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Trail markers - DHS bulletin says Russia "amplifying criticisms" of mail voting to undermine trust in electoral process

DHS warns of Russia amplifying attacks on mail-in voting
DHS warns of Russia amplifying attacks on mai... 02:51

Russia is "amplifying criticisms" of voting by mail in order to undermine trust in the electoral process, according to a bulletin by the Department of Homeland Security obtained by CBS News intelligence and national security reporter Olivia Gazis. Analysts from the Department's intelligence arm conclude that Russian state media and proxies will likely "promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust in democratic institutions and election outcomes."

"We assess that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail and shifting voting processes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public trust in the electoral process," the bulletin by the agency's Office of Intelligence and Analysis says. "Decisions made by state election officials on expanding vote-by-mail and adjusting in-person voting to accommodate challenges posed by COVID-19 have become topics of public debate." The contents of the bulletin were first reported by ABC News.

The bulletin says that Russia would likely continue its campaign to undermine public trust in the electoral system, as it did during the 2016 and 2018 elections. It gives the example of Russian state media sowing discord during the Iowa caucuses in February by claiming the election was rigged. "In the Iowa Caucuses in February, Russian state media and proxy websites claimed that the contest was fixed in favor of establishment candidates and that technical difficulties with the caucusing mobile voting application led to ballot manipulation," the bulletin says. "These outlets continued this narrative into March 2020, claiming that the Democratic Party made a corrupt back-room deal to orchestrate the exit of establishment candidates to consolidate the vote behind former Vice President Biden in advance of the Super Tuesday primary elections."

An unprecedented number of Americans are expected to cast their vote by mail ahead of the November election, due to the coronavirus pandemic, reports CBS News digital politics reporter Grace Segers. The Office of Intelligence and Analysis has previously raised concerns about Russian interference in 2020. CBS News confirmed that DHS withheld publication of a July intelligence bulletin to law enforcement agencies warning that Russia might try to undermine Joe Biden's candidacy by denigrating his mental and physical health, citing "quality concerns" about the report's sourcing. The bulletin raised the possibility that "Russian malign influence actors" would promote allegations about candidates' health "to influence the outcome of the 2020 election."

President Trump has repeatedly attacked voting by mail, promoting baseless claims that mail-in voting would lead to greater cases of voter fraud. In June, Mr. Trump claimed on Twitter that "millions" of mail-in ballots would be printed by "foreign countries," leading to the "scandal of our times." U.S. officials said last week that there is "no information or intelligence" about any foreign actor attempting to compromise mail-in voting, contrary to Mr. Trump's claims.

Mr. Trump also tweeted on May 26 that "There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-in Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent." The tweet prompted Twitter to issue its first ever fact-check of the president. However, he has also urged supporters in Florida to vote by mail, and has himself requested his own mail-in ballot for Florida's primary election. In a separate assessment, issued last month, the U.S. intelligence community said Russia is actively seeking to "denigrate" Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and that actors linked to the Kremlin have tried to boost Mr. Trump's candidacy.

FROM THE CANDIDATES

BIDEN-HARRIS CAMPAIGN

Joe and Jill Biden met with the family of Jacob Blake on Thursday in Milwaukee. During this meeting, Biden said he spoke with Jacob over the phone and was impressed by his resilience, CBS News campaign reporter Bo Erickson reports. "[Jacob] talked about how nothing was going to defeat him, how whether he walked again or not he's not going to give up," Biden recounted later during a meeting with community leaders in Kenosha. "It was very obvious that Vice President Biden cared as he extended to Jacob Jr. a sense of humanity, treating him as a person worthy of consideration and prayer," Blake family attorney Ben Crump said in a statement.

After describing how his slate of plans addresses systemic inequalities in the country -- like establishing a White House national commission on policing -- Biden turned to politics. The Democratic nominee said, "there's a lot of folks that thought well the president has made great strides" with his recent "law and order" rhetoric. Whispering into the microphone, Biden responded, "He hasn't -- not at all."

For his part, Biden said he is "optimistic" about change. "I promise you -- win or lose -- I'm going to go down fighting -- I'm going to go down fighting for racial equality, equity across the board," Biden told the approximately 20 people gathered in socially-distant pews at Grace Lutheran Church. The Democratic nominee's campaign arranged for the Kenosha community leaders to explain to Biden how life has been since Blake, 29, was shot by police in the back on August 23. Responding to a local business owner whose building was looted, Biden quoted his "buddy John Lewis" and said, "protesting is protesting...but none of it justifies looting, burning or anything else." He added, "So regardless of how angry you are, if you loot or you burn, you should be held accountable as someone who has done anything else. Period. This just cannot be tolerated."

TRUMP-PENCE CAMPAIGN

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defende President Trump's comments encouraging supporters to vote twice, reports CBS News campaign reporter Nicole Sganga.

During a Wednesday campaign stop in North Carolina, President Trump suggested voters "test" the mail-in voting system by purposefully attempting to vote-by-mail and in-person -- an illegal act, considered a felony in several states.

"The president does not condone unlawful voting," McEnany said Thursday, adding that reporters are taking the president "out of context." But the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) issued a statement Thursday warning, "It is illegal to vote twice in an election." In fact, it's a Class I felony, the statement said, quoting North Carolina law, for "a voter 'with intent to commit a fraud to register or vote at more than one precinct or more than one time...in the same primary or election.'"

The statement also notes that soliciting a person to try to vote twice "is a violation of North Carolina law." North Carolina begins sending out mail in ballots tomorrow, making the Tar Heel state the first in the nation to begin sending and collecting ballots for the November election.

CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell notes that to date, the NCSBE has received an unprecedented 618,842 absentee ballot requests -- more than 16 times as many absentee ballot requests submitted at this time in 2016. Though the president won the state by 173,315 votes in 2016, a recent Fox News poll shows him trailing Democratic contender Joe Biden by four percentage points among likely voters in the state.

After making visits to North Carolina twice within two weeks, Mr. Trump heads to a different swing state, Thursday night: Pennsylvania. The visit to the Pittsburgh area comes on the heels of Biden's address there Monday, where he accused Mr. Trump of inciting violence in American cities. In 2016, Trump edged out Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by less than a percentage point.

Quinnipiac poll of likely Pennsylvania voters released Thursday shows Biden at 52% and Trump at 44%. President Trump is expected to carry his message of "law and order" to Pennsylvania voters. Mr. Trump directed the Office of Budget Management Wednesday night to explore cutting federal funding to cities where he says "weak mayors" are allowing "anarchists" to "harm people, burn buildings, and ruin lives and businesses."

The official memo sent by Mr. Trump to the OBM chief and Attorney General William Barr accuses Democratic state leaders and mayors in cities including Portland, Seattle, and New York of allowing "persistent and outrageous acts of violence and destruction." Mr. Trump has painted protesters demanding social justice and fair treatment of minorities by law enforcement as "thugs" and criminals, in keeping with his campaign message.

Vice President Pence campaigned in Raleigh a day after President Trump visited the state. With a group of police officers standing behind him in the scorching heat, the vice president accepted the endorsement of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, calling it a "great honor." During the less than 20-minute speech, Pence reiterated the administration's message of law and order, reports CBS News campaign reporter Musadiq Bidar.

He said too many Americans have died defending the country's freedom for the president to allow Americans "to strike each other." Pence added that law and order will be restored in all cities for every American of every race, color, and creed. He also criticized Biden, saying he finally "got out of his basement this week and went to Pennsylvania," and added that the Democratic nominee failed to mention the "anarchists" in the streets.

Under President Trump, riots and looting have accompanied some of the protests for social justice across America in recent months but Pence claimed it will be Biden who will "double down" on polices that have led to violence. He also repeated that Americans "won't be safe in Joe Biden's America." In recent months, several police unions, including the Arizona Police Association, the Milwaukee Police Association, and now the Southern States Benevolent Police Association have all endorsed President Trump.

Campaign spokesperson Gates McGavick said in a statement the endorsement "underscores our commitment to law-and-order and keeping our communities safe." According to Accountable.US, a nonpartisan national government watchdog group, police organizations have received nearly $16 million in small business relief funds after a $150,000 lobbying campaign by police organizations for support during the coronavirus pandemic. Accountable. The U.S. says the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents more than 60,000 law enforcement officers, took up to $2 million in PPP funds ahead of today's endorsement.

North Carolina Democratic Party communications director Austin Cook called today's visit from Pence "a distraction from the crushing reality" that North Carolinians are facing as a result of COVID-19. "Today's photo ops do nothing to support the families who have lost loved ones or are battling this disease right now," Cook added.

ISSUES THAT MATTER

UNEMPLOYMENT

The number of Americans applying for unemployment assistance edged up in the last week of August. About 833,400 people applied for first-time unemployment aid in the week ending August 29, the Labor Department said Thursday.

CBS News digital editor Irina Ivanova reports that's an increase of about 7,600 from the previous week, not accounting for seasonal adjustments. Another 759,000 applied for a special program for self-employed workers called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That figure rose 151,000 from the week before. A fuller picture of how the labor market is faring will come on Friday when the Labor Department releases hiring data for August.

"It's the third week in a row of rising initial unemployment claims (non-seasonally adjusted)," Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel said in a note. "Nearly six months into the pandemic, this is an alarming trend. While this data won't show up in tomorrow's jobs report, we will get a better picture of the overall economy then. As for what we know right now, things aren't looking rosy."

On a seasonally adjusted basis, initial unemployment claims fell by 130,000 from the week before, to about 881,000. However, the government this week changed how it calculates seasonal adjustments for unemployment figures, making the current numbers not directly comparable with their historic levels.

Overall, the figures show that layoffs are continuing nearly six months after the coronavirus first swept across the U.S. Employers in August announced 115,000 job cuts, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, with industries from transportation to local government promising more cuts in the fall. "[T]he pace of layoffs still remains very high, and it appears that the proportion of newly laid-off people quickly finding another job is falling," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note.

Economists have warned that a failure by lawmakers to deliver another major round of financial stimulus to workers and businesses could hinder the recovery and even plunge the U.S. into a second recession. "This latest report adds to a growing list of indicators pointing towards an overall plateau and a long road still ahead for the labor market," said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at career site Glassdoor.

NEWSMAKERS

MICHELLE OBAMA

After a searing speech during the Democratic National Convention, former First Lady Michelle Obama is trying to fire up people to vote. She headlined a "Registered and Ready" rally Thursday hosted by her non-partisan organization, When We All Vote.

"The consequences of sitting out this election could not be more serious," Obama said. "With so much confusion and misinformation out there. It's got to be on us to set the record straight." It marks one of the first appearances by the former first lady since her DNC speech last month, reports CBS News correspondent Nikole Killion.

"Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country," Obama stated on the opening night of the convention. "He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is." With 61 days until the election, organizers pegged the virtual rally as a call to action and encouraged eligible voters to register and create a plan to vote early in-person or by mail.

The group also promoted a week of action from September 20-27 to sign up voters, one of several events scheduled ahead of the election. Obama challenged volunteers to register as many people as possible and pointed to her convention speech as a reminder of how a "handful" of votes can make a difference in the outcome of an election. "The margin of victory or loss in elections is so small," Obama cautioned. "In the last election, in one of the swing states, I reminded people it was two votes per precinct, and I want you all to sit with that truth."

STATE-BY-STATE

ARIZONA

Republican Sen. Martha McSally was on board for part of the "Trump Women's Tour" this week in her home state of Arizona, the campaign's bus rallying groups of supporters throughout the battleground state with top state party officials Kelli Ward and Pam Kirby joining Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the president's campaign.

"This careless bus tour is just the latest move to show Arizonans that Trump and his campaign don't take the science, the experts, or this pandemic seriously," Quiana Dickenson, political director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a statement. Both McSally and the president's campaign have drawn a contrast with their rivals, hosting in-person events and voter outreach as Democrats have hewed to a mostly virtual campaign over coronavirus concerns, reports CBS News campaign reporter Alex Tin.

"The enthusiasm is there. The ground game is here. We're talking to voters. In a state like Nevada, our ability to have these conversations person-to-person is so important," Erin Perrine, a top spokesperson for the Trump campaign, told Fox News amid the bus's swing through neighboring Nevada last month.

FLORIDA

According to a local Jacksonville newspaper, the city could be on the hook for nearly $154,000 in convention-planning expenses for the Republican National Convention even though the event ultimately didn't take place in Jacksonville. The Florida Times-Union reported Wednesday evening that "more than half the cost stemmed from overtime pay for employees working to prepare for the convention, mainly by Jacksonville Sheriff's Office employees who were tasked with getting security preparations done in a tight time frame."

CBS News campaign reporter LaCrai Mitchell notes that in June the president announced he would accept his party's nomination in Jacksonville after disagreements ensued about how to host the event amid the coronavirus pandemic in Charlotte, North Carolina. But a month later, the president called off the Jacksonville portion of the convention citing a spike in coronavirus cases in Florida. According to the Florida-Times Union, the chief of staff for the Jacksonville mayor has previously stated that while the city spent staff time, no taxpayer dollars were spent on the convention and added that "any time a special event comes to Jacksonville," the city's emergency operations center and the sheriff's office work on preparing for it.

NEVADA

In Nevada, where the president first floated in a tele-rally his now-controversial suggestion that supporters attempt to vote both by mail and later in-person, the state Democrats are denouncing Bill Stepien, the president's campaign manager. CBS news campaign reporter Alex Tin says Stepien had suggested on Fox News that Democrats would be able to "find" more ballots among casino workers.

VOTING INTEGRITY

BALLOT BREAKDOWN

Thursday afternoon, Twitter placed a public notice on two of three of President Trump's tweets Thursday encouraging Americans to vote twice.

The first tweet, which falsely referred to "unsolicited and solicited ballots" was not marked by Twitter. CBS News campaign reporter Cara Korte notes, however, that no one in the country will receive an "unsolicited ballot." Registered voters who live in an automatic vote-by-mail (VBM) state will get a ballot because they are registered. Ballots are not sent out indiscriminately. In states where mail-in voting isn't automatic, registered voters must apply to receive a ballot at home.

Only registered voters who request to vote by mail will receive their solicited ballot. Mr. Trump followed with two tweets explaining his rationale behind telling supporters to vote twice, which Twitter said violated its Civic Integrity Policy. The president said voters should go to their polling place to see if their votes had been counted, and if they had not yet been counted, then they should vote in person.

Korte notes it's important to understand the difference between a ballot being processed and a ballot being counted, especially because, in many states, ballot counting does not begin until Election Day. Processing occurs on a designated day after the ballot is received: it is verified, taken out of its envelope, secured, and prepared to eventually be counted. If voters try to cast their ballot in person after sending in their ballots by mail, they will be stopped if their ballots have been processed.

Asking if your vote has been counted will most likely get you a "no" but that doesn't mean your vote won't count. Go here for more guidance on when a mailed ballot is processed and counted in your state.

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