Tallamy writes in “Nature’s Best Hope,” his 2019 book about a backyard conservation approach he calls “Homegrown National Park.”

With insects and birds in decline around the world, Tallamy and other ecologists say it’s time to end our love affair with our lawns. To save insects and birds and our food supply: Mow less.

He challenges us not only to let our grass grow to 3 inches before mowing – tall enough to protect box turtles -- but to shrink our lawns by half. Then, put in native plants to restore biodiversity.

Doing so would create a network of homegrown parks to supplement the national parks that alone cannot preserve species to the levels needed. There are far more lawns and they are closer to each other.

Native plants are critical because insects tend to shun our common non-native plants. But not all native plants are created equal. You need “keystone” plants to create conditions for successful food webs. Native oaks are the top keystone plant, and white oaks are “superstars,” says Tallamy, whose new book is “The Nature of Oaks.”

Native cherries, willows and birches are also keystones. The top herbaceous plants, those that do not have woody stems, are goldenrods, asters and sunflowers.

Homegrown National Park is a grassroots campaign to restore habitat one window box, balcony, rooftop garden, backyard and city park at a time. An interactive map shows where people have planted natives. You can type in your state to see what others have done by county.

Of course, shrinking one’s lawn in half or planting a mighty oak isn’t practical for everyone. Tallamy suggests replacing non-native ornamental plants, many of which are invasive, with natives and using motion detector lights at night (to save moths).

Check out “Eight simple actions that individuals cantake to save insects from global declines” by four academics.

The team suggests even a partial conversion of lawns – a 10% reduction – could significantly help insect conservation – and cut costs of watering as well as herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer applications.

“If every home, school and local park in the United States converted 10% of their lawn space into natural habitat, this would increase usable habitat for insects by more than 4 million acres,” the authors say.

State-specific groups like the Virginia Native Plant Society and Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners are good resources for information on local native plants. Or put in your Zip Code on the National Wildlife Federation’s plant finder page for a list of suitable natives. 

Public gardens offer a wealth of free videos online and webinars. Researching this piece, I watched an excellent symposium on native plants sponsored by the Smithsonian Gardens and a native plant nursery in Winchester.

While President Joe Biden’s efforts to reassert the United States’ leadership in the fight against climate change may ignite political fights, taking personal action to save insects need not be a political statement.

Homegrown National Park says in a website disclaimer it “has no political, religious, cultural or geographical boundaries because everyone – every human being on this planet – needs diverse, highly productive ecosystems to survive,” Tallamy says.

Amen. Not everyone can cut their own carbon emissions, but most of us can plant a native plant. We each can do something to help save the insects.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Take me out to the (fill in the blank) -- April 15, 2021 column


Some writers liken people emerging from the year of pandemic sequester to the hordes of cicadas that soon will pop up after 17 years underground.

It’s a clever analogy, though not particularly apt.

The billions of cicadas that are about to inundate the East Coast, including Virginia, have no say in their behavior.

To attract females, males will make a “cacophonous whining like a field of out-of-tune car radios,” a Virginia Tech news release said. The insects will mate and then die.

Humans who have stayed home for the last year may feel they’ve been in prison. Some not yet vaccinated assume the worst is over and are taking risks, despite reports that COVID cases and deaths are rising again.  

Unlike cicadas, people can choose their next steps. The degree to which unvaccinated people choose to be in close quarters with many others and how they behave elsewhere will shape the “new normal” for all of us.

Nobody wants to return to lockdown status, as some European countries have. Many of us long for connection and crowds. Others have been OK with less going out and having an excuse to enjoy events on screens. Most of us are a little of both.

Many music festivals and band tours are postponed to 2022, but some  organizations are moving ahead.

Major League Baseball returned with fans in the stands for the first time in more than a year. Games runs to Oct. 3. The Minor League season begins in early May.  

The Kennedy Center is betting big that people are ready to sit shoulder to shoulder in large halls and watch theatrical performances. The center announced Tuesday a chock-a-block schedule of 12 musicals, including “Hamilton,” two major plays and other events in 86 weeks of theater from Oct. 13 to August 2022.

Patrons must wear masks, but the center is selling tickets at full capacity, meaning “there will not be physical distancing within the venue, and you will have patrons sitting directly next to, in front of, and behind you,” the website advises.

Airlines are ramping up flights and filling middle seats, believing people are eager to travel again – at least to some destinations.

And yet, global waves of coronavirus infections from variants threaten our mobility. Canada reportedly has more COVID-19 cases per capita than the United States. India just announced 200,000 new COVID-19 cases. Bangkok reported a surge in cases believed to stem from lack of social distancing at nightclubs. Several African countries report strong vaccine hesitancy.

With the delivery of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on hold here, herd immunity in the United States may be delayed. Officials believe herd immunity will occur when 70% to 90% of people have either been fully vaccinated or have antibodies from having contracted COVID-19.

My first outing to a big venue after being fully vaccinated came this week. I was among the 4,147 people who attended an Orioles game in person.

I wish I could tell you it was glorious to watch live baseball again -- and it was fun and diverting. The O’s beat the Seattle Mariners 7 to 6 with an exciting walk-off single by Ramon Urias.

But, honestly, it was also weird.

It wasn’t just that ticketing was digital, concessions were all cashless and no vendors lined the avenue into the ballpark. The Camden Yards ballpark was at 9% capacity, with most seats roped off to keep social distance. Bags were prohibited, I learned belatedly.

Masks were required and were supposed to be worn except when people were “actively eating or drinking” in their designated seats, although many fans interpreted those rules liberally.

Clearly, much effort went into making people feel safe. The Orioles Bird wore a mask with the slogan, “Mask up Birdland.” Orioles players have been vaccinated and are urging everyone to “Take one for the team. Get the vaccine.”

Guards, concessionaires and security personnel were friendly.  

“Welcome back,” guards said as fans entered the ballpark. “Welcome back.”

It’s one thing to attend an outdoor event with physical distancing and quite another to sit inside a closed hall or arena packed tight with people. Going back is a leap of faith.

But we’re on our way.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, April 8, 2021

Lessons from Georgia's hot mess -- April 8, 2021 column


It’s fair to say Georgia’s rush to approve a restrictive new election law didn’t go the way Republican proponents hoped.

Predicated on the lie that the 2020 election in Georgia was riddled with fraud, the 98-page Election Integrity Act includes 16 key provisions a New York Times analysis found “will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.”

Reactions were swift and harsh. President Joe Biden attacked the law as “Jim Crow in the 21st” century, and four lawsuits are challenging the law as discriminatory against people of color.

Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta, delivering an early verdict on lawmakers’ intentions and potentially costing the state $100 million in lost revenue.

Moving the game to Denver will hurt most the people in Atlanta who are already suffering in the pandemic economy -- small business owners and the workers who rely on low-paying jobs in the tourist industry.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s stubborn response that other states’ voting laws are as bad as, or worse than, Georgia’s is childish and embarrassing.

Ditto Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ham-handed threat this week to corporations to shut up about policy issues.

“Stay out of politics,” he warned on Tuesday, only to reverse himself on Wednesday.

But if Georgia GOP lawmakers thought their hot mess of a law would befuddle and silence enough urban voters to make a difference in close elections, they weren’t taking into account Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Bottoms showed strategic leadership Tuesday with an administrative order directing the city’s equity office to develop a plan to mitigate the new law’s effects.

“This administrative order is designed to do what those in the majority in the state legislature did not – expand our right to vote,” she said.

A mayor can’t undo what the legislature and governor have done, but she can take actions they should have: help voters prepare for future elections.

Her order includes measures to train city staff on voter registration and on early, absentee and in-person voting so they can communicate the changes to residents. It also directs the city to educate residents on how to obtain the forms of ID now required for absentee voting and to include QR codes and links regarding voter registration and absentee voting in water bills and other mailings.

Surely, we can all agree that when a state changes election rules, it has a responsibility to inform voters about those changes, so that eligible voters can indeed cast ballots.

Sadly, no. There’s no indication Georgia plans to educate voters or help them more easily comply with the law’s provisions. Meanwhile, the GOP disinformation campaign with unproven allegations about election fraud continues.

Six in 10 Republican voters believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump, and the same proportion say he should run again in 2024, a new Reuters/IPSOS poll reports. 

The former president continues to harp on “massive fraud” in the election, sowing distrust in the voting system. After multiple ballot recounts, investigations and court cases found no widespread voter fraud anywhere in 2020, this deliberate and willful ignoring of facts is appalling.

But lawmakers in more than 40 states, feeling pressure to do something, have introduced more than 361 bills to limit ballot access. About 55 bills are moving forward, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit policy institute that tracks voting rights.

Texas and Arizona are poised to pass restrictive laws, although what effect the laws may have is uncertain.

Georgia’s new law could have been worse. It will suppress the vote by making it harder for people to vote absentee and offering fewer ballot drop boxes, but Sunday voting was preserved.

And the GOP effort could backfire if new laws motivate voters to go to the polls in even greater numbers for gubernatorial and congressional midterm elections in 2022.

A coalition of more than 200 companies, including such giants as Dow, Twitter, Paypal and Uber, recently spoke out in favor of voting rights. Their voices are welcome, but it’s time to act.

The companies should join with state and local groups to spread the word about what the new laws entail, so eligible voters can indeed

 prepare for casting their ballots. Our elections need all of us, and we all need fair elections.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 1, 2021

How Biden gets infrastructure plan on track -- April 1, 2021 column


When President Joe Biden unveiled Wednesday his roughly $2 trillion infrastructure plan, both the political right and the left came out swinging.

“It’s like a Trojan horse,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, complaining of “more borrowing and massive tax increases on all the productive parts of our economy.”

“This is not nearly enough,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, adding Biden’s plan “needs to be way bigger.” She and other progressives floated the need for an infrastructure plan five times larger than Biden’s.

Biden finally found the sweet spot of bipartisanship – and it is against his sweeping American Jobs Plan.

That’s not all bad. Infrastructure should and perhaps still can be a bipartisan issue.

Nearly everyone agrees the nation’s roads, bridges, railways, airports and waterways need updating and expanding, but how to pay for improvements is the perennial sticking point.

Biden says his bigger, bolder plan pays for itself with – here’s the stick -- higher corporate taxes over 15 years.

The carrot is an array of proposals offering something for nearly every American.

“It’s not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It’s a once in a generation investment in America” that, Biden said, will create millions of jobs and put the United States on a secure environmental and competitive footing for the future.

The plan would remake the economy, revamp transportation and fight climate change and racial inequity. It would redo sewer systems, install a nationwide network of electrical charging stations, give tax incentives for purchases of electric cars, expand broadband access and at-home healthcare, and empower more workers with collective bargaining rights.

And that’s just part of what’s in part one.

Part two – the American Families Plan – is expected shortly. It likely will include paid family leave and other popular benefits.

But nothing happens unless Congress approves. Biden is betting he can capture the imagination of people beyond the Beltway and turn his vision into legislation in even the fiercely partisan Capitol.

“We just have to imagine again,” he said.

“Imagine what we can do, what’s within our reach if we modernize those highways. Your family could travel coast to coast without a single tank of gas, on board a high-speed train. We can connect high-speed, affordable, reliable internet wherever you live.

“Imagine knowing that you are handing your children and grandchildren a country that will lead the world in producing clean energy technology . . . That’s what we’ll do.”

It’s an appealing, hopeful vision at a time when Americans need something to believe in and look forward to. But Biden needs to do more than paint pretty pictures.

He needs convince people government can work again and enough members of both parties to come together for the greater good.

A tall order. Biden proposes to raise the top corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%. That’s still less than the 35% it was before the last administration and Republicans in Congress lowered the corporate rate to 21% in 2017. He also would raise other corporate taxes to keep companies from moving overseas.

To pay for the coming American Families Plan, he said he would raise taxes only on individuals making more than $400,000 a year, not the middle class.

Big business favors traditional infrastructure improvements but solidly opposes corporate tax increases. Some congressional Democrats insist they won’t support a package unless it eliminates the $10,000 cap imposed during the last administration on individual tax deductions for state and local taxes.

Biden says he will consider and should other ways of paying. The pricetag for his two infrastructure plans is likely to total an eye-popping $4 trillion.

The Capitol is already suffering from “spending fatigue” after the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, paid for wholly through borrowing, that Democrats passed and Biden signed in February.

In Biden’s favor are widespread public support for his policies, polls show, and his optimistic vision.

“We have to move now, because I’m convinced that if we act now, in 50 years, people are going to look back and say this was the moment that America won the future,” he said.

Biden’s legacy hinges on his negotiating skills. He needs to compromise on aspects of the plan and persuade congressional Republicans and Democrats it’s worthwhile to go along.

If he succeeds, this president will lead the country in a cleaner, greener direction. If he fails, his ambitious plan becomes a marker for 2022 and 2024, and it’s more politics as usual.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.