Coronavirus fuels historic legal battle over voting as 2020 U.S. election looms

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – The Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden has generated an unprecedented wave of election-related litigation, as both sides seek to shape the rules governing how votes are tallied in key states.

With 40 days left, the court clashes have spread to every competitive state amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled pitched battles over seemingly mundane issues such as witness signatures, U.S. mail postmarks and the use of drop boxes for ballots.

Trump’s unfounded attacks on voting by mail and delivery delays amid cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service have only intensified the urgency of the litigation.

A Reuters analysis of state and federal court records found more than 200 election-related cases pending as of Tuesday. Overall, at least 250 election lawsuits spurred by the coronavirus have been filed, according to Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who has been tracking the litigation.

The pandemic has turned what were once minor hurdles, such as witness signature requirements, into potentially major obstacles, while exacerbating existing concerns.

“In the past, long lines would be disenfranchising or deterring, but in this case they can be deadly,” said Myrna Perez, who directs the voting rights and elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats generally have sought to ease restrictions on mail ballots, which are surging as voters want to avoid the risk of visiting in-person polling sites.

“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure our election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to interfere in the democratic process,” Mike Gwin, a Biden spokesman, said.

Republicans say they are trying to prevent illegal voting, although experts say voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

“Democrats are working to shred election integrity measures one state at a time, and there’s no question they’ll continue their shenanigans from now to November and beyond,” said Matthew Morgan, general counsel for the Trump campaign.

A flurry of court decisions this month have delivered several Democratic wins, although many remain subject to appeal. In the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, officials will count ballots that arrive after Nov. 3, as long as they were sent by Election Day.

Several pending cases, including in competitive Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could have a major impact on those states’ elections.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in after the state’s highest court rejected their bid to limit drop boxes and disqualify late-arriving ballots. The Trump campaign is pursuing a separate federal lawsuit over some of the same issues.

In Texas, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has sued officials in Harris County to stop them from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters. The county, which includes Houston, is the state’s most populous, with nearly 5 million residents.

Republicans prevailed in several earlier cases.

In Florida, a federal appeals court blocked hundreds of thousands of ex-felons from voting in November. In Texas, where only those 65 years and older can vote by mail without having to provide a valid reason such as disability, a series of court rulings have stymied Democratic efforts to extend that right to all residents.

SUPREME COURT BATTLE TO COME?

The influx of cases may also be a preview of what is to come after Nov. 3, when new fights could arise over which ballots should be counted.

Both campaigns have assembled armies of lawyers in preparation.

The Biden campaign has lined up hundreds of attorneys and has brought in top lawyers like former U.S. Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger and former Attorney General Eric Holder as advisers.

Marc Elias, the Democratic attorney who has coordinated many election lawsuits this year on behalf of left-leaning groups, is heading a team focused on state-by-state voter protection.

Trump’s campaign, for its part, has filed multiple challenges to states like Nevada and New Jersey that plan to mail a ballot to every voter.

Some Democrats are concerned that if Republicans succeed in getting a successor to the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election, it will ensure Trump wins any dispute that ends up at the high court.

The Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 to stop the Florida recount handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush, the only time the high court has decided the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Trump has seemingly laid the groundwork for a post-election fight, repeatedly asserting without evidence that voting by mail will yield a “rigged” result.

On Wednesday, the president said explicitly that he wanted to have Ginsburg’s successor in place because he expects the election to end up at the Supreme Court.

Levitt, the law professor tracking the cases, said he still trusted that judges would reject challenges not backed by evidence.

“Filing a case costs a few hundred dollars and a lawyer, and can often be useful for messaging,” he said. “But courts of law demand evidence that the court of public opinion doesn’t.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Disha Raychaudhuri; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest and Northeast, deaths fall for third week

(Reuters) – Several states in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast have seen new COVID-19 cases increase for two weeks in a row, though nationally both new infections and deaths last week remained on a downward trend, a Reuters analysis showed.

The United States reported more than 287,000 new cases in the week ended Sept. 6, down 1.4% from the previous week and marking the seventh straight week of declines. More than 5,800 people died from COVID-19 last week, the third week in a row that the death rate has fallen.

Nevertheless, 17 states have seen cases rise for at least two weeks, according to the Reuters tally of state and county reports. They include Missouri, North Dakota and Wisconsin, where between 10% and 18% of people tested had the new coronavirus.

In the Northeast, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York also reported increases in new cases for at least two weeks, though the positive test rate ranged from a low of 0.9% in New York to a high of 4.3% in Delaware — below the 5% level the World Health Organization considers concerning.

In some states, testing has increased as schools reopened. New York City, for instance, is testing 10% to 20% of students and staff every month. The University of Illinois is testing students twice a week.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 fell for a fifth week to 5.5%, well below a peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The United States tested on average 741,000 people a day last week, up 5% from the prior week, but down from a peak in late July of over 800,000 people a day.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Indoor dining to resume in New Jersey this week, governor says

(Reuters) – New Jersey restaurants may open their indoor dining areas to patrons later this week for the first time since the state shut down most of its commerce when the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March, Governor Phil Murphy said on Monday.

The number of diners must be limited to 25% of the restaurant’s capacity and tables must be spaced in accordance with social-distancing rules when indoor dining resumes on Friday, Murphy said.

“Reopening responsibly will help us restore one of our state‚Äôs key industries while continuing to make progress against #COVID19,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

The governor is expected to elaborate later on Monday on the coronavirus status in the state, which has moved incrementally in reopening its economy since May.

New Jersey, the country’s most densely populated state, was among the hardest hit in the months when the coronavirus first spread to the United States. It still has the second-most COVID-19 deaths of any state, with nearly 16,000, and is eighth among total cases with more than 193,000, according to a Reuters tally.

But the state has had much better control of the pandemic in the past several weeks, with a transmission rate that has largely been below 1%.

Across the rest of the country, total coronavirus cases topped 6 million on Sunday as many states in the Midwest reported increasing infections, according to a Reuters tally.

Although the national metrics on new cases, deaths, hospitalizations and positivity rates of tests have been declining, new hot spots have emerged in the Midwest.

Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota recently reported record one-day increases in new cases, while Montana and Idaho are seeing record numbers of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

U.S. COVID-19 deaths exceed 180,000, cases continue to fall

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus topped 180,000 on Thursday after a surge of new cases in June and July, many of them in hotspots like California, Florida, and Texas.

There were some signs of an improving outlook. Last week, deaths fell 17% from the prior week and below an average of 1,000 a day for the first time in weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

However, while U.S. metrics on cases, deaths, hospitalizations and test positivity rates were declining, health experts warned there could be another surge as schools reopen and colder weather forces more gatherings indoors.

This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people exposed to COVID-19 but not symptomatic may not need to be tested. This contradicted earlier guidance from the CDC, shocking doctors and politicians and prompting accusations that it may have been based not on sound science but on political pressure from the Trump administration.

The governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut slammed the CDC’s move as “reckless” and “not based on science,” and said they will not change testing guidelines in their states.

“CDC and HHS have not shared their scientific rationale for this change in policy, which substitutes sound science-based public health guidance with the president’s misinformation,” they said in a joint statement. “Health experts recommend testing close contacts of individuals with COVID-19 to identify and prevent asymptomatic spread. This type of robust testing by our states has been a key factor in our success so far to flatten the curve in the tri-state area.”

On Wednesday, the top U.S. government infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told CNN he was having surgery during discussion of the change and expressed worry about the CDC’s move.

U.S. confirmed cases are now over 5.8 million – the highest total in the world. The U.S. death toll is also the world’s highest.

On a per capita basis, the United States ranks 12th in the world for the number of deaths, with 54 deaths per 100,000 people, and tenth in the world for cases, with 1,774 cases per 100,000 residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

U.S. consumer confidence dropped in August to its lowest in more than six years, as households worried about the labor market and incomes, casting doubts on the sustainability of the economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

The ebb in confidence followed the expiration of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit supplement on July 31.

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked over the size and shape of a fifth coronavirus-response bill, on top of the approximately $3 trillion already enacted into law.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, additional reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and David Gregorio)

New Jersey to give voters in-person, mail-in option in November election, governor says

(Reuters) – New Jersey voters will have the choice in the November election of using ballots mailed to their homes or going to their local polling places, just as they did during last month’s primary elections, Governor Phil Murphy said on Friday.

“We’re going to have a hybrid model in November,” Murphy said on CNN. “We liked what we saw. We’ll tweak it. And that’s where we’re headed.”

A formal announcement will be made later on Friday, Murphy said.

Under the procedure, which is designed to protect residents from exposure to the coronavirus, all registered voters will have ballots mailed to their homes which they can mail back or place in secure “drop boxes.”

Residents who opt to go to their local polling places on Nov. 3 will do so in “provisional voting,” meaning they must use paper ballots, not voting machines, so that officials can guard against duplicate voting, Murphy said.

The process is “a little bit more cumbersome but it works,” he said.

Mail-in voting, which several states encouraged because of the pandemic, often led to delays in reporting the results of this year’s primary elections, especially in close races, because of the additional time needed to count them. States often required mail-in ballots to be postmarked by Election Day.

Asked whether he was concerned about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, Murphy acknowledged that there were delays because of personnel shortages in the first two months of the pandemic, but said “as far as we can tell, it’s behind us.”

“We’ve been in constant touch with the U.S. Postal Service,” he said. “We’ve pressed them hard. We’ll continue to press them hard.”

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

New Jersey governor can borrow $9.9 billion to plug shortfalls, top state court rules

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – New Jersey’s highest court on Wednesday rejected an effort by state Republicans to block Democratic Governor Phil Murphy from borrowing as much as $9.9 billion to help offset plunging tax revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The New Jersey Supreme Court said the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Bond Act was constitutional, but officials will need to certify that projected revenue and fiscal shortfalls were “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic” before they can borrow.

State legislators had passed the law on July 16, prompting a lawsuit by the New Jersey Republican State Committee, which said it violated the appropriations and debt limitation clauses of New Jersey’s constitution.

Lawyers for the committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Murphy is expected to publicly discuss the decision later on Wednesday.

The $9.9 billion cap represented New Jersey’s estimate of how much less tax revenue it might collect through June 30, 2021, compared with its projection before the pandemic struck.

In Wednesday’s 7-0 decision, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said COVID-19 qualified as a “disaster” permitting the state to resort on emergency financing to plug anticipated shortfalls.

He said the plaintiffs had not met the “heavy burden” of showing that the law’s alleged unconstitutionality was “clear beyond reasonable doubt.”

States nationwide have struggled with lower tax revenues because of decreased economic activity and higher unemployment resulting from the pandemic.

New Jersey, whose population is about 8.88 million, was one of the earliest U.S. hotspots for the coronavirus, and has had more than 185,000 cases and 14,000 deaths.

Its per capita infection rate is now lower than in many other states as the pandemic took hold elsewhere in the country.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)

New Jersey governor re-tightens restrictions on indoor gatherings after COVID-19 surge

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Monday announced he was re-tightening restrictions on indoor gatherings after a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state that officials have, in part, linked to house parties and indoor events.

Murphy said such events will now be limited to 25% of a room’s capacity with a maximum of 25 people, down from the previous limit of 100.

“The actions of a few knuckleheads leaves us no other course,” Murphy said at a news briefing. “We have to go back and tighten these restrictions once again until we begin to see the numbers of cases decrease.”

The restrictions will not apply to weddings, funerals and memorial services, and religious and political activities protected under the First Amendment, Murphy said.

The rate of COVID-19 transmission has climbed to 1.48 in New Jersey, the governor said, compared with 0.87 about a month ago, while cases have also been on the rise.

“Let me reiterate, we remain in a public health emergency,” Murphy said. “Over the past week we saw numbers of cases that we had not seen in eight weeks, our rate of transmission is now more than double where it was a few weeks ago. Everyone needs to get it together folks.”

Murphy also sought to clarify previously provided guidance on schools reopening and announced that all students will be required to wear face coverings at all times when inside a school building, excepts for health reasons.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)

Suspect in slaying of federal judge’s son found dead, media reports say

(Reuters) – The suspect in the shooting of the son and husband of a federal judge in New Jersey was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Monday, ABC News and other media reported.

The suspect, a white male, had a case before the judge, Esther Salas, in 2015, ABC reported. He was found in his car in Sullivan County, New York, about two hours north of New York City.

Steven Nevel, a spokesman for the New York State police, confirmed an investigation of a death in the county but declined to provide further details.

The FBI has been conducting a manhunt related to the Sunday afternoon shooting at the North Brunswick, New Jersey, home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas. Her son, Daniel Anderl, 20, was killed.

The FBI said it was looking for one suspect in the case.

Judge Salas was home at the time of the shooting but was in the basement and was not injured, according to media reports and Marion Costanza, a friend of the family who lives three homes away.

Investigators have preliminary information that someone dressed as a FedEx driver arrived at the family home at about 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), ABC News reported on Sunday, citing multiple law enforcement sources.

The motive behind the killing remained unclear. Among her cases, Salas presided over the sentencing of members of the Grape Street Crips, a gang charged with selling drugs and other crimes in 2015, and federal fraud convictions of co-stars of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” reality TV show.

Salas, 51, was nominated to her seat by President Barack Obama in 2010, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve on the District Court of New Jersey. Salas could not be immediately reached for comment.

Her husband, Mark Anderl, 63, was an assistant prosecutor in Essex County before becoming a defense attorney. He and his partner, David Oakley, handle a variety of felonies, including homicide, sexual assault and fraud cases, according to their website.

Neither Anderl nor Oakley could be reached for comment.

Daniel Anderl, the son, was shot as he came down the stairs of the home to help his father, who had opened the door to the gunman, according to some media reports.

“He ran down the stairs. Instead of running away he ran to help his father,” Costanza said, noting that Daniel had wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a lawyer. “I want people to know what a good kid he was.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey were among political leaders who expressed concern about the incident on Twitter.

Menendez said he knew Judge Salas well and had recommended her appointment to the federal bench.

“My prayers are with Judge Salas and her family, and that those responsible for this horrendous act are swiftly apprehended and brought to justice,” Menendez wrote.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Quarantine or not, tourists still flock to New Mexico

By Andrew Hay

RED RIVER, N.M. (Reuters) – In the New Mexico mountain resort of Red River, tourists from Texas stroll along Main Street, most disregarding Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s orders they quarantine and wear masks.

It’s the same in other New Mexican tourist towns such as Taos and Santa Fe, except nearly all their visitors wear face coverings – surrounded by signs warning of fines if they don’t.

Like governors in at least 15 states, Democrat Lujan Grisham has ordered out-of-state tourists to self-isolate, citing data that about one in 10 of New Mexico’s spiking COVID-19 cases comes from visitors.

Enforcing the orders is proving difficult, given the lack of a national plan, police reluctance to take on the massive task, and Americans’ penchant for driving hundreds or thousands of miles to vacation, even in a pandemic.

A U.S. road trip this summer means navigating through a patchwork of quarantine regulations across various states, most of them voluntary.

New York, New Jersey and Connecticut require travelers from 19 states with high COVID-19 infection rates to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. New York imposes fines.

Hard-hit Florida requires travelers from those three states to self-isolate for 14 days whether arriving by plane or car, or face a $500 fine.

Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont all have varying self-isolation rules.

‘TAKING AWAY OUR LIBERTY’

New Mexico published newspaper ads in neighboring Arizona and Texas, states respectively reporting 27% and 18% positive coronavirus test rates, urging their residents not to visit. Health experts consider a 5% rate to be worrisome.

But tourists keep coming.

“I think it’s bullshit. They’re saying the masks should work, so why should you be quarantined?” said Chris Fry, 59, a feed company manager from Dimmitt, Texas, staying in his cabin near Red River and stopping in town for ice before going fishing.

A 45-minute drive south in Taos Plaza, Louisiana tourist Christy Brasiel was frustrated the historic Native American community was closed to visitors and compared Lujan Grisham’s rules to “communism or socialism.”

“They’re taking away our liberty,” said Brasiel, 49, staying in an Airbnb rental to avoid her voluntary quarantine order enforced by local hotels that turn away out-of-state visitors.

As in cities across New Mexico, police in Red River have yet to issue citations for non-compliance to COVID-19 rules, said Mayor Linda Calhoun, a Republican, adding that she is encouraging businesses to require masks.

“We live off of tourists, that’s all we have, so it’s very difficult for us to enforce the order,” Calhoun said of the quarantine rule in her town nicknamed “Little Texas” for the number of visitors from that state.

Many locals in Taos County, where COVID-19 cases have doubled in the last month, are dismayed by the rule breaking.

“It doesn’t make any sense to be so selfish,” said lawyer Maureen Moore, 67.

“WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE”

Only three weeks ago, as outbreaks raged across the U.S. Sunbelt, New Mexico reported stable or declining daily cases.

A poor state with limited hospital capacity, New Mexico used early, tough restrictions to curb the pandemic.

But with its positive test rate rising above 4%, Lujan Grisham has scolded New Mexicans for letting down their guard since she eased restrictions on June 1, and on Monday re-closed indoor restaurant dining.

On a shortlist as a running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Lujan Grisham has also rounded on tourism, the state’s second-largest industry.

“We don’t want you here now,” she told potential visitors in a July 9 press briefing, taking special aim at Texans. “I want you to stay in Texas.”

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico State Police would “aggressively” enforce her quarantine and mask orders. The force has handed out 13 verbal warnings for mask violations but none for quarantine non-compliance, a spokeswoman said on Monday.

The rules are piling pandemic pain on businesses in the state. Standing outside his Red River supermarket, business owner Ted Calhoun said Lujan Grisham had gone too far.

“Ordering visitors to do a 14-day quarantine is killing the tourist industry of New Mexico,” said Calhoun, the mayor’s husband.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Red River, New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown and Alistair Bell)

15 U.S. states to jointly work to advance electric heavy-duty trucks

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of 15 U.S. states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday unveiled a joint memorandum of understanding aimed at boosting the market for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and phasing out diesel-powered trucks by 2050.

The announcement comes weeks after the California Air Resources Board approved a groundbreaking policy to require manufacturers to sell a rising number of zero-emission vehicles, starting in 2024 and to electrify nearly all larger trucks by 2045.

The 14 states said the voluntary initiative is aimed at boosting the number of electric large pickup trucks and vans, delivery trucks, box trucks, school and transit buses, and long-haul delivery trucks, with the goal of ensuring all new medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales be zero emission vehicles (ZEV) by 2050 with a target of 30% ZEV sales by 2030.

The states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

The states committed to developing a plan within six months to identify barriers and propose solutions to support widespread electrification, including potential financial incentives and ways to boost EV infrastructure.

Trucks and buses represent 4% of U.S. vehicles, but account for nearly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

California’s mandate will put an estimated 300,000 zero-emission trucks on the road by 2035. California’s planned rules will initially require 5%-9% ZEVs based on class, rising to 30%-50% by 2030 and nearly all by 2045.

The push comes as a rising number of companies – including Rivian, Tesla Inc., Nikola Corp., and General Motors work to introduce zero emission trucks.

Major businesses like Amazon.com, UPS and Walmart have also said they are ramping up purchases of electric delivery trucks.

California later plans to adopt new limits on nitrogen oxide emissions, one of the major precursors of smog, as well as require large fleet owners to buy some ZEVs.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Hogue)