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Negotiators report progress in COVID-19 aid talks

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers participating in rare weekend talks on a huge coronavirus relief measure reported progress on Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore a newly expired $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

“This was the longest meeting we had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “We’re not close yet, but it was a productive discussion — now each side knows where they’re at.”

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The Democratic duo is eager for an expansive agreement, as are President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps one half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

Prior talks yielded little progress. The administration is willing to extend the $600 jobless benefit, at least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands like aid for state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to renters and homeowners.

Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for voting by mail after the negotiating session was over. She and Schumer appeared more upbeat than they have after earlier meetings.

“We have to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, safely open our schools, and to do so in a way that does not give a cut in benefits to American workers,” Pelosi said. She pressed her case for additional food aid and funding to facilitate voting by mail this fall as the pandemic rages on.

Mnuchin said restoring the $600 supplemental jobless benefit is critically important to Trump.

“We’re still a long ways apart and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent because it is not,” Meadows said afterward. “There are still substantial differences, but we did make good progress.

The additional jobless benefit officially lapsed on Friday, and Democrats have made clear that they will not extend it without securing other relief priorities. Whatever unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be made retroactive — but antiquated state systems are likely to take weeks to restore the benefits.

Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 benefit, saying it must be slashed so that people don’t make more in unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But their resolve weakened as the benefit expired, and Trump abruptly undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 for now.

Meanwhile, Mexico now has the third most COVID-19 deaths in the world, behind Brazil and the United States.

Mexican health officials on Friday reported 688 new deaths, pushing the country’s confirmed total to over 46,600. That put Mexico just ahead of the United Kingdom, which has more than 46,100, according to the tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Some countries are seeing hopeful signs: China reported a more than 50% drop in newly confirmed cases in a possible indication that its latest major outbreak in the northwestern region of Xinjiang may have run its course.

However, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, infections continue to surge. Hong Kong reported more than 100 new cases as of Saturday among the population of 7.5 million. Officials have reimposed dining restrictions and mask requirements.

Tokyo on Saturday saw its third straight day of record case numbers, the metropolitan government said. Nationwide, Japan’s daily count of cases totaled a record 1,579 people Friday, the health ministry said.

And Vietnam, a former success story, is struggling to control an outbreak spreading in its most famous beach resort. A third person died there of coronavirus complications, officials said Saturday, a day after it recorded its first-ever death as it wrestles with a renewed outbreak after 99 days with no local cases.

South Africa on Saturday surpassed 500,000 confirmed cases, representing more than 50% of all reported coronavirus infections in Africa’s 54 countries. Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths.

Back in the United States, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said Saturday he tested positive for the coronavirus days after he sat close to another member of the panel, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, who also tested positive.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement that he has the virus but, like Gohmert, has no symptoms. He is at least the 11th member of Congress known to have tested positive for the coronavirus.

It’s unclear where Grijalva, 72, caught the virus and whether it was from Gohmert, a Republican who has questioned the use of masks and often walked around the Capitol without one. Grijalva went into isolation after Gohmert tested positive on Wednesday, since the two had sat close to each other at a Natural Resources hearing the day before.

“While I cannot blame anyone directly for this, this week has shown that there are some members of Congress who fail to take this crisis seriously,” Grijalva said in the statement.

Remote community put up its own wireless tower

PHILADELPHIA — Big Valley is a living postcard of Pennsylvania. Jet-black buggies hug the shoulders of its long, straight roads and knobby-kneed foals prance in fields so green they look electrified. Most signs there urge motorists to repent and rejoice, or to buy fresh strawberries from the Amish children sitting in the shade.

But one Pennsylvania tradition also plagued residents who live in this sweeping landscape: slow, unreliable, and expensive internet service. The government couldn’t help. Private suppliers have long said improved speeds were too costly to provide for such a sparsely populated area. So a group of mostly retirees banded together and took a frontier approach to a modern problem. They built their own wireless network, using radio signals instead of expensive cable.

“We just wanted better internet service up our valley. It was pretty simple as that,” said Kevin Diven, a founding member of the Rural Broadband Cooperative.

The nonprofit RBC services anyone who can see the 120-foot, former HAM radio tower its founders bought and erected on a patch of land they lease from an Amish man at around 1,900 feet on Stone Mountain, on the border of Mifflin and Huntington counties, 180 miles from Philadelphia. Users pay an initial set-up fee of about $300, and monthly costs for the service are approximately $40 to $75, depending on the speeds you choose, ranging from 5 to 25 megabits per second.

The RBC has just under 40 paying customers.

“We love living out here,” said customer Helena Kotala, of Jackson Corner, Huntingdon County. “It’s just that the internet totally sucked.”

A Pennsylvania State University research project conducted in 2018 found that internet speeds in the state were dismal. Counties such as Sullivan and Wyoming in the northeast, along with vast areas in and near the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest, had the slowest speeds. Some were as dismal as 0 to 3 megabits per second, far below the FCC’s 25 mbps benchmark for “high speed.” A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that 39% of rural Americans, about 23 million people, had no access to 25 mbps. In Pennsylvania, the number of people without access to high-speed internet is 803,645, about 6% of the state’s total population.

The Philadelphia suburbs had the highest speeds.

The areas of Mifflin and Huntingdon counties that the RBC serves often had speeds less than 2 mbps, Diven said. He was served by Verizon and said he was frequently in touch with the company about improving speeds. Verizon representatives often attended local meetings about the issue. Comcast, he said, wanted $80,000 to lay high-speed internet for approximately eight miles.

“I tried the FCC and the PUC (Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission) and got nowhere,” said Diven, who had hoped they would intervene with the private providers.

The issue of slow internet speeds isn’t something that anyone rages on about, but it’s a consistent problem from coast to coast, made even more noticeable during the pandemic. In some parts of Pennsylvania, online learning was not possible for school districts. Kotala, 30, works as the mapping coordinator for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and has to download large files to her computer daily. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she left her office in State College and started working from home, where downloads screeched to a halt.

After one month of quarantine, she bought into the RBC and loves the service.

“I had already gotten rid of Netflix because watching any movie online was a nightmare,” she said. “I would have to sit there and wait for stuff to download or upload and just go do something for a while.”

The RBC’s members did all the work starting in 2017, saving money by divvying up talents and livelihoods. Approximately 25 people kicked in $60,000 for the project. Some worked in construction, others in engineering. One was a former genomics professor at Penn State, another retired from the U.S Army. Brandon Beck, the RBC’s president, was a professional musician in the Tampa Bay area, playing the French horn. They pooled their money to clear the land, buy the tower and equipment, and pour concrete for the bunker that houses the electronics, which includes two banks of batteries used to propel Nissan’s electric car, the Leaf.

“They were available,” Beck said of the batteries.

Power is supplied through solar panels, with a back-up wind generator.

The signal went live in 2019. Unlike traditional DSL or satellite-based wireless, the RBC taps into an existing fiber line it turns into a radio signal that bounces off a dish fastened to a three-pump gas station in Allensville. The signal races across Big Valley, then up the mountain past buzzards and ravens. The signal can be bounced off other dishes and relayed to other homes, much like a laser off mirrors. Each home has its own small dish to receive the wireless signal from the tower.

The signal can service a 15-mile-radius. Fixed wireless systems are “line of sight,” meaning users have to be able to see the tower from their residences in order to connect. Sometimes, trees block it.

“Leaves,” Beck said. “Leaves are the enemy.”

Tom Bracken, an RBC board member, said pines are the worst.

“If you’re going to try to shoot through pines,” Bracken said, “just hang it up and go home.”

Bracken, retired from the U.S. Army, said fixed wireless systems exist all over the world and rural communities can emulate what the RBC did.

“You have to tap into the skills of your community,” he said. “You never know who your neighbor is and what they can do.”

Foreign threats loom ahead of US presidential election

NEW YORK — As the Nov. 3 presidential vote nears, there are fresh signs that the nation’s electoral system is again under attack from foreign adversaries.

Intelligence officials confirmed in recent days that foreign actors are actively seeking to compromise the private communications of “U.S. political campaigns, candidates and other political targets” while working to compromise the nation’s election infrastructure. Foreign entities are also aggressively spreading disinformation intended to sow voter confusion heading into the fall.

There is no evidence that America’s enemies have yet succeeded in penetrating campaigns or state election systems, but Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign confirmed this week that it has faced multiple related threats. The former vice president’s team was reluctant to reveal specifics for fear of giving adversaries useful intelligence.

Because of such secrecy, at least in part, foreign interference largely remains an afterthought in the 2020 contest, even as Republicans and Democrats alike concede it poses a serious threat that could fundamentally reshape the election at any moment. Biden’s campaign is increasingly concerned that pro-Russian sources have already shared disinformation about Biden’s family with President Donald Trump’s campaign and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill designed to hurt the Democratic candidate in the days leading up to the election.

When asked directly, the Trump campaign refused to say whether it had accepted materials related to Biden from any foreign nationals. Trump was impeached last year after being caught pressuring Ukrainian leaders to produce damaging information about work Biden’s son did in the country, even though repeated allegations of corruption against the Bidens have been widely discredited.

A Biden spokesman said “absolutely not” when asked if the campaign had received any materials from foreign actors.

“Joe Biden has been demonstrating international leadership to protect the sovereignty of our democracy for years, whereas Donald Trump has actively encouraged attacks on our elections,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, a key Trump ally and chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, denied having accepted any damaging materials on Biden from foreign nationals after at least one Ukrainian national, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, told The Washington Post he had shared tapes and transcripts with Johnson’s committee and Trump ally Rudy Giuliani. House Democrats announced Friday they have subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for documents he turned over to Johnson’s panel.

“It does a disservice to our election security efforts when Democrats use the threat of Russian disinformation as a weapon to cast doubt on investigations they don’t like,” Johnson spokesperson Austin Altenburg said.

The 2020 campaigns and party committees have been receiving regular briefings from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, whose director, Bill Evanina, released a rare public statement last week confirming Russia’s continued work to meddle in the U.S. election.

Evanina said that Russia, as part of an effort to weaken the U.S. and its global standing, has been spreading disinformation to undermine confidence in American democracy and “to denigrate what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’ in America.”

The threat is not limited to Russia. China, a target of escalating condemnation across the Trump administration in recent weeks, has been looking for ways to affect American policy, counter criticism of Beijing and pressure political figures it views as opposed to Chinese interests, Evanina said, while Iran has been involved in circulating disinformation and anti-American content online.

Trump’s team reported no specific foreign threats against the president’s campaign, but campaign general counsel Matthew Morgan highlighted the Republican Party’s yearslong effort to install various voter ID requirements across the country — including photo verification, signature matching and witness requirements — as an important tool to block foreign interference.

“Contrary to their narrative, the Democrats’ efforts to tear these safeguards apart — as they sue in 18 states across the nation — would open our election system up to foreign interference,” Morgan said. “That’s why we’re fighting back — to protect the sanctity of our election system.”

Despite Morgan’s argument, there is no evidence of significant voter fraud in U.S. politics, whether by American voters or foreign nationals.

And there is no evidence, as Trump repeatedly charges, that an increased reliance on mail balloting this fall leaves the electoral system particularly vulnerable to outside meddling. The president pointed to those baseless claims this week to suggest delaying the election, something that can’t be done without support in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans alike rejected the notion.

There is ample evidence, however, that foreign powers are trying to sow confusion by spreading misinformation in addition to seeking to hack into political campaigns, as Evanina said last week.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, a Republican, described Trump’s warnings about mail voting “absurd” and “ridiculous.”

“He should be far more forceful and far more direct in condemning foreign interference,” Ridge said in an interview. “The enemy is not within.”

Trump can't postpone the election, but officials worry he and the GOP could starve it

WASHINGTON — The elections chief in the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, Michigan, a competitive softball player in her younger days, feels like she’s been pushed back into the batting cage. This time, nobody is giving Tina Barton a bat.

“It is like I am just standing there without anything to hit the balls back,” Barton said. “Every day I step in, and something new is coming at me at high speed.”

Poll workers quitting. A churn of court decisions throwing election rules into tumult. A COVID-19 outbreak at City Hall that could sideline her department at a critical moment.

The viral pandemic has put the nation’s election system under a level of stress with little precedent.

And, although figures in both parties rejected President Donald Trump’s suggestion of postponing the November election when he flirted with the idea Thursday, they haven’t provided the money that officials like Barton need to get ready for it.

The House months ago approved $3.6 billion to aid local and state elections officials in dealing with an expected flood of mail-in ballots this fall, something that threatens to overwhelm elections officials in states where voting by mail is a relative novelty. The money has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate — part of the larger stalemate over a new round of help for people and businesses devastated by the economic impact of the pandemic.

President Donald Trump on Thursday suggested delaying the November election as he continued to raise the false specter of widespread voting fraud.

“Elections officials need that money yesterday,” said Justin Levitt, an associate dean at Loyola Law School who worked on voting rights enforcement at the Justice Department during the Obama administration. Considering the trillions Congress is spending to shore up the economy and public institutions, it is bewildering that lawmakers are balking at the few billion needed to keep elections functional, he said.

Voting by mail works smoothly in states, mostly in the West, that have had years to hone their procedures. But in places that are now hurriedly trying to improvise, problems became clear during primary elections this spring and summer. Administrative dysfunction and fights over voting rules left tens of thousands — predominantly voters of color — disenfranchised as voting systems buckled under the strain.

“I fear we are bracing for disaster unless there is intervention by Congress and states are given the resources they need to get this right,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“We saw long lines in cities across the country in primaries. Those lines could be 10 times longer in some communities.”

In states where voting went awry during the primaries, Black communities tended to suffer the most.

In Wisconsin, for example, the overwhelmingly white city of Madison managed to open 66 polling sites. Milwaukee, more than twice the size and 40% Black, had just five sites open.

Although voter turnout was up overall in Wisconsin compared with previous primaries, the state failed to get mail-in ballots to many voters in time, and officials concede that the delays disenfranchised thousands.

The pandemic may be amplifying barriers to voting that lawmakers had put in place earlier. These barriers — which include requirements in some states that absentee ballots have witness signatures, that voters include a copy of their identification with their mail-in ballot, and that nobody but the voter may deliver their ballot to a polling place — tend to have a disproportionate impact on suppressing the Black vote.

“The primary demonstrated the tremendous damage to communities of color,” said Michael Zubrensky, chief counsel for government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Georgia, which has frequently had problems with its elections, once again had some of the nation’s worst failures during the primary season. Malfunctioning voting machines, lack of preparation for the surge of absentee ballots and closure of polling places all contributed to chaos in the state’s June 9 primary.

Some voters waited in line for seven hours. Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots were not delivered on time. In Georgia as in other states, the fact that Black and Latino communities have been especially hard hit by the virus made staffing polling stations in cities a much bigger challenge.

Meanwhile, Trump’s crusade against mail-in voting seems to be backfiring in some key places.

In Florida, Republicans long held an edge in absentee voting that has now vanished as the party’s voters heed the president’s advice not to trust voting by mail.

Enthusiasm for voting by mail is fast fading among Republicans in other states as well, according to Charles Stewart III, an election administration expert at MIT.

“I find Trump’s statements baffling,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine. “They may make it harder for his supporters to vote.”