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Supreme Court Rules On Pa. Ballots, Debate Rule Changes Announced

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two weeks from today, Americans finish casting votes. We are 14 days from November 3, which is Election Day, though with so many people voting earlier by mail, it's really the climax of election season.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yes, it is. But it is not the end of election season because we don't know how long it's going to take to count all the mail-in ballots. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court just upheld a rule in Pennsylvania. That court ruling means it's OK to count ballots that arrive in the mail after Election Day.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to survey the election two weeks out. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so Pennsylvania - obviously a very important swing state. What does the court ruling mean?

LIASSON: The court let stand a Pennsylvania state Supreme Court ruling that as long as the ballot is received within three days of Election Day, it can be counted as long as it's counted by Friday, November 6. This is a win for Democrats. There are a lot of cases like this in the courts because the rules for counting ballots are in large part set by each individual state.

INSKEEP: And, of course, Pennsylvania is a vital state.

LIASSON: Yep.

INSKEEP: And what this means is if it's really close, we might not know for a couple of days the winner. Although if it's a blowout, we could very well know who wins Pennsylvania on election night. We just don't know.

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: And anyway, that rule is set for now. And then there are new rules for the last presidential debate coming up on Thursday. What are they?

LIASSON: The Commission on Debates says that each candidate will have two minutes, uninterrupted to speak at the start of each segment of the debate. The candidate who isn't speaking is going to have their microphone muted. And this comes...

INSKEEP: Mara, let me just interrupt to say - actually, I'm just interrupting to demonstrate what happened in the first debate. Please, proceed. Go on.

LIASSON: (Laughter) This comes after the last presidential debate, in which Donald Trump interrupted repeatedly. It was very chaotic. And then remember, the next debate was canceled after Donald Trump refused to do it virtually. He said at the time that in a virtual debate, they can cut off your mic whenever they want.

The Trump campaign released a statement saying it is still committed to debating on Thursday, although the president has complained about the subjects of the debate, which are chosen by the moderator. And he's also attacked the moderator, NBC correspondent Kristen Welker, for being biased.

INSKEEP: Now, everything we've mentioned so far has been touched by the coronavirus. Voting is different. Debates are different than in past years for many reasons, one of them being the pandemic. How are the candidates talking about the pandemic in the final stretch?

LIASSON: Well, it's interesting. The coronavirus cases happen to be spiking. Right now, they're at their highest since the end of July. But President Trump is delivering the same message on the virus as he has for months, even after he himself got COVID. And the message is that the virus is no longer a problem. It's in the rearview mirror. He said yesterday at a rally in Prescott, Ariz., that the only people who still care about the virus are those trying to hurt him and that Americans have just had it with the pandemic. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Pandemic - they're getting tired of the pandemic, aren't they? They're getting tired of the pandemic. You turn on CNN, that's all they cover - COVID, COVID, pandemic, COVID, COVID, COVID. You know why? They're trying to talk everybody out of voting. People aren't buying it, CNN, you dumb [expletive]. They're not buying it.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: I guess we're obliged to note first there's no evidence of that conspiracy theory about why there'd be lots of pandemic coverage. It has killed well over 200,000 people - pretty big story. But I want to note, also, Mara, the president's opponent is Joe Biden, but here he is attacking CNN and also even his own health experts.

LIASSON: That's right. And according to a New York Times report, he attacked Dr. Fauci - said Dr. Fauci was - on a campaign call, he said, quote, "People are tired of hearing from Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong." At the Arizona rally, he said Fauci was a disaster. He attacked Biden for, quote, "listening to Fauci." Biden said later in a statement, that's not an attack; that's a badge of honor.

INSKEEP: One other thing - there was an effort to get coronavirus relief before the election. Is there any chance left of that?

LIASSON: Well, it's unclear. Nancy Pelosi says if you can't get a deal by today, you're not going to get one passed before Election Day. And the two sides are still pretty far apart.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.