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News Brief: Democratic Convention, Mail-In Ballots, College Move-In Day


This was the message on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.


MICHELLE OBAMA: Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division and a total and utter lack of empathy.


That was former First Lady Michelle Obama. She said President Trump is, quote, "clearly in over his head." Other speakers included Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a moderate Democrat, and former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican. The big question going into this last night was, would a virtual convention moved online because of the pandemic actually work?

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was watching. Good morning, Mara.


KING: So to David's point, how did it go? Did it work?

LIASSON: Well, we'll find out if it works when we get some reactions from ordinary people. But Democrats produced a first convention night for the moment. It was an all-virtual operation, pretty smooth, no technical glitches. It was a very highly produced Zoom call in a lot of ways. There were a lot more ordinary people featured, really packed in there, than we would have seen if it had been live in primetime. But, you know, in the end, with everything about this election being so weird, it turned out that some things are pretty normal and haven't changed. Democrats are asking people to judge Donald Trump by the same criteria any president would be judged by. Did he keep you safe and prosperous? Of course, they believe the answer is a resounding no.

But also, last night, the biggest impact was from two totally normal speeches - Bernie Sanders, the opponent to Joe Biden, showing that the party was unified - and then Michelle Obama, who's the single most effective communicator right now in the Democratic Party, doing what she did in the last two conventions, which is really bring an emotional punch to the argument.

KING: What did the emotional punch sound like?

LIASSON: Well, I think Michelle Obama - one thing about her speech is she really got the format. I don't know if her speech would've worked as well in a big hall with thousands and thousands of people. She figured out how to use this intimate format. She was talking to people from her living room, really talking to one single viewer, saying, I'm just like you. I'm hurting like you. She said, I hate politics just like you. And she was trying to give ordinary voters permission - a permission structure to vote for the Democrats, maybe even if they're not so super excited about Joe Biden himself. Her speech was pretty dark. She said, if you think things can't get worse, they can, and they will, she said, if we don't vote like our lives depend on it. She said Democrats should go and request mail-in ballots ASAP. But she also said this.


OBAMA: We have got to grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too, because we've got to be willing to stand in line all night if we have to.

LIASSON: That was something different for Democrats, who've been focusing on voting by mail to stay safe in a pandemic. She's even saying, if you need to, go vote in person because the risks to our democratic system are so great. She told Democrats, don't stay home like you did in 2016.

KING: Remarkable piece of advice there - bring two meals just in case.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

KING: For Democrats who are not particularly excited about Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders was the other big speaker of the night. Democrats need him to draw progressives in. How did Bernie Sanders do? What was his argument?

LIASSON: His argument was that democracy is at stake. Kind of like Michelle Obama, he was quite apocalyptic if Trump gets reelected. He also showed that this is not 2016. The party is much more unified. Here's some part of what he said.


BERNIE SANDERS: Together, we must build a nation that is more equitable, more compassionate and more inclusive. I know that Joe Biden will begin that fight on day one.

LIASSON: Sanders also said Biden would be the most progressive president since FDR. And that caused a bit of a pileup because just a few moments before Sanders spoke, the Republican former governor of Ohio John Kasich had said Biden wouldn't veer too far to the left. So he's - has something for everyone.

KING: (Laughter). NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


KING: OK. A virtual convention is obviously not the only thing that's different this election season because of the pandemic. In some states, voting will likely change, too.

GREENE: That's right. So cuts being made at the U.S. Postal Service have slowed mail delivery. In some areas, mail sorting machines have been removed, making things even slower. And so some states are now changing the rules. They say ballots will count as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, even if they're not received by Election Day. But already, there are legal challenges to this.

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler is covering this election. She's with us now to explain all this. Good morning, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What do states require in order to have a ballot count? What are the rules?

FESSLER: Well, they vary by states. So most states say an absentee ballot has to be received by Election Day in order to count. But about 18 will count your ballot as long as it's postmarked by Election Day. And those ballots usually also have to be received within a few days of the election to count, although California will count ballots received up to 17 days after the election. The big problem is that thousands of absentee ballots arrive without a postmark for a whole variety of reasons. And that's caused a lot of confusion.

KING: The confusion including a question, which is, how will election officials know if the ballots were in the mail by Election Day and therefore should count?

FESSLER: Well, it's not always clear. And that was a problem in Wisconsin's primary and also in New York, where a federal judge ruled after the election that thousands of ballots that had been rejected because they didn't have a postmark should be counted if they were received within two days of the election. And President Trump cites this ruling as one of the reasons he thinks that widespread mail-in voting in November could be a mess. So now states are trying to clarify the rules. Pennsylvania election officials have asked their state Supreme Court to allow them to count ballots without a postmark as long as they're received within three days of the election. And Nevada and Virginia have similar rules.

KING: Does that raise legitimate concerns that someone could mail their ballot after the polls close, and it would be counted anyway?

FESSLER: Well, that's what Republicans are claiming. They're - they've already filed suit against Nevada's new law, saying that Democrats are trying to rig the election, that people could see who was ahead on Election Day and then rush in to mail their ballots to try and change the outcome. But election officials say this is incredibly far-fetched scenario. And I spoke with Tammy Patrick, a former Arizona election official now with the Democracy Fund, who's a longtime liaison between the Postal Service and election officials.

TAMMY PATRICK: That's just, quite frankly, a little bit crazy because you would have to be able to know for sure that none of them would be postmarked. And there's no action that a voter can take to prevent something from being postmarked.

FESSLER: And Democrats are defending these rules, saying it's not fair for a voter to have their ballot rejected if they mailed it in on time, but through no fault of their own, it didn't get a postmark. And I expect to see a lot more litigation on this issue in the weeks ahead.

KING: NPR's Pam Fessler covering this election. Thanks, Pam.

FESSLER: Thanks, Noel.


KING: OK, so since the fight over when and whether to open schools during a pandemic started, some educators have talked about a kind of nightmare scenario.

GREENE: Yeah, that's right. It's a scenario where a college opens, then students get sick, and then they immediately have to close. And this is not just a imaginary scenario. This is exactly what happened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was open for a week. In that week, 130 students and five employees tested positive. And yesterday, UNC said it is moving to online learning.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been following all of this. She's at the University of Georgia this week, which is another school that's opened. Good morning, Elissa.


KING: Before we get to the University of Georgia, let me ask you what exactly is going on at UNC right now?

NADWORNY: Well, after just a week of classes, UNC-Chapel Hill is now pivoting to all remote instruction following four coronavirus clusters. So the clusters they're defining as five or more positive cases. They happened in housing both on and off campus and in a fraternity house. This comes after faculty students, even county health officials, asked the university to forgo in-person classes. All over the country, colleges are watching what's happening at UNC as they themselves begin to bring students back.

KING: Yes, I would imagine that the University of Georgia is casting a leery eye over at UNC given that it's opening. What are you hearing down there?

NADWORNY: That's right. Yeah, we got to campus here for move-in weekend. Walking around campus, it's relatively quiet. It's definitely more mellow than other move-ins. You know, we haven't seen big parties. But there are groups of students hanging out on campus. Masks are required here. So when you're not eating or in the dorm, you have to wear them. And for the most part, that's been happening. We saw a group of students outside a frat house playing basketball. All but one were wearing masks.

For move-in, there's special COVID rules to help keep spaces less crowded. You have to sign up for a timeslot. You only get two family members or friend to go into the dorms with you. And we saw a bunch of cleaning supplies. We talked to a mom, Ebony Coleman (ph), whose daughter Kyndall (ph) is starting her freshman year. She packed a quarantine bag for her daughter in case she gets sick.

EBONY COLEMAN: Just, like, a first-aid kit, if you will. She's got a duffel bag that we put together with extra chargers, a few shelvable rations, if you will, chicken broth, whatever we can put in there just to make sure that she had what she needed in quarantine.

KING: Must be such a scary time for parents. I wonder, is UGA - does UGA have a kind of threshold at which they'll say, OK, X number of students have gotten sick - we've got to shut it down - we've got to do it online?

NADWORNY: So I put that question to Dr. Shelley Nuss, who's been helping implement reopening plans here.

SHELLEY NUSS: That's the million-dollar question, Melissa. I mean, of course, it's it's been discussed. But it's very complicated. Are we out of our own isolation beds? You know, how many pockets are in dorms versus not? I mean, there's probably 20 or 30 different things.

NADWORNY: So not a concrete answer. A lot depends here on student behavior, especially off-campus.

KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks so much, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.