Thursday, July 29, 2021

More bad legal news for PG & E in context of California wildfires

 Here's an excerpt from the story by the Los Angeles Times' Matthew Ormseth: 

Shasta County’s top prosecutor has decided Pacific Gas & Electric is “criminally liable” for its role in sparking the Zogg fire, which killed four people, destroyed more than 200 homes and burned 56,000 acres last year.

Dist. Atty. Stephanie Bridgett, whose office has been scrutinizing PG&E’s role in the devastating blaze, said Thursday her office has not decided the “nature or the grade” of whatever charges may be brought against the beleaguered utility. Bridgett said she would make a decision before the anniversary of the Zogg fire, which erupted in late September 2020.

The announcement that a district attorney considered PG&E criminally liable in a deadly blaze — a statement that carries serious implications — was announced in a brief Facebook post and left many questions unanswered, chief among them what charges the utility might face. Sonoma County prosecutors brought felony and misdemeanor charges against PG&E for its role in a 2019 fire that burned a similarly broad swath of land but did not kill anyone.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Rural Scholarship: Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America

Here's the abstract from a paper by J. Tom Mueller, Kathryn McConnell, Paul Berne Burow, Katie Pofahl, Alexis A. Merdjanoff, and Justin Farrell, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences in the United States of America.  It is titled "Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural America."  
Despite considerable social scientific attention to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on urbanized areas, very little research has examined its impact on rural populations. Yet rural communities—which make up tens of millions of people from diverse backgrounds in the United States—are among the nation’s most vulnerable populations and may be less resilient to the effects of such a large-scale exogenous shock. We address this critical knowledge gap with data from a new survey designed to assess the impacts of the pandemic on health-related and economic dimensions of rural well-being in the North American West. Notably, we find that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural populations have been severe, with significant negative impacts on unemployment, overall life satisfaction, mental health, and economic outlook. Further, we find that these impacts have been generally consistent across age, ethnicity, education, and sex. We discuss how these findings constitute the beginning of a much larger interdisciplinary COVID-19 research effort that integrates rural areas and pushes beyond the predominant focus on cities and nation-states.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Could clever fish-spawning strategy avert violence in Klamath water wars?

Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts report from Tulelake, California, population 1,020, in Siskiyou County:  

It’s a strange place to find fish, deep in the high desert, where drought-baked earth butts against scrubby mountains.

But water spews from the hot springs on Ron Barnes’ land near the California-Oregon border, pure and perfect for rearing c’waam and koptu, two kinds of endangered suckerfish sacred to Native American tribes.

Barnes, who holds an advanced degree in aquaculture from UC Davis, has dug dozens of ponds on his property and filled them with thousands of young suckerfish. He hopes raising and releasing them into the wild will end the region’s epic water wars — or at least get federal regulators out of the mix before his neighbors descend into violence.

The story quotes Barnes:  

We have to take a pragmatic view of this thing.  The single most effective way to get the government off our backs is to restore the fish population.

The story continues: 

The suckerfish, which are on the endangered species list, are at the heart of a rancorous water controversy. They typically spawn in nearby Upper Klamath Lake, an agricultural reservoir that is growing increasingly dry and toxic. To ward off their extinction, federal regulators have cut off every drop that normally flows from the lake to the Klamath Reclamation Project, a federally built web of irrigation canals that once held the promise of almost limitless water for nearby farms.
Growers and landowners in the region are divided between those who are furious but want a peaceable path forward, like Barnes, and those who are threatening to take water by force.

A recent post about the drought that is aggravating the Klamath water wars and Ammon Bundy's role in advocating taking the water by force, is here.  Earlier posts about the Klamath water wars are here.  

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXLIII): Federal money set aside for rural vaccine outreach

That was what the spoken promotion for this NPR segment touted today, and here's how host Ailsa Chang introduced it: 

CHANG: That's White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients. He announced today that the federal government was sending $100 million to rural health clinics for vaccine outreach in places where vaccination rates are generally lower. Joining us now to break down all of this is Andy Slavitt, former senior adviser on the White House COVID-19 response team. Welcome.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the story expanded on the rural angle--not how outreach to rural populations would differ or any other aspect of the effort.   

And here's a story from The Atlantic on the particular failure of the South to achieve a robust degree of vaccination.  Adam Harris writes of "The Threat of an Unvaccinated South."   The South is the most rural region of the United States, though Harris does not explicitly invoke "rural."  

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Opinion on rural America's need for immigrants, in the New York Times

Robert Leonard and Matt Russell write in their essay

Rural America has a growth problem. Business and industry desperately need workers, but the domestic labor pool is shallow, and the nation’s birthrate is slowing.

There’s no better place to help expand our economy than in rural communities like ours. We need smart public policy for sustained growth — and immigration reform would be a big part of it.

The Iowa Business Council, a group made up of representatives of the largest corporations in the state, have been asking for immigration reform for years to help solve our labor woes.

Plenty of research shows that flexible visa programs run federally or by the states could address this problem quickly.

Postscript:  The Guardian ran this story, headlined "It's five years since a white person Applied:  the immigrant workforce milking America's cows, on July 25, 2021.  This story on the perils of heat for farmworkers ran on NPR in mid-August.  

A silver lining for rural America in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brnovich?

(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021
Although the Supreme Court’s recent voting-rights decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee was very bad news for rural residents in terms of the precedent set, there is a silver lining to be found in the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

That dissent took the concept of distance–rural spatiality–more seriously than any faction of the Supreme Court has ever done. Unlike the majority opinion, Kagan’s dissent examines the extra burden that living in a rural area can place on access, in this case to the ballot box.

In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Court split along ideological lines, voting 6-3 to uphold the State of Arizona’s restrictions on voting. The Arizona law limits the practice of ballot collection—a process whereby third-party individuals can return a voter’s signed and sealed mail-in ballot—and allows election officials to discard ballots cast at the wrong precinct.

We are a law professor and law student engaged in a thinking critically about the difference rurality makes to the operation of law, and we have followed this case for reasons other than those that have led election and constitutional law scholars to follow it: we’re interested in the case’s implications for rural populations and also how the Court understands lived realities in rural America.

Brnovich’s “Big Picture”

Before we get into the “rural weeds,” though, let us first refer to what Professor Rick Hasen of the UC Irvine School of Law said on his Election Law Blog about the big picture of Brnovich in relation to voting rights precedents.
[The decision] severely weakened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act [a federal law dating to the Civil Rights Era] as a tool to fight against laws that make it harder to register and vote. Rather than focus on disparate impact—whether a law leads to minority voters registering or voting in lower numbers—the court applies a much broader totality of the circumstances test with a huge thumb on the scale favoring the state and its restrictive law. If a law imposes just a “usual burden of voting,” and the burden on minorities is not too much, and the state can assert (but does not need to prove) a significant interest in preventing voter fraud or another interest, then the law can stand.
The term “usual burden” is interesting here because in some prior cases, the focus has been on the opposite — on an “undue burden” on exercising the right. We will come back to that below when we draw the parallel between this voting rights case and another strand of constitutional litigation that uses an “undue burden” standard: abortion restrictions. On voting, Hasen continues:
When you couple this opinion with the 2008 ruling in the Crawford case, upholding Indiana’s voter ID law against a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection challenge, the 2013 ruling in Shelby County killing off the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act for states with a history of discrimination, and today’s reading of Section 2, the conservative Supreme Court has taken away all the major available tools for going after voting restrictions. This at a time when some Republican states are passing new restrictive voting law.
The Court today also makes it harder to prove intentional racial discrimination in passing a voting rule.
In a guest post on the Election Law Blog, Professor Douglas Spencer provided further big-picture context in relation to the Court’s approach to other enumerated rights.
It’s hard to reconcile the Court’s indifference to inconveniences on voting rights (e.g., fn 11, slip op. at 16) with its uncompromising protection of gun rights or its “most-favored-nation” approach to religious freedom. Why are voting rights so different? And so less worthy of protection?
A New Response to Rurality

OK, enough on the broad U.S. Constitutional and voting rights context. We want to turn now to why this case is exceptional from a ruralist standpoint.

The backstory here is that we have been arguing in legal scholarship–if not in amicus briefs or any other form that would actually get directly before the Justices–that rural spatiality, aka material distance, is an obstacle the Supreme Court should take seriously in considering “undue burdens” on the exercise of constitutional rights like voting and abortion.

The context in which the issue of distance has arisen most frequently is abortion access, which one of us has written about here, here, and here. The Supreme Court of the United States has rarely grappled in any meaningful way with the distance a woman must travel to reach an abortion provider, an issue that arises when waiting periods make two trips necessary or when state abortion regulations force providers to close, thus forcing women to travel longer distances to other providers. But in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority in the 2016 opinion, used the word “rural” only once, though he used the word “miles” 19 times.

Specifically, Breyer quoted the trial (federal district) court opinion, which acknowledged the added burden the clinic closures were causing “poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.” The disadvantaged group most focused on in that litigation were Latinas living in the Rio Grande Valley, who tended to be “poor, rural and disadvantaged.” Interestingly, the Court did not again use the word “poor” or “poverty” in the majority opinion, which is bit unusual–and disappointing–given that poor women disproportionately seek abortions compared to their more affluent counterparts. The Court did, however, use the term “Rio Grande Valley” twice, which suggests that population drew particular solicitude.

The Hellerstedt Court’s use of “miles” also mostly tracked the district court’s findings, here about the specific impact of the law on women’s abortion access. Because the challenged law had the effect of closing abortion providers across Texas, the geographical distribution of abortion providers shifted, with these consequences:

[T]he number of women of reproductive age living more than 50 miles from a clinic has doubled, the number living more than 100 miles away has increased by 150%, the number living more than 150 miles away by more than 350%, and the number living more than 200 miles away by about 2,800%.
Also looming was the fact that if another pending restriction went into effect, Texas would have abortion providers “only in five metropolitan areas.” Finally, Breyer used “miles” when quoting the federal district court for the proposition that Texas is big–specifically, that it covers nearly 280,000 square miles and that 25 million people–5.4 million of them women of reproductive age–live on that vast land area.

Ultimately, Breyer’s opinion concluded:
We recognize that increased driving distances do not always constitute an “undue burden.” See Casey, 505 U. S., at 885–887 (joint opinion of O’Connor, KENNEDY, and Souter, JJ.). But here, those increases are but one additional burden, which, when taken together with others that the closings brought about, and when viewed in light of the virtual absence of any health benefit [from the Texas law], lead us to conclude that the record adequately supports the District Court’s “undue burden” conclusion.
That was a real victory for rural women, however defined, though the focus was much more on the distance–really increased distance–that any woman might have to travel to reach an abortion provider. Though this did not explicitly focus on rural women, the Hellerstedt majority went much further than any prior opinion in taking seriously material distance, expressed as miles traveled.

Rural America and Voting Rights

That brings us to Brnovich and voting rights. In discussing this case, it makes sense to discuss first the number of times the dissent mentions the word “rural” because it far outnumbers–and outweighs–what the majority had to say. Justice Kagan, writing for the dissent, used the word “rural” twelve times, frequently as part of the phrase “rural Native Americans.” The reason for this linkage is that the Voting Rights Act responds to discrimination on the basis of race. Thus, the sensitivity–if there is any–is to racial or ethnic difference, and that difference gets paired with rurality in what scholars call intersectionality. That is, status as a Native American intersects with rurality to aggravate the disadvantage experienced by this population, just as status as a poor woman intersected with status as a Latina and rural location to disadvantage women in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in Hellerstedt.

Here’s perhaps the most salient quote from Kagan’s dissent:

Arizona’s law mostly banning third-party ballot collection also results in a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities. The problem with that law again lies in facts nearly unique to Arizona—here, the presence of rural Native American communities that lack ready access to mail service. Given that circumstance, the Arizona statute discriminates in just the way Section 2 proscribes. The majority once more comes to a different conclusion only by ignoring the local conditions with which Arizona’s law interacts.
The critical facts for evaluating the ballot-collection rule have to do with mail service. Most Arizonans vote by mail. But many rural Native American voters lack access to mail service, to a degree hard for most of us to fathom.
This language–humble for a Supreme Court Justice-–reminds me of Justice Thurgood Marshall’s rhetorical practice of putting himself in the shoes of litigants and acknowledging the challenge for Supreme Court justices to do just that. He wrote in United States v. Kras (1973), a case involving a court filing fee:
It may be easy for some people to think that weekly savings of less than $2 are no burden. But no one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are. . . .It is perfectly proper for judges to disagree about what the Constitution requires. But it is disgraceful for an interpretation of the Constitution to be premised upon unfounded assumptions about how people live.
One of us has made similar arguments re the Supreme Court’s struggle to grasp the burden of distance, especially with so many current justices having grown up in New York City. There is not, after all, much geographic diversity on the Court, and no current justice has any meaningful links to rurality.

Kagan’s dissent in Brnovich continues with a focus on the burden of rurality in relation to Native Americans, veering into the subject of those who rely on the U.S. mail in order to vote:
Only 18% of Native voters in rural counties receive home mail delivery, compared to 86% of white voters living in those counties. And for many or most, there is no nearby post office. Native Americans in rural Arizona “often must travel 45 minutes to 2 hours just to get to a mailbox.” (“Ready access to reliable and secure mail service is nonexistent” in some Native American communities). And between a quarter to a half of households in these Native communities do not have a car. See ibid. So getting ballots by mail and sending them back poses a serious challenge for Arizona’s rural Native Americans.

For that reason, an unusually high rate of Native Americans used to “return their early ballots with the assistance of third parties.” As the District Court found: “[F]or many Native Americans living in rural locations,” voting “is an activity that requires the active assistance of friends and neighbors.” So in some Native communities, third-party collection of ballots—mostly by fellow clan members—became “standard practice.” And stopping it, as one tribal election official testified, “would be a huge devastation.” [citations omitted]
It bears noting that Arizona, the sixth largest state in land area, is not alone in terms of challenges facing rural residents—and Native American voters in particular. Similar issues in Montana, the fourth largest state in the nation, are highlighted in this recent New York Times story, which focuses on the details of voting on Blackfeet reservation in the northwest part of the state.
Geography, poverty and politics all create obstacles for Native Americans. The Blackfeet reservation is roughly the size of Delaware but had only two election offices and four ballot drop-off locations last year, one of which was listed as open for just 14 hours over two days. Many other reservations in Montana have no polling places, meaning residents must go to the county seat to vote, and many don’t have cars or can’t afford to take time off.
The Majority’s Dismissiveness of Rural

From a ruralist standpoint, the most shocking thing about the Brnovich litigation is the Supreme Court majority’s response to the dissent’s concern over these rural realities, especially as they impact Native Americans. Indeed, the majority was so dismissive of these concerns as to relegate its response to a footnote, footnote 21. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, notes the ways people will be still able to vote under the challenged Arizona law, e.g., the legality of having a ballot picked up and mailed by family or household members. Beyond that, he simply relies on provisions of the U.S. Code about the postal service, specifically the provisions about the circumstances under which small post offices may be closed. Here’s the full quote.
The burdens that fall on remote communities are mitigated by the long period of time prior to an election during which a vote may be cast either in person or by mail and by the legality of having a ballot picked up and mailed by family or household members. And in this suit, no individual voter testified that HB 2023 would make it significantly more difficult for him or her to vote. 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 871. Moreover, the Postal Service is required by law to “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” 39 U. S. C. §101(b); see also §403(b)(3). Small post offices may not be closed “solely for operating at a deficit,” §101(b), and any decision to close or consolidate a post office may be appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, see §404(d)(5). An alleged failure by the Postal Service to comply with its statutory obligations in a particular location does not in itself provide a ground for overturning a voting rule that applies throughout an entire state. [emphasis added]
So, on the one hand, there’s this law that says the USPS must provide a “maximum degree of effective and regular” delivery even to places–including rural ones–where the local post office doesn’t “break even.” On the other hand, if the USPS fails to comply with this statute, that lack of compliance won’t be grounds for overturning a state voting law.

Folks who’ve followed the recent degradation in U.S. Postal Service will immediately see some irony in the majority’s reliance on this institution. Those who’ve followed the decades long efforts to close and consolidate rural post offices will see yet another level of irony. Indeed, the latest proposal to downgrade postal service, detailed here, would ”disproportionately affect states west of the Rocky Mountains,” which includes a lot of Indian Country–and many other rural places, too. Specifically, 57% of first-class mail sent in Montana and 55% sent in Arizona will take longer to arrive.

This has us wondering if rural postal service advocates will try to rely on this footnote in Brnovich majority to resist some future effort to close more post offices. The argument would be, we guess, that if the Supreme Court says it won’t be done because of this statute, then it should not be done. But what the footnote–and the statute–give, they also take away in saying that post offices can, of course, be closed, although there’s a right to appeal such closures.

This is all pretty grim—for all patrons of the U.S. Postal Service, but especially for rural and Native American folks whose local post offices are most likely to be on the chopping block.

The majority opinion in Brnovich is devastating for voting rights generally speaking, and for Native American and rural communities in particular. But there is a sliver of hope to be found here: the dissent in this case shows that the U.S. Supreme Court is capable of taking rurality seriously–at least as a factor intersecting with Native American status. The Brnovich dissent grapples with the lived realities of distance, with the material spatiality of the rural, in an even more explicit and compelling way than the Hellerstedt majority did five years ago.

This leaves us with hope that the groundwork laid by the Brnovich dissent will be invoked in some future case, if and when the liberal wing of the Court is in the majority and called on to take seriously the rights of rural folks and therefore also the state-imposed barriers that undermine their ability to exercise those rights. The liberal bloc has finally shown they know how to do this. Let’s hope they don’t forget if they are some day back in a position to be the final arbiters of what is or is not an “undue burden.”

Co-authored by Ezera Miller-Walfish is a rising third-year law student at UC Davis School of Law.  She grew up in rural northern New Mexico.  

Cross-posted to the Daily Yonder and UC Davis Faculty Blog.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Water theft in rural California blamed on illegal pot growers

Julie Cart reports for Cal Matters, from the Antelope Valley, in northeastern Los Angeles County and also Mendocino County, population 87,841, in far northern California.  Here's an excerpt: 

As drought grips most of California, water thievery across the state has increased to record levels. Bandits in water trucks are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water they sell on a burgeoning black market. Others, under cover of darkness, plug into city hydrants and top up. Thieves also steal water from homes, farms and private wells, and some even created an elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines during the last drought. Others are MacGyvering break-ins directly into pressurized water mains, a dangerous and destructive approach known as hot-tapping.

The "elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines" reminds me of a scene from the movie "Minari." 

In Mendocino County, the thefts from rivers and streams are compromising already depleted Russian River waterways. In one water district there, thefts from hydrants could compromise a limited water supply for fighting fires, which is why they have put locks on hydrants.

“Any way that you can imagine that somebody is going to grab water, they’re doing it,” said Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. “For goodness sakes, everybody knows what is going on.”

* * *

Officials say water thefts are increasing at about the same rate as the decline in California’s water supplies. Complaints have risen sharply this year, mirroring the drought’s inexorable advance.

Halfway through this year, 125 Californians have reported thefts to state authorities, more than twice as many as a decade ago. Those numbers don’t capture calls to local officials or small water districts that shoulder the bulk of enforcement responsibility.

The water thefts not only strain police agencies but also damage valuable equipment. In the Antelope Valley, water main breaks, which can cost $10,000 each to repair, had been averaging about two a year. In the past year, there have been a dozen, Saraiya said.

Water users are now proactively protecting their supplies. Many fire hydrants are being locked or removed altogether. Water tank owners have installed security cameras. In rural areas, residents who have no access to municipal water systems and rely on key-activated water stations are finding their critical lifelines are shut down because of incessant tampering. A robust black market for the keys has popped up, and now most stations operate only during daylight hours.

Here and here are two stories from a few weeks ago that also implicate illegal marijuana grows in the state.  Can't help wonder about the extent to which the relative absence of law enforcement in rural places aggravates this phenomenon.  Read more here.  

Monday, July 19, 2021

Trying to save a rural(ish) fire protection district

(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

I was in Bodega Bay, California (population 1,077) this past week and saw many signs, on both homes and businesses, regarding the need to save the "Fire Protection District."  Here's an excerpt from an April, 2021 story in the Sonoma County Gazette outlining what is going on: 

Firefighters and paramedics. They aren’t really known for just standing around or letting things happen.

They’re action people. No matter what.

That’s the point Lori Anello, wife of Captain Lou Stoerzinger, who serves with both the Two Rock Volunteer Fire Department and Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, was making.

“It is not in their nature to just stand by and be a spectator with a radio in their hand while waiting for additional resources to arrive,” Anello said in her statement.

Anello, along with a handful of wives and community members spoke or wrote on behalf of the safety of the firefighters and paramedics serving in the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, which is currently facing possible closure due to dwindling revenue sources.

“Despite policy and procedure, despite industry standards and rules, if someone is in trouble, whether trapped in a burning building, my husband and his coworkers will risk everything to save a life,” Anello said.  
In recent months, the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District has responded to some dangerous calls: 
In early April, a car rolled off of Bodega Head. 

Eleven days later, a beloved community chef died in an accident on Highway 1.

And yesterday morning, a swimmer went missing off of Duncan’s Coast, just north of Bodega Bay.
Each time the truck is out, only one firefighter is left behind in the station. Nobody feels great about the option.But it’s all they’ve got right now.

“Leaving one firefighter behind is playing a dangerous game when it comes to emergency response and puts the members at a high risk,” Jack Thomas, president of the Professional Firefighters of Sonoma County, said during the March 22 Special Board meeting of the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

That special meeting came after Measure B – the community embroiled effort to raise funds for the fire district and west county high school district via transient occupancy tax – failed.

On the agenda of this special meeting? Budget cuts. And more specifically, staffing cuts. Again.

Rhianna Menzies, wife of Josh Menzies, a Bodega Bay firefighter and paramedic, was also getting her turn to speak. Josh has served with Bodega Bay for 6 ½ years and when he was hired, Rhianna said, the district was operating at a 3-0 staff but had a “healthy size of volunteers to make up the difference.”

“Just two years ago the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors agreed to provide funding for a fourth person and fast forward to the failure of Measure B,” Rhianna said. “Now Bodega Bay is forced to cut their staffing to 3-0 once again. But at what cost? Lives are put at risk when a crew is forced to wait for back up because in an emergency, every second counts.”

Over time, county and state policies have limited the resource bucket from which the fire protection district can draw. As a post Proposition-13 district, the district’s AB8 rate is 3.9%, or less than half of the county average. Additionally, the district is limited by what land is actually taxable, since state and county land use policies have rendered roughly 2/3 of the land within the district untaxable.

All told, despite sending more than $10 million to the county in property tax, Bodega Bay receives just $310,000 for its fire protection district. That $310,000 comprises 15% of the fire district’s entire budget. Another 60% comes from a voter approved parcel tax of $524 a parcel, likely one of the highest in the state, according to Dan Drummond.
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021
The other 25% comes from grants and other one-type funding sources, often provided by the County of Sonoma. And still, the county found the district runs $900,000 short.

“That’s enough to keep us just exactly where we are,” Herzberg said.

A recent post about how rural ambulance and rescue services are struggling, particularly in the West, is here.  

Post Script from Sonoma Press-Democrat: on July 20, 2021, "Bodega Bay, other regional fire departments, get consolidation funding."   

Sunday, July 18, 2021

My rural travelogue (Part XXIX): Western Marin County, California

I spent the last few days in Sonoma and Marin County, California, including my first trip in about two decades to Point Reyes Station, population 848.  I found that so little had changed since my last visit (and to be clear, I've visited Sonoma County, in particular Bodega Bay, regularly for the past two decades).  Here are some photos from the area, which seems to subsist on tourism, including at the nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, and oyster production in Tomales Bay, home of Hog Island Oyster Company. 

Tomales Bay, Marin County, California
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt, July 2021 

This area is also home to Cowgirl Creamery, which is quite famous in northern California.  The local social distancing sign in wide use invokes a cow as the unit of measure, thus reflecting the familiar. 

Point Reyes Station, Western Marin County, 
July, 2021

I took photos of post offices, including in tiny locations like Tomales, where the counter hours are not long (closing at 2:30 pm, after a half hour lunch break).  

U.S. Post Office, Tomales, CA, on Highway 1 
through the left door, you can see the postal worker
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

Also in Tomales was this sign at the Catholic Church--a protest of state mandated pandemic church closures in the way we tend to associate with evangelical churches, like the one that successfully sued the State of California over its mandate.  

Tomales, California, July 2021
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

Also attention getting was a kiosk set up outside the Point Reyes Station Post Office advertising jobs at other rural post offices in the region, Marshall and Olema.  The sign says "starts $18.69 per hour, will increase salary range up to $28.00, paid Bi-Weekly."   On the little desk was a paper where interested folks could sign up to get more information.  I saw one entry on it at early afternoon on July 14.  

U.S. Post Office, Point Reyes Station, CA
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

At US Post Office, Point Reyes Station, CA, July 2021
Advertising for Post Office jobs
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021

Other observations from my visit to Point Reyes Station:  Cowgirl Creamery is closed on Wednesdays.  Had a great lunch, though, at Sidestreet Kitchen across the way from Cowgirl.  Lots of Bay Area hipsters also dining there, along with locals and other tourists.  I was struck that the local government (county) offices, including the library and area social services, are housed in what is called The Creamery and The Creamery Annex. Also nearby is a local radio station--increasingly rare these days.   

Thrift store, Western Marin County, California

Services available in western Marin County

Local Radio, Western Marin County, California 
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2021 

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXLII): New York Times feature on north central Arkansas hot spot hits close to home

The Sharon LaFraniere story is dateline Mountain Home, Arkansas, and the headline is, "In Undervaccinated Arkansas, Covid Upends Life All Over Again." Here's an excerpt: 
While much of the nation tiptoes toward normalcy, the coronavirus is again swamping hospitals in places like Mountain Home, a city of fewer than 13,000 people not far from the Missouri border. A principal reason, health officials say, is the emergence of the new, far more contagious variant called Delta, which now accounts for more than half of new infections in the United States.

The variant has highlighted a new divide in America, between communities with high vaccination rates, where it causes hardly a ripple, and those like Mountain Home that are undervaccinated, where it threatens to upend life all over again.
In Baxter County, where the hospital is, fewer than a third of residents are fully vaccinated — below both the state and the national averages. Even fewer people are protected in surrounding counties that the hospital serves.

“It’s absolutely flooded,” said Dr. Rebecca Martin, a pulmonologist, as she made the rounds of 2 West one morning last week.
I wrote this last week about what was happening COVID-wise in the region.  Here's a New York Times health care story about Baxter County from 2017, focused on the regional hospital as an economic engine for the area, which has attracted many retirees and better qualified doctors than one associates with rural regions.  Journalist Patricia Cohen also notes in her feature that Baxter County is Trump country.  

Postscript:  A few weeks later, the Wall Street Journal ran this feature about coronavirus impacts in Greenwood, Arkansas, part of the Forth Smith Metro Area in the west central part of the state.  

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Rural arts/maker collaborative destroyed in northern Sierra fire

The Los Angeles Times' Anita Chabria reported this story two days ago, dateline Doyle, California, population 678.  The headline is "Fleeing high rents, he found a tiny town for his Burning Man Dreams.  Then came wildfire."  Here's the lede:

Mike Snook had a vision for this rough and faded California town on the Nevada border: It would be a refuge for the free spirits of Burning Man, those priced out of the Bay Area and looking for a place to build really big art.

In 2019, he began buying run-down property for cheap — his first purchase was $30,000 — while slowly loading it up with tools, supplies and random stuff. Think an entire shipment of Chinese teak doors, a 1946 UPS truck, a Zamboni ice cleaner.

Saturday night, much of that dream went up in smoke when the Beckwourth Complex fire roared through Doyle, burning 33 houses, including multiple homes owned by Snook — as just about everyone here calls him.

“Five houses down, one left,” Snook said, with a forced laugh, sitting in the midday darkness of the Buck Inn, Doyle’s only bar. “I thought, ‘There’s no way it’s going to hit all of them.’”

The Beckwourth Complex fire, at 100,000 acres, is the largest California wildfire so far this year. Doyle is unincorporated, roughly equidistant from Susanville, county seat of Lassen County, and Reno, county seat of Washoe County, Nevada. 

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Highlighting "rural" in child poverty, tax credit discussion

I was surprised when I heard Amanda Peacher's report about the child tax credit this morning on Marketplace because she was discussing the rural impact of the new benefit--something you rarely hear on a national newscast.  

Here's the excerpt:

By her analysis, a lot more families in rural areas will get this financial help. [Kris Cox, with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] said that in the past, roughly half of those households received partial or no credit because they earned too little (emphasis added).

“Now 94% of kids in rural areas will see their child tax credit go up,” Cox said.

But keep in mind this credit is just for 2021. Unless Congress makes it permanent, the monthly deposits will dry up come January.

Amanda Peacher was formerly with Oregon Public Broadcasting.  She came to my attention when she reported on the Malheur occupation several years ago.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

FEMA and disaster aid in rural America

This is the topic of two recent stories with rural angles.  The first is this one by Hannah Dreier of the Washington Post, out of Hale County, Alabama, population 15,760, with a focus on race:  

Not enough people were signing up for help after a series of tornadoes ripped through rural Alabama, so the government sent Chris Baker to figure out why. He had driven past the spot where a tornado threw a 13-year-old girl high into a tree, past where injured cows had to be shot one by one, and past where a family was crushed to death in their bathtub. And now, as another day began in this patchwork of destruction, he grabbed a stack of fliers with a picture of an outstretched hand and headed to his car to let people know Washington had assistance to offer.

“So we’ll do a convoy?” Baker asked the local official who had offered to show him around, looking down to check that the badge identifying him as a specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in place.

He needn’t have bothered. “There goes FEMA,” called a woman on her porch as they drove by. Two burly White men in khaki cargo pants on a hot day — who else would it be? A majority-Black county named for an officer in the Confederate Army, Hale County is a place of little interest to outsiders; an area of dense forests, catfish farms and 15,000 residents, most of whom can trace their ancestry back to enslaved people or plantation owners.

* * * 

Baker was new to the agency, and this was his second deployment to a disaster zone. His supervisors had asked him to spread the word that people who lost homes to the March 25 tornadoes still had time to apply for grants of up to $72,000. But as he canvassed the area, a different message was spreading much faster: That people here were in fact not eligible for anything, because of how they had inherited their land. Because of the way Black people have always inherited land in Hale County.

That last bit references heirs property, which you can read more about here, thanks to the work of Thomas Mitchell of Texas A & M School of Law. 

The second story is actually a series out of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, which has been reporting who gets FEMA aid in the wake of California wildfires.  Here's an excerpt: 

California's 2020 wildfires set a record: the most acres burned in a single year. Thousands of people lost their homes, and the smoke from the fires up and down the West Coast stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

But another record was set that hardly anyone talked about: The disaster declared for the wildfires in the fall had the lowest eligibility rate for FEMA aid of any U.S. wildfire disaster on record. Just 5% of those who applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help received any financial assistance, according to an NPR analysis.

FEMA payouts weren't quite as low after the wildfires that blazed during the summer, but they were still lower than average: 17% received aid for those fires.

When we first saw those figures, it looked like lots and lots of disaster survivors were being denied financial help by FEMA. And that may be the case.

But there's a twist:

The number of people who told FEMA their homes were damaged or otherwise inaccessible was much, much higher than the number of people whose homes were burned, data from FEMA and Cal Fire, the state's fire agency, show. During a fire, the main kinds of damage you'd expect to see would be from burns, smoke and wind.
Across the state, on average, for every home that was burned, nearly four households claimed their primary residence was damaged.


Let's start with how the FEMA system is supposed to work.

When someone's primary residence is damaged during a federally declared disaster, FEMA will reimburse that household up to $72,000. That money can go toward things such as clothing, food and temporary rent payments while they're displaced. Property owners can use the money to repair or replace their homes, though people with insurance have to meet certain criteria to be eligible.
[W]e turned to county officials in California. They don't manage FEMA's program, but they work with the agency to help victims in their counties. We heard from officials in six counties that burned. They all could explain part of the mystery, but none of them could quite crack it.

And here's more big picture information: 

Nationwide, over 130,000 disaster applications were flagged as fraudulent during the past year and a half, according to a letter that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee sent to FEMA in May questioning the way the agency runs the aid program.

Rising fraud doesn't hurt just taxpayers — it harms actual disaster victims too.

"Unfortunately, some people are going to have to jump through more hoops to prove they're not committing fraud," says Jason Zirkle, training director at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

An NPR investigation found that this is what happened in Oregon. Some of the very safeguards that FEMA put in place to keep out wrongdoers ended up stopping real victims from getting help.

"It's a fine line between not ticking people off that deserve money," Zirkle says, "and still preventing fraud."

Don't miss the full story here.   And here's a report from this past winter about FEMA claims related to the 2020 Oregon wildfires.  

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Pot farms--the illegal type--in the California desert

That's the big headline from the Los Angeles Times today.  Here's an excerpt:  
The rise of Mojave Desert pot farming began shortly after California voted to legalize marijuana in 2016. Ever since, black-market growers have flocked to the desert, which offers a near-perfect environment for large-scale farming: endless sunshine, cheap open space and virtually no police. Though desert pot does require enormous amounts of water, growers have discovered that that they can buy or steal all they need.

Bulldozers scrape desert brush and topsoil into tall berms as growers clear space for row after row of tunnel-like greenhouses, from which the pungent scent of cannabis wafts over neighborhoods. In some cases, illegal pot farms sprawl across the desert floor like corporate agricultural compounds, seemingly springing up overnight.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies within the last few months have counted 500 such illegal grow sites from the air — a huge jump from the 150 tallied last year. In San Bernardino County, sheriff’s deputies have come across 860 illegal sites. The farms have become so numerous that one outraged resident posted drone footage of one greenhouse after another filling a one-mile stretch of desert in Twentynine Palms.

I'm reminded of this recent news of massive illegal pot grows at the other end of the state. 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXLI): Five phase-three hotspots are mostly rural, with low vaccination rates

In this CNN story yesterday Elizbeth Cohen and John Bonfield report under the headline, "Five undervaccinated clusters put the entire United States at risk."  One of those under-vaccinated regions is the Missouri-Arkansas Ozarks. That's where I grew up, so it caught my attention.  Here's a salient quote:

The five clusters are largely in parts of eight states, starting in the east in Georgia and stretching west to Texas and north to southern Missouri. The clusters also include parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and are made up of mostly smaller counties but also cities such as Montgomery, Alabama; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Amarillo, Texas.

And here's a map depicting the five clusters:

Information about the data collections challenges of that study is here:

The county data is not without its flaws. When someone gets a shot, their home county is supposed to be noted in state records, but the system doesn't always work perfectly. In the Georgetown analysis, at least 90% of all vaccinations were recorded with the person's home county, Bansal said.
In some cases, the Georgetown data differs from CDC data because Bansal and her team were able to obtain additional data directly from state health departments.

Then, this morning, NPR reported on the region's new COVID challenges.  NPR singled out two counties, Ottawa County, Oklahoma, population 31,848, and Newton County, Missouri, population 58,118, where cases are spiking.  Those two counties are nearly contiguous and are in the greater Ozarks region mentioned above.  In both counties, the vaccination rate is low, just 16% in Ottawa County, OK and 22% in Newton County, MO.  This story features a data table showing hot spot counties.  Interestingly, they include the county where I was born, Boone County, Arkansas, and the county where I live now, Sacramento County, California.  The rate per 100,000 is 44 in Boone County, Arkansas, while it is less than a fifth that--just 8 per 100K, in Sacramento County, California. 

As a related matter, this Tweet about Stone County, Arkansas came across my timeline yesterday, suggesting that a single COVID case on June 1 had turned into 70 this past week.  The vaccination rate is 29%.

The source of the Tweet, Skip Rutherford, recently stepped down as head of the Clinton School of Public Policy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  

Stone County is in north central Arkansas, part of the region noted above. 

Meanwhile, in Baxter County, Arkansas, also along the Missouri state line in north central Arkansas, the Ranger Bass Boats manufacturing facility shut down after a COVID outbreak among workers.  

Postscript:  The New York Times reported out of Springfield, Missouri on July 10, where Cox Medical Center has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.  Cox is the closest major hospital to where I grew up.  My father had several heart surgeries there.  

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ammon Bundy, "man about town," talking water and housing in Oregon and Idaho

This piece out of Klamath Falls, Oregon about the West's water crisis caught my attention last month.  Emmas Marris reports in The Atlantic, under the headline, "The West Can End the Water Wars Now."  Here's the lede for the story, which doesn't focus on Bundy, but does provide important context:

[I]n the West, people are, by and large, aggrieved. This is not entirely their fault. Federal and state governments have made lots of promises to people in the West, or to their parents or grandparents. Some people were promised that their land would not be taken, while other people were promised free land. Some were told that they could withdraw water from this or that lake or river every year until the end of time, others that their right to hunt or fish on their territory would never be infringed.
But the natural abundance those promises were based on has been squandered by generations of mismanagement. In the Klamath Basin, in Southern Oregon and Northern California, where I live, Klamath tribal members haven’t been able to exercise their “exclusive right of taking fish in the streams and lakes,” as protected in a 1864 treaty, for decades, because the fish keep dying.

And here's the bit that sums up what Bundy is up to (note, it potentially involves violence):   

A handful of far-right agitators connected with the infamous anti-government cowboy Ammon Bundy spent $30,000 to buy a plot of land adjacent to the closed headgates of the main irrigation canal, and they are publicly threatening to force them open. The gates are controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation and blocked with bulkheads. Heavy machinery would be required to move them. The farmers Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen are giving interviews from the shade of a large, circus-striped tent by the headgates: They see their promised water allocation as private property that the federal government has stolen from them.

And then Anita Chabria and Hailey Branson-Potts reported for the Los Angeles Times that Bundy, in suburban Boise, Idaho, was arguing that the shortage of housing was a reason to end public land ownership.  The headline is "Ammon Bundy seizes on housing shortage in new bid to take public lands in Idaho."  Here's a salient quote:

Bundy is reframing the decades-long but narrow fight of his father, Cliven Bundy, against the Bureau of Land Management — the other BLM, as it’s known here — into a platform with broader appeal. He wants to use the governorship to wrest ownership of federal land for state control. It’s a campaign aimed at voters dreaming of wide open spaces and homes they can afford, wrapped in an idealized view of western life where land and resources are limited only by an unwillingness to use them.

Neither America nor the Gem State, he told the crowd, can survive the liberal creep of growing cities or the economic toll of too few houses for too many people. To “keep Idaho Idaho,” as his slogan promises, growth needs to happen out instead of up, as he puts it.

The federal government is “forcing everybody down into big cities and where they’re just surviving,” Bundy said in a recent interview with The Times. He spoke from his home outside Boise on five acres of apple orchards in an agricultural area known as Treasure Valley, surrounded by public lands.

Of course, Bundy and his family have long pressed for an end to federal government ownership of land.  That's been their signature issue, as covered here, regarding the 2016 seizure of the Malheur Wildlife Reserve, and other issues.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Rural ambulance service under threat, especially in the West

This topic has been covered by two major media outlets in recent months.  First the New York Times' Ali Watkins reported a few months ago out of Wakashie County, Wyoming, population 8,533.

Then NPR's Aaron Bolton reported yesterday out of Dutton, Montana, population 316.  Bottom line:  

[S]agging [Medicare and Medicaid] reimbursement and volunteerism mean rural parts of the U.S. can no longer rely solely on volunteers but must find ways to convert to a paid staff.

The lack of anonymity and community aspects of this story caught my attention, though the following excerpt focuses on other practical and fiscal issues, too.  

Communities need to find ways to stabilize or convert their volunteer programs, or private services like his will need financial support to keep responding in other communities...

But lawmakers' appetite for finding ways to fund EMS is limited. During Montana's legislative session earlier this year, DeTienne [until recently Montana health department's EMS and Trauma Systems chief] pushed for a bill that would have studied the benefit of declaring EMS an essential service, among other possible improvements. The bill quickly died.
Back in Dutton, the EMS crew chief [Colleen Campbell] is thinking about her future after 17 years as a volunteer. Campbell says she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren, who live out of town. If she retires, there's no guarantee somebody will replace her. She's torn about what to do.

"My license is good until March of 2022, and we'll just see," Campbell says.

I can't help thinking about the parallel between EMS volunteers and volunteer fire departments, which have been the subject of many posts over the years.    

Postscript:  On July 8, NPR ran this story on the expanding urban-wildland interface in relation to fire danger, and it includes the topic of volunteer fire departments and their struggle to respond adequately to wildfires.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Good (local) news regarding judicial diversity, out of California's Inland Empire

Byrhonda Lyons reported some surprisingly good news about diversity among California trial judges for CalMatters last week:  61% of the trial court judges in Imperial County, California are people of color! Imperial County is not rural by the U.S. Census Bureau definition, nor is it nonmetropolitan by the definition of the Office of Management and Budget.  It is, however, rural in the California imaginary, part of the Inland Empire and with a highly agricultural economy.  

The county is one of the state's poorest and most diverse (85% Latino), hugging the Arizona state line and the Mexican border.  Here's a segment about how diversity on the Imperial County bench came to be.  The short story:  it began with personal initiative and persistence: 

Contentious elections have been critical to transforming the bench in Imperial County.

Located just 17 miles from Mexicali, Mexico, the California town of El Centro is the seat of rural Imperial County, where Latinos have been a majority for decades. White people long dominated the bench. In 1980, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Matt Contreras to be a judge of what were then called Municipal Courts. Contreras became the county’s first Latino judge — and the only one for another decade.

By 1990, Juan Ulloa, having been skipped over for an appointment, bypassed that traditional process and gambled that voters would elect a Latino judge.

“It was common wisdom,” he said, “that it couldn’t be done.”

That year, a Superior Court judge retired, clearing the way for Ulloa to run for a newly vacant seat. He lost. Four years later, another judge retired, and Ulloa ran again, facing off against Roger Benitez, now a federal District Court judge best known for rejecting California’s assault rifle ban.

Since the state began collecting diversity data on judges 14 years ago, governors and the voters have helped Imperial County go from two Latino judges in 2007 to five in 2020 — rising, falling and coasting along the way.

Now Latino judges make up half of the 10-member bench. Two Latino judges were appointed by Brown, one in 2016 and one in 2018. One was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. The other two won in elections.

Said Ulloa: “Once we proved it could be done, the doors opened.”
In all, 40% of Imperial County’s judges first got the job by campaigning for election. That’s exceedingly rare in California, where counties can go decades without a Superior Court challenge.

“The Imperial Valley is such a close-knit area that people want to make sure they know who they are electing,” said Judge William Quan, an Asian American native of the valley. Quan ran twice, losing once before and winning in 2014.

“You learn to appreciate that. And maybe that has bred this thinking that I will run for election versus appointment because we understand the people. We know them and we’re comfortable enough to be able to ask for their support.”

While elections can diversify a bench, they can also have the opposite effect. Latina Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro, appointed by then-Gov. Brown in 2012, was unseated by Judge Brooks Anderholdt in a primary election a mere few months later. Eventually she won another judgeship and now is a magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California

The other good news is that the California Supreme Court is the most diverse judicial body in the state:  

[F]ully 71% of its judges are people of color, creating one of the most diverse Supreme Courts in the country.

I'm glad the story notes that now infamous federal district judge, Roger Benitez, lives in Imperial County. 

Here's another post about a lawyer, my former colleague Cruz Reynoso, who started his career in Imperial County where he eventually worked for California Rural Legal Assistance.  This part of Judge Ulloa's biography-- reminded me of Reynoso, who was the first Latino to sit on the California Supreme Court.  Ulloa was thwarted in his first few efforts to get a seat on the Imperial County court--by getting a gubernatorial appointment or getting recommended by the local bar.     

[Ulloa] figures his legal work representing employees in discrimination suits and inmates seeking better jail conditions deemed him “too radical” for an aspiring California judge at the time.

Be sure to read the entire CalMatters story for a nice rural "lack of anonymity" angle at the end. 

A prior Byrhonda Lyons story about the lack of diversity among California trial court judges is here, and the blog post about it is here.  

Saturday, July 3, 2021

California migration patterns driving rural(ish) gentrification and, perhaps slowly, changes in local politics

The Los Angeles Times reported a few days ago under the headline, "Wealth, class and remote work shape California's new boomtowns, as people flee big cities," and the focus of the story is El Dorado County, California (population 181,058)--specifically the planned (but unincorporated) community of El Dorado Hills, population 42,000.  
Among the new booming counties is El Dorado, the birthplace of the California Gold Rush, which has absorbed a flood of Bay Area transplants who, in search of affordable homes, well-rated schools and access to the outdoors, have packed up their U-Hauls and headed northeast.

“It’s really just an opportunity for people who have felt pent up and squeezed in the Bay Area and felt handcuffed that they had to stay there,” said Jon Yoffie, a real estate agent in El Dorado Hills.

Many recent arrivals are young families and retirees looking for more land or following their adult children.
* * * 
El Dorado County has held on to its small-town vibe, residents say, but newcomers are making it both more expensive and more diverse.

Bill Roby, 67, and his husband James moved to El Dorado County from the Bay Area in 2005, where they settled on six acres in Shingle Springs, a rural part of the county with larger plots and open space.

“It’s a very rural environment where I can’t even see my neighbor’s home,” said Roby, who, like the majority of El Dorado County residents, lives outside of the two incorporated cities of Placerville and South Lake Tahoe.

Before moving, Roby, who worked as an operations manager for a nonprofit organization, felt that he was always competing for room. Now the executive director of the ‎El Dorado Community Foundation, Roby said he has seen not only a dramatic surge in the number of people migrating to the region since 2020, but also a heightened degree of civic engagement. In the last year, Roby said, there has been “a lot of scrutiny” over local positions, such as who is being chosen as the commissioner of a Board of Supervisors committee.“People have time, they are paying attention and they’re raising ideological concerns,” he said. “I think that encapsulates the big conversation going on in El Dorado County: Where does the community see itself?”

Though he hasn’t experienced animosity, Roby has heard some locals say that they want to maintain their region’s more conservative, underdeveloped aura, and fear that newcomers are changing that character. Some 41% of active voters in El Dorado County are Republicans, according to 2020 data from the county’s election department, while 31% are Democrats. Another 21% are registered with no party preference.

“Out of my three neighbors, two have moved because they felt the county was becoming too liberal,” Roby said.

Here's a prior post about sprawl in El Dorado County.  And a few other posts that are revealing about the county's politics are here, here, and here.   Note the "Preserve our Rural Lifestyle" heading in this El Dorado County post, from 2008.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Coronavirus surging in rural Africa

 The Associated Press reports from Zvimba, Zimbabwe, about 70 miles from Harare.  

For Pelagia Bvukura, who lives in a rural part of north-central Zimbabwe, COVID-19 had always been a “city disease,” affecting those in the capital, Harare, or other, distant big towns.

“There was no virus for us. We only used to hear it was in Harare or other towns or when city people died and we buried them here,” she said recently, referring to the custom in Zimbabwe where those who move to the city often are buried at their family’s rural home.

That is changing now. A new surge of the virus is finally penetrating Africa’s rural areas, where most of the continent’s people live, spreading to areas that once had been viewed as safe havens from infections that hit cities particularly hard.

With facilities in the countryside ill-prepared to fight the coronavirus, residents like Bvukura worry that the next graves being dug could be for their neighbors — or even themselves.

* * *  

“It is now on our doorsteps. It’s scary. We don’t know how to protect ourselves. We have never dealt with such a problem before,” she said.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

"Rural" used 13 times (12 of them in dissent) in today's Supreme Court decision on voting rights in Arizona

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision today in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, a voting rights case.  The decision that will be roundly and soundly criticized from the left for upholding Arizona restrictions on voting.  I could jump on that bandwagon, albeit without expertise because I am not a voting rights scholar.  Instead, I'm going to focus here on the unusual amount of attention that "rural" drew in the opinion, more than I've seen in any Supreme Court decision I've every read (which admittedly is not exhaustive as I am not a scholar of constitutional law).  The issue here is similar to that which I've written about a great deal in the context of abortion:  when is a regulation too much of a burden on a fundamental right--whether it is the right to get an abortion or the right to vote?  

In Brnovich, the dissent argued that rural residents--especially "rural Native Americans" because of the distances they must travel to reach a post office or polling place--are inappropriately burdened by an Arizona law that prohibits ballot harvesting.  Here's a representative quote from the dissent: 

Arizona’s law mostly banning third-party ballot collection also results in a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities. The problem with that law again lies in facts nearly unique to Arizona—here, the presence of rural Native American communities that lack ready access to mail service. Given that circumstance, the Arizona statute discriminates in just the way Section 2 proscribes. The majority once more comes to a different conclusion only by ignoring the local conditions with which Arizona’s law interacts.

The critical facts for evaluating the ballot-collection rule have to do with mail service. Most Arizonans vote by mail. But many rural Native American voters lack access to mail service, to a degree hard for most of us to fathom. Only 18% of Native voters in rural counties receive home mail delivery, compared to 86% of white voters living in those counties. See 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 836. And for many or most, there is no nearby post office. Native Americans in rural Arizona “often must travel 45 minutes to 2 hours just to get to a mailbox.” 948 F. 3d, at 1006; see 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 869 (“Ready access to reliable and secure mail service is nonexistent” in some Native American communities). And between a quarter to a half of households in these Native communities do not have a car. See ibid. So getting ballots by mail and sending them back poses a serious challenge for Arizona’s rural Native Americans.  (emphasis added)

The majority relegated its response to a footnote (footnote 21) that replied primarily on the U.S. Postal Service's functioning to suggest these rural voters will be taken care of:

The dissent’s primary argument regarding HB 2023 concerns its effect on Native Americans who live on remote reservations. The dissent notes that many of these voters do not receive mail delivery at home, that the nearest post office may be some distance from their homes, and that they may not have automobiles. Post, at 36. We do not dismiss these problems, but for a number of reasons, they do not provide a basis for invalidating HB 2023. The burdens that fall on remote communities are mitigated by the long period of time prior to an election during which a vote may be cast either in person or by mail and by the legality of having a ballot picked up and mailed by family or household members. And in this suit, no individual voter testified that HB 2023 would make it significantly more difficult for him or her to vote. 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 871. Moreover, the Postal Service is required by law to “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” 39 U. S. C. §101(b); see also §403(b)(3). Small post offices may not be closed “solely for operating at a deficit,” §101(b), and any decision to close or consolidate a post office may be appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, see §404(d)(5). An alleged failure by the Postal Service to comply with its statutory obligations in a particular location does not in itself provide a ground for overturning a voting rule that applies throughout an entire State.

That seems a shaky defense given the recent performance of the U.S. Post Office, along with proposed changes to its performance. More analysis to follow in a future post.