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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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Biden Expected To Repeal Military Trans Ban Tomorrow

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The Biden administration is expected to repeal the ban on transgender Americans from serving in the military, multiple people informed of the decision told CBS News. The announcement is expected as soon as Monday, one senior Defense official and four outside advocates of repealing the ban told CBS News.

The senior Defense official told CBS News the repeal will be through executive order signed by President Joe Biden. The announcement is expected to take place at a ceremony with newly-confirmed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will order the Pentagon to go back to the policy enacted in 2016 by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter that allowed transgender Americans to serve openly.

The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The new order will direct the branches of the military to outline an implementation plan. 

The ban was announced by former President Trump via a tweet in July 2017. The ban took effect in April 2019 and barred transgender Americans from enlisting in the military.

In 2014, it was estimated there were around 15,500 transgender military members serving, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Biden frequently repeated on the campaign trail his promise to repeal the ban.

Austin said at his Senate confirmation hearing last week that he planned to repeal the ban.

“I support the president’s plan or plan to overturn the ban,” Austin said on Tuesday when asked by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “I truly believe, Senator, that as I said in my opening statement, that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve. And, you can expect that I will support that throughout.”

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Trump Pardons Steve Bannon In One of His Final Acts As 45th President

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(CNN)— President Donald Trump has decided to pardon his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a last-minute decision made only hours before he is scheduled to depart the White House for a final time.

Officials cautioned CNN that Trump’s decision was not final until he signed the paperwork. Trump told people that after much deliberation, he had decided to pardon Bannon as one of his final acts in office.

Bannon’s pardon would follow a frantic scramble during the President’s final hours in office as attorneys and top aides debated his inclusion on Trump’s outgoing clemency list. Despite their falling out in recent years, Trump was eager to pardon his former aide after recently reconnecting with him as he helped fan Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.

It was a far cry from when Trump exiled Bannon from his inner circle after he was quoted in a book trashing the President’s children, claiming that Donald Trump Jr. had been “treasonous” by meeting with a Russian attorney and labeling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Those statements from Bannon drove Trump to issue a lengthy statement saying he had “lost his mind.”

“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said at the time.Things shifted in recent months as Bannon attempted to breach Trump’s inner circle once again by offering advice before the election and pushing his false theories after Trump had lost.

Since Trump’s election defeat, the President has leaned further into his expansive pardon powers — granting pardons to his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, longtime ally Roger Stone and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, among others.

Among Trump’s pardons earlier in his term were those for former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and financier Michael Milken.

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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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