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Q&A: Writer Explores Why Appalachia’s Economic System Keeps People ‘Poor, Sick, and Stuck on Coal’

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Photo: Janet Kunicki/WVPB

Gwynn Guilford is a reporter for Quartz, a business news site. She specializes in writing about the economy. Guilford spent 10 months researching Appalachia’s economy for an article called “The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal.” Guilford dug into the history of the region’s economic ties to the coal industry, and the long-term effects this relationship has had on the people who live and are determined to stay in Appalachia.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Roxy Todd spoke with Guilford about her report. Excerpts of that discussion can be found below.

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On the Forces that Shaped Central Appalachia’s Economy

The more I learned about these (to me, bizarre) forces that shaped the region’s economy — e.g. absentee land ownership, coal camps, the drafting of the WV constitution, the patterns of coercion that gave rise to Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain — the more astonished I was by how little of this vital context made its way into media coverage or the wider American public’s understanding of central Appalachia’s challenges.

Privatized Communities: Coal Camps and the “Capitalist Experiment”

The “capitalist experiment,” as I envisioned it, was based first of all on the coal camp system — basically, the question of “what happens to social fabric and economic life when you privatize individual communities all across a region?” And the results aren’t good. Governments permitted individual companies to exert such absolute control over economic and social life that they could low-ball miners on wages in order to ensure profit margins. To use the concept pioneered by economist Joan Robinson, they enjoyed monopsony power.

Coal’s Outsized Regional Impact

Central Appalachia’s coal industry boomed in large part because, by suppressing workers’ wages, it outcompeted competitors from other (unionized) regions on price, encouraging even more expansion. Much of the industry’s growth came out of the pockets of mining households.

… way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, West Virginia politicians and tax authorities were already bemoaning what coal’s outsize influence on the state’s economic structure and incentives would do to future generations. They were clearly right to worry.

… Continued reliance on the coal industry to create jobs and growth has shifted political and economic power increasingly away from all households — not just miners’ families — and radically curbed the choices and opportunities of the vast majority of central Appalachians. The public services that they should have been able to expect to nurture and support healthy, productive, educated communities either never existed in the first place or were backed by a stream of funding from coal extraction too minimal to sustain them.

The Increasingly Fragile American Middle Class

For the last few decades, the American middle class has imploded, a sign that the U.S. economy, like that of central Appalachia, is becoming more and more fragile.

Geographic Pockets of Sickness and Economic Despair: Not Just in Central Appalachia

Nowadays, scores of other geographic pockets of sickness and economic distress have emerged all over America. And as in central Appalachia, the implied solution is just to leave. But many don’t want to have to choose between their hometowns and a decent wage or opportunities for their kids — or, for that matter, their family’s health. Disturbingly, no leaders that I know of have come up with sound, concrete ways of confronting these problems — or even acknowledging them.

The Push to the Privatization of Public Goods

This push is all based on the ideology that privatizing public goods and services always makes them cheaper because, since companies are motivated by profit, they’ll use resources more efficiently. But profit is just what happens when you add up income and subtract costs; the more crucial factors in determining whether resources are used productively are the prices assigned to those resources. The question is, who or what determines those prices? In the absence of competition and regulation (which puts value on more abstract things like health and clean air) private companies do.

That’s exactly what we saw in the “capitalist experiment” of the coal camps. The prices they assigned to labor, to housing, to healthcare, to pinto beans at the company store — those had nothing to do with efficient use of those resources, and they didn’t reflect genuine value. Companies set prices that maximized their own profit. Did they use resources efficiently? Nope. They destroyed central Appalachia’s human and natural capital, and profoundly stunted its physical capital.

The Problem: Understanding What the Extractive Institutions Have Done to Central Appalachia’s Potential

The problem isn’t really coal or no coal, colonialist or not. It’s understanding what the extractive institutions built up around coal have done, over the course of a century, to central Appalachia’s potential. Fixing those institutions is what central Appalachia’s future hinges on — the debate about coal’s rightful role in the economy, which Trump has helped whip up, is a distraction.

… investing in human ingenuity is a must for creating a diverse, flexible, adaptive economy. Higher education is obviously a key component of that. But I think it’s possible to see college and advanced degrees as a panacea. Yes, formal educational opportunities are important, but even more crucial is creating a wide range of opportunities for people to build diverse skills, knowledge and know-how. So is encouraging institutions that connect those people through social and professional networks.

——————————-

 

Read the full interview between Roxy Todd and Gwynn Guilford below.

Roxy Todd: Gwynn, let’s start with how you became interested in researching the economic landscape in Appalachia, how it affects workers, and coal bosses.


Gwynn Guilford: In early 2017, I began researching U.S. mortality rates, which were drawing a great deal of media attention due to “deaths of despair,” in particular, opioid-related deaths. I wondered whether the focus on opioid deaths — which in the grand scheme of things, don’t kill anywhere near as many people as, say, heart disease — was obscuring other trends.

Looking at national data wasn’t very helpful, given the huge variation in health from one place to the next. So I started looking at maps of health data and mortality rates and trying to learn more about conditions in geographic pockets where things were particularly grim.

Again and again, the patch that I later came to understand was central Appalachia leapt out. Though, obviously, overdose rates were indeed frighteningly high in central Appalachia, what struck me was the breadth and consistency of health problems there across the board. I thought, “Geez, there’s a much bigger story about what’s happening here than opioids alone” and started trying to learn more.

My go-to strategy for trying to figure out anything is to start studying its history. Up to that point, my familiarity with central Appalachia came from stories I’d read about coal and opioids in central Appalachia while I covered the Trump campaign for Quartz in 2016, and due to the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as a sort of Rosetta Stone translating the source of Appalachia’s problems for outsider politicians and journalists. In other words, I didn’t know much!

I was lucky that one of the first people I happened to talk to — Nick Mullins, whom I found him through his blog, The Thoughtful Coal Miner — was deeply conversant in the region’s industrial past (Nick’s family history ends up being the opening of my story). The more I learned about these (to me, bizarre) forces that shaped the region’s economy — e.g. absentee land ownership, coal camps, the drafting of the WV constitution, the patterns of coercion that gave rise to Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain — the more astonished I was by how little of this vital context made its way into media coverage or the wider American public’s understanding of central Appalachia’s challenges.

Two other things surprised me: First, how much of what I’d learned from writing about economic development — particularly on China’s economic growth model, deindustrialization, economic complexity, and the inclusiveness of economic and political institutions — applied to this patch of America, too. The other thing was that these problems weren’t unforeseen.

On the contrary, way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, West Virginia politicians and tax authorities were already bemoaning what coal’s outsize influence on the state’s economic structure and incentives would do to future generations. They were clearly right to worry.

RT: How do you think Appalachia’s economy is a lesson for the rest of the country, about capitalism, and about the extractive industry?

GG: The “capitalist experiment,” as I envisioned it, was based first of all on the coal camp system — basically, the question of “what happens to social fabric and economic life when you privatize individual communities all across a region?” And the results aren’t good. Governments permitted individual companies to exert such absolute control over economic and social life that they could low-ball miners on wages in order to ensure profit margins. To use the concept pioneered by economist Joan Robinson, they enjoyed monopsony power. As the lone employer in a given town, they barred competition of other industries that might give people other economic choices and other skills to learn, thereby bidding up wages. Central Appalachia’s coal industry boomed in large part because, by suppressing workers’ wages, it outcompeted competitors from other (unionized) regions on price, encouraging even more expansion. Much of the industry’s growth came out of the pockets of mining households.

This vicious cycle crippled the long-term growth of central Appalachia’s economic base. Since most of this profit flowed out of the area, instead of being reinvested, it drained the region’s natural wealth and human capital even more. Continued reliance on the coal industry to create jobs and growth has shifted political and economic power increasingly away from all households — not just miners’ families — and radically curbed the choices and opportunities of the vast majority of central Appalachians. The public services that they should have been able to expect to nurture and support healthy, productive, educated communities either never existed in the first place or were backed by a stream of funding from coal extraction too minimal to sustain them.

These very specific conditions don’t apply in obvious ways to the rest of the U.S. But the dynamics here are instructive, and several parallels exist.

Take, for instance, the middle class, a bellwether of economic health. The U.S.’s middle class was in large part created through New Deal reforms that intertwined the interests of labor and capital, and expanded educational opportunities. By upping earning power and deepening the skills and knowledge of working-class America, these policies were a formula for balanced, self-sustaining growth. Though it was powering the consumer boom that resulted, central Appalachia never saw the emergence of a true middle class, thanks in large part to the economic and political dominance of the coal industry.

Nowadays, however, the rest of the U.S. is heading more in that direction too. For the last few decades, the American middle class has imploded, a sign that the U.S. economy, like that of central Appalachia, is becoming more and more fragile.

Another worrying similarity is how, as has long been the case in central Appalachia, America’s economic and political institutions increasingly concentrate power among the few instead of investing in the things we know drive long-term, self-sustaining growth.

As with most vicious circles of elite influence, there’s a cynical short-termism to how they distribute wealth. The latest tax cut bill is a case in point. That’s transferred wealth to corporations and their shareholders that instead should have gone toward spending on things that will expand the economy’s potential to grow — e.g. health, education, infrastructure. Meanwhile, increasing lack of regulatory accountability means that companies can easily pass on costs to the public.

This is also the consequence of the hollowing out of the local tax base in these places, which reflects U.S. leaders’ failure to help prepare communities to weather global economic and technological changes of the last few decades. Nowadays, scores of other geographic pockets of sickness and economic distress have emerged all over America. And as in central Appalachia, the implied solution is just to leave. But many don’t want to have to choose between their hometowns and a decent wage or opportunities for their kids — or, for that matter, their family’s health. Disturbingly, no leaders that I know of have come up with sound, concrete ways of confronting these problems — or even acknowledging them.

In the retreat of public leadership, we’ve also seen a shrinking of the role of public goods and services in Americans’ lives. This too is a sign of how our institutions are failing to act on behalf of the interests of a broad base of Americans. In some struggling towns, the retreat of local governments as providers of public services has been replaced by private equity firms that charge more for things like water systems, ambulance services and fire departments in struggling towns across America. (These are the sorts of arrangements supposed to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, by the way.) It’s here especially that central Appalachia’s “capitalist experiment” can teach America something important.

This push is all based on the ideology that privatizing public goods and services always makes them cheaper because, since companies are motivated by profit, they’ll use resources more efficiently. But profit is just what happens when you add up income and subtract costs; the more crucial factors in determining whether resources are used productively are the prices assigned to those resources. The question is, who or what determines those prices? In the absence of competition and regulation (which puts value on more abstract things like health and clean air) private companies do.

That’s exactly what we saw in the “capitalist experiment” of the coal camps. The prices they assigned to labor, to housing, to healthcare, to pinto beans at the company store — those had nothing to do with efficient use of those resources, and they didn’t reflect genuine value. Companies set prices that maximized their own profit. Did they use resources efficiently? Nope. They destroyed central Appalachia’s human and natural capital, and profoundly stunted its physical capital. Yet here we are as a country, embracing policies that decrease competition and regulation.

RT: Some people have said that the Appalachian coal industry can be seen as a microcosm for some of the failures of capitalism. Do you think this is true?

GG: I don’t think capitalism per se has failed. Rather, it’s the institutions designed to broadly distribute the wealth capitalism creates that have failed central Appalachians. And until those institutions are expanded to encourage political and economic participation from a vastly broader swath of its society, they’ll continue to suffer.

RT: Some people have said that coal economies in central Appalachia have been treated almost as colonies by rich coal bosses from out of state. Do you think there is any reality in this reading of coal economies?

GG: Under colonial systems, typically the oppressing country extracts cheaply produced raw materials for its domestic production, while exploiting the colony’s workers as a captive consumer base for its value-added exported goods. Beyond its obvious moral problems, colonialism is bad because it discourages manufacturing, suppresses household purchasing power, and erodes the skill base in a way that eats away at a country’s productive potential, and leaves the economy precariously reliant on one or two commodities. So, sure — I think it’s not hard to see the similarities to colonialism in the absentee ownership, coal camps, and tax systems.

That said, I spent a lot of time puzzling over this question, reading up on debates among Appalachian academics about the relevance of the analogy, and couldn’t really figure out what applying the “colonial” framework helps illuminate.

I’m open to any tips on that, of course, but ultimately, someone whose thinking I found the most insightful was the late, great writer Jane Jacobs, especially her sobering caution about our impulse to embrace the concept. “The trouble with loosely calling all supply regions (i.e. places rich in natural resources) ‘colonial’ economies is that the term is too optimistic,” she wrote in “Cities and the Wealth of Nationsin 1984. “By reverse implication, it suggests that if alien domination of some sort is thrown off, a stunted, narrow economy will no longer remain stunted and narrow, will proceed to become better rounded and capable of producing amply and diversely on its own behalf as well as for others.”

The problem isn’t really coal or no coal, colonialist or not. It’s understanding what the extractive institutions built up around coal have done, over the course of a century, to central Appalachia’s potential. Fixing those institutions is what central Appalachia’s future hinges on — the debate about coal’s rightful role in the economy, which Trump has helped whip up, is a distraction.

RT: As you probably know, in many of these small communities the coal companies paid for schools, housing, water infrastructure, and basically built up the entire town. This can be great for communities. But on the other side of the coin, when the coal companies leave these areas, they leave a crumbling infrastructure, and in many of these towns, people still live there but they struggle with failing water systems, and other effects of the lack of investment in the infrastructure. It some cases, it almost seems as though these towns were never planned to survive 2 generations. What’s to be done for the people left behind as coal companies have abandoned these former coal communities to their own fate? Aside from the lack of jobs, there are other major trickle-down effects left behind from the downturn of coal.

GG: I’m sorry to say I don’t have an answer to your question. But I will say that this issue is, to me, the most fascinating and heartrending of everything I learned, and I do have some thoughts.  

First off, many of these towns weren’t planned to survive two generations! There’s a line I quote in my story from a 1923 Congressional report investigating coal-camp life: “A manufacturing town may count upon a reasonable degree of permanency. A mining town in a region not suited to other industry is sure to have only a limited life.” Well, just because it’s “not suited” doesn’t change the human impulse to put down roots! This whole line of thinking sees people strictly as labor inputs instead of as entrepreneurs, community members, and consumers — and coal towns as basically dormitories instead of nodes of economic and social activity that will organically grow wherever people build their lives together.

That’s kind of a moral reaction. Practically speaking, infrastructure is a thorny problem, and clearly the current economic base is too weak to pay for major projects (though again, the fact that it’s been allowed to deteriorate is a reminder that more equitable political institutions would have built up a much bigger tax fund from coal severance, as other states have done via far-sighted natural resource management).

As for whether reviving that economic base is a lost cause, though I think it’s plausible that some of central Appalachia’s problems stem from the fact that the coal camp legacy settlements are in places too remote to support commercial networks that would generate tax revenue and justify infrastructure investment, I haven’t seen any empirical data making that case. And as the work of historians Wilma Dunaway and Altina Waller reveal, there was actually quite a lot of commerce and manufacturing activity in central Appalachia before extractive industry distorted land values and labor markets.

Another thing I found striking in my research was the conspicuous lack of urbanization in central Appalachia. By one measure, according to an ARC (Appalachian Regional Commission) report, it’s the most rural area in America — it’s kind of like a cell without a nucleus. This is a problem because cities are important drivers of growth for their surrounding regions. Might a city or two have developed if coal’s economic and geographic dominance hadn’t thwarted that — and if so much infrastructure planning hadn’t been geared toward helping the extractive industries? Maybe!

So it’s also possible that the problem isn’t the remoteness of where people live, but rather, the way the region’s economic structure has stymied the emergence of a growth center for them to plug into. (Of course, ARC did try to address this, but struck out—probably because cities seem to emerge organically from economic activity, not the other way around.) Speaking of plugging in, it seems to this outsider at least that an infrastructure no-brainer is improved broadband connectivity.

RT: In your report, you say that coal mining is the only way that many West Virginians can earn a decent middle-class wage. Is this true? Aren’t there plenty of other careers in things like technology, law, medicine and business available to people in Appalachia? Maybe the difference is that these careers require many years in college and advanced degrees, whereas people used to be able to go intro coal mining right out of high school and earn a decent income. Is education the answer, do you think?

GG: I was speaking of southern West Virginia (and the rest of central Appalachia). As I understand it, you can also make a good living in railways, chemicals, the law, and other industries tied to coal. The question then is, is this coal-focused knowledge base giving rise to innovation that in turn supports other economic activity? Though that wasn’t a question I reported directly on, it didn’t really seem so. One sign that isn’t happening is the exodus of talented, ambitious young people out of the region.

As for your question about education being the answer, investing in human ingenuity is a must for creating a diverse, flexible, adaptive economy. Higher education is obviously a key component of that. But I think it’s possible to see college and advanced degrees as a panacea. Yes, formal educational opportunities are important, but even more crucial is creating a wide range of opportunities for people to build diverse skills, knowledge and know-how. So is encouraging institutions that connect those people through social and professional networks.

RT: Finally, I want to ask you about health disparities in Appalachia. Your report looks at this issue deeply, and analyzes research by the Appalachian Regional Commission and other health studies- for example, you cite one recent study that shows that between 1999 and 2015, death rates across Appalachia went up drastically due to drug overdoses, suicide, and liver damage due to alcohol abuse- sometimes these are called diseases of despair. You looked at how these diseases are making life expectancy for People in Appalachia far lower than the national average.

You also touched a little on cancer rates- which may be linked to things like strip mining. Can you talk about the cost of health for the region and how you see this affecting our region’s ability to rebound economically?

GG: Health allows people to be more productive and work longer, which is good for the economy. People in central Appalachia struggle suffer from disability and chronic diseases at higher rates than in other parts of the country, which probably helps explain why so many people don’t work. They also die earlier than folks in the rest of the U.S., which is tragic in its own right of course, but also snuffs out the potential value of their economic and social contributions. It’s hard to put a dollar sign on that impact, but it has to be enormous. This is potentially cyclical; chronic stress from economic insecurity seems likely to be linked to people getting chronic diseases at a younger age and dying prematurely. And collective ill health hurts the economy, and so on.

What’s the scariest thing to me, though, is how this cycle will evolve in coming generations. Along with education, health in early childhood is important for boosting people’s productive potential and earning power as adults. The opioid crisis and mental health problems in communities seem to be taking a frightening toll on the wellbeing of kids in central Appalachia, which I touched on a bit in my story. I suspect we’re being naive about the long-term impact of how all that’s going to play out.

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Fact-check: Is West Virginia’s Summersville Lake the Clearest in the East?

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Does West Virginia have the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River? Gov. Jim Justice said so in a tweet.

In the Aug. 17 tweet, Justice said, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River. This led to earning its name as ‘The Little Bahamas of the East.’ Check it out for yourself today!” (SCUBA is capitalized because it is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.)

Credit: West Virginia Governor’s Office/Twitter

Summersville Lake is a man-made lake in the southern part of West Virginia. The Huntington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the lake in the 1960s.

Justice’s tweet links to an article on wvtourism.com, published by the West Virginia Tourism Office, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

The article describes the lake as great for swimming, boating, and underwater exploration. The destination has dive sites where rock formations can be seen 100 feet underwater.

However, the WV Tourism article did not offer a specific source for the claim. We contacted the office, and they did not respond.

When we reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District, Toby Wood, project manager for Summersville Lake, said that the label “The Little Bahamas of the East” originated with a SCUBA magazine.

“We consider that a claim-to-fame, and we repeat it often,” Wood said.

In Google searches, we found references to that nickname attributed to Skin Diver magazine but did not locate the original article.

More broadly, however, Wood has “no way of knowing if the lake is the ‘the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River,’ as the governor claimed.”

We reached out to Peter Oliver, editor-in-chief of the National Association of Underwater Instructors’ magazine, Sources, and he said that from his experience, Summersville Lake has the same color as most lakes and reservoirs.

“You’d be OK, I think, to call Summersville ‘one of the clearest,’ but it has that green tint common to almost all freshwater lakes and reservoirs. The water in the Florida spring systems is what we usually call ‘gin clear’ and since the water does not stand in the small lakes but flows out it stays clear,” Oliver said.

Meanwhile, Christine McCrehin of the American Water Resources Association told PolitiFact that “her organization does not track the information about the clarity of lakes.”

Our ruling

Justice tweeted, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River.”

This facts on this claim are more opaque than the governor lets on. There’s no question that Summersville Lake attracts divers who appreciate its clear waters, and there is evidence that it has long been called “the Little Bahamas of the East.”

Justice’s tweet went beyond that, saying specifically that the lake is the clearest in the eastern United States. An Army Corps of Engineers and several independent experts were unable to point to evidence for that first-place ranking.

The statement contains an element of truth, but it offers a specific No. 1 ranking without a comprehensive study to back it up. We rate it Mostly False.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Is This Experiment in Digital Democracy Too Crazy to Work?

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A startup called Voatz wants to build an unhackable way to vote over the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

Voting in the U.S. is an intentionally high-friction endeavor. Elections are held at in-person polling centers, open during hours when most people are working, on a day that hasn’t been made a national holiday. They’re governed by strict voter ID laws, designed to weed out imposters and in many cases succeeding mostly in disenfranchising people of color. And they’re often executed using decidedly low-tech methods—with paper ballots, susceptible to user error (never forget: hanging chads) and (accidental or deliberate) miscounts.Efficiency, some have argued, is not the point of the voting process. Security is. But this election season, West Virginia is trying out a new, blockchain-based voting system that officials hope can achieve both, simultaneously. And experts are calling it a “horrific idea.”In April, the state began asking some citizens serving in the overseas military to trade in mailed absentee ballots for digital ones, submitted through an app run by a Boston-based startup called Voatz. No one is forced to switch over to the new system, but two counties opted in for a May primary pilot, and overseas military from every county are eligible to use it for the November election. The votes will be converted into paper ballots and recorded with the other absentees. They’ll all be counted together in November.

The process itself isn’t all that complicated: Blockchain is, pared down to its simplest elements, an online database of transactions. In the context of an election, those transactions are votes; the blockchain server itself is more like a virtual ballot box and an election administrator all in one. Identities are confirmed by selfie and state-issued ID, and then double-anonymized, according to Voatz, “first by the smartphone, and second by the blockchain server network.”West Virginia is the first U.S. state to attempt a blockchain-run election of this scale. But Voatz has run more than 30 pilot elections (ranging from the 2018 MassDems Convention to student council elections) since its launch in 2015, recording more than 75,000 votes in the process. After West Virginia’s May primary pilot, “four audits of various components of the tool, including its cloud and blockchain infrastructure, revealed no problems,” CNN reported.Worldwide, trust in this new approach is growing. The Japanese city of Tsukuba became the first in the country to introduce their own version of blockchain-based voting this year, also for overseas military service members. Voters verify their identity in the system using Japan’s version of social security identifiers and weigh in not on elected officials, but on proposals for local social development programs. In Moscow, city residents can cast votes on some local municipal decisions (like street names) using a blockchain-based app called Active Citizen. Switzerland and Ukraine are trying versions this year, too.

Blockchain is being applied to voting now because it’s often considered inherently un-hackable, since its data is stored on multiple servers that all verify the authenticity of the blocks (in Voatz’ case, the votes) and copy them onto the chain of blocks that make up a blockchain. Those blocks (again, votes!) are supposed to be un-erasable—and unchangeable.

Voatz insists that their technology has been been vetted by third-party auditors, including a public HackerOne program; a pen-testing system; and the software company Security Innovation. Unlike Moscow’s Active Citizen app, which, as CityLab reported in April, has the Moscow government serving as an “authority node” and could thus be considered a tool more of propaganda than empowerment, Voatz’ system is truly decentralized: The West Virginia government doesn’t have the power to alter votes, only count them.

And unlike bitcoin’s permissionless blockchain model, which allows anyone to act as a verifier, an independent vetting process decides who can node-check for West Virginia. “Typically, these nodes would include all the stakeholders in an election such as the major political parties, NGOs, non-profits and independent auditors, etc,” reads Voatz’ FAQ. In other words, official people, not GRU hackers dialing in from their couches in Russia. (Voatz wouldn’t comment directly on this story, citing a busy pre-election season.)Still, many critics of the West Virginia blockchain-voting plan are extremely dubious of the whole idea. There’s the word blockchain, for one—a now-omnipresent but still largely mysterious technology often associated with doomed disruption projects. Also, there’s the name Voatz. It’s “the Theranos of voting!” software developer Buzz Andersen wrote on Twitter in the days after Voatz’ launch. Code for: a soon-to-be-humiliating, high-tech scam.It’s true that taking things online might seem like the least secure option for the future of voting. Election-system hackery has appeared in almost half of U.S. states, and Russian voter manipulators are mopping up indictments. (After security architect Kevin Beaumont posted a critical Twitter thread raising eyebrows at the fact that a former Voatz software developer once worked in Russia, the company released a statement saying that this staffer was just an intern who happened to be Russian.)

But others have voiced concerns about the technology itself. According to a new paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy, blockchain’s vaunted security measures could kick in too late: “If malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.”This was put a bit more simply by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told CNN: “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”Such fears are not unique to a blockchain-based system, says Ari Juels, a professor of technology and computer science at Cornell Tech: Any internet-hosted voting platform would be similarly vulnerable. “It’s very challenging to secure users’ devices,” Juels said. “There’s a risk that even if the integrity of the voting infrastructure remains intact, users’ devices get hacked or compromised through things like spear phishing campaigns.”Voatz addresses this criticism on their website, saying they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure devices aren’t compromised in the first place. “Only certain classes of smartphones that are equipped with the latest security features are allowed to be used,” their FAQ reads.Offering more paths to voter enfranchisement for members of the military should, on its face, be a popular goal. “There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN.

But fears around election security, both founded and less so, have become weapons in a larger political battle over voters’ rights and disenfranchisement. The Trump administration has consistently raised the issue of rampant voting fraud, without any evidence to support it. “[T]he lie is so mesmerizing, it takes off like a wildfire,” wrote Carol Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed, “so that the irrational fear that someone might vote who shouldn’t means that hundreds of thousands who should can’t cast ballots.”

When it comes to devising a safe way to vote over the internet, the stakes are high: Even if only a small number of users in West Virginia’s blockchain pilot were hacked, it would potentially undermine trust in the integrity of the system of a whole. Indeed, the fear that our votes are vulnerable can work to undermine democracy almost as well as hacking itself. “The integrity of the election can be undermined,” said Juels, “because people can be attuned to anecdotes about the process being [compromised].”

This article was originally published by CityLab.

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Fact-check: Did Joe Manchin stick with Hillary Clinton after controversial coal comment?

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Appearing at a rally with President Donald Trump in Charleston, W.Va., Patrick Morrisey — the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — riled up the crowd by invoking a particularly embarrassing remark by Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential nominee of Manchin’s party.

“Joe Manchin strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work,’” Morrisey told the crowd after Trump turned over the podium on Aug. 21, 2018.

Morrissey’s statement has a basis in truth, but it glosses over some context. (We’re not addressing the portion of Morrisey’s remark about how Manchin voted, since ballots are cast privately, making it impossible for us to verify independently.)

What Clinton said

On March 13, 2016, as she was running for president, Clinton appeared at a televised town hall in Columbus, Ohio.

At one point during the event, Clinton said, “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity — using clean, renewable energy as the key — into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

She continued, “And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

While the latter portion of her comments communicated empathy for coal-mining families, her remark that “were going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” drew intense criticism, not only from Americans in coal country but also with her allies, who said Clinton’s phrasing seemed to trivialize the seriousness of coal workers’ economic dilemma.

Manchin’s support for Clinton

So how did this episode affect Manchin’s support for Clinton? Let’s review.

Manchin and Clinton had known each other for years, and he endorsed her on CBS’s Face the Nation on April 19, 2015. “I support Hillary Clinton. I know Hillary Clinton, and I find her to be warm and engaging, compassionate and tough. All of the above, ” Manchin said.

After the town hall remark, MetroNews reported that a senior advisor to Manchin was “troubled and concerned by the comments and reached out directly to the Secretary and her senior advisor for energy.”

In June 2018, Manchin told Politico that he repeatedly threatened to revoke his support for Clinton after her remark.

“First, Manchin told Bill Clinton that he would withdraw his support, as the former president pleaded with him not to,” Politico reported, “Then Hillary Clinton called him. ‘She said, ‘Please don’t. Let me come to West Virginia, I need to explain.’ I said, ‘That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t come,’” Manchin recounted.

But the two sides reconciled, and on March 15 — two days after the town hall — Clinton formally reacted to the fallout from her remark, sending a letter to Manchin.

“Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote. “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market — and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”

She also said in the letter that she supported the Miners Protection Act backed by Manchin, which would provide health benefits and pensions for former miners and family members.

“I pledge to you that I will focus my team and my Administration on bringing jobs to Appalachia, especially jobs producing the carbon capture technology we need for the future,” Clinton wrote.

About six weeks later, on May 2, Clinton came to West Virginia for a roundtable at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center. At that event, she talked with Manchin and a former coal miner, Bo Copley.

“I don’t know how to explain it, other than what I said was totally out of context from what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time and I did put out a plan last summer,” Clinton said. “It was a misstatement, because what I was saying is that the way things are going now we are going to continue to lose jobs. What I said was that is going to happen unless we take action to try to help and prevent it.”

At the roundtable, Manchin also expressed his discomfort with Clinton’s initial statement.

“I have two ways to go when that statement came out,” Manchin said. “I could have said, ‘I thought she was my friend, by golly I’m done, I’m gone.’ Now that’s not the way we were raised, I wasn’t raised that way. So, I said I’m going to call” her instead.

He added, “If I thought that was in her heart, if I thought she wanted to eliminate one job in West Virginia, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and she wouldn’t be sitting here if she felt that way.”.

Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry, but CNN reported on June 17, 2016, that Manchin remained one of the Democratic Senators who were “backing” Clinton for president.

And in the 2018 Politico interview, Manchin called his decision to stick by Clinton “a mistake. It was a mistake politically.” But the article added that to Manchin, “her $20 billion commitment to his state was too much to pass up. ‘Is this about me? Or trying to help a part of my state that’s never recovered and is having a tough time?’”

Our ruling

Morrisey said Manchin “strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.’”

It’s worth noting some of the context that Morrisey left out — that Clinton had also expressed empathy for coal miners’ economic challenges in her initial remark, that she later clarified what she had meant to say, and that Manchin had worked to convince Clinton of why her remarks had been unacceptable.

Still, none of that changes the gist of Morrisey’s assertion — that Clinton said the remark, and that Manchin remained in her camp through the election (while we know he endorsed her, we do not know for sure he voted for her, as ballots are secret). We rate the statement Mostly True.

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