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News Brief: Barrett Vote, Election Disinformation, COVID-19 Cases

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Senate looks ready to confirm President Trump's third justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Amy Coney Barrett could transform how the court approaches abortion, gun rights and religious freedom. A final Senate vote is set for tonight, just eight days ahead of Election Day.

GREENE: And we are joined by NPR's Carrie Johnson, who's been covering this. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So the White House nominated Amy Coney Barrett about 30 days ago. The Republicans were promising a very quick process here. Where do things stand with the Senate right now?

JOHNSON: Republicans on the Judiciary Committee advanced Amy Coney Barrett to the full Senate late last week. That's after Democrats boycotted the vote. Democrats have mostly stayed in lockstep in opposition to this nomination, but they haven't been able to stop the process from moving forward. Yesterday, the Senate voted, largely along party lines, to advance the nomination. Republican Senator Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski joined the Democrats on that, but Murkowski says she's opposed to the process but will eventually vote to confirm Barrett.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sees this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lock in conservative control of the court. Here's what he said on the Senate floor yesterday.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: We made an important contribution to the future of this country. A lot of what we've done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election. It won't be able to do much about this for a long time to come.

GREENE: Carrie, was McConnell there predicting the outcome of the presidential election?

JOHNSON: David, to borrow a phrase from President Trump, we'll see what happens. But what is likely to happen soon is Barrett is likely to be confirmed tonight. And one question is whether Vice President Mike Pence, as president of the Senate, will be there after some of his aides tested positive for coronavirus.

GREENE: Well, I mean, we should say Amy Coney Barrett did not answer a whole lot of substantive questions during those confirmation hearings. I mean, what do we know about what kind of justice she's likely to be?

JOHNSON: You're right. She was incredibly cagey on things like voting rights, climate change and presidential power. Even so, we know she is a protege of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, very conservative. She may actually be more conservative than Scalia on gun rights. She's also written critical things about court rulings that upheld the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. And she's a devout Catholic who says she believes life begins at conception. Remember, she signed a newspaper ad that called the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade a barbaric legacy.

GREENE: Well, I mean, the court began a term earlier this month, right? How quickly might she be seated and hearing cases?

JOHNSON: Pretty quickly, if history is a guide. She won't be able to deliberate on cases that have already been argued, but she could be on the bench as early as Tuesday, tomorrow...

GREENE: Wow.

JOHNSON: ...Certainly in time for the Obamacare argument that's coming on November 10. And there are other cases in the pipeline soon on religious freedom and LGBTQ rights and some abortion cases also making their way to the Supreme Court, too.

GREENE: A lot of people wonder if there might be a case involving the presidential election, depending on how it plays out. Democrats tried to get Barrett to recuse herself from hearing any case involving President Trump and the election. She refused. So what do you expect to happen there?

JOHNSON: If a case gets to the court, as President Trump has said he expects, it's just not clear what Barrett will do. She did tell senators she'd look at whether there's an appearance of a conflict to decide a case involving the political fate of the president. But the Supreme Court basically operates on an honor system, and no one can force her to recuse or sit on the sidelines. But, David, Democrats are warning if she takes part in a case that hands the election to President Trump, that could be enormously controversial and damaging for the court and for her own legacy.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: And, Carrie, let me ask you this. I mean, there's been all this talk swirling around the campaign on this question of whether Joe Biden, if he becomes president, might push to expand the number of justices on the Supreme Court. In an interview that aired last night on CBS "60 Minutes," Biden addressed this - sort of, right? I mean, what exactly did he say?

JOHNSON: Joe Biden has struggled with how to respond to this pressure from left-leaning activists about adding seats to the court. And finally, he came upon an answer last night. Here's what - some of what he said to CBS' Norah O'Donnell.

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JOE BIDEN: I will ask them to, over 180 days, come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack.

JOHNSON: In other words, he wants a commission, a high-level commission, to study this problem, not just adding justices, but a whole bunch of other possible measures, too. For some on the left, though, that's not enough. They say creating a commission will just delay the process further and not really speak to their efforts at big change that they want to see.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Johnson as we await that Supreme Court vote later today. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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GREENE: All right, so as millions of people head to the polls, social media, phone lines, email inboxes are all filling up with disinformation.

MARTIN: Yeah, U.S. officials just last week - remember? - said Iran was using deceptive emails to threaten Democratic voters, but it's a much broader problem. Election officials and voter advocates are working to counter this growing wave of disinformation to try and prevent voters from being discouraged.

GREENE: NPR's Pam Fessler has been following all of this. Good morning, Pam.

FESSLER: Good morning.

GREENE: What is the disinformation we're talking about here? What are we seeing?

FESSLER: Well, we're seeing all kinds of it. You mentioned those threatening emails which looked like they were from a right-wing extremist group, the Proud Boys. But intelligence officials say they actually came from Iran as part of an effort to sow confusion and discourage voters.

But that's just one example. There are a few others that I'm going to give you, with the caveat that all of these messages are false. Listen to this.

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PRERECORDED VOICE: Mail-in voting sounds great, but did you know that if you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts?

GREENE: That's just amazing.

FESSLER: Yeah, that was a robocall. It went to thousands of minority voters in Detroit and other cities this summer. And since then, two right-wing operatives have been charged with trying to intimidate these voters, which is a felony.

More recently, early voters in Palm Beach County, Fla., got fake Democratic voter guides that listed the Republican congressional candidate, Laura Loomer.

Voters have also been getting a lot of disinformation online, like tweets that say because of COVID restrictions, Democrats will vote on November 3 and Republicans will vote on November 4 and Facebook posts warning voters that their ballots will be rejected if a poll worker puts a mark on them or that the bar code on a mail-in ballot reveals your personal information. And it's all false.

GREENE: I mean, you mention those two right-wing operatives who have been charged, but in general, I mean, can you talk about who's behind this stuff?

FESSLER: Generally, we don't know. I mean, it's very hard to tell, but it's, you know, definitely coming from a variety of people who have different agendas. You know, there are clearly those who are trying to discourage voters of the opposite party from voting. There are the foreign actors, like Russia and Iran, who want to disrupt our elections. And there are also a lot of scammers. Some have been using fake voter registration sites and ballot-tracking services to trick people into sharing their personal data. And Oklahoma officials say a voter there got a text that her polling place had changed, and the attached phone number turned out to be for an escort service.

GREENE: Oh. What is being done to stop this?

FESSLER: Well, election officials, social media companies, advocacy groups are all trying to counter this disinformation as soon as they can, as quickly as they see it. The cybersecurity arm of the Department of Homeland Security has set up this new site called Rumor Control. And a lot of election officials are taking to social media.

For example, Heider Garcia, the election administrator in Tarrant County, Texas, recently posted this video telling voters not to black out the barcodes on their ballots in response to online rumors because their votes might not count.

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HEIDER GARCIA: So, please, I'm begging you, do not tamper with the barcode on your carrier envelope. Just mail it back or drop it off at our office.

FESSLER: So these officials say that the most important thing for voters to do is to get their information from trusted sources and then make sure that they go vote.

GREENE: All right, important advice there. NPR's Pam Fessler following all this. Pam, thanks a lot.

FESSLER: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right, so after tapering off, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States is now surging.

MARTIN: Cases reached record highs in recent days in many states. Some areas are now adopting stronger restrictions aimed at trying to slow the spread.

And the virus has reached the highest levels of government yet again. The chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, as well as others in Pence's office, have tested positive. CDC guidance is clear that you should quarantine after close contact with someone exposed to the virus, but the vice president is not doing that.

GREENE: All right, one of many things to talk about with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Let's talk about the vice president first. I mean, he had close contact with his chief of staff, Marc Short, who has tested positive, but the vice president keeping up his campaign travel schedule. How is the White House justifying that?

AUBREY: Well, the decision to keep his travel schedule intact was made in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, a spokesperson said yesterday. Pence's office says this is in accordance with CDC guidance for essential personnel. They're basically making the case he has essential work to do, including on the campaign trail.

But public health experts are questioning this. Here's Josh Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He served in the FDA under President Obama.

JOSH SHARFSTEIN: The vice president should be limiting interactions with others because he could be harboring the virus, and he could wind up becoming infectious. And so if there are essential activities that he needs to do in person, he should take extra precautions to do those. But otherwise, I think he should be staying at home.

AUBREY: Especially given that around the country, David, including places Pence is scheduled to travel, such as Minnesota, the virus is circulating widely.

GREENE: Which is such a big concern. I mean, you and I were talking not so many weeks ago about, you know, the numbers starting to come under control, it looked like.

AUBREY: Yeah.

GREENE: Not anymore, huh?

AUBREY: No. The U.S. has been averaging about 68,000 new cases per day. This is about a 30% increase compared to just two weeks ago. In recent days, there have been record highs in several states - Utah, Tennessee, Illinois. In Chicago over the weekend, stronger restrictions took effect. So bars and restaurants must close earlier in the evening as part of a curfew in the city. Other parts of Illinois have stricter rules, too, so including limits on the number of people allowed to gather. And nationwide, David, there's certainly a lot of reminders to stay vigilant.

GREENE: Well, one thing we're seeing, too - right, Allison? - is hospitalizations that are on the rise from COVID.

AUBREY: Yes.

GREENE: I mean, I hate to ask, but that often means that we're going to see a death rate that's going to climb.

AUBREY: Well, there are still a lot of people dying - about 775 people per day in the U.S. on average. But that's a lot lower compared to the highs of last spring. Part of this, David, can be explained by the increase in cases among younger people, who are less likely to die, but there's been an improvement in treatment, actually. Physician Aneesh Mehta, who's an infectious disease expert at Emory University, is also a principal investigator for the NIH remdesivir trial. Last week, the FDA gave this antiviral drug full approval.

ANEESH MEHTA: Remdesivir reduced recovery time to 10 days, compared to 15 days. And also importantly, remdesivir-treated patients had less use of mechanical ventilators and other advanced oxygen support techniques.

AUBREY: Compared to people who didn't get remdesivir. And, you know, it's important to say this is not a home run treatment. It has not been shown to significantly prevent deaths among very sick people. But it does have benefits. And you combine that with all the other things doctors have learned, including when to use blood thinners, steroid medications, new research shows more hospitalized patients are surviving COVID-19.

GREENE: All right, better treatments and then more survival in hospitals. That's good news. But these cases going up - a real concern. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks so much, as always.

AUBREY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.