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Polls start to close as an unprecedented campaign comes to an end

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The first polls are closing as millions of Americans vote on the electoral fates of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, who offered sharply divergent visions for the future amid a Covid-19 pandemic that shows no sign of abating.

Voting has closed in eastern Kentucky and parts of Indiana at the start of an election night in which more than 100 million early and mail-in ballots have already been cast.

At the end of what has been a remarkably stable race, the President crossed the finish line after a frenetic sprint across the battleground states, during which he continued to undermine the integrity of the election by falsely raising the specter of cheating in the possible tipping point state of Pennsylvania. He painted a dark portrait of what America could look like under a Biden administration, claiming that the former vice president would trigger an economic collapse with extended lockdowns to stamp out the virus.

After months of refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and repeatedly lodging false claims about widespread voter fraud — when there is no evidence that it exists — the President gave a more muted interview to “Fox & Friends” Tuesday morning, predicting that he had a “very solid chance of winning” and said he would declare victory “when there’s victory, if there’s victory,” adding there is no reason to play games. He later visited Republican National Committee offices in northern Virginia and predicted a “great night ahead,” but also reflected the uncertainty of Election Day, saying he had prepared neither a victory speech nor a concession speech.

“Hopefully we’ll be only doing one of those two and you know, winning is easy. Losing is never easy. Not for me it’s not,” he said.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Biden reminisced about the lessons he has learned over nearly five decades in politics and said that he was hopeful about the changes he has seen in race relations and political engagement. In response to Trump’s efforts to undermine the election, he underscored his view that a president cannot determine the outcome of an election — only the voters can.

Biden ended his final day of campaigning on a more optimistic note, promising to unite the country and calling it the “beginning of a new day.” On Tuesday morning, he sought to remind Americans of his blue-collar roots with a visit to his childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was surrounded by supporters on the street outside who chanted “Scranton loves Joe.”

Inside on one of the living room walls where he grew up, he wrote: “From this House to the White House with the Grace of God,” signing his name and the date “11.3.2020,” before heading to Philadelphia where the campaign is hoping to drive up turnout in the final hours.

Historic amount of early votes

Across the country, officials were counting the more than 100 million votes that were cast before Election Day, according to a survey of election officials by CNN, Edison Research and Catalist. Those early votes represent more than 47% of registered voters nationwide and six states crossed their 2016 threshold of ballots cast. Signs of an extraordinarily engaged electorate continued on Tuesday.

In an unprecedented move, which could indicate some mail-in votes are in danger of not reaching their destination in time to be counted, a federal judge in Washington ordered the US Postal Service to start sweeping all processing facilities by 3 p.m., including in parts of battleground states Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, New Hampshire and Florida. Democrats had previously criticized the US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump donor, for introducing reforms in the agency that they said could slow down the delivery of mail-in ballots.

Democrats are nervous about widespread slowdowns within the Postal Service system after budget cuts and staff shortages, which has led to intense scrutiny of DeJoy’s motivations. In the closing days of the campaign, Trump went so far as to suggest that vote counting extensions in Pennsylvania could be “physically dangerous.”

In Arizona, where the early ballots cast showed remarkably even levels of engagement by both Democrats and Republicans, long lines formed Tuesday morning in populous Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and its suburbs, and also in Republican strongholds including Chandler, Glendale, Gilbert and Surprise.

Polls will begin closing at 6 p.m. ET but there are wide variations in ballot counting rules across the country. Florida, for example, has been tabulating early ballots under state rules, but some areas of Pennsylvania will not begin opening vote-by-mail ballots until Wednesday morning.

The economy Is the top issue on the minds of voters Tuesday, according to the preliminary results of a nationwide CNN exit poll. Those results are incomplete because Americans were still voting, but in those early measures about a third said the economy is the most critical issue. About 1 in 5 said racial inequality is the top issue and 1 in 6 said the coronavirus pandemic was most important to their vote. However, a majority said the nation should prioritize containing Covid-19 over rebuilding the economy.

Republicans have made a huge effort to invalidate ballots and limit voter turnout through legal challenges and questionable monitoring tactics that bordered on voter intimidation in some states. Trump spent his final days trying to cast aspersions on vote counting, insisting that a winner should be declared on Tuesday night, even though America has long counted ballots well into the days and weeks after Election Day.

The variation in counting procedures and the historic numbers of vote-by-mail ballots that must be opened and tabulated means that early night tallies after the polls close will not necessarily be predictive of the final results, in part because polls show that Democrats have favored mail-in ballots while many Republicans preferred to cast ballots in person on Election Day.

With Biden leading in many national and battleground state polls, the President’s team is counting on explosive Election Day turnout within the GOP and relying on their intensive, data-driven ground game to turn out quiet Trump voters, who they say have not been reflected in the polls.

A campaign of contrasts comes to an end

Trump plans to hold an election night gathering of some 250 people at the White House despite admonitions from the administration’s own medical experts against indoor gatherings at a time when coronavirus cases are rising in most states. Biden plans to address supporters in his home city of Wilmington, Delaware.

Through the bitter end of the campaign, Trump never moderated the angry, xenophobic tone of his rallies even as he faced alarming drops in his support among suburban women, seniors who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and even White working class voters with no college degrees who overwhelmingly supported him in 2016.

Biden’s team has been emboldened by signs of huge turnout among young voters, as polls suggest that he has built a massive lead among female voters while cutting into Trump’s margins with blue collar voters, particularly in the critical Midwest region. At the same time, the former vice president has not appeared to be matching Hillary Clinton’s levels of support among Latino voters and among Black men, leading to an intense final push by the Democratic team to turn out more of those voters for Biden.

As both campaigns eye multiple paths to 270 electoral votes, Biden must hold the swing states that Clinton won in 2016, including Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and then, in the most viable scenario for the former vice president, rebuild the so-called “Blue Wall” in the Midwest that Trump blasted through in 2016 by retaking Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for the Democrats.

That route appears most favorable for Biden because CNN’s Poll of Polls shows Biden’s current lead in Wisconsin at 10 points; a lead in Michigan at 9 points and a narrow advantage in Pennsylvania with 6 percentage points. If Biden is not able to flip Pennsylvania, he needs to create an alternative route to power through tighter battleground states in the Sun Belt, such as North Carolina, Florida, Georgia or Arizona.

Trump is facing a more difficult path to 270 electoral votes, but his team is confident that they have outmatched the Biden team with their ground game, particularly after the Democrats pulled back on their door-to-door canvassing efforts due to the pandemic.

The President is trying to replicate his 2016 map, but if he loses Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Biden, he only has a theoretical path to the presidency by playing on Democratic turf where he campaigned this past week. Those paths could include Trump flipping Minnesota, a goal of his ever since a narrow loss in the state in 2016, or a combination of Nevada and New Hampshire.

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California Governor Formally Appoints Alex Padilla To Fill US Senate Seat Vacated By Kamala Harris

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(CNN) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom formally submitted the appointment of Alex Padilla to the US Senate today, according to a press release from the governor’s office. 

Padilla formally resigned as Secretary of State this morning and Gov. Newsom also submitted his nomination letter for Assembly member Shirley Weber to replace him. The Deputy Secretary of State, James Schwab, will be the Acting Secretary of State.

“It is fitting that on the same day we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a civil rights icon who fought for justice and representation — we also move forward the appointment of California’s first Latino U.S. Senator Alex Padilla and the nomination of Dr. Shirley Weber who will serve as the first-ever African American Secretary of State. Both will be strong defenders of our democracy during this fragile moment in our nation’s history,” said Gov. Newsom.

“I am humbled and honored by your trust in me to represent California in the United States Senate. I look forward to continuing to serve the great State of California as a United States Senator and to ensuring that the rights and democratic principles we cherish are protected and preserved for all people,” Padilla wrote in a letter to Gov. Newsom.

Some context: Earlier today, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris formally resigned her seat as one of California’s US Senators. She’ll be inaugurated as vice president on Wednesday, Jan. 20. In a farewell addressed posted to Twitter, Harris said, “Of course, I’m not saying goodbye. In many ways, I’m now saying hello as your vice president.”

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Capitol Police Arrests Man With ‘Unauthorized’ Inauguration Credential & Gun

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(New York Times) — The U.S. Capitol Police arrested a man at a security checkpoint in Washington on Friday after he flashed what an officer described as an “unauthorized” inauguration credential and a search of his truck found an unregistered handgun and more than 500 rounds of ammunition, the authorities said.

A federal law enforcement official said that the man, Wesley A. Beeler, 31, worked as a contractor, and that his credential was not fake, but was not recognized by the police officer. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the arrest.

Mr. Beeler’s father, Paul Beeler, said in an interview that his son was part of a security team working alongside the Capitol Police and the National Guard, and that his son must have simply left his personal gun in his truck. Wesley Beeler has an active private security license in Virginia and was approved to have a handgun, shotgun or patrol rifle while on assignments, according to a state website.

“It was an honest mistake,” Mr. Beeler told The Washington Post after being released on Saturday afternoon. He said he had been working a security job in Washington, was running late to work, and had forgotten that his firearm was in his truck. He denied having 500 rounds of ammunition, as listed in the police report.

“I pulled up to a checkpoint after getting lost in D.C. because I’m a country boy,” he told The Post. “I showed them the inauguration badge that was given to me.”

The arrest comes as law enforcement officials have tried to fortify Washington ahead of Inauguration Day on Wednesday, when they fear that extremists emboldened by the attack on the Capitol by President Trump’s supporters on Jan. 6 could seek to cause violence. A militarized “green zone” is being established downtown, National Guard members are flooding the city, and a metal fence has gone up around the Capitol grounds in advance of the swearing-in of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Beeler, of Front Royal, Va., had driven up to a security checkpoint less than half a mile from the Capitol grounds on Friday evening and presented “an unauthorized inauguration credential,” according to a statement from a Capitol Police officer filed in a District of Columbia court on Saturday. The officer, Roger Dupont, said that he had checked the credential against a list and found that it did not give Mr. Beeler authority to enter the restricted area.

A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police later described the credential that Mr. Beeler had shown as “nongovernment issued.”

Officers searched his truck, which had several gun-related bumper stickers, and found a loaded Glock pistol, 509 rounds for the pistol and 21 shotgun shells, the police said. Mr. Beeler had admitted having the Glock in the truck’s center console when he was asked if there were weapons in the car, they said.

Mr. Beeler was charged with five crimes, including possessing a weapon and ammunition in Washington without having it registered as required. He and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

Paul Beeler said his son, a father of four, had held other security jobs over the years. “He was proud of the work he was doing with the police and the National Guard,” the father said.

Asked if he thought his son supported a peaceful transition of power, Paul Beeler said, “That’s the reason he’s there.”

The elder Beeler said he had grown worried about his son when he did not return his text messages on Friday night, and that he had called him on Saturday morning, when he thought his son would be returning to Virginia after his shift. He and his wife discovered that Mr. Beeler had been arrested when she received a call from a reporter, he said.

Law enforcement officials have said they are alarmed by chatter among far-right groups and other racist extremists who are threatening to target the nation’s capital to protest Mr. Biden’s electoral victory. Federal agencies have tried to keep some people who breached the Capitol with weapons earlier this month from returning to the city, including by restricting their ability to board commercial planes, according to an administration official.

Mr. Biden has resisted calls to move the inauguration ceremony indoors for the sake of safety. His inauguration committee had already been planning a scaled-back celebration with virtual components because of the coronavirus.

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U.S. Set To Announce New Sanctions On Six Individuals Linked To Hong Kong Mass Arrests

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WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) – The United States is set to announce fresh sanctions on Friday on six individuals connected to the mass arrests earlier this month of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Hong Kong police on Jan. 5 arrested 53 people in dawn raids on democracy activists in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.

U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo last week warned of fresh sanctions in response to the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. That warning came a day after supporters of Republican President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 stormed Congress in a bid to overturn his November election defeat, prompting China’s state media to accuse U.S. politicians of “double standards.”

Pompeo also said last week the United States would also explore restrictions against the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in the United States.

Action on Friday would come just days before Trump is due to leave office and be succeeded by Democrat Joe Biden next Wednesday and would be the latest in a series targeting China, which analysts see as a bid driven by Pompeo to lock in a tough approach to Beijing.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump has pursued hard-line policies toward China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus. Relations plummeted to their worst level in decades when he ramped up rhetoric in his unsuccessful November re-election campaign.

His administration has already imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their actions involving the pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses, and last July declared an end to the territory’s privileged economic status under U.S. law.

The Trump administration took another swipe at China and its biggest companies on Thursday, imposing sanctions on officials and companies for alleged misdeeds in the South China Sea and imposing an investment ban on nine more firms.

Last Saturday, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and counterparts in Taiwan, a move that greatly angered Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province. (Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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