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News Brief: Confirmation Hearings, Calif. Drop Boxes, School Enrollment

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Senate Judiciary Committee returns this morning for day two of Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

NOEL KING, HOST:

On the first day yesterday, we heard opening statements from members of the committee. Republicans made the case for Barrett's confirmation. Here's Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: There's nothing unconstitutional about this process. This is a vacancy that has occurred through a tragic loss of a great woman. And we're going to fill that vacancy with another great woman.

KING: Democrats, meanwhile, said their Republican colleagues are rushing this effort. And they tried to paint Barrett as a threat to the Affordable Care Act. Now, today, members will get their chance to ask her questions directly.

MARTIN: We've got NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales with us this morning. Hi, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what did each party, the members of the committee, Democrats and Republicans - what did they try to accomplish in the first day of hearings yesterday?

GRISALES: This was an opportunity for senators to frame her nomination. They did most of the talking, after all. Republicans painted Barrett as a worthy successor to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg but in the mold of Barrett's mentor, and that's the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Democrats underscored the rush to confirm Barrett in the midst of a pandemic. Remember, two of the GOP members tested positive for the illness this month. And one, Mike Lee of Utah, showed up yesterday, less than two weeks after his diagnosis. They also showcased what's at stake. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee who also sits on the committee, dialed in to participate. Let's take a listen.

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KAMALA HARRIS: By replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with someone who will undo her legacy, President Trump is attempting to roll back Americans' rights for decades to come.

GRISALES: So Democrats highlighted concerns that Barrett's nomination is being rushed, so she can be seated in time if there's a dispute tied to the presidential election and to rule on an Affordable Care Act case that will come before the court next month. So they shared worries that she could limit the ACA or abortion rights tied to the landmark case Roe v. Wade. Republicans, meanwhile, tried to portray Democrats as anti-Catholic, even though not one raised the religious belief issue.

MARTIN: Right. So yesterday, it was all about opening statements. And Barrett herself gave her statement. What'd we learn from that?

GRISALES: She said although she was nominated to succeed Ginsburg, no one could ever take her place. She said she closely followed Scalia's judicial philosophy. She clerked for him. Let's take a listen.

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AMY CONEY BARRETT: His judicial philosophy was straightforward. A judge must apply the law as it is written, not as she wishes it were. Sometimes, that approach meant reaching results that he did not like. But as he put it in one of his best-known opinions, that is what it means to say that we have a government of laws and not of men.

GRISALES: She also noted that the courts have a vital responsibility to enforce the rule of law but that policy decisions are better left to the legislative branch.

MARTIN: So today, the official questioning begins, right? And presumably, we're going to hear a lot of what we heard yesterday on the Affordable Care Act but in the form of questions to Judge Barrett?

GRISALES: Yes, members will question Barrett on her position on a lot of these key issues, such as health care and abortion rights. Each senator will get 30 minutes to question Barrett. So with 22 members, this could prove to be a much longer day. Republicans will use this to highlight her conservative judicial record, while Democrats will grill Barrett on conflicts of interests and how she'd rule on future cases, will press her again to recuse herself in some of these instances, such as the ACA or if there's a dispute with the election. But as she's done during private calls with Democrats, she'll likely decline to make such commitments or share how she might rule on these issues in the future.

MARTIN: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Gonzalez. Thanks, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thanks much.

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MARTIN: OK. Unauthorized ballot boxes have been placed in at least three different counties in California in recent days. Some are labeled official, making them look, well, official.

KING: The California Republican Party admitted to placing the boxes near churches, gas stations and gun stores. GOP spokesman Hector Barajas says the boxes are legitimate ways to collect ballots in California.

HECTOR BARAJAS: According to the California law as it relates to ballot harvesting, we haven't broken any laws. It allows for any individual group or organization to collect ballots on behalf of voters. And those individuals that collect the ballots don't have to be related to the voters.

KING: State officials disagree. They say these boxes are illegal.

MARTIN: We've got Scott Rodd with us. He's a reporter at our member station CapRadio in Sacramento. Hey, Scott. How's it going?

SCOTT RODD, BYLINE: Good. How are you?

MARTIN: Doing well. So let's just start off with understanding the scope of this. Where are these ballot boxes popping up, and how do you spot them besides the big thing that says official on them?

RODD: So they've appeared in Fresno, Los Angeles and Orange Counties. And it's unclear just how many there are. There are at least a dozen. And they've popped up at a number of establishments, including some of the ones you mentioned, as well as at some party offices, some GOP offices. And some appear to be these tall, green boxes with a small sign that claims that they're, quote, "official," but they don't really look like the authorized ones set out by the counties, which tend to be a bit bigger and a bit bulkier.

MARTIN: So why is this happening? I mean, we heard in that clip earlier a reference to ballot harvesting. I mean, how does the California Republican Party explain this?

RODD: So the party argues that this is a safe option, a safe alternative for casting a ballot, especially during the pandemic. And here's an explanation from spokesperson for the California Republican Party Hector Barajas.

BARAJAS: We've got these ballot boxes that are placed inside of businesses or different locations, including some of the churches. And with COVID-19, I would rather have individuals go to a place that they know, that they trust rather than having a complete stranger go to my house.

RODD: And there, Barajas appears to be referring to something called ballot harvesting. That's when someone collects a ballot with a voter's permission. And that's legal under California law. And the state GOP claims that, you know, these boxes are just another form of that ballot harvesting. However, there has been some backtracking. The Fresno County Republican Party told me that they're actually in the process of removing some of these boxes.

MARTIN: So, I mean, California's secretary of state and the attorney general sent a cease-and-desist order, apparently, to the Republican Party. What is the state's exact concern with these boxes?

RODD: You know, they're unequivocal. They say this isn't legal. They say it's not ballot harvesting because that has to be an individual to individual exchange in not just dropping a ballot into a random box. And here's Secretary of State Alex Padilla discussing other requirements that these drop boxes don't meet.

ALEX PADILLA: Strict guidelines on the design and installation of these drop boxes, strict guidelines in terms of how frequently ballots are retrieved from those boxes and returned to the county elections office and by whom. You have none of these security measures when you're dealing with unauthorized drop boxes.

RODD: You know, and moreover, Padilla says there are concerns that this could undermine confidence in the election. So they're demanding the immediate removal of the boxes and also demanding that the GOP turn over any ballots they've collected to county election officials by October 15. And the attorney general says that all legal options are on the table, including pursuing potential criminal violations.

MARTIN: Scott Rodd of CapRadio Radio in Sacramento, Calif. Scott, thank you.

RODD: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. October is the month when schools in many states hold their official count days. That's when they tally the number of students in every school. And that number determines the amount of money districts will receive.

KING: NPR has found that enrollment has dropped significantly in districts in 20 states this fall. Now, of course, that could mean serious consequences for students, but also for schools' budgets.

MARTIN: NPR's Anya Kamenetz is with us. Hey, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: You've been looking into this. What did you find?

KAMENETZ: So we should be cautious and say we don't have the evidence of a national trend. We're not going to get final numbers until the spring. But what we did was with the help of our member station reporters and our intern, Marco Trevino, we found across dozens of districts, large and small, rich and poor, significant drops, especially in kindergarten. There was a 16% average drop in kindergarten enrollment in these districts.

MARTIN: Why, Anya?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, I'm sure you're familiar with the idea. Many families and educators, by the way, seem to feel that online learning just isn't working so well, especially for younger children. Jessica Bakeman at WLRN talked to Chase Simmering, a mother in Miami. And she said her young daughters really struggled with all the screen time.

CHASE SIMMERING: They were zombies by the end of seven hours in front of the computer.

ISLA: Oh, yeah, that was really hard. It made my eyes hurt.

KAMENETZ: So that family is home schooling this year. I should also point out that in more than half of states, kindergarten that year is not compulsory. So that means parents don't even have to homeschool. They can choose to sit the year out and start next year, either in first grade or start slightly older in kindergarten.

MARTIN: So if parents are deciding to just take them out of the school districts and put them in a separate curriculum, homeschooling them, what's the impact of that on the districts themselves?

KAMENETZ: Well, on the districts, here's the irony. So affluent public schools depend much more on property taxes. And that revenue is not based on enrollment. So they have very little to worry about. The districts that serve more disadvantaged children are much more dependent on these state funds, which are pegged so tightly to the head count. So this means we're seeing a big threat and a lot of worries, I'll say, by district leaders in many large urban districts. And one of the places we're really seeing this is Florida, which has some of the largest school districts in the country and where enrollment has dropped across these districts by thousands of students. Jessica Bakeman reported that for fear of losing funds based on enrollment, Miami opened in person sooner than some people thought were safe. This is Perla Tabares Hantman. She's the chair of Miami-Dade School Board.

PERLA TABARES HANTMAN: I cannot even think that I would be able to support something that could cut funding for our schools, which we so desperately need. There would be no way that I could sleep well at night.

KAMENETZ: The state has promised to fund schools that open up based on their pre-COVID enrollment for now. But nobody really knows what's going to happen in the spring.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Anya Kamenetz from our education desk. Anya, thanks. We appreciate it.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.