U.S. House panel to hold Postal Service hearing amid 2020 election concerns

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. House of Representatives committee plans to hold a Sept. 17 hearing with new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to examine operational changes to the U.S. Postal Service amid concerns about the 2020 election and recent reports of a slowdown in some deliveries.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform invited DeJoy “to examine recent changes to U.S. Postal Service operations and standards and the need for on-time mail delivery during the ongoing pandemic and upcoming election, which as you know may be held largely by mail-in ballot,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the panel.

Maloney and other senior House Democrats warned in a July 20 letter that “increases in mail delivery timing would impair the ability of ballots to be received and counted in a timely manner — an unacceptable outcome for a free and fair election.”

A spokesman for DeJoy declined to comment on the hearing.

The Postal Service will report third-quarter financials on Friday when the board holds a virtual meeting.

A group of senators last week raised concerns that delaying mail deliveries could hinder attempts to mail in ballots for the 2020 election by Americans fearful about voting in person during a pandemic.

U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to sue Nevada after Democratic lawmakers passed a bill on Sunday that would send mail-in ballots to every voter ahead of November’s presidential election in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump, who has claimed without evidence that voting by mail will lead to rampant fraud, wrote on Twitter on Monday that the legislation approved on Sunday was an “illegal late night coup.”

If the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, signs the bill as expected, Nevada would become the seventh state to send ballots to all registered voters for the Nov. 3 election.

(Reporting by David Shepardson)

Explainer: Fraud is rare in U.S. mail-in voting. Here are the methods that prevent it

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With the number of Americans voting by mail on Nov. 3 expected to nearly double due to COVID-19, election experts see little reason to expect an increase in ballot fraud, despite President Donald Trump’s repeated claims.

Voting by mail is not new in the United States — nearly 1 in 4 voters cast 2016 presidential ballots that way. Routine methods and the decentralized nature of U.S. elections make it very hard to interfere with mailed ballots, experts say.

While mail balloting has its drawbacks, it can help minimize the long lines, faulty voting machines and COVID-19-induced staffing shortages that have plagued some elections this year.

HOW SECURE IS IT?

Election experts say it would be nearly impossible for foreign actors to disrupt an election by mailing out fake ballots, a scenario floated by Attorney General William Barr.

For one thing, voters won’t just be selecting a president: They might be choosing candidates for city council, school board and weighing in on ballot initiatives. That can require hundreds of different ballot designs in a single county and the United States has more than 3,000 counties.

Ballots aren’t counted if they aren’t printed on the proper type of paper and don’t include specific technical markings.

States also require voters to sign the outside of their envelope, which they match to a signature on file.

Some 29 states and the District of Columbia allow voters to track their ballots to ensure they are received, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fourteen states and D.C. also allow voters to return their ballots by hand if they don’t trust the mail.

Those envelopes are typically opened by a different group of workers than those who scan the ballots. Outside observers are allowed to monitor the process to ensure voter privacy.

IS FRAUD A PROBLEM?

As with other forms of voting, documented cases of mail-ballot fraud are extremely rare.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which has warned of the risks of mail voting, found 14 cases of attempted mail fraud out of roughly 15.5 million ballots cast in Oregon since that state started conducting elections by mail in 1998.

The most prominent cases of mail fraud have involved campaigns, not voters. North Carolina invalidated the results of a 2018 congressional election after state officials found that a Republican campaign operative had orchestrated a ballot fraud scheme.

Experts say those scenarios can be minimized by nixing requirements — currently in place in 11 states — which instruct voters to get at least one witness to sign their return envelopes.

“All of these policies remove the need to hand over your ballot to someone you don’t know,” said Tammy Patrick, a former election official in Maricopa County, Arizona.

DOES IT HELP TURNOUT?

Turnout rates tend to be higher in states that conduct elections by mail. A Stanford University study found that participation increased by roughly 2 percentage points in three states that rolled out universal voting by mail from 1996 to 2018. It had no effect on partisan outcome and did not appear to give an advantage to any particular racial, economic or age group.

In Colorado, 77% of voting age citizens cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, the highest figure in the country, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Oregon, that figure was 72% and in Washington it was 68%, well above the national rate of 63%.

ARE THERE BARRIERS?

Like any other voting method, mail balloting has its drawbacks.

States rejected 1% of returned ballots in 2016 for arriving too late, missing signatures or other problems, according to EAC figures — though that figure was as high as 5% in some states. It can be more difficult to fix errors on mail ballots than on those cast in person, experts say.

Mail ballots can pose additional barriers to those who don’t speak English or have disabilities, and delivery can be problematic on Native American reservations, where residents sometimes don’t have street addresses.

In California, which started transitioning to mail ballots in 2018, Black and Hispanic voters were twice as likely to cast their ballots in person, according to David Becker, head of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. Supreme Court restricts ‘electors’ in presidential contests

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to free “electors” in the complex Electoral College system that decides the U.S. presidency from state laws that use penalties to force them to support the candidate who prevails in the state’s popular vote.

The justices unanimously declined to endorse the discretionary power of electors just months before the Nov. 3 presidential election. The justices ruled in favor of Washington state and Colorado, which had imposed penalties on several so-called faithless electors who defied pledges in 2016 to vote for the winner of their states’ popular vote, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

State officials have said faithless electors threaten the integrity of American democracy by subverting the will of the electorate and opening the door to corruption. The plaintiffs said the Constitution requires them to exercise independent judgment to prevent unfit candidates from taking office.

“The Constitution’s text and the nation’s history both support allowing a state to enforce an elector’s pledge to support his party’s nominee – and the state voters’ choice – for President,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of the court.

Under the system set out in the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century, the winner of a presidential election is determined not by amassing a majority in the national popular vote but by securing a majority of electoral votes allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

In 2016, 10 of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other then their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number that could have changed the outcome of five of the 58 previous U.S. presidential elections.

The justices on Monday upheld a decision by the Washington state Supreme Court that had found the $1,000 fines against three faithless electors to be lawful and did not violate the Constitution’s provisions that spell out the Electoral College process.

The justices also reversed a 2019 ruling by the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Colorado’s cancellation of a faithless elector’s vote. Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not participate in the Colorado case.

Republican President Donald Trump, who defeated Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote nationally by about 3 million votes, is seeking re-election against Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

In the Electoral College vote held weeks after the general election, the electors – typically party loyalists – cast their ballots to formally determine the election’s winner. Colorado and Washington state are among the 48 states – only Maine and Nebraska excepted – with winner-takes-all systems awarding all electors to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control how electors vote. Only a handful enforce them with penalties.

The two lead plaintiffs in the cases decided on Monday, Bret Chiafalo and Micheal Baca, were Democratic electors who sought to persuade Republican electors to disregard their pledges and help deny Trump the presidency. They cast their ballots for moderate Republicans and not Clinton even though she won the popular vote in both states.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Israel-Gaza ceasefire takes hold after two-day flare-up

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations took hold on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday after two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Islamic Jihad had fired 80 rockets towards Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three members of the militant group.

No casualties were reported on the Israeli side of the frontier and many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system.

The violence came a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.

A Palestinian militant walks as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The frontier fell quiet early on Tuesday, after a Palestinian official said Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous ceasefire” mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

“This round is over and Palestinian resistance promised its people that every act of aggression by the Zionist occupation would be met by a reaction from the resistance,” Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad official, told Reuters.

The Israeli military said it reopened roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday that it had closed when the fighting began and that train services would resume in the area.

But citing security concerns, the military kept Israel’s border crossings with Gaza closed, except for humanitarian cases, and banned Palestinian fisherman from heading to sea.

The violence erupted on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who the military said was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation that were followed by rockets launched by Islamic Jihad.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Trump: No election help wanted or received from any country

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that no country was trying to help him win the November election, after a top intelligence official told lawmakers Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential vote to help Trump win a second term.

“I want no help from any country and I haven’t been given help from any country,” Trump told reporters at a news briefing as he concluded a two-day visit to India.

After the congressional briefing, Trump ousted the acting intelligence chief, Joseph Maguire, and replaced him with a political loyalist.

At the news conference, Trump denied reports that Maguire had been ousted from the top spy job, saying he needed to be replaced because of “statute.”

Trump has said he will announce his pick soon for the job, which requires Senate confirmation.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, though Moscow has denied the assessments. Trump, who is sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has questioned those findings and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.

U.S. officials have also said recently that Russia has been mounting disinformation and propaganda campaigns to help Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in this year’s election.

The United States would act against Russia or any other country if they tried “to undermine our democratic processes,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington.

He did not provide details on what responses Washington would consider, or what kind of activities by foreign actors would solicit a U.S. retaliation.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Alex Richardson and Bernadette Baum)

Russia denies backing Trump re-election, critics express alarm

By Anastasia Teterevleva and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Kremlin on Friday denied Russia was interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election chances following reports that American intelligence officials warned Congress about the election threat last week.

U.S. intelligence officials told members of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in a classified briefing last week that Russia was again interfering in American politics ahead of November’s election, a person familiar with the discussion told Reuters.

Trump has since ousted the acting intelligence chief, replacing him this week with a political loyalist in an abrupt move as Democrats and former U.S. officials raised the alarm over national security concerns.

On Twitter, the Republican president accused Democrats in Congress of launching a misinformation campaign “saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates.” Trump called it a “hoax” in his Friday tweet.

U.S. officials have long warned that Russia and other countries would seek to interfere in the Nov. 3 presidential election, following Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign that ended with Trump’s surprise victory over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Kremlin used disinformation operations, cyber attacks and other methods in its 2016 operation in an effort to boost Trump, an allegation that Russia denies. Trump, sensitive to doubts over the legitimacy of his win, has also questioned that finding and repeatedly criticized American intelligence agencies.

On Friday, the Kremlin said the latest allegations were false.

“These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the (U.S.) election,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”

Russia’s alleged interference sparked a two-year-long U.S. investigation headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller found no conclusive evidence of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also pointed at 10 instances in which Trump may have attempted to obstruct his investigation, as Democrats alleged, but left any finding of obstruction to Congress.

Trump is seeking a second term in office.

Last July, he called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate one of his potential Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, sparking his impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House.

Trump, who was later acquitted by the Republican-led U.S. Senate, has also publicly called on China to probe Biden.

Last week’s classified congressional briefing sparked a sharp response by Trump, who rebuked acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire for allowing his staff to brief the lawmakers, including Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment inquiry, the New York Times reported, quoting five people familiar with the matter.

Trump then dismissed Maguire, announcing this week that Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist, would be the acting intelligence chief, even as he continues serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany. His appointment drew sharp rebukes from Democrats and other critics who said Grenell lacked intelligence experience.

Trump tweeted on Friday that four candidates were being considered for the permanent post of intelligence head and that a decision would come in the next few weeks.

‘NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT’

“This is a crisis,” former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC in an interview on Friday, citing concerns that Trump was seeking to “squelch” critical intelligence.

Schiff, in a Thursday tweet, said if the reports are true, Trump “is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”

“Trump is not only trying to rewrite history of Russia’s intervention in 2016, he is now using the power of the presidency to conceal their 2020 scheme to re-elect him. Dangerous!” former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates tweeted on Friday.

Democrats seeking to challenge Trump also raised concerns.

Biden, in a CNN town hall event on Thursday, said he was “not surprised” at the reported Russian meddling and that he had no confidence in Grenell.

“This is a national security threat,” Senator Elizabeth Warren told MSNBC on Thursday and criticized Senate Republicans for not acting to secure an election that is less than nine months away.

Trump’s last full-time director of national intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, resigned last year after his differences with the president over Russia’s role in the 2016 election became public.

Trump has repeatedly called the U.S. Russia probe and the impeachment inquiry a “witch hunt.”

His fellow Republicans at last week’s briefing questioned the information, according to the person familiar with the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

Republican members of the panel did not respond to a request for comment, but Republican Representative Doug Collins, in a television interview on Friday, echoed Trump’s allegations of politicization at U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Something needs to be done to clean up these agencies,” he told Fox Business Network.

(Reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and Jonathan Landay in Washington; and Steve Holland in Las Vegas; Editing by Andrew Osborn, Mary Milliken and Jonathan Oatis)

Iran holds election, hardliners set to dominate with turnout key

By Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians voted on Friday in a parliamentary election likely to help hardline loyalists of the supreme leader tighten their grip on power as the country faces mounting U.S. pressure over its nuclear program and growing discontent at home.

State television said voting, which began at 0430 GMT, would run for 10 hours but could be extended depending on turnout. In mid-afternoon, an Interior Ministry official told state TV that about 11 million of 58 million eligible voters had cast their ballots for candidates in the 290-member parliament.

The election is seen as a referendum on the popularity of the clerical establishment given that most moderates and leading conservative candidates were barred from running.

With thousands of potential candidates disqualified in favor of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s allies, the vote is not expected to ease Iran’s nuclear standoff with the United States or spawn a softer foreign policy.

Parliament’s power is limited, but gains by security hawks could weaken pragmatists and conservatives who support the ruling theocracy but also more economically beneficial engagement with the West, from which Tehran has been estranged since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

A rise in the number of hardliners in the assembly may also help them in the 2021 contest for president, a job with broad daily control of government. Pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani won the last two elections on promises to open Iran to the outside world.

The United States’ 2018 withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and its reimposition of sanctions, have hit Iran’s economy hard and led to widespread hardships.

A U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most prominent military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on Jan. 3. Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq, killing no one but causing brain injuries in over 100 soldiers.

Encouraging Iranians to vote, state TV aired footage of people lined up at polling stations set up mainly at mosques.

“I am here to vote. It is my duty to follow martyr Soleimani’s path,” said a young voter at a mosque at a cemetery, where Soleimani is buried in his hometown.

Soleimani, architect of Tehran’s overseas clandestine and military operations as head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was a national hero to many Iranians. He was Iran’s most powerful figure after Khamenei.

“Each vote put into the ballot box is a missile into the heart of America,” said Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the aerospace unit of the Revolutionary Guards.

Rouhani urged Iranians to “further disappoint the enemies” by voting in large numbers.

But weariness among women and the young, who comprise a majority of voters, about high unemployment and restrictions on social freedoms looked likely to depress the turnout.

LOWER TURNOUT LOOMS

Iranians who joined large protests in November called on their leaders to focus on improving the battered economy and tackling state corruption, also urging Khamenei to step down.

“I don’t care about this election. Moderates or hardliners, they are all alike. We are getting poorer with each passing day,” university student Pouriya, 24, said by telephone from the city of Isfahan. “I am leaving Iran soon. There are no jobs, no future for us.”

Iranian authorities forecast a turnout of about 50%, compared to 62% and 66% respectively in the 2016 and 2012 votes.

Iranians contacted by Reuters in several cities by telephone said turnout was low.

“In my area in central Tehran not many people are voting. There is one polling station just beside my house in Javadiyeh and only a handful of voters were there when I last checked an hour ago,” said sports teacher Amirhossein, 28.

With Iran facing deepening isolation on the global stage and discontent at home over economic privations, analysts described the election as a litmus test of the leaders’ handling of the political and economic crises.

Health ministry authorities advised voters not to be concerned about the threat of new coronavirus cases, as Tehran confirmed 13 new ones on Friday, two of whom have died.

“RELIGIOUS DUTY”

The slate of hardline candidates is dominated by acolytes of Khamenei, including former members of the Guards, who answer directly to the supreme leader, and their affiliated Basij militia, insiders and analysts say.

Former Guards commander Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf tops the parliamentary list of the main hardline coalition for Tehran’s 30 seats in the assembly.

Khamenei was the first to cast his ballot, saying voting is “a religious duty”.

The Guardian Council removed 6,850 moderates and leading conservatives from the field, citing various grounds for the rejections including “corruption and being unfaithful to Islam”.

That left voters with a choice mostly between hardline and low-key conservative candidates. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on members of the Council over the candidate bans.

Iran’s rulers have faced a legitimacy crisis since last year when protests over a fuel price hike turned political with demonstrators calling for “regime change”. The unrest was met with the bloodiest crackdown since the Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of protesters killed.

Many Iranians are also angry over the shooting-down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in error in January that killed all 176 people on board, mainly Iranians. After days of denials, Tehran said the Guards were to blame.

(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Supreme Court takes up presidential Electoral College dispute

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the 2020 race heats up, the Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a dispute involving the complex U.S. presidential election system focusing on whether Electoral College electors are free to break their pledges to back the candidate who wins their state’s popular vote, an act that could upend an election.

The Supreme Court will take up appeals in two cases – from Washington state and Colorado – involving electors who decided to vote in the Electoral College process for someone other than Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even though she won the popular vote in their states.

The justices will determine if such so-called faithless electors have the discretion to cast Electoral College votes as they see fit or whether states can impose restrictions including with penalties. The case is expected to be argued in April and decided by the end of June.

President Donald Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3, with a field of Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to challenge him. His administration did not take a side in either case.

“We are glad the Supreme Court has recognized the paramount importance of clearly determining the rules of the road for presidential electors for the upcoming election and all future elections,” said Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer for the faithless electors sanctioned in Washington and Colorado.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said she hopes the justices will let states enforce their laws.

“Unelected and unaccountable presidential electors should not be allowed to decide the presidential election without regard to voters’ choices and state law,” Griswold said.

The dispute involves the U.S. presidential election system set out in the U.S. Constitution in which the winner is determined not by amassing a majority of the national popular vote but by securing a majority of the electoral votes that are allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Individuals who serve as Electoral College electors – typically party loyalists – cast these votes. All states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, have a winner-takes-all system awarding all electors to the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

The number of electors in each state is the sum of its two U.S. senators and its number of members in the House of Representatives, based on population size. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, is allotted three electors.

Typically an overlooked formality, the Electoral College took on greater importance after the 2016 election, when 10 electors cast ballots for someone other than their party’s candidate. That was an unusually high number of faithless electors and could have changed the outcome in five of the 58 prior U.S. presidential elections, according to legal papers in one of the appeals filed at the Supreme Court.

LOSING THE POPULAR VOTE

Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote nationally by about 3 million votes. Faithless electors could change the outcome of presidential elections with thinner Electoral College margins.

Electors pledge to vote for their party’s candidate if that person wins the state’s popular vote. At issue in the cases are laws requiring that electors follow through on those pledges.

While 32 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, a handful enforce them by removing and replacing faithless electors, or in some cases, imposing fines.

The plaintiffs challenged the sanctions, saying they were deprived of their rights under the Constitution’s Article II as well as its 12th Amendment, which spell out the Electoral College process.

In Colorado, one elector, Micheal Baca, was replaced and his vote canceled when he sought to vote for Republican John Kasich, Ohio’s former governor. A federal judge dismissed Baca’s challenge, but the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year revived the suit, concluding that Baca’s constitutional rights were violated.

The Washington state case arose after three faithless electors voted for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a moderate Republican, instead of Clinton. They each were fined $1,000 for their defiance, which they called the first such penalty in U.S. history. The Washington Supreme Court in 2019 upheld the fines.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Don’t read too much into election results, Taiwan tells China before vote

By Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Beijing should not see Taiwan’s elections as representing a win or loss for China, Taiwan’s foreign minister said on Thursday, days ahead of a vote overshadowed by Chinese efforts to get the island to accept its rule.

Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday. Its elections are always closely watched by China, which claims the island as its territory.

Taiwan says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its formal name, and the government has warned of Beijing’s efforts to sway the vote in favor of the opposition.

“I just don’t think China should read Taiwan’s election as its own victory or defeat,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters in Taipei.

“If China reads too much into our election … there might be a likely scenario that China will engage in military intimidation or diplomatic isolation or using economic measures as punishment against Taiwan.”

President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking re-election, has repeatedly warned Taiwan’s people to be wary of Chinese attempts to sway the election through disinformation or military intimidation, an accusation China denies.

Wu drew attention to China’s sailing of its new aircraft carrier into the sensitive Taiwan Strait late last year, calling the voyage “clear” evidence of Beijing’s attempts to intimidate voters.

“This is our own election. This is not China’s election. It is Taiwanese people who go to the voting booth to make a judgment on which candidate or political party is better for them,” Wu said.

“If China wants to play with democracies in other countries so much, maybe they can try with their own elections at some point.”

The issue of China has taken center stage in the campaign, especially after its president, Xi Jinping, warned last year it could attack Taiwan, though said he’d prefer a peaceful “one country, two systems” formula to rule the island.

Taiwan-China ties have soured since Tsai took office in 2016, with China cutting off formal dialogue, flying bomber patrols around Taiwan, and whittling away at its diplomatic allies.

China suspects Tsai of pushing for the island’s formal independence, a red line for Beijing. Tsai says she will maintain the status quo but will defend Taiwan’s democracy and way of life.

‘EVERY BALLOT HAS POWER’

In a front-page election advertisement in the mass circulation Liberty Times on Thursday, Tsai appealed directly for people to cast their vote against China.

“In the face of China, every ballot has power,” the advertisement read, next to a picture of Tsai wearing a camouflaged military helmet and flak jacket.

Tsai’s main opponent is Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party, which ruled China until 1949, when it was forced to flee to Taiwan after loosing a civil war with the Communists.

Han says he would reset ties with Beijing to boost Taiwan’s economy, but not compromise on the island’s security or democratic way of life.

In a Facebook post later on Thursday, Tsai wrote that China would be happiest if the Kuomintang got back into power.

“The elections should make Taiwan’s people happy, not the Chinese government,” she added.

But Kuomintang Chairman Wu Den-yih said Tsai was the real threat, pointing to an anti-infiltration law she championed and passed late last year to tackle Chinese influence. The Kuomintang says the law seeks to effectively outlaw all contacts with China.

“Don’t let Tsai Ing-wen destroy the Republic of China’s democracy, liberty and rule of law; just take down Tsai Ing-wen,” the party cited Wu Den-yih as saying, referring to Taiwan by its official name.

Overshadowing the elections have been allegations in Australian media from a self-professed Chinese spy about China’s efforts to influence Taiwan’s politics and support Han, who, along with Beijing, has denounced the accusations as lies.

(Reporting By Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

More drugmakers hike U.S. prices as new year begins

By Michael Erman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Drugmakers including Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, Gilead Sciences Inc, and Biogen Inc hiked U.S. list prices on more than 50 drugs on Wednesday, bringing total New Year’s Day drug price increases to more than 250, according to data analyzed by healthcare research firm 3 Axis Advisors.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that drugmakers including Pfizer Inc, GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Sanofi SA were planning to increase prices on more than 200 drugs in the United States on Jan. 1.

Nearly all of the price increases are below 10% and the median price increase is around 5%, according to 3 Axis.

More early year price increases could still be announced.

Soaring U.S. prescription drug prices are expected to again be a central issue in the presidential election. President Donald Trump, who made bringing them down a core pledge of his 2016 campaign, is running for re-election in 2020.

Many branded drugmakers have pledged to keep their U.S. list price increases below 10% a year, under pressure from politicians and patients.

The United States, which leaves drug pricing to market competition, has higher prices than in other countries where governments directly or indirectly control the costs, making it the world’s most lucrative market for manufacturers.

Drugmakers often negotiate rebates on their list prices in exchange for favorable treatment from healthcare payers. As a result, health insurers and patients rarely pay the full list price of a drug.

Bristol-Myers said in a statement it will not raise list prices on its drugs by more than 6% this year.

The drugmaker raised the price on 10 drugs on Wednesday, including 1.5% price hikes on cancer immunotherapies Opdivo and Yervoy and a 6% increase on its blood thinner Eliquis, all of which bring in billions of dollars in revenue annually.

It also raised the price on Celgene’s flagship multiple myeloma drug, Revlimid, 6%. Bristol acquired rival Celgene in a $74 billion deal last year.

Gilead raised prices on more than 15 drugs including HIV treatments Biktarvy and Truvada less than 5%, according to 3 Axis.

Biogen price increases included a 6% price hike on multiple sclerosis treatment Tecfidera, according to 3 Axis.

Gilead and Biogen could not be immediately reached for comment.

3 Axis advises pharmacy industry groups on identifying inefficiencies in the U.S. drug supply chain and has provided consulting work to hedge fund billionaire John Arnold, a prominent critic of high drug prices.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Nick Zieminski)