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Newsletter: Essential Politics: Prepping for the final 79 days of the 2020 election

Joe Biden speaks at a rally in Flint, Mich., and Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Newtown, Penn. Saturday.
On Saturday, Democrat Joe Biden was in Flint, Mich., and President Trump was in Newtown, Pa.
(Andrew Harnik / Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

It may be a bitter pill to swallow for many Americans, desperate for an end to the most unsettled and distasteful political season of our lifetimes. But Tuesday, the final day to cast a vote in the 2020 election, will hardly be the end of the process.

So let’s just say it clearly: There are 79 days left before the next presidential term begins with the oath of office outside the U.S. Capitol. The best-case scenario is a much-needed period of reconciliation. The worst-case scenario is a season of heightened confrontation.

And no honest observer of politics believes we’ll really know which path we’re on until early next week. Or much longer.

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It’s not over until it’s really over

The public health demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have produced a nationwide shift toward absentee voting. It hasn’t been much of a culture shock in California — where roughly 60% or more of ballots have been cast remotely in elections over the past decade — and other parts of the western U.S., but it presents significant challenges in states that have continued to rely on in-person voting.

Nine states are widely believed to hold the keys to the election outcome: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The rules for returning and processing ballots vary widely — a reminder that there’s really not a national election.

The final 100 yards of the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been full of sharp elbows thrown in ways we’ve not seen before — the derision of a president by his predecessor and intimidation by the incumbent’s supporters that led to a confrontation on a Texas highway. Trump and Biden, along with their supporters, know that an almost certain post-election battle awaits in the courts.

One early showdown: The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday refused to consider a challenge by Republicans to a drive-through voting program in Democrat-heavy Harris County, though a federal court hearing on the issue is slated for Monday.

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One new snapshot of voters suggests trouble for Trump. The final USC Dornsife national survey shows that the GOP incumbent has lost ground among key groups that powered his drive to the presidency four years ago. Biden leads Trump 54% to 43% in the poll’s daily tracking, a margin that has remained almost unchanged in recent weeks.

But the poll also found less support for Trump among older voters and white voters who did not graduate from college, core constituencies from his 2016 victory.

Meanwhile, the president found a last-minute boost in Iowa. But as pollster J. Ann Selzer said, “Neither candidate hits 50%, so there’s still some play here.”

The Trump playbook is predictably unpredictable, best captured in the final days of campaigning by Times staff writer Eli Stokols: “The sensory overload can become disorienting, a vaudevillian alternative-reality show — Cognitive Dissonance, the Musical.”

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And there’s this sobering dispatch about the 2020 election from Houston bureau chief Molly Hennessey-Fiske: “Embattled [police] officers across the country are preparing to stand guard against armed groups and voter suppression while also aware their very presence could intimidate voters.”

National lightning round

— A rigorous attempt by Stanford researchers to gauge the health effects of Trump’s reelection rallies held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic concludes that they’ve led to more than 30,000 additional cases and at least 700 additional deaths.

— Georgia’s demographic and political landscape is shifting, and turnout has already broken records. But can Democrats actually win?

— Young voters have turned Duval County, Fla., into an unlikely battleground in a state crucial to the presidential election. Republicans have long counted on running up their vote tally in the state’s conservative north.

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— Young people nationwide, their lives disrupted, have spent the weeks before Nov. 3 making calls, sending texts and even hand-writing letters to influence voters in a potentially generation-defining election.

— Meet the Latino voters who are on a mission to persuade other Latinos to vote for Trump.

— Eager for President Trump’s help in scuttling a peace deal, right-wing leaders in Colombia go all-in on trying to get him reelected.

— In recent decades, Black churches have frequently held Souls to the Polls events on Sundays before election day, festive affairs often featuring rides or caravans of cars to polling places after Sunday services. The pandemic has changed that.

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— For three generations of men in a Nevada family, the presidential election is about their yearning for physical safety as Black men and their desire to live out their lives without the burden of bigotry.

— Politics and pandemic collide in Idaho: Masks? What masks?

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Made in California: rethinking the electoral college

For two Bay Area men, the election in their sights isn’t the one that ends Tuesday but the presidential contest in 2024 — when they hope to retool the operations of the electoral college by aligning its votes with those cast by Americans.

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Win the popular vote, their plan says, and you win the electoral college.

“Voters get it,” said Barry Fadem, the campaign attorney who runs the organization known as National Popular Vote. “They truly do understand that under the current system, their vote doesn’t count in a number of states.”

Fadem and John Koza, a retired computer scientist who crafted the presidential election plan, have spent 15 years encouraging states across the nation to enact laws guaranteeing their electoral college votes to the winner of the national vote. States representing 196 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency have signed on. The courts are destined to judge the proposal if more states sign on, and Fadem thinks his group will prevail.

One interesting note to their effort to watch this week: Colorado voters are weighing a statewide referendum on the decision of their lawmakers to adopt the electoral college compact.

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“We consider it the second most important election in the country this year,” Fadem said of Colorado’s Proposition 113.

The top 10 pricey Golden State ballot fights

For most of its existence, California’s system of direct democracy was little more than a biannual plebiscite to ensure that average voters had the power to get around the moneyed interests that dominate the political process in Sacramento.

The last three decades have turned that thinking upside down. It’s now powerful interest groups that control which measures make it onto the statewide ballot.

The Times’ data journalists have a tally of the 10 most expensive ballot fights in California history, measured from the advent of electronic campaign finance filings more than two decades ago.

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We already knew what would be No. 1: Proposition 22, this year’s battle by app-based companies to enact special employment rules for their drivers. Fueled by cash from the companies to the campaign in support of the proposition, it has shattered the record with more than $225 million in total contributions.

But it’s not the only high-priced proposition from this election. Four of the top 10 biggest money battles on this all-time list are now being weighed by voters.

Today’s essential California politics

— Stuck between his Bay Area tech industry allies and the labor unions that dominate Democratic politics, Gov. Gavin Newsom won’t endorse either side of the Proposition 22 fight, one that could reshape the app-based workforce.

— California’s Republican Party is fighting to hold onto the 25th Congressional District in the suburbs north of Los Angeles — an election that could hinge on Trump’s popularity.

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— In the 48th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda faces Michelle Steel, a Korean American Republican who is steeped in local politics and hopes for an advantage by courting the 20% of voters in the district who are Asian American.

— There is little doubt that Proposition 15 would provide additional funds for K-12 schools and local governments across California. The question for voters is how much money would be collected and whether a largely overlooked tax cut in the ballot measure might mean that some communities across the state end up losing money.

— The battle to lead the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is one of the most closely watched local races in the nation, seen by many as a referendum on criminal justice reform after a summer of protests against police brutality.

— Under fire for delays in paying unemployment benefits to more than 1 million Californians during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharon Hilliard is retiring as director of the state Employment Development Department.

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