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Political Wire logo Ricketts Hides Names of Infected Nursing Homes
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Trump Lies Again About Access to Tests
Senate GOP Breaks with Trump Over ‘Obamagate’
Infections Spike In Heartland Communities

Fauci Is Self-Quarantined...

The government's top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has begun a "modified quarantine" after coming in contact with a person who has tested positive for the coronavirus. He said he will largely work from home and wear a mask for 14 days. He also said that he may occasionally go to work at the National Institutes of Health when he is the only one there. In addition, he will be tested for the virus every day. So far his tests have all been negative (i.e., he doesn't seem to have the virus).

Fauci was expected to testify before a Senate committee this week. If he continues to test negative, he might show up in person. Of course, if he tests positive, he will have to testify by video. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has already approved this backup plan. And Alexander will chair the hearing remotely, since he also has come in contact with a staffer who tested positive.

Donald Trump hasn't commented on Fauci's quarantine but is no doubt relieved not to have him around press conferences gingerly trying to contradict him without the President's noticing. Without Fauci around, Trump may be tempted to say more and more things meant to please his base but that have no basis in fact. It has been widely rumored that Trump wants to be rid of Fauci, but hasn't dared dump him yet. Having him disappear for 2 weeks would give Trump time to see what happens without the good doctor in the way to mess up his plans. (V)

...And Mike Pence Isn't

People in close proximity to Donald Trump (his valet) and Vice President Mike Pence (one of his top aides) have just tested positive for COVID-19. Most people, under these circumstances, would immediately become extra-cautious, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has (see above), both for their own protection and for the good of the people around them. Donald Trump is not most people, however. He believes he can bend reality to his will. He has also decided that any visible concession to the reality of the pandemic is politically unacceptable (fortunately for him, his daily COVID-19 tests are not visible). So, he is proceeding as if there is nothing to be concerned about here. Hence the lack of a mask in any context (including during last week's factory tour), not to mention zero change in behavior after his valet tested positive.

This puts Mike Pence in a challenging position. The Veep is many things, but he's not delusional. He's also not too thrilled to gamble with his health and that of his family. On the other hand, he's got political aspirations that go well beyond his current post, as he is clearly eyeing the 2024 Republican nomination. And just as COVID-19 will likely be decisive in terms of Trump's 2020 fortunes, it will also be so for Pence's 2024 fortunes.

Early on, Pence was put "in charge" of the coronavirus task force. How much authority he actually has is open to interpretation, especially in a White House that also contains Jared Kushner, but the Veep is certainly the public face of the administration's response. There are two metrics on which he will be judged, here: How many people die from COVID-19 and how many people lose their jobs on account of it. Both are negative metrics and hard to brag about. Possible campaign slogan in 2024: "Under my supervision, only 150,000 people died of COVID-19!" Maybe not so good. How about: "Under my supervision, only 15 million jobs were lost in 2020!" Maybe also not so good. Still, if Pence's public image is of a competent manager who did what he had to do and did it well, it could boost him.

When someone in close orbit to Pence tested positive for the virus, it threw an additional wrench into the works. Pence could do the responsible thing, like Fauci, and self-quarantine for a couple of weeks. The problems with this approach are: (1) it would run entirely contrary to Trump's PR strategy, infuriating the Donald and possibly making him think about dropping Pence from the ticket, and (2) it would temporarily (or permanently) yield Pence's high-profile place in the spotlight.

The alternative currently available to Pence is to adopt Trump's "all is well" philosophy, and to pretend that COVID-19 is not a danger and does not require things like masks and self-isolation. The problems with this approach are: (1) it's risky, and (2) if Pence's public image is that of a flunky who just did Trump's dirty work and was largely overridden by Trump's 39-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that doesn't scream: "President!"

In short, Pence has to manage the crisis, manage Trump, and manage his 2024 campaign, all at once. It's a tall order. And faced with something of a lose-lose proposition at the moment, the Vice President has carefully thought it over and decided that...proper brown nosing takes precedence over all else. And so, his office said on Sunday that he will be at the White House, as usual, on Monday (with no mask, and obviously no quarantine).

What Pence and Trump don't seem to realize (or don't care about) is that they are not just playing Russian roulette with their own health and the health of those around them, they are gambling with the health of the U.S. government. As we noted in this weekend's Q&A, the nation can survive with a president who is just twiddling his thumbs. However, what if the entire White House (or most of it) is incapacitated at the same time? That is a real problem.

Perhaps more importantly, it is not good for the country when it's not clear exactly who is in charge. Recall, for example, what happened when Ronald Reagan was shot while VP George H. W. Bush was away from the White House. In contrast, recall the occasions where George W. Bush had to go under anesthesia, and so made very clear that a temporary transfer of power to Dick Cheney was taking place. Both of these situations are speaking to the same thing: That if there is just an hour, or even just a few minutes, where executive authority is ambiguous, it's dangerous, because it's an engraved invitation to the bad guys (Iran? North Korea? China? Russia?) to take advantage.

By putting themselves in the same location, and in the same risky circumstances, Trump and Pence are utterly flouting the sorts of precautions that are generally taken to prevent such risks (e.g., the general policy that the president and vice president should fly on different planes whenever practicable). Further, they are at risk of creating the grayest area, authority-wise, that one can possibly imagine. Trump has already made a habit of lying about his health, and about COVID-19. Let us imagine he was taken seriously ill, as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was. Do you think the President would admit to this, given his current PR goals, not to mention his distrust of...well, everyone not named Trump or Kushner? And what if both Trump and Pence were taken seriously ill? Is it even remotely possible that they would allow power to devolve upon Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), as federal law prescribes? Not bloody likely.

If you are into unlikely scenarios, consider this one. Trump gets COVID-19 and dies. Pence is sworn in as president. His first act is to nominate a new veep. However, the 25th Amendment states that both chambers of Congress must approve the nominee. Pelosi announces that she won't bring the nomination up for a vote until after the Senate has passed and Pence has signed a couple of her favorite bills. Pence refuses to play ball. Then suppose he gets sick ...

We certainly hope that this scenario does not come to pass. Maybe Trump and Pence are unusually resistant to disease, and won't get COVID-19 no matter how much they are exposed. Or maybe they are being much more careful behind closed doors than they are in public. However, it is not hard to see a situation in which the United States spends days, weeks, or even months with fuzziness at the top of the chain of command. It's possible the public might be kept in the dark while this is happening, but there's no way the bad guys don't figure it out. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson had a massive stroke and his wife, Edith Wilson, secretly ran the country for over a year. But something like that would be impossible to pull off now. (V & Z)

The Worst Is Yet to Come

Most of the red states in the South, the Great Plains, and the Interior West are partially open for business, usually with some restrictions. Blue states on the West Coast, the Upper Midwest, and the Northeast are still largely closed. Time will tell whether opening up before COVID-19 has been beaten down was a wise move.

But few people are even aware of the long-term damage the pandemic has already done and what the consequences will be. A bleak article in the Washington Post gives a hint of what we have to "look forward" to:

  1. The bailout will barely help: The $349 billion appropriated for small businesses ran out in a couple of days, so Congress threw in another $320 billion to keep businesses alive until June. When June arrives, many of them will stop paying their workers unless Congress antes up more money. But it can't do this forever. The reality is that many small businesses will fail and those jobs will be gone forever.

  2. Colleges and universities are in deep trouble: Schools all over the country are closed, meaning they are forfeiting room and board fees, losing income from sports, and not taking in any money from elective surgeries at their teaching hospitals. Some, possibly many, will have to rethink their fall semester. Will students be willing to pay steep tuition fees to stay at home and watch a class on their computer? Probably many will take a year off and try to find work. The University of Michigan needs a $1 billion bailout to keep afloat. But even smaller schools will take a huge hit. The Vermont State College System may require a $25 million bailout, which is almost equal to its annual funding of $30 million. Nationwide, colleges and universities might need an estimated $200 billion bailout. That's not going to happen, with disastrous consequences for the country's higher-education system.

  3. States and cities are going broke: States and cities are facing a double whammy. Costs are skyrocketing, due to unemployment claims, the need to boost hospital capacity, and the cost of buying protective equipment. New York City alone says it will need $7 billion in federal aid, Colorado needs $3 billion, even oil-rich Alaska needs $1 billion. States and cities cannot print money as the federal government can, so they will have to raise taxes, cut services, or both. Donald Trump might be willing to send some money to the red states if their governors kiss his rear end, but Texas has a Texas-sized problem and as states in the South reopen, their death rates and medical costs will shoot up.

  4. Social distancing will take an economic toll: No one expects social distancing to go away for months. Imagine that all restaurants and bars open today at 50% of capacity. Can they survive like that? Not likely, given their usual thin margins. And even with reduced capacity, they may struggle to fill seats, given that many customers have no money and/or are scared of getting COVID-19. In the best case scenario, the industry will need only 50% of its cooks, waiters, hostesses, sommeliers, buschildren, and other personnel. Restaurants employ 15 million people, so the best case is that only 7.5 million jobs are lost, probably for many months. In the worst-case scenario, the restaurants collapse and go under, as the 90-location, mostly-West-coast chain Souplantation did this weekend. Pretty much the same holds for airlines, and to a lesser extent for hotels. And did we mention half-full movie theaters, concert halls, and sports stadiums? Basically, running the economy at 50% of capacity means half the jobs are gone.

And we didn't mention problems caused by changes in the distribution of goods, services, and work. At the start of the crisis, people hoarded toilet paper. Most did so because...everyone else was doing it, but there was actually a real underlying problem. The companies that make toilet paper have two sales channels. There are the soft four-ply rolls that come in packages of four or six sold to consumers. Then there are the more abrasive products sold in huge packages in the commercial channel to hotels, restaurants, office buildings, airports, schools, universities, prisons, the military, etc. When the latter market vanished overnight, the companies couldn't change production and distribution on a dime, so there really was a shortage. We are now seeing disruptions in other sectors, with farmers letting crops rot or plowing them under and dumping milk because the processing plants that they sell to are closed. And this food is being wasted while one in five children in America don't get enough to eat. Part of the problem is similar to the toilet-paper one: Some farmers sell their products to processors that supply products in bulk to restaurants that can't easily change to meeting supermarkets' requirements or use their distribution channels.

And none of this takes into account ripple effects. Fewer airline passengers means fewer flights which means fewer jobs for aircraft mechanics, aircraft parts vendors, aircraft inspectors, airline caterers, and airport shop workers, to name just one industry. Nor does it take into account the accelerating shift to teleworking and e-commerce. Finally, some experts are predicting the coronavirus will make a big comeback in the fall and winter, when flu season starts.

The political consequences of this are enormous. If the country is in deep doodoo in November, the $64,000 question is "Who will the voters blame?" If they blame the President, then Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) won't be the only Republicans who lose their jobs. Trump doesn't have any idea of what's in store for the economy, but he does understand that a bad economy means his demise. So he is going to try to do things. First, he will continue to look for a scapegoat. China is candidate #1, but it could be a tough sell as Americans tend not to blame foreign countries for things unless they do blatant stuff like bombing a Naval base in Hawaii and badly damaging half a dozen or so ships. Second, he will try to find a distraction. Maybe with the economy burning down, the best topic for a national discussion is whether or not Joe Biden behaved badly with a woman in a Senate hallway 30 years ago. Think back: If someone asked you 5 years ago if somebody's e-mail server would be the biggest issue of the 2016 campaign, would you have believed it? It worked last time, but the economy was booming then. When millions of people have lost their jobs, health insurance, and houses, it might not work as well this time, but it is worth a shot. (V)

Job Losses Have Been the Worst in the South

The economy is surely going to be a major issue in November, maybe #1 or at worst #2 after health care. For most people, their job (or lack thereof) is more relevant than macroeconomic statistics about quarter-to-quarter changes in GDP. All states have been hit, but the 33 million jobs that have been lost in March and April are not uniformly distributed over the country, as this map from Yahoo! Finance shows:

Map of unemployment by state

As you can see, the South is by far the worst-hit region and for the most part, red states have been hit very hard, although as the epicenter of COVID-19, New York took a substantial hit as well as did Michigan. In Georgia, unemployment claims have gone up by 50x, in Florida and Alabama, by 40x. Some of these jobs may come back before the election, but the reasoning given in the story above suggests that millions of people will still be unemployed come Election Day. In Michigan, voters could blame the Democratic governor, but so far her popularity has been holding up. In Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, whether people blame the Republican governor or the Republican president may not matter that much. The GOP could be in the hot seat.

On the other hand, a different way of looking at the unemployment situation, rather than geography, is demographics. That is, which people have been hit the hardest, regardless of which state they live in. So far, the biggest hits have been to low-wage service workers, such as restaurant and hospitality workers. These jobs are predominantly filled by women, minorities and young people—in other words, Democrats. Blue-collar workers in manufacturing (i.e., Republicans) haven't been hit so hard yet. But that can cut both ways. Who will be more motivated to vote in November: People who lost their job or people who narrowly escaped? And, of course, a lot can change between now and November. (V)

Supreme Court to Hear a Case Tomorrow about Whether the President is Like a King

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hold a hearing that could decide whether the president is above the law or not. The key question is whether the Manhattan DA can investigate whether the president may have broken the law. Donald Trump's lawyers are maintaining that not only can a sitting president not be indicted, but he can't even be investigated to see if there is evidence that he committed a crime. In their view, if the president shot someone on Fifth Avenue on national television, he could not even be investigated for it until after he left office. In their view, the only remedy to rein in a rogue president is for the House to impeach him and the Senate to convict him. But since we now know that if the president's party controls at least 34 seats in Senate, that is not going to happen. And in that circumstance, a Supreme Court decision ruling that the president can't be investigated de facto means that he is like a medieval king and not bound by the law at all.

We will know what the Court decides in June, but the argument that the president is above the law is a weak one based on previous High Court decisions. For one, in United States v. Nixon, the Court ruled 8-0 that a president must turn over evidence (audio tapes, in that case) to a prosecutor investigating him. Tomorrow, the issue is whether an accounting firm must turn over evidence (tax returns in this case) to a prosecutor investigating him. On its face, the underlying legal question is the same: Can a prosecutor get evidence that the president wants to hide?

In another 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court said that the president had to obey a subpoena in a civil case (the Paula Jones case). In the current case, the legal issue is whether the President's accountants have to obey subpoenas from a prosecutor and from Congress. Generally speaking, giving a private party (like Paula Jones) the right to subpoena the president would seem less imperative than giving a prosecutor or Congress the power to issue enforceable subpoenas.

Another factor here is that one of the subpoenas came from a state, to which the 10th Amendment to the Constitution delegates all powers not granted to the federal government. It would seem that a state investigating whether state tax laws were violated would fall under that, but we won't know until the Court makes a ruling.

One argument often made in the president's favor is that a Justice Dept. policy states that a sitting president can't be indicted. But that is just a policy. It is not based on any law. Any future attorney general could change that by simply stating that it was no longer a Justice Dept. policy.

In a 2009 Minnesota Law Review article, then-D.C. Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote that Congress should pass a law immunizing the president from criminal investigation. Congress has declined to do so. Implicit in the argument that Congress needs to protect the president by passing a specific law to do so is that the Constitution itself does not immunize the president. If it did, why would Congress need to pass a law to do so? We expect the lawyers arguing for enforcement of the subpoenas might just bring up this article to see if any of the Justices read it.

In short, the entire concept that everyone is subject to the law, even the president, is on trial tomorrow. And it will be rather hard for the five conservative justices to rule in Trump's favor, as that would loudly proclaim that they are just hatchet men for the Republican Party. (V)

California Will Mail Every Registered Voter a General-Election Ballot

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) has issued an executive order requiring election offices to mail a general-election ballot to every registered voter this fall. The envelopes for returning the ballots will be postage-paid, so voters will not have to spend any money on stamps, something important to many voters who have recently lost their jobs. This scheme is not the same as an all-mail-in election, as in neighboring Oregon. Polls will be open before and on Election Day and people are free to vote in person if they prefer. It is also different from many states in which voters can get absentee ballots, but have to request them. In a statement, Newsom said that he didn't want California voters to risk getting COVID-19 in order to exercise their right to vote.

So far, California is the only state to adopt this new hybrid scheme. However, California is often the leader in many things, so other states may follow. The most likely ones are states that have a Democratic trifecta. In states where the governor is a Democrat but the Republicans control the state legislature, such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, any move by the governor to send every registered voter a ballot would almost certainly result in the legislature's passing a bill forbidding this. The governor would then veto the bill. Depending on how big the GOP majority was, the legislature could override the veto. Failing that, they would ask the courts to declare that the governor had no power to order absentee ballots sent to everyone. In the states with a Democratic trifecta, the legislature would more likely pass a resolution approving the governor's actions, thus forestalling a court case.

Alternatively, the legislature could simply pass a law ordering the secretary of state to send every registered voter a ballot. Then there would be no conceivable court case since states have a fair amount of latitude in running elections. The states where the Democrats hold trifectas and could pass such a law are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Virginia. The Democrats also hold trifectas in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington, but they all already have mail-in only elections.

Not surprisingly, given what he has already said about absentee voting in general, Donald Trump was not pleased, and sent out this tweet:

One thing to note: "They are trying to steal another election." He didn't explain where theft #1 was. Was 2016 a stolen election? If so, shouldn't it be invalidated, no matter who the thief was?

Not that it will discourage other states where the Democrats have the ability to send every registered voter a ballot. It will be interesting to see if other states follow California's lead. If most of the blue states go for mail-in and Utah is the only red state doing that, this could result in a large popular-vote victory for Joe Biden, even though it wouldn't change the electoral-vote score at all.

Despite what Newsom announced, mailing everyone an absentee ballot is not a done deal. California is expected to have a budget gap of $54 billion this year. It must be filled somehow, since states cannot print money. Newsom has pleaded for federal aid. Trump may not have put 1 + 1 together yet, but it is possible he could agree to that and then ask Newsom for a "favor." He asks foreign leaders for favors all the time, so why not the governor of a state bigger than most countries? It looks like Newsom is stuck and Trump has all the leverage here. All Newsom can do is ask his friends for help. Fortunately for him, he is friends with a nice Italian grandmother named Nancy Pelosi who lives in D.C. and knows Trump. Maybe she can help California (and other states). We'll see. (V)

Two Democrats Can Cancel the Republican National Convention

Donald Trump desperately wants the Republican National Convention in Charlotte to go on as scheduled so he can deliver a rousing speech to thousands of cheering supporters. It is very unlikely that he will cancel the convention, no matter how much coronavirus is in the air. Having every Republican senator, representative, and governor be exposed to a deadly virus is a small price to pay for his being applauded dozens of times by his devoted fans. So the show must go on, right?

Well, no. It's not really his call. Two other folks get to make the final call: Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles (D). Both of them know very well that an estimated 50,000 politicians, delegates, alternates, celebrities, TV anchors, reporters, pundits, bloggers, camera and sound crews, lobbyists, volunteers, and prostitutes will descend on Charlotte in August. And they will not all stay 6 feet from all the others. If the coronavirus is rampant then, it could spread like wildfire through the convention hall and from there to all the hotels and restaurants they use.

The mayor and the governor have to decide what to do. To make it more complicated, the convention is expected to bring in $200 million in revenue, something the state badly needs. And worse yet: Cooper is up for reelection. He is relatively popular and is a slight favorite to get a second term, but the wrong decision on the convention could have him join the ranks of the unemployed. Canceling the convention (and receiving 500 exceedingly angry tweets from Trump) won't help his reelection prospects. However, neither will allowing the show to go on and then having 10,000 Charlotte residents die in September and October. So far, GOP officials haven't talked much to Cooper. Instead, day-to-day discussions have been with Lyles, who is not up until 2021. But in the end, it will mostly be Cooper's call, for better or worse.

If the virus is still running rampant in August, a possible compromise is to hold the convention but allow only the 2,472 voting delegates and one pool camera crew in the hall, plus whoever is speaking at the moment. Everybody else would have to watch on TV. Trump wouldn't like it, but it might be better than nothing at all. (V)

Republicans Might Win a Special Election in California Tomorrow

When Katie Hill resigned from Congress after RedState published a story about her affairs with both male and female staffers (along with nude photos of her—possibly taken by her former husband), a special election was scheduled to fill her CA-25 seat, which is north of Los Angeles. The runoff election in the district, which has a PVI of Even, is tomorrow. California has a jungle primary system in which the top two finishers meet in the runoff, regardless of party. The primary was on March 3, 2020, and in this case, the top two happened to be a Democrat, Assemblywoman Christy Smith, and a Republican, businessman Mike Garcia. They are the only ones on the ballot tomorrow.

CA-25 is older and whiter than California as a whole, and Republicans are smelling victory already, in part because turnout is expected to be low on account of the pandemic, which could help Garcia. As of last Friday, 118,000 absentee ballots have been returned, with 44% from registered Republicans and 36% from Democrats. Absentee ballots postmarked before or on Election Day and received by Friday will be counted. The age breakdown so far also favors Garcia, with only 15% from voters under 35 and 49% from seniors. Privately, Democrats are pessimistic about holding the seat now, which Hill flipped from red to blue in 2018.

However, the winner only gets to serve out the remainder of Hill's term. In November, there will be an election for a full term, of course. Both Smith and Garcia will run in November, no matter who wins this week. Democrats expect that with a much larger turnout in November, Smith could win then, even if she loses now, in part because currently there are 30,000 more registered Democrats in the district than Republicans. Also, the November election will probably be mostly about Donald Trump, and Democrats who show up to vote against him then will probably largely vote for Smith. In any event, no matter who wins now, the campaign will just go on. (V)

Trump's Move to Florida May Not Be So Easy

Suppose you want to move from New York to Florida. You call a real estate broker to sell your house (if you have one) and a moving company and it's "Sunshine State, here I come!" Thousands of New Yorkers do it every year. Now Donald Trump is planning to do it, too, having announced that he is moving from Trump Tower in Manhattan to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, FL. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. Trump wants to build a dock on his Mar-a-Lago property so that he will have water access to the Lake Worth Lagoon, which borders his property, and from there to the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs up to New Jersey and down to Brownsville, TX. He didn't specify whether Mexico would pay for it, though.

Map showing Mar-a-Lago

This plan irked many of his wealthy neighbors, and spurred them, together with local preservationists, people concerned about the nearby bird sanctuary, and some lawyers, to dig through town documents. What they discovered is a document he signed years ago that stipulated that Mar-a-Lago would no longer be a single-family residence, but a private club owned by a corporation he controls. That document reduced his property taxes.

At the time, Trump assured local officials that while he might visit the club from time to time, he would not live there. Now he wants to live there. One of the lawyers involved, Reginald Stambaugh, said: "It's one or the other—it's a club or it's your home. You can't have it both ways." If Stambaugh gets his way with the town council, Trump will be forced to make a choice: Operate Mar-a-Lago as a (lucrative) club that charges a $200,000 membership fee plus annual dues, or live there. He won't be able to have both.

The property was built in the 1920s by cereal-fortune heiress Marjorie Meriweather Post and her husband, E.F. Hutton. When she died, she left it to the U.S. government to be used as a winter retreat, sort of like Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains. After a few years, the government decided it was too expensive to maintain and gave it back to Post's foundation, which sold it to Trump. He thought it might be nice to carve up into pieces, build McMansions on them, and sell them. The town council vetoed the plan. Trump sued it. Meanwhile, Trump came up with another plan: He'd build a private club for rich people there instead of selling off the property in chunks. The town asked if he would live there. He said "no." The plan he submitted also said that no guest could use it for more than 3 weeks per year with no more than 7 consecutive days for any one stay. The agreement also forbids a dock. In 1996, he decided he didn't like the restrictions he had agreed to and sued the town. He lost and the agreement is still in force.

One more small detail. If the town decides that Trump does not live at 1100 S. Ocean Blvd but he successfully registers to vote there and casts an absentee ballot, that would be voter fraud. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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