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WV's mobile voting app sparks participation

HUNTINGTON — According to research done by a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, West Virginia's mobile voting app for residents overseas increased voter turnout from 3 to 5 percentage points.

West Virginia became the first U.S. state to utilize mobile voting in a federal election, allowing it for overseas voters from 24 of its 55 counties in 2018. Associate professor Anthony Fowler studied this trial to assess the likely effects of mobile voting on the size and composition of the voting population.

The research, presented this month at the Election Science, Reform & Administration Conference at the University of Pennsylvania, underscores that the ability to cast votes on a mobile device could potentially have a powerful effect on voter turnout while drastically lowering the cost of voting, Fowler said. At the same time, current survey data shows that many Americans are wary of online voting.

"When West Virginia registered voters living abroad had the opportunity to vote online, they were 6 to 9 percentage points more likely to request a ballot, mobile or otherwise, and 3 to 5 percentage points more likely to actually cast a ballot," Fowler said. "The effects of voting online could potentially be even greater if it were implemented in a more convenient way or for a population that didn't have to first submit a Federal Post Card Application in order to receive a ballot. Mobile voting could have a profound impact on increasing voter turnout and potentially reduce inequalities in participation "

Fowler said because not all counties participated in mobile voting, it presented a good control group to be able to study the effects.

He said the increase is not insignificant.

"It's more than other forms of alternative voting, like early voting, weekend voting, by mail," Fowler said.

Fowler said the ease of mobile voting has the ability to increase turnout in marginalized communities.

"We know the people most likely to vote are older, whiter and richer," Fowler said. "If you could just download an app, for basically free, you can imagine that could have a drastic effect on turnout."

The mobile voting app was the result of Secretary of State Mac Warner's interest in breaking down barriers that have long prevented uniformed services members from having the same or similar ease of access and secure opportunities to participate in elections as those voting stateside. During his nearly three decades of service to the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Justice, Warner experienced firsthand the difficulties of voting overseas.

"West Virginians are proud that we are investing in new technology to encourage and help our military members stay civically engaged," Warner said in a release. "This mobile application will allow military men and women in remote areas of the world to participate in elections back home."

Fowler said along with increasing voter turnout, mobile voting has the potential to decrease the cost of elections — in the long run, at least. While administrative costs to start up mobile voting are higher now, Fowler said he could see a future where county clerks only need to await voting results to come in on a computer, which would reduce administrative costs.

But despite the benefits, cybersecurity experts and many Americans are still wary of mobile voting. Based on a poll he conducted, the public is concerned their vote would be less likely to be counted, and if mobile voting was their only option, many would opt not to vote at all.

"I think there is good reason to be concerned," Fowler said. "We are not really sure how secure it is. Cybersecurity people will tell you they are very concerned. There is no verifiable paper trail. You can always go back and audit a paper ballot, where here, if someone hacks into the votes network, you don't know if it happened or how many votes were changed."

West Virginia's app uses two types of biometric identity verification (i.e. facial recognition liveness software and thumb/palm print) to verify the user's identity at each stage of the process and has undergone numerous third-party security assessments, though critics say more security assessments need to be done.

The new technology seems to be catching on, however. In the early summer of 2019, the city and county of Denver, Colorado, followed West Virginia's lead by allowing military mobile voting for overseas military members in their municipal election.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Church fire offers 'tragic opportunity,' pastor says

DICKSON, W.Va. — A fire last week totally destroyed the Florence Memorial United Methodist Church in Dickson, but during a special service Sunday morning under a tent in the parking lot, the pastor said all is not lost.

"We are kind of looking at this as a tragic opportunity," said Greg Mullens, the pastor of the church. "We are not so much focusing on the tragedy that it certainly is, but instead looking to God and letting him lead us in an opportunity to build a new facility that is even better than the old one."

More than 50 people attended Sunday's service that included a history of the church, which was built in 1951, and a vision for the future. The "New Beginnings" service featured members from different communities in the area

worshiping and telling their Florence Memorial stories from the past.

Richard Mullens, who lives just over a mile away from the church and will be 81 years old in December, said he has been going to the church since it was built.

"I think I was 12 or 13 years old when it was built," he said. "The land for the church was donated. The folks that attended the Methodist Church at Mount Vernon Cemetery and the little church down here at Dickson came together to build this church. The entire community donated and supported the effort back then."

Richard Mullens said he was devastated when he first learned of the fire that left the structure in ruins.

"We don't understand why, but still I think God has a plan for us," he said. "I think this tragic event will pull people together and prove that God is still in control."

Pastor Greg Mullens said the church has been a stalwart of the community.

"We want to make sure when it is replaced it serves the community in the same capacity that it always has done for many decades," he said. "We want to have a church that the original builders of this church would be proud of."

The pastor said the church is hoping to build the new church at the same location.

"I think a couple of years would be a realistic view for building a new church, but we are not putting a timeframe on it because we don't know what the future holds," he said. "We want to take our time in making these types of big decisions."

According to Wayne County 911 Dispatch, the church was reported to be on fire just before 11:30 p.m. last Sunday, July 28.

One official said Friday that after completing the initial investigation, the Lavalette Volunteer Fire Department and West Virginia State Fire Marshal's Office believe that an electrical issue was the source of a fire that quickly consumed the overhead crawl space in the building's attic, eventually consuming and collapsing the roof and steeple of the church. Arson has been ruled out as a cause, said Wayne County Emergency Services coordinator B.J. Willis.

The church did have insurance, the pastor said.

Prior to the fire, the church offered Sunday school at 10 a.m. and on Wednesdays had choir practice at 6 p.m. and Bible study at 7 p.m., according to the pastor.

"Short-term these activities may be affected, but we want to get back to our normal as quickly as possible," Pastor Mullens said.

He said that next Sunday's services will take place at Lavalette Elementary School.

"For the foreseeable future, we may continue having services there as our temporary longterm solution," he said.

The pastor said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.

"We have had people from the community, the state and even other states contact us to offer their support," Greg Mullens said. "We want to thank all of the people and churches within the Wayne County community and throughout the state and this great country of ours who have offered help, support and prayers."

Donations to help the church rebuild can be mailed to the Florence Memorial United Methodist Church, 5294 Rt. 152, Lavalette, WV 25535.

For additional updates, go to the Florence Memorial United Methodist Church page on Facebook, the pastor added.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

Overdose deaths up in bigger US cities
High number of drug deaths shifting from rural to urban areas

NEW YORK — U.S. drug overdose deaths had been most common in Appalachia and other rural areas in recent years, but they are back to being more concentrated in big cities, according to a government report Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that both urban and rural overdose death rates have been rising, but the urban rate shot up more dramatically after 2015.

That probably is due to a shift in the current overdose epidemic, said Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco.

The epidemic was initially driven by opioid pain pills, which were often as widely available in the country as in the city. But then many drug users shifted to heroin and fentanyl, and the illegal drug distribution system for those drugs is more developed in cities, Ciccarone said.

Another possible explanation: rising overdose deaths among blacks and Hispanics, including those concentrated in urban areas, he added.

"Early on, this was seen as an epidemic affecting whites more than other groups," he said. "Increasingly, deaths in urban areas are starting to look brown and black."

The report said the urban overdose death rate surpassed the rural rate in 2016 and 2017. Rates for last year and this year are not yet available, but experts doubt it will flip back again any time soon.

The difference between the urban and rural counties was not large. In 2017, there were 22 overdose deaths per 100,000 people living in urban areas — counties with large and small cities and their suburbs. There were 20 per 100,000 in rural areas — non-suburban counties with fewer than 50,000 residents.

Diego Cuadros, a University of Cincinnati researcher, said the findings are consistent with what he and his colleagues have seen in Ohio.

The nation is battling the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. About

68,000 Americans died of overdoses last year, according to preliminary government statistics reported last month.

The CDC found the urban rates are driven by deaths in men and deaths from heroin, fentanyl and cocaine.

Women still die of overdoses at higher rates in rural areas, the CDC report found. And death rates tied to methamphetamine and prescription opioid painkillers remain higher in rural areas, too.

Experts interviewed by The Associated Press were unable to immediately explain one of the report's findings: The urban and rural death rates were nearly identical for people ages 25 to 44, but the urban rate was significantly higher in other age groups, particularly in those ages 45 to 64.

Police: Shooter killed 9 in Ohio, including sister

DAYTON, Ohio — A masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in a popular entertainment district in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine people, including his sister, and wounding dozens before he was quickly slain by police, officials said.

Connor Betts, 24, was armed with a .223-caliber rifle with magazines capable of holding at least 100 rounds of ammunition and was gunned down about 30 seconds after his rampage began about 1 a.m. in the historic Oregon District, said Police Chief Richard Biehl.

After squeezing off dozens of shots, he was killed at an entrance to a bar where people were taking cover, Biehl said, adding that had Betts gotten inside, the result would have been "catastrophic."

Police have not identified a motive in what was the second U.S. mass shooting in less than 24 hours.

Betts' 22-year-old sister Megan was the youngest of the dead — all killed in a nightlife spot of bars, restaurants and theaters that is considered a safe area downtown, police said.

The gunman was white and six of the nine killed were black, police said. Although they'll investigate the possibility of a hate crime, they said the quickness of the rampage made any discrimination in the shooting seem unlikely.

They identified the other dead as Monica Brickhouse, 39; Nicholas Cumer, 25; Derrick Fudge, 57; Thomas McNichols, 25; Lois Oglesby, 27; Saeed Saleh, 38; Logan Turner, 30; and Beatrice N. Warren-Curtis, 36.

Mayor Nan Whaley said at least 27 more people were treated for injuries, and at least 15 of those have been released. Several more were in serious or critical condition, hospital officials said at a news conference Sunday morning. Some suffered multiple gunshot wounds and others were injured as they fled, the officials said.

Betts was from Bellbrook, southeast of Dayton. Bellbrook Police Chief Doug Doherty said he and his officers weren't aware of any history of violence by Betts, including during high school.

Police blocked access in Betts' neighborhood, where neighbor Stephen Cournoyer said he often saw Betts mowing the lawn or walking the dog.

"He seemed like a good kid," Cournoyer said. "He wasn't a speed demon, didn't do anything crazy. But that's not to say, I mean, obviously he had an issue."

Nikita Papillon, 23, was across the street at Newcom's Tavern when the shooting started. She said she saw a girl she had talked to earlier lying outside Ned Peppers bar, where Betts was slain at the entrance.

"She had told me she liked my outfit and thought I was cute, and I told her I liked her outfit and I thought she was cute," Papillon said. She herself had been to Ned Peppers the night before, describing it as the kind of place "where you don't have to worry about someone shooting up the place."

"People my age, we don't think something like this is going to happen," she said. "And when it happens, words can't describe it."

Tianycia Leonard, 28, was in the back, smoking, at Newcom's. She heard "loud thumps" that she initially thought was someone pounding on a dumpster.

"It was so noisy, but then you could tell it was gunshots and there was a lot of rounds," Leonard said.

Staff of an Oregon District bar called Ned Peppers said in a Facebook post that they were left shaken and confused by the shooting. The bar said a bouncer was treated for shrapnel wounds.

A message seeking further comment was left with staff.

President Donald Trump was briefed on the shooting and praised law enforcement's speedy response in a tweet Sunday. The FBI is assisting with the investigation.

Gov. Mike DeWine visited the scene after earlier ordering that flags in Ohio remain at half-staff.

DeWine, a Republican, said policymakers must now consider: "Is there anything we can do in the future to make sure something like this does not happen?"

Both of Ohio's two U.S. senators visited the scene of the mass shooting. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said responding with thoughts and prayers wasn't enough and stronger gun safety laws are needed. Republican Sen. Rob Portman said the discussion must include not just policy changes, but issues such as mental health supports.

Whaley said more than 50 other mayors also have reached out to her.

A family assistance center was set up at the Dayton Convention Center, where people seeking information on victims arrived in a steady trickle throughout the morning, many in their Sunday best, others looking bedraggled from a sleepless night. Some local pastors were on hand to offer support, as were comfort dogs.

The Ohio shooting came hours after a young man opened fire in a crowded El Paso, Texas, shopping area, leaving 20 dead and more than two dozen injured. Just days before, on July 28, a 19-year-old shot and killed three people, including two children, at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Northern California.

Sunday's shooting in Dayton is the 22nd mass killing of 2019 in the U.S., according to the AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database that tracks homicides where four or more people were killed — not including the offender. The 20 mass killings in the U.S. in 2019 that preceded this weekend claimed 96 lives.

Whaley said the Oregon District has reopened, and a vigil is planned Sunday evening. The minor league Dayton Dragons who play in nearby Fifth Third Field postponed their Sunday afternoon game against the Lake County Captains "due to this morning's tragic event."

The shooting in Dayton comes after the area was heavily damaged when tornadoes swept through western Ohio in late May, destroying or damaging hundreds of homes and businesses.

"Dayton has been through a lot already this year, and I continue to be amazed by the grit and resiliency of our community," Whaley said.

"People my age, we don't think something like this is going to happen. And when it happens, words can't describe it."

Nikita Papillon

Shooting witness