For Trump and Biden, First Debate Is High-Stakes Clash of Styles and Ideas

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Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

The first debate between Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Trump, on Tuesday night in Cleveland, represents one of the president’s last, best chances to move a race that polls show him losing. But there are risks for Mr. Biden too.

Mr. Biden has lamented privately to advisers — and occasionally in public — that it was nearly impossible to debate during the Democratic primary season, when there were sometimes as many as a dozen candidates lined up on a single stage. Once the field narrowed, Mr. Biden told donors in Hollywood last fall, “You might actually get a chance to say something.”

Now, Mr. Biden will get his chance. Given his current edge in the polls, his advisers have been downplaying the significance of the three presidential debates. But recent events — including Mr. Trump’s decision to press ahead with plans to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat only weeks before the election and a report in The New York Times detailing years of tax avoidance by Mr. Trump — have brought contentious new issues into the campaign, from faith and fairness to wealth and taxes.

For both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, Tuesday’s debate and two more next month may be the most critical moments of a fall campaign that is being carried out without the typical dawn-to-dusk days of rallies, local television appearances and talking to voters. Tens of millions of Americans will set aside time in the midst of an ongoing pandemic to judge them as they speak side by side in an unfiltered forum.

Most expect a clash of styles as well as ideas.

Through 14 primary and general election debates in 2015 and 2016, Mr. Trump emerged as the showman, with a keen sense of how to seize the spotlight, hammer home clear and succinct themes and discombobulate an opponent with claims and accusations that, while often false, are difficult to rebut in real time.

Mr. Biden is more of a classic Senate orator, with knowledge of history and the nuances of policy and a respect for the rules of the game. He draws on the tragedies of his life — the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident, the death of a son from brain cancer — and tales about growing up around Scranton, Pa., to relate to his audiences. He is quick with a smile that can defuse an attack.

Mr. Trump’s debating style helped carry him to victory and can still be glimpsed almost every time he appears at a White House news conference or a rally. But Mr. Biden’s performances were inconsistent over the course of nearly a dozen Democratic primary debates. Even his supporters say that, at 77, his voice is less firm and that he appears less energetic and passionate than he once did. Mr. Trump has highlighted some of those moments to raise doubts about his opponent’s mental acuity.

“Trump approaches debates not as an airing of ideas and policies, but as a reality TV show,” said Jim Margolis, who was a senior consultant to Hillary Clinton when she debated Mr. Trump in 2016. “Be the center of attention, say outrageous things that take time off the clock and use easily digestible catchphrases that will get repeated on the news the next day.”

But even some Republicans say that the president underestimates Mr. Biden at his peril.

Even though some critics say he doesn’t have all the moves he once had, I still thought at the end of the day, at the end of the primary season, he did pretty well,” the Republican strategist Dan Senor said. “And that should be worrisome to the Trump campaign.”

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Republican lawmakers reacted with nearly complete silence on Monday to a New York Times investigation that revealed President Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and that he oversees a network of businesses that are riddled with debt and losing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Spokesmen for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the top two Republicans in the Senate, declined to comment on the article Monday.

A Republican involved in writing tax law, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday afternoon that he had read the Times article, but declined to comment on how little Mr. Trump paid in taxes.

“The thought that comes to my mind is how come it’s taking the I.R.S. so long to get the audits done,” he told reporters. Asked about the $750 tax payments, Mr. Grassley said: “I want to wait until the I.R.S. gets done so I know how much he owes.”

Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, called for an investigation into who released information about Mr. Trump’s tax returns.

“While many critics question the article’s accuracy, equally troubling is the prospect that a felony crime was committed by releasing the private tax return information of an individual — in this case the President’s,” Mr. Brady said in a statement.

Mr. Trump initially called the Times article “totally fake news” on Sunday, and then shifted to accusing the paper of basing the report on illegally obtained information about his finances.

Democrats quickly seized on the investigation. House lawmakers, who have spent years fighting in the courts for access to the president’s tax records, hailed the revelations in the report as proof that their inquiries were justified.

“Trump hides his tax returns because, unlike most working Americans, he is a freeloader who doesn’t believe in paying taxes, only personally benefiting from taxes others pay,” Representative Lloyd Doggett, Democrat of Texas, said in a statement. “Most any American who pays taxes has paid more than Trump. He is a taker, not a maker.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on MSNBC Monday that the report raised national security concerns because of the amount of money that the president owes to lenders.

“This president appears to have over $400 million in debt, 420, whatever it is, million dollars in debt,” she told Andrea Mitchell, the show’s host. “To whom? Different countries? What is the leverage they have? So for me, this is a national security question.”

While Republican lawmakers dodged questions about Mr. Trump’s taxes, and the reliably friendly morning show “Fox and Friends” enlisted his press secretary and his oldest son to comment, a few others in the party weighed in. John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio who has endorsed Joseph R. Biden Jr., told CNN that the article could affect blue-collar voters who are not yet decided.

“These folks are scraping to make a living and they’re going to wake up to find out this incredible mogul paid $750? I don’t care what his excuses are,” Mr. Kasich said on “Anderson Cooper 360.” “It doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s not going to disrupt those people who were for him totally. They’ll still be for him. But it’s those people on the fence.”

Credit…Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Senator Kamala Harris warned on Monday of far-reaching consequences to American society if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court, saying that the health coverage and abortion rights were in peril.

In a speech in Raleigh, N.C., Ms. Harris amplified an argument that Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been making in the aftermath of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, putting a focus on the fate of health care for millions of Americans.

“This relentless obsession with overturning the Affordable Care Act is driven entirely by a blind rage toward President Obama,” Ms. Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, said. “And it’s happening at a moment when our country is suffering through the ravages of a pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in our country.”

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments a week after Election Day in a case challenging the Affordable Care Act, and the Trump administration is asking the court to strike down the law.

Ms. Harris also spoke of other issues at stake as President Trump tries to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat, such as abortion rights and voting rights. The president, his party and Judge Barrett “have made clear that they want to overturn Roe v. Wade and restrict reproductive rights and freedoms,” Ms. Harris said.

“Judge Barrett has a long record of opposing abortion and reproductive rights,” she continued. “There is no other issue that so disrespects and dishonors the work of Justice Ginsburg’s life than undoing the seminal decision in the court’s history that made it clear a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body.”

Ms. Harris is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings for Judge Barrett. That will place her at center stage in the confirmation process shortly before Election Day.

Mr. Biden has urged the Senate to refrain from confirming a replacement for Justice Ginsburg before the election, noting that voting is already underway. Ms. Harris echoed that argument on Monday and offered a message for voters.

“Let’s vote for health care,” she said. “Vote for the Affordable Care Act. Vote as if your life, your choice, depends on it, because it does. Make it clear to President Trump and to every Republican senator that if they’re determined to get rid of your health care, you’ll be just as determined to vote them out of office.”

At a round table event focusing on Black voters later on Monday, Ms. Harris called for a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by the police in Louisville, Ky. None of the three officers who were implicated in Ms. Taylor’s death during a botched drug raid in March were charged with homicide. One officer, who has since been fired, was indicted last week on three counts of wanton endangerment. He pleaded not guilty to those charges on Monday.

“It was a gut punch for all of us to hear that,” Ms. Harris said. “America has yet to value the sanctity of Black life and has yet to treat Black life as fully human.”

Ms. Harris said the Justice Department would play a more proactive role in a Biden-Harris administration in investigating policing practices and patterns, as well as enforcing consent decrees for law enforcement entities to remediate civil rights violations.

President Trump’s aggressive drive to add a conservative justice to the Supreme Court before Election Day has not helped him in Pennsylvania, a state crucial to his re-election, where more voters prefer Joseph R. Biden Jr. to fill the vacant seat, according to a poll by New York Times and Siena College released on Monday.

Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump, 49 percent to 40 percent, among likely Pennsylvania voters in the poll, which was conducted Friday through Sunday. On Saturday, Mr. Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the court seat and immediately flew to Pennsylvania to whip up support.

New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania





Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 711 likely voters from Sept. 25-27, 2020.

But that prospect — which the Trump campaign is counting on to shift the election dynamic away from the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic — has not reset the race in the passionately divided battleground state. On the contrary, 51 percent of voters in Pennsylvania said they trusted Mr. Biden more to pick the next justice, whereas 44 percent said that about Mr. Trump.

“I think the citizens of the United States should be picking out who will be the judge, but I would trust Joe Biden,” said Margarita Motta, a 56-year-old grandmother in Reading, Pa.

Mr. Biden has not trailed in a public poll of Pennsylvania since June. But his lead narrowed over the summer as the state trended back toward tossup status, evoking memories of Mr. Trump’s slim victory there in 2016. The president has virtually no path to a second term without Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.

The new poll, of 711 likely voters with a margin of sampling error of 4.3 percentage points, shows Mr. Biden nearly repeating his 10-point lead in a Times/Siena survey of Pennsylvania in June.

In moving rapidly to fill the seat held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg until her death 11 days ago — a sudden turn of events that both campaigns see energizing their respective voters — Mr. Trump is pursuing a 6-3 conservative court majority that could potentially strike down abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. But the move to fill the seat in the run-up to the election has enraged Democrats, who complained of a double standard after Republican leaders had blocked an election-year nomination by President Barack Obama in 2016.

Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican facing the toughest re-election campaign of her career, on Monday sparred with her Democratic opponent Sara Gideon in the second debate of their tight race, exchanging barbs over the future of the Supreme Court and the support provided to the state during the pandemic.

The makeup of the Supreme Court and the longstanding Republican effort to reshape the federal judiciary have been consistent issues overshadowing the race between Ms. Collins, who is seeking a fifth term in the Senate, and Ms. Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.

The Republicans’ race to confirm President Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the Nov. 3 election could reshape the battle for control of the Senate. In recent surveys, a majority of voters said that they believe the next president should choose the successor to Justice Ginsburg, a view Ms. Collins has said she shares.

“What we need to do is to make the confirmation process less political, more respectful and more insightful,” Ms. Collins said during Monday’s debate, arguing against expanding the Supreme Court to include more justices or imposing term limits on the justices as jeopardizing the independence of the nation’s highest court.

Ms. Gideon, pressed on what reforms she would support to reduce the partisan nature of the judiciary, said she did not see any proposals coming forward for achieving an independent judiciary, but did not elaborate further.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the Maine Senate race a tossup, but an array of polls — including a New York Times/Siena College poll released earlier this month — have found Ms. Collins, the only New England Republican in Congress, trailing Ms. Gideon by a narrow margin.

The race has become the toughest of Ms. Collins’s career in part because she supported the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, enraging Democrats and prompting outside political groups to flood the race with millions of dollars in support of Ms. Gideon.

The two women also clashed over their response to the toll of the pandemic on the state. Ms. Collins, who has sought to portray herself as a moderate willing to both buck her party, criticized Ms. Gideon for adjourning the state Legislature in March and argued that she had played a key role in Congress’s approving nearly $3 trillion in stimulus relief. Ms. Gideon criticized the ongoing impasse over another relief package, charging that Ms. Collins’s seniority and influence had failed to move discussions forward.

Both Ms. Collins and Ms. Gideon paid little direct attention to Lisa Savage and Max Linn, the two independent candidates also seeking the Senate seat. Mr. Linn derided the two women for having the support of the establishment parties, at one point using a mild expletive and later telling Ms. Gideon “to woman up” and address him directly. Ms. Gideon responded by asking that those present avoid using profanity.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and the only female member of Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership team, faced off Monday evening against her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, in the first debate of a hotly contested campaign that could help determine which party controls the levers of power in Washington.

During the hourlong debate, in which the two women were separated by a clear protective shield, Ms. Ernst and Ms. Greenfield clashed over health care, abortion and policing, but found agreement on calling on President Trump to release his tax returns and opposing an any expansion of the Supreme Court.

“Many years ago, I also echoed the call for the president to release his tax returns,” Ms. Ernst said, adding that she hadn’t had time to “scrutinize” a report in The New York Times that detailed years of tax avoidance by the president.

Ms. Greenfield, 56, a businesswoman, has led slightly in recent polls, in what is essentially a dead-even race within the margin of error. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the contest as a tossup.

With Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate and several of her colleagues caught in similarly tough races, the ability of Ms. Ernst, 50, to hold off Ms. Greenfield is seen as vital to her party’s hopes of retaining its majority in the Senate.

During the debate, each candidate repeatedly tried to cast herself as the moderate in the race, as both worked to appeal to the state’s centrist voters who may still be undecided only days before mail-in voting and early voting starts on Oct. 5.

Ms. Greenfield called health care “the No. 1 issue on the ballot,” but said she supported strengthening Obamacare, not a Medicare-for-all system favored by Senator Bernie Sanders.

While Ms. Ernst said she was “proudly pro-life,” she said she did not believe a Supreme Court with Mr. Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, would overturn abortion rights.

“I think the likelihood of Roe v. Wade being overturned is very minimal,” Ms. Ernst said. “I don’t see that happening.”

After Ms. Ernst charged that Ms. Greenfield has called police officers “racist,” the Democrat accused the senator of lying and said she was offended. “That is a lie. That is what Iowans don’t like about you,” Ms. Greenfield said. “We have systemic racism in all of our systems and have for generations, including our policing system. But that is not saying our police officers are racist.”

There is a battle brewing among Washington Democrats that is set to boil over if Democrats take back the Senate and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. defeats President Trump.

Even as Republicans line up behind Mr. Trump, Democrats are navigating fault lines in their own ranks over how they would govern as the controlling party. Some Democrats, and not just on the party’s left, are increasingly embracing structural changes to the political system — including eliminating the Senate filibuster, ending the Electoral College and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. — while others reject these ideas as norm-busting power grabs that are unpalatable to a majority of voters.

These tensions have only intensified with the looming battle over President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. The potential for a decades-long conservative majority on the court, after Republicans broke precedent four years ago by refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacancy, has prompted change-seeking Democrats to add another item to the policy list: expanding the size of the Supreme Court.

“If Republicans confirm Judge Barrett, end the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court,” Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts said in a tweet on Saturday. Even Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said last week that “everything is on the table.’’

But the momentum for structural change faces a six-foot roadblock, hand delivered by the primary voters within their own party: Mr. Biden.

A consummate Washington institutionalist who served in the Senate for nearly four decades, Mr. Biden often speaks in fond and wistful terms about Senate customs of yore. From a policy standpoint he has largely rejected calls to eliminate the filibuster, only recently signaling some openness to doing so, or to expand the Supreme Court.

Compared to many of his Democratic predecessors, Mr. Biden would be a very progressive president should he succeed in his White House bid. On issues of climate, education and even health care, he has proposed an agenda that has moved leftward since he entered the primaries. Yet on institutional change, Mr. Biden has not matched the urgency from the left that the election and the Supreme Court fight have stirred.

The discord could set Democrats on an inevitable collision course: a party that is increasingly seeking to play by different rules led by a figure who helped create the current ones. The outcome of the fight will help define a party that has rallied around the mission of defeating Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans in November but remains ideologically fractured.

Credit…Al Drago/Getty Images

The process to confirm of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court got underway quietly but hastily on Monday, as more than a dozen senators prepared to meet her while others began a deep scrub of her record on and off the bench.

The flurry of activity, barely 36 hours after President Trump announced that he would nominate Judge Barrett, offered the latest sign that Republicans plan to move with speed unseen in other recent confirmation fights to ensure the seat vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is filled before Election Day, giving conservatives a six-to-three majority.

The White House plans to send paperwork to the Senate formally nominating Judge Barrett on Tuesday, when lawmakers reconvene. She was scheduled to begin a parade of courtesy visits to Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who championed her selection; Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and many of the Republicans on the panel.

Some top Democrats, still steaming over Republicans’ rush to fill the seat so close to an election after refusing to move forward with President Barack Obama’s election-year choice four years ago, turned down offers to meet with her, laying the first bricks in a wall of opposition to the nomination they plan to erect in the coming weeks.

“The whole process has been illegitimate,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, adding, “I will not meet with her.”

Democrats, who plan to focus their energy on Judge Barrett’s view of the Affordable Care Act, which is the focus of a case before the court, were intensely interested in clues as to how she might rule: a 2017 law review article by Judge Barrett criticizing the 2012 opinion of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. upholding one of the health law’s key provisions and a 2015 public radio interview in which she again appeared critical of the court when it upheld the law.

They also planned to highlight her dissent in a 2019 gun rights case in which Judge Barrett wrote that she would have narrowed a federal law prohibiting convicted felons from owning guns. The ruling, Democrats are prepared to argue, also implies that Judge Barrett believes voting rights can be more easily stripped than the right to bear arms.

Republicans began rolling out customary lists of endorsements from across the legal profession. On Monday, the Republican Attorneys General Association lent its support in a video, calling Judge Barrett “an exemplary jurist, and extraordinary mother, accomplished, honest, hardworking.”

Credit…Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

A federal judge on Thursday invalidated a Trump administration plan to end the 2020 census on Sept. 30, saying a rushed count would be deeply flawed. On Monday, the Trump administration offered a reply via Twitter: Now it plans to end the head count on Oct. 5 — only five days after the deadline that had just been struck down.

The announcement arrived as Judge Lucy H. Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, who had issued the order, was holding a scheduling hearing on the census dispute. Judge Koh had anticipated that the census would revert to its previous deadline of Oct. 31, which experts said was needed to assure an accurate count.

Lawyers for the Justice Department cast the decision as a routine adjustment, saying the Oct. 5 end date merely reflected the Census Bureau’s best projection of when it could actually finish counting the nation’s residents.

Judge Koh was unpersuaded. “I think I have more than enough basis in 78 pages to impose the Oct. 31 deadline,” she said, referring to her ruling late Thursday that abolished the Sept. 30 deadline.

The judge stopped short of imposing the Oct. 31 deadline, but she warned lawyers for the Justice Department that she was ready to hold administration officials in contempt if they failed to quickly produce long-delayed documents that she said were central to the government’s decision to set the late September deadline.

The census dispute is central to one of the major political decisions of the next decade: the reallocation of seats in the House of Representatives, and the redrawing of thousands of political districts nationwide, that always follows the posting of new population totals for the states.

The Census Bureau was scheduled to complete the head-counting portion of the census by midsummer, but delayed it until Oct. 31 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last month the Trump administration abruptly moved that date forward to Sept. 30, despite universal opposition from Census Bureau experts who said it would lead to an inaccurate count.

The early end to counting apparently is tied to the administration’s desire to send preliminary population totals to the White House by year’s end, rather than later, when a Democratic successor might take office. Mr. Trump has pledged to adjust the Census Bureau’s count to exclude unauthorized immigrants, a precedent-shattering move that many experts say would benefit Republicans in the House.

Because processing the population data collected by the bureau takes months, that year-end deadline could be met only if the actual head count ends as early as possible.

Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

President Trump has accused his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., of being “against God,” “against the Bible” and “essentially against religion.”

But now, as Mr. Trump seeks to court Catholic voters with five weeks to go in the election, he and his top advisers are claiming that any discussion of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s religious beliefs is tantamount to an anti-Catholic attack, as the president tries to rouse his voters by ginning up a culture war with what Republicans call a “woke clan” on the left.

At a Sunday night news conference at the White House, Mr. Trump accused Democrats of “playing the religious card” with Judge Barrett, his nominee to the Supreme Court, who is a mother of seven and has described herself as a “faithful” Roman Catholic.

“On the religious situation with Amy, I thought we settled this 60 years ago with the election of John F. Kennedy,” Mr. Trump said. “Seriously, they’re going after her Catholicism.” Without evidence, the president then accused Democrats of “basically fighting a major religion in our country.”

So far, at least, attacks on Judge Barrett’s Catholicism are not coming from top Democrats, or the party’s nominee. What is striking is that Mr. Trump, a man who spends Sunday mornings at the golf course and is not known as a person of faith, is passing harsh judgment on some Catholics (like Mr. Biden) while in the next breath saying that such harsh judgments are wrong (at least when it comes to Judge Barrett).

In an interview, Gov. Phil Murphy, Democrat of New Jersey, called Mr. Trump’s tactic “the faith version of the Merrick Garland hypocrisy” — in other words, an example of the president doing to his political opponent exactly what he claims is unacceptable if it is done to him, or anyone he views as politically helpful to him. He was referring to President Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, whom Senate Republicans refused to consider because, they said, it was a presidential election year.

Mr. Murphy, a Catholic, said the weight of the debate about Judge Barrett’s confirmation “should be on her positions on health care, choice and environmental protections,” and not focused on her faith. But he added: “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t corner the guy and question his faith and then say on the other side of your mouth that someone’s faith is off limits.”

Credit…Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Foreign intelligence services and hackers are trying to spread disinformation about voting systems to undermine confidence in the election, the F.B.I. and Homeland Security Department warned on Monday.

Hackers have been spreading false information online to manipulate public opinion, according to the warning. Foreign actors could spread disinformation online that falsely claimed that voter registration data or voting systems and infrastructure were compromised.

The warning was part of a series of announcements by the F.B.I. and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and was not prompted by a specific event, government officials said.

It came just ahead of the first presidential debate on Tuesday, where election integrity is among the topics for President Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Trump has repeatedly raised doubts about mail-in voting.

American government officials have been warning about an array of ways hackers or foreign intelligence services could try to undermine confidence in the November vote. Some officials have said that if the race is too close to call on election night, foreign intelligence services will spread disinformation about recounts and absentee voting. Under that scenario, election interference campaigns could intensify after the votes are cast.

Others have raised questions about ransomware attacks, particularly strikes carried out by Russian criminal groups with ties to Moscow’s intelligence services.

Last week, hackers struck Tyler Technologies, a company used by some election officials to aggregate and report vote counts, with a ransomware attack. Such a strike highlighted the fears of federal officials that hacking groups will use the tools of ransomware attacks to freeze voter registration data, election poll books or the computer systems of the secretaries of the state who certify election results.




Why Voting in This U.S. Election Will Not Be Equal

The first episode of our four-part series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where a growing Black and Latino population is on the precipice of exercising its political voice, if they get the chance to vote.

“Seven hours, 45 minutes, and 13 seconds it took for me to vote in Fulton County, Ga. As soon as I saw the line, I hit the stopwatch on my phone. I spent the first couple hours listening to a new Run the Jewels album. And then I ended up listening to the entire discography. And then I started watching season eight of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ And that’s five hours. It was one o’clock in the morning, and somebody was like, ‘Hey, y’all remember we came to vote yesterday, right?’” “Look at it.” When it comes time to vote in November, would you rather stand in a line like this … “Somebody please help us. We are at our polling place in Atlanta, Fickett Elementary School. The systems are down.” … or like this? “Oh look, there’s no line. There’s no line at all out here in suburban white country.” Seven years ago, a controversial Supreme Court ruling struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. “If you hear me, the voting machines were not working.” And after that, many states passed laws that ended up making it harder for people of color to vote. “We have all these barriers that aren’t in place for other people. It’s 2020. Why is it this difficult for someone to go to and vote?” To understand why, we go to Georgia. “I think Georgia has become a kind of hotbed for voting rights questions.” “How voting takes place has become one of the most explosive issues in Georgia. Georgia is the largest state by landmass east of the Mississippi River. It’s dominated by the reality of Atlanta. It’s multicultural. It’s growing. It’s dynamic, this sort of throbbing megalopolis where you’re seeing Democrats in large numbers. And then beyond these urban centers, you have a much more traditional, rural Georgia, where you have seen a massive shift of white voting behavior from conservative Democrat to full-on Republican.” Georgia has historically been a pretty conservative state, but as it becomes more culturally and racially diverse … “In this presidential election, there is some thought that Democrats have a shot here.” … but one fact still remains. “Republicans control the State House. Republicans control the Legislature, and they are free, frankly, to implement the voting laws they see fit.” As Republicans fight to remain in control of the state, some say it’s no longer a fight over who people vote for, but who is allowed to vote. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent federal agency, says these are the five most common voter suppression tactics. They happen across the country, but the only state that has ticked every box is Georgia. “The term voter suppression —” “Voter suppression.” “Voter suppression.” “Voter suppression.” ”— embedded in that word is the very question of what the motivation is for these kinds of laws and procedures.” “The Republican argument, that they say, is that they are worried about voter security. They are worried about voter fraud.” “Voter fraud is all too common.” “We don’t have evidence of that.” “And then they criticize us for saying that.” “Federal law actually requires us to make sure that we keep our voter rolls updated, clean, fresh and accurate.” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is Georgia’s lead elections official. It’s his job to maintain the state’s voter lists. “Many people don’t realize that, nationwide, about 11 percent of all people move every year. And that’s why you want to update your voter rolls. We just send notices out to people that haven’t voted for a long period of time.” “There’s an argument to be made that purging voter rolls serves a legitimate purpose. And that is to make sure that people are alive. The counter-argument, of course, is that these voter rolls in some states are being aggressively purged by Republicans in an effort to keep them from coming to the polls.” In 2017, 560,000 voters were purged from Georgia’s voter rolls. A report later found that Black voters were purged at a higher rate in more than half of Georgia’s counties. “This is happening in the context of the American South, where there is a long and well-documented history of using trickery.” “The kind of Jim Crow-era — things like poll taxes —” “— voting tests, literacy tests to keep people of color away from the polls.” “You know, it’s important to recognize that, until the 1960s, African-Americans were pretty much shut out of voting in the state of Georgia. That began to change when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.” “Voting Rights Act of 1965 basically says that states cannot make laws that infringe on people’s rights to vote.” A key part of the law with something called Section 5 preclearance, which said — “States with a history of racist legislation cannot make laws that infringe on people of color without the federal government’s permission.” After the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, the number of African-Americans who registered to vote in Georgia doubled. “It changed Southern politics.” “At the most basic level, bigger participation from Black Americans.” And for a while, that’s how things went. But … “It’s not as if the South loved the preclearance.” Many of the states felt it was an unfair burden, especially when voter participation increased. “What was true is that they, frankly, couldn’t do much about it.” Well, until a challenge to the law brought the issue all the way to the Supreme Court. Announcer: “— the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” [crosstalk] “Shelby v. Holder.” Shelby v. Holder. “I just get wound up when you ask me about voting rights.” Here to help explain is Debo Adegbile, the lawyer who argued that preclearance was still necessary. But the other side argued that the standards used to measure discriminatory voting practices were outdated. In a 5 to 4 decision, the justices ruled to strike down the preclearance, which effectively meant that states could pass new voting laws without federal oversight. “So it was a resounding loss, and perhaps one of the most significant civil rights decisions of the United States Supreme Court in recent memory.” “The decision of Shelby took away the federal government’s most effective tool in regulating state voting rights.” “After the Shelby decision, there were almost immediate attempts to change the way voting works.” Some states passed voting legislation just hours after the ruling. Alabama implemented new voter ID laws. North Carolina eliminated seven days of early voting. And the list goes on. “Without the preclearance provision, there were many, many elections where those discriminatory laws affected our politics.” Voting rights advocates say this was a key ruling that had the power to impact the outcome of an election. And that’s what many believe happened in Georgia in 2018. “The governor’s race in Georgia in 2018 was …” “Bitter.” “On one side, you had …” “I’m Stacey Abrams, and I’m running for governor. I have a boundless belief in Georgia’s future.” “Her strategy was based on signing up people of color. And then on the other side …” “I’m Brian Kemp.” “— because you’re a proud, hardcore Trump conservative on spending, immigration and guns.” “So you had a secretary of state, who had come under criticism for voter suppression, running the election that he’s in.” “That puts them at odds.” “We’ve seen jurisdictions consolidate and close precincts. We’ve seen voter ID laws come into play. There was a system in Georgia called Exact Match, where if your information doesn’t 100 percent match databases that the state uses, that you can be purged from the voter rolls. That tends to target people with ethnic names. A lot of these new suppression schemes seem race-neutral, but they have the same impact.” “Georgia has 159 counties.” “It’s a staggering number of counties.” “And we are hearing reports from all over the state.” [phones ringing] “There was a county in Georgia called Randolph County.” “Randolph County tried to close seven out of nine —” “Seven out of the nine.” “— polling places in a county that’s 60 percent Black.” “Jeff Davis County polling location consolidations. I mean, I should say that, like, this could take a while.” “Chatham County allowed the city of —” [crosstalk] “Fighting voter suppression is very much like fighting a hydra. You chop off one head, and three grows in its place.” Here’s one impact: The 2017 Exact Match law prevented 53,000 Georgians from having their registrations accepted. Nearly 70 percent were Black. “The evidence is very clear to us that the ones most impacted by these new laws are Black Georgians, are people in Democratic communities.” All of this results in a contested election. And then … “But I’m here tonight to tell you, votes remain to be counted.” “Make no mistake, the math is on our side to win this election.” “So Brian Kemp squeaks out a victory.” “And he is now the governor of Georgia. It was two figures who have represented the opposite sides of the voting rights argument.” “The question that dogged Georgia throughout 2018 was whether or not these tactics were fundamentally fair.” “So what happened in 2018 really is a preview, where democracy is under a stress test.” One that may get even more stressed in the lead-up to 2020, with the added elements of coronavirus and a country on edge after nationwide protests. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote. Show up at the polls on June 9.” In April, in response to the pandemic, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent out absentee ballot applications to nearly seven million registered voters in an attempt to reduce in-person voting. “And what that really has done is it’s taken the pressure off it today, so that instead of having those, you know, million people that were voted absentee show up today, we now have something that is more manageable.” But many of those absentee ballots were never delivered. In Atlanta, this contributed to Election Day wait times that were reminiscent of 2018 and 2016. “We got here before six o’clock this morning.” “Since six this morning. It’s almost 9 a.m., and I have not moved.” In Fulton County, Georgia’s largest, election director Rick Barron had to contend with both a 9,000 percent increase in absentee ballots, and the rollout of a new voting machine system. “We became an absentee-by-mail state. We still had to do our full complement of Election Day infrastructure. We did our early-voting infrastructure. And it stretched us.” With many usual polling sites, like churches and schools, dropping out because of the pandemic, an estimated 16,000 voters in Fulton County were redirected here, to this restaurant, Park Tavern. “Take a look behind me. This is the Park Tavern precinct.” “This polling place is serving multiple locations that are supposed to be separate locations.” And these problems stretched all across metro Atlanta. “The impact of having problems at the voting booth in high-density areas in Georgia means that people of color are going to be disproportionately affected.” One study showed that in communities where more than 90 percent of registered voters were minorities, the average minimum wait time at the polls was 51 minutes. When whites made up more than 90 percent of voters, it was just six minutes. “So how are things running now?” “Well, by and large, they’re running very smoothly throughout the state, except, obviously, Fulton County has had multiple failures.” Each county in Georgia runs its own election, with Georgia’s secretary of state as the top official. But after the massive failures in the primary, a blame game commenced. “They should be embarrassed with their performance.” “Whatever Secretary Raffensperger’s opinion is, he’s the head election official in the state, and he can’t wash his hands of all the responsibility.” “In this environment, incompetence does have the effect of voter suppression.” Things would have looked different before the Shelby decision. Even in an emergency situation like the pandemic, the implementation of all of these changes — new voting machines, poll place closures and the absentee balloting — still would have required federal oversight through Section 5 preclearance, meaning voters of color would have had … “A front-end protection that stops discrimination before it can take root. What we’ve lost with the Shelby County ruling is that, now when changes are made to take account of the public health crisis, they are not being made toward, are those changes harming minority voters.” Which means … “Your only option, now, is to go case by case, to try and find every bad thing that’s happening and try and figure out if you can bring a case to stop it. That’s costly. Litigation is slow. Can they happen quickly enough in proximity to an election to make a difference?” “Voting rights and questions of voter suppression are not limited to the South. It’s happening in Texas, in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other places. The political power of 1776 to 1960 was one that excluded huge communities of people in this country. And so history tells us the same thing the current day tells us. If you are Black, brown in this country, to exercise your democratic rights is harder than if you are white. It’s not just a foregone conclusion that everyone who is an American gets to vote.” “You know, this is America. We can put a Tesla in space, but we can’t vote? I mean, what do we think is going to happen in November?” “This is Alex.” “And I’m Kassie.” “We produced this episode of Stressed Elections.” “There’s a lot going on in this election, and we want to make sure we take a deep dive into the major issues. So stick around for the next episodes.” “We’re going to cover voting technology, disinformation and voting by mail.”

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The first episode of our four-part series, Stressed Election, focuses on voter suppression in Georgia, where a growing Black and Latino population is on the precipice of exercising its political voice, if they get the chance to vote.

The November election in Texas has a new cloud of uncertainty hanging over it with just weeks to spare, as legal battles mount over how and when voters should be allowed to cast their ballots during the pandemic.

A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked Texas from getting rid of straight-ticket voting, which allows voters to choose a party’s entire slate by making just one selection at the top of the ballot, and which the Republican-led legislature had sought to eliminate over the objections of Democrats. And the Texas Supreme Court is weighing whether to delay the start of early voting, after a group of Republican officials asked the court to block Gov. Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor, from expanding early voting because of the pandemic.

The battles over voting rules are unfolding as polls show some unusually tight races in Texas, which has been a Republican stronghold for years. A poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College this month found President Trump with only a narrow edge over Joseph R. Biden Jr., 46 percent to 43 percent, with a margin of error of four percentage points.

And it comes as states around the nation are wrangling over voting rules. Republicans in Pennsylvania are asking the Supreme Court to block a decision extending the deadline for counting mail-in ballots, and on Sunday a judge in Ohio declined to order changes to rules about the signature-matching requirement for ballots and ballot applications. The spate of cases have heightened the uncertainty and partisan rancor over the election as the coronavirus pandemic continues to change how Americans vote.

The judge in Texas’s straight-ticket voting case, United States District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo of Laredo, said eliminating it as an option would cause longer wait times during the pandemic, because voters would go through lengthy ballots marking individual races. The state plans to appeal.

Straight-ticket voting has been popular in the state, particularly among Democrats. In the 2018 general election, more than 5 million Texans — about two-thirds of all voters in that election — voted that way. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed a law eliminating the option, arguing that it would cause voters to become better informed about individual races and would bring Texas in line with most other states, which do not allow it.

Critics of the law — including the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign committees — sued, saying the new law was unconstitutional and would have a discriminatory impact on Black and Hispanic Texans, who use straight-ticket voting more than other voters. Judge Marmolejo agreed.

In a separate legal move last week, a group of prominent Republican lawmakers and party leaders asked the Texas Supreme Court to stop Governor Abbott from expanding the early-voting period. Mr. Abbott ordered early voting to begin on Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19 to help protect voters and others from the coronavirus. The group of conservatives argued that only the Legislature, not the governor, has the power to extend the early-voting time.

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