Senate Intel Chair Sold Dutch Fertilizer Stock in 2018, Right Before a Collapse

7 Apr

by Robert Faturechi

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The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off almost $47,000 dollars worth of shares in a small Dutch fertilizer company in 2018, just weeks before its stock began a sharp 40% collapse.

Beginning on Sept. 5, 2018, Burr and his wife sold off their stake in the company, OCI, in three days when its shares were priced near their highest point in the last four years.

A month later, the company, which is not traded on a U.S. stock exchange, began to falter, completing its dramatic fall after news that the company failed to meet quarterly earnings expectations.

Investors may also have been disappointed by developments in the Trump administration’s trade policy that hurt OCI. The company had been positioned to benefit from the expected sanctions on Iranian oil and petrochemical imports. But in November 2018, the Trump administration waived some of those restrictions. The waivers undercut the company’s hopes.

John Olson, a retired Gibson Dunn partner who helped draft insider trading legislation and who has represented individuals before the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the trades appeared unusual and warranted further scrutiny.

“It’s certainly something that might prompt an investigation,” he said. “If I were at the SEC, it would raise a question in my mind.”

Olson said it’s “reckless” for members of Congress to trade in individual stocks because of the appearance it creates. Burr, he said, would need to explain how he came to invest in the company and whether any information he learned as a senator informed his decision to sell his stake.

“Just on the face of it, it’s unusual. How does he even know this Dutch company exists with all he has to do as chair of the Intelligence Committee and as a senior senator,” Olson said. “How does he have time to research obscure companies in Holland?”

Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, has come under fire recently for trading individual stocks at opportune moments. Last month, ProPublica reported that Burr unloaded a significant portion of his total portfolio — between $628,000 and $1.72 million of stock — a week before the market crash triggered by the coronavirus outbreak. The sales came soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the virus.

Federal authorities are now reportedly scrutinizing those trades, and the FBI has contacted him. Burr has denied allegations of insider trading, saying that he based his decisions solely on public information, including CNBC reports, and not on information he obtained as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee or as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Burr’s Senate office and a law firm advising him both declined to answer questions from ProPublica. A spokesman for OCI did not respond. In his role as chair of the intelligence committee and a member of the finance committee, Burr has oversight on some Iran matters and sanctions policy, but there is no evidence he knew in advance about the Trump administration’s sanction waivers.

How Burr came to first invest in OCI is unclear.

The company produces nitrogen fertilizers and industrial chemicals such as methanol and urea from plants in North Africa, the Middle East, Texas and Iowa. The company was founded by the Sawiris family, one of Egypt’s wealthiest, and they remain its largest shareholders.

OCI’s chief executive is Nassef Sawiris, a billionaire who owns a significant stake in the English soccer team Aston Villa. His brother, Naguib Sawiris, got involved in American presidential politics in 2012, when he donated $78,000 to a joint fundraising committee for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, which was deemed by the Federal Election Commission as a potentially illegal contribution from a foreign national. (Romney’s committee told the FEC that the potential foreign donors that regulators singled out, which included Sawiris, “are eligible donors and are not foreign nationals.”) Burr has not received any donations from the Sawiris, according to FEC disclosures.

According to his financial disclosure forms, Burr and his wife first invested in OCI in June 2014, bought again in August 2014 and invested once more in April 2016. They accumulated 1,400 shares, which had a peak value of about $47,670.

A month after Burr and his wife sold their stake in September 2018, shares began to fall dramatically. The dip continued in November 2018, when OCI failed to meet earnings projections. According to a Citibank analysis at the time, the company’s quarterly earnings were 6% below expectations and its fertilizer sales fell 10% below projections.

By selling when they did, the Burrs avoided a decline in share price that the company has yet to recover from. The stock traded at 29 euros a share on Sept. 5, near the high point for the last four years, and fell 42% by the end of that year. OCI’s stock is now selling at about a third of its value compared with when Burr first invested.

In November, the Trump administration announced it was exempting eight countries, including Turkey, from restrictions it was imposing on importers of Iranian oil and petrochemicals. Before that announcement, OCI analysts had speculated that the sanctions could be a boon for the company, as they would force Turkey and other countries to buy industrial chemicals from North Africa where OCI has plants, instead of Iran.

Sawiris encouraged that expectation in a May 2018 call with investors, saying, “Iran supplied a lot of product competing with North African product in Turkey. Should that situation change, that would boost demand for North African products going into Turkey.”

In an Aug. 31, 2018, earnings report filed by OCI, the company again pointed to the expectation that sanctions against Iranian imports could help OCI: “Exports from Iran, one of the largest urea exporters globally, are at risk of significant curtailments,” the report stated. “Sanctions on Iran by the United States will likely reduce Iranian exports of urea.”

In April 2019, Burr joined other senators in calling on the Trump administration to cease the temporary waivers on Iranian import sanctions, though at that point he no longer had a stake in OCI.

Doris Burke contributed reporting.


The Senator Who Dumped His Stocks Before the Coronavirus Crash Has Asked Ethics Officials for a “Complete Review”

20 Mar

by Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Sen. Richard Burr, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his stock trading, a day after ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that he had dumped significant amounts of shares before the market crash triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

Burr unloaded between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions, a significant portion of his total stock holdings. The sales came soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus.

On Twitter Friday morning, Burr defended the sell-off. “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13,” he said. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.” He asked for the ethics committee to “open a complete review of the matter with full transparency.”

The ethics committee can recommend disciplinary action against lawmakers and refer potentially criminal violations to law enforcement. But it has been criticized for being too lax. It is illegal for members of Congress to trade shares on non-public information they gather in the course of their work. But cases are rare because proving that a politician relied on such non-public information is difficult.

As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.

After the story published, Burr faced a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the aisle. Former Obama administration officials along with prominent Trump allies blasted Burr’s stock sales. Calls for his resignation came from both ends of the political spectrum, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior senator, said on Friday that a review by the ethics committee was warranted. “Given the circumstances, Senator Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation,” Tillis, a Republican, wrote.

Throughout the day Thursday, news outlets reported instances of other lawmakers who also sold off stock before the market tanked.

The Daily Beast reported that Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican who took office this year, sold off stocks jointly owned with her husband worth between $1.2 million and $3.1 million in the weeks after senators received a private briefing on the coronavirus from the Trump administration. Loeffler’s husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. In response, Loeffler posted on Twitter early on Friday morning that “this is a ridiculous and baseless attack. I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”

Other senators who sold off stocks this year include Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee. Reports with the Senate show that Inhofe sold shares worth between $380,000 and $830,000 both before and after the briefing, which Inhofe did not attend. “I do not have any involvement in my investment decisions,” Inhofe posted on Twitter on Friday. “In December 2018, shortly after becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I instructed my financial advisor to move me out of all stocks and into mutual funds to avoid any appearance of controversy.”

Reports of sales by other senators surfaced as well. But those sales were less anomalous or noteworthy. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, reported selling shares in a private firm he ran, Pacur LLC, worth between $5 million and $25 million. That transaction took place on March 2. The deal had apparently been in the works for some time and had been announced on Feb. 11.

In another case generating headlines, filings also show large sales reported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee alongside Burr. But they only involved one stock. Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, sold off shares in Allogene Therapeutics Inc. worth between $1.5 million and $6 million on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18. Blum is a frequent stock trader, according to Feinstein’s financial disclosures, and appears to have taken a loss on at least a portion of the shares he sold.

Asked about senators making stock trades at a press conference Friday, President Trump said “I’m not aware of it, I saw some names.”

He added, “I find them to all be very honorable people, that’s all I know and they said they did nothing wrong.” The only senator he addressed by name was Dianne Feinstein, and complained that reporters at the press conference were not noting her stock trades.

By the standards of the Senate, Burr is not particularly wealthy: Roll Call estimated his net worth at $1.7 million in 2018, indicating that the February sales significantly shaped his financial fortunes and spared him from some of the pain that many Americans are now facing.

He was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which shapes the nation’s response to public health threats like the coronavirus. Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about what sort of briefing materials, if any, on the coronavirus threat Burr may have seen as chair of the intelligence committee before his selling spree.

According to NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more gloomy preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus than what he had told the public, saying it might close schools and impede business travel. In response, Burr said the NPR report was misleading.

Burr’s public comments had been considerably more positive. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

Members of Congress are required by law to disclose their securities transactions.

Burr was one of just three senators who in 2012 opposed the bill that explicitly barred lawmakers and their staff from using nonpublic information for trades and required regular disclosure of those trades. In opposing the bill, Burr argued at the time that insider trading laws already applied to members of Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill, known as the STOCK Act, that year.

Stock transactions of lawmakers are reported in ranges. Burr’s Feb. 13 selling spree was his largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months, according to a ProPublica review of Senate records. Unlike his typical disclosure reports, which are a mix of sales and purchases, all of the transactions were sales.

His biggest sales included companies that are among the most vulnerable to an economic slowdown. He dumped up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain based in the United States that has lost two-thirds of its value. And he sold up to $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America, an economy hospitality chain. Shares of that company are now worth less than half of what they did at the time Burr sold.

The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, belong to his spouse or are jointly held.


Senator Dumped Up to $1.6 Million of Stock After Reassuring Public About Coronavirus Preparedness

19 Mar

by Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off a significant percentage of his stocks, unloading between $582,029 and $1.56 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 29 separate transactions.

As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.

On Thursday, Burr came under fire after NPR obtained a secret recording from Feb. 27, in which the lawmaker gave a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus than what he had told the public.

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” his spokesperson said. “As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”

Burr is not a particularly wealthy member of the Senate: Roll Call estimated his net worth at $1.7 million in 2018, indicating that the February sales significantly shaped his financial fortunes and spared him from some of the pain that many Americans are now facing.

He was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which shapes the nation’s response to public health threats like the coronavirus. Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about what sort of briefing materials, if any, on the coronavirus threat Burr may have seen as chair of the intelligence committee before his selling spree.

According to the NPR report, Burr told attendees of the luncheon held at the Capitol Hill Club: “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history … It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

He warned that companies might have to curtail their employees’ travel, that schools could close and that the military might be mobilized to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

The luncheon was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina that are charged up to $10,000 for membership and are promised “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector.”

Burr’s public comments had been considerably less dire. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

Members of Congress are required by law to disclose their securities transactions.

Burr was one of just three senators who in 2012 opposed the bill that explicitly barred lawmakers and their staff from using nonpublic information for trades and required regular disclosure of those trades. In opposing the bill, Burr argued at the time that insider trading laws already applied to members of Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill, known as the STOCK Act, that year.

Stock transactions of lawmakers are reported in ranges. Burr’s Feb. 13 selling spree was his largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months, according to a ProPublica review of Senate records. Unlike his typical disclosure reports, which are a mix of sales and purchases, all of the transactions were sales.

His biggest sales included companies that are among the most vulnerable to an economic slowdown. He dumped up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain based in the United States that has lost two-thirds of its value. And he sold up to $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America, an economy hospitality chain. Shares of that company are now worth less than half of what they did at the time Burr sold.

The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, belong to his spouse or are jointly held.

Do you have access to information about the coming corporate and economic bailouts that should be public? Email Robert at robert.faturechi@propublica.org or reach him on Signal/WhatsApp at 213-271-7217. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.


Elections May Have to Change During the Coronavirus Outbreak. Here’s How.

19 Mar

by Rachel Glickhouse

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

As the novel coronavirus spreads through the U.S. during presidential primaries, election and government officials are scrambling to figure out how to allow voters to cast their ballots safely ― or postpone primaries altogether. Managing in-person voting during an unprecedented pandemic has forced authorities to overcome new virus-related hurdles: providing sufficient cleaning supplies to polling places, moving polling places out of nursing homes and ensuring there are enough poll workers.

There’s also a huge open question: If the virus continues to infect large numbers of people, how can the general election take place safely this fall?

Just this week, Arizona, Florida and Illinois held primaries, and Ohio postponed its election at the last minute, causing widespread confusion. Several states with upcoming primaries, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland, also announced they would postpone their elections. Voting rights advocates have recommended states expand early voting and access to no-excuse absentee voting, among other measures. One advocacy group, Common Cause, called for a delay in in-person voting for “at least the next few weeks.”

Given the daunting logistical challenges of holding elections in the time of the coronavirus, we had a lot of questions for Rick Hasen, an election law expert and a law and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. He’s the author of several books on elections, including “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy,” published this year. This interview has been condensed for clarity.

So what happened during voting in four states this week?

Well, we only had voting in three of those four states [that were scheduled to vote] because in one state at the last minute, the governor and Ohio election officials essentially postponed the primary, despite a court saying that the primary should not be postponed. In other states where the voting actually took place, we saw a number of problems, including missing poll workers, last-minute people deputized as election judges, some unsanitary conditions at polling places and what will probably turn out to be a decline in in-person turnout at those elections.

How can states hold elections without being in violation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance of avoiding gatherings of more than 50 people?

Well, I’m not all that familiar with the CDC guidance, but I believe that the guidance relates to social activities. I’m not sure it relates to government activities. So a group of firefighters, for example, at a fire, there might be more people than the CDC recommends. [Editor’s note: Earlier this week, the CDC issued guidelines for large gatherings of more than 50 people, with separate guidance for workplace, first responders and polling places.] But I think a better question to ask is how can elections be conducted safely under these conditions where we need to practice social distancing? I think it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge because people queue up to vote on Election Day. People are handling the same machinery, the same surfaces. Those can’t be constantly cleaned between each voter. So it’s going to be difficult. I think this is why you’re seeing so many government officials trying to delay their primaries to a later point in time. And of course, increased use of absentee balloting can vastly increase the safety of voting at this point because you’re keeping people further away from each other, and allowing people to vote in the comfort of their own home.

What legal authority do states have to postpone elections like happened in Ohio?

So this is a state-by-state question if we’re talking about something besides the presidential election. The presidential election is set by federal statute, the date of the presidential election. So it could not be easily postponed. And there are provisions of the Constitution for what happens if the election cannot take place. The question of whether or not a state can postpone a primary is a function of what the state constitutions and state statutes say. One of the points I make in my book, “Election Meltdown,” which was written before this coronavirus crisis arose, is that many states do not have adequate Plan Bs in place to deal with questions of election emergencies, whether it’s a hurricane, a cyberattack or in this case a pandemic. So, we really need state legislatures and Congress right now to be thinking about what steps need to be taken in November to assure that as many people as possible will be able to exercise the franchise and vote.

So, on the local level, for example, who decides what changes get made on Election Day?

Again, these are state-by-state questions. Often decisions about closing polling places or making voting changes are done by county election boards. Sometimes they come from a state’s directive. Because we have such a decentralized election system in the United States, we don’t run a single election for president — we run something like 8,000 or 9,000 elections for president. Given that we have that, it’s really hard to generalize about who has authority.

I should add that until the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013, before any polling places could be closed in a state that had a history of racial discrimination in voting, approval had to be obtained from the Department of Justice or [from] a court in Washington, D.C. That protection for voters is now gone.

When changes are made on Election Day, like they were this week, for example, how are election officials communicating those changes? How are voters supposed to find out if their polling place was moved?

So this is very problematic because often there is not adequate communication. Often this information will appear on a government website. Sometimes voters don’t learn that a polling place has moved or changed until they try and show up to vote. Another good practice is that election officials should be doing whatever they can to use a variety of methods of communication, including social media, to try to get the word out about any changes in polling place or rules. One of the things we saw earlier in Ohio was that there was tremendous confusion about whether the election was on or off. Poll workers didn’t know if they were supposed to show up until the day before. I think what we saw on Tuesday in Ohio and in other states is a good indication, for those states that still have primaries, that they better have good plans in place, including the extended use of absentee balloting. I think we’re going to see a huge increase in absentee balloting for the remaining primaries, given the dangers of going to the polling place.

How are the states protecting voting rights when changes are made? And what more should states be doing?

Some states do not have a very good record of protecting voting rights. So it is going to require the public or voting rights groups to push the states to make sure that people are not disenfranchised. I think states need to be asking themselves: How can we ensure that as many voters as possible under these difficult conditions still may be able to exercise their constitutional rights and register and vote?

And I want to underline this point about voter registration, because I think it’s getting a lot less attention in this conversation than voting itself. Many people would ordinarily be registering to vote between now and November. Under state laws, there are different cutoff times for when you can register to vote. If people have to register to vote in person, this can also create problems if there are orders to not visit government buildings, and government buildings are closed. So I think it’s very important for states, if they actually care about voting rights, to move to online voter registration if they don’t already have it. Many states have online voter registration, some don’t. But providing ways that people can exercise their constitutional rights without having to show up in person is something that should be on the minds of all election administrators around the country.

Has something like this happened before in terms of a big crisis? And if so, what did states do and what did we learn?

Well, we had voting taking place on 9/11 in New York. That was not a federal election. They were able to postpone that election and reschedule it. I think the lesson we should have learned is that it’s crucial to have a backup emergency plan in place in the event of a disruption. The closest thing is probably the voting that took place during the flu pandemic in 1918, and voting was disrupted in a number of places. Vote-by-mail was not really a thing back then. And so many people ended up being disenfranchised. There are pictures of people lined up wearing surgical masks at polling places which, you know, seems like such a strange image. But it probably won’t seem strange to us now.

What about hurricanes?

So, Florida is a state that often has problems with hurricanes occurring during voting season. They have enacted rules for dealing with voting and they do make accommodations, for example, extending the period of early voting, or allowing people to vote outside their polling place in the event of an emergency. As I detail in “Election Meltdown,” even with these rules, sometimes election administrators take matters into their own hands, such as an election administrator in one county in Florida who allowed people to vote electronically, sending in a ballot by email, which was against the rules and not part of the emergency rules.

I think it’s very problematic for election administrators, even with the best of intentions, to change voting rules, even to enfranchise voters, if it’s in violation of state law. And so this is why I think states need to be thinking now before we get to the next set of voting as to what the rules should be in the event of an emergency. So everybody’s on the same page. Because we don’t want different election administrators coming up with different rules that may or may not be fair and secure as a means of voting.

What do you think will be most affected by changes to voting regulations caused by the coronavirus? Are there some states it could affect more than others or some demographics it could affect more than others?

If we don’t make accommodations for increased vote-by-mail, I think there is a special burden that’s going to be placed on older voters who are most susceptible to having serious complications if they get this virus.

And so I think that the most important thing right now is for election officials to think about those vulnerable populations and ask what they can do to ensure that they’re not disenfranchised. We don’t know what things are going to look like now in November. I certainly hope that things are better, but we should plan as though things are not going to be better and provide the tools now, so that every eligible voter will be able to have a means of safely casting a ballot.

Given the potential impact of the virus, does the U.S. need to make changes to how it votes before November on a federal level?

I support federal legislation. I recently wrote a piece in Slate advocating that Congress pass a law requiring states that don’t currently offer no-excuse vote-by-mail to require that the states do so in November. I think Congress also needs to come up with funding. Assuming we continue to have problems, there’s going to be a flood of new vote-by-mail voters. It’s more expensive to process those ballots, and states are going to need all the help they can get in this environment. So I support folding into some of the coronavirus bills that are coming before Congress now additional funding and this mandate for states to allow this option. We also need to have protections for voters who are voting by absentee [ballot], because one of the things we know is that absentee ballots are much more likely to be tossed for noncompliance.

And also, we know that although voter fraud is very rare in this country, when election crimes do happen, they tend to happen with absentee ballots. And so we need rules to make sure that there’s no ballot tampering.

Given all of the logistics involved with vote-by-mail and the decentralized nature of our elections, is it logistically possible that we could roll out a full-scale vote-by-mail system by November?

I’m not advocating a full vote-by-mail system for November. I’m not saying we should have only vote-by-mail. I think that would be extremely difficult to do. It took the states that have moved in that direction years to get their systems in place. What I’m suggesting is that voters have the option of voting by absentee ballot. I think that is something that is doable so long as there’s enough planning and resources and we start thinking about it now.

Can the general election be postponed or canceled? Can you talk about the constitutional aspect of that?

The Constitution gives Congress the power to be setting the time of the election. Congress has done that in the statutes in order to change the election date. That statute would have to be changed. I don’t foresee that happening. That’s not really a concern I have, although I hear that a great deal.

I’m much more concerned that the federal government, or state officials, as we saw in Ohio recently, say people have to stay away from the polling places on Election Day. That would not be postponing Election Day, but that would be disenfranchising potentially millions of people. And that’s why I think we need to have an absentee ballot backup system, because if the election takes place and people can’t go to the polling places, the vote would then be either done by those who were able to vote early or by absentee before there might be some restrictions.

Or in the case of the presidential election, state legislatures might take back the power that the Constitution gives them to appoint electors to the Electoral College directly. That is, the state legislature in Pennsylvania might say, you know, we’re not going to let voters vote for president this time. We’re going to decide who gets Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes. I think that would be profoundly anti-democratic and dangerous. I don’t want that to happen, and I don’t want the excuse to be “Well, voters can’t vote,” which is all the more reason I think we need this vote-by-mail backup system in place in as many places as possible.

There is a dispute over whether a state legislature could decide to take back the power to appoint electors directly, and whether that would have to happen through ordinary legislation signed by the governor or [being passed into] law over a veto or if it could be done by the state legislature acting unilaterally. I hope we never have to test this to find out the answer.