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News brief: mail-in ballots, Indian child welfare case, migrants barred from Italy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today is the last day to make your voice heard with your vote in this year's midterms. But even though it's election night, it might not be results night.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, because mail-in voting gets more popular each election cycle. It takes time to go through all those mail-in ballots. And states with widespread mail voting include Pennsylvania, where just one election could decide the Senate and where the Republican Party is already pushing to disqualify some ballots.

MARTIN: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang joins us now from Pennsylvania. Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So what is happening there that will likely slow down vote counting today?

WANG: Well, I'm watching two big factors that help determine whether state election officials can report results on election night - one, how many people vote by mail, and two, how much time before Election Day do officials have to process the mail ballots, to get them ready for counting? And in Pennsylvania, more than 1.4 million mail-in ballots have been requested for this year's general elections. And Pennsylvania election officials have zero time before Election Day to start processing mail-in ballots. So this puts election officials here at a major disadvantage in terms of turnaround times, especially when you compare them to officials in states like Florida, where both processing and counting ballots starts before Election Day.

MARTIN: So I don't get it. Why can't Pennsylvania election officials start counting mail-in ballots earlier?

WANG: They can't do it because of Pennsylvania state law that says processing cannot start until 7 a.m. local time on Election Day. And by the way, there's the same restriction in Wisconsin, another swing state. You know, a lot of people don't know about or don't pay attention to this processing work. It's often called pre-canvassing. And it can include, you know, checking voter signatures on the return envelope for the ballot, opening the envelopes, taking the ballots out of the envelopes, flattening the ballots and then stacking the ballots so they're ready for scanning. It can sound very mundane, very tedious. But these are all critical steps in ensuring an accurate vote count. And, you know, the Bipartisan Policy Center has recommended setting aside at least seven days before Election Day for this pre-canvassing work.

MARTIN: Wow. So, you know, Trump supporters made false claims about the validity of mail-in votes in the 2020 election. In light of that, was there any effort to change the law to try to give more time for processing these ballots and give less grist to those who are spreading disinformation?

WANG: Well, in Pennsylvania, there were multiple efforts. But before the midterm elections, Pennsylvania's legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, could not with agree with the governor, who's a Democrat, on a legislative package that would include pre-canvassing changes. And Republican state lawmakers here in Pennsylvania did not advance bills that were more tightly focused on pre-canvassing. But, you know, I should note there is a swing state with similar challenges that recently did make some changes to pre-canvassing There's a law it passed last month in Michigan that allows communities there with at least 10,000 residents to start pre-canvassing two days before Election Day. But it came too late for some local election officials, who had already finalized their plans for the midterms. So really, who knows how long it will take to get results?

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Republicans are already saying that some mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania should be thrown out. Explain what's going on.

WANG: Well, there are thousands of mail ballots that arrived on time in Pennsylvania but may end up getting rejected from final vote counts. The reason is because the envelopes they're in, the ballots that are in - they don't have dates handwritten by voters, or they have incorrect dates. And the thing is, these handwritten dates are required by Pennsylvania state law. But there is a federal lawsuit over whether that date is enough to disqualify a person's vote. So we'll have to see what happens.

MARTIN: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reporting from Philadelphia on this Election Day. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing an argument tomorrow that could determine the fate of Native American children. It pits several prospective adopted parents and the state of Texas against a federal law aimed at preventing Native American children from being separated from their extended families and their tribes. Joining us to talk about the case, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Any case that includes the potential of separating children from their families has got to be very emotional.

TOTENBERG: You know, this case, more than usual, is steeped in American history and the sorry way that the United States treated the people who lived here before the rest of us arrived, the American Indians. And it's also a case that, more than usual, will resonate with the justices, seven of whom are parents, including two who have adopted children. So this case is rooted in the Indian Child Welfare Act, known by the acronym ICWA. It was enacted in 1978 after Congress found that public and private agencies over time had taken hundreds of thousands of Indian children from their homes, sometimes by force, and placed almost all of these children in institutions or with families who had no ties to the tribes. So ICWA established minimum federal standards for removing Native children from their families. It required state courts to notify tribes when an Indian child is removed from her home. And it required that in foster and adoption placements, preference be given first to a member of the child's extended tribal family, then other members of the tribe and if neither of those is available, a home with a different tribal family.

MARTIN: OK. So why is that law being challenged?

TOTENBERG: The state of Texas and several families who are adopting Indian children contend that the law amounts to an unconstitutional racial preference and, in addition to that, that the federal law impermissibly intrudes on state law.

MARTIN: OK. So tell us about the lead plaintiffs in this case.

TOTENBERG: Jennifer and Chad Brackeen are one of the several couples challenging the law. They had previously adopted an Indian boy, now age 7. And when they learned that his younger sister was in foster care, they had her transferred to their care. And now they're trying to adopt her, too, over the objections of the tribe and her great-aunt. I talked to the Brackeens earlier this month.

JENNIFER BRACKEEN: We feel like her closest living relative is her brother. That's why we pushed to try to get her place with us.

CHAD BRACKEEN: It's heartbreaking to us that there are laws out here that say it is better for her to live in a tribal home, any tribal home, before she is allowed to stay in our home with her brother.

MARTIN: All right. So that's their argument. But what does the law say? What are the conflicting legal arguments?

TOTENBERG: So those challenging the law, like the Brackeens, say it unconstitutionally categorizes children and prospective adoptive parents based on whether they're Indian or not. The tribes, on the other hand, note that the Constitution actually singles them out for special treatment. Under the Constitution, they're deemed sovereign nations, essentially a political, not a racial group.

MARTIN: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Italy's new right-wing government is taking a harder line on the NGOs that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

INSKEEP: Migrants from Africa and Asia who are trying to get to Europe. Italy is blocking men from leaving the ships, and that has prompted at least one standoff at a Sicilian port.

MARTIN: We're joined now by NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. She has been following all this. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the situation at the ports right now?

POGGIOLI: Well, the worst is Catania in Sicily, where the rescue ship, Humanity 1, which flies a German flag, was finally allowed to dock over the weekend. Of the original 179 migrants rescued, 35, all males remain on board. They're from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt. The head of operations of the charity SOS Humanity, Till Rummenhohl, is on board and describes the situation.

TILL RUMMENHOHL: We see frustration. We see them getting more and more depressed. People are having problems to eat properly because they don't understand the situation. They have so much uncertainty about their future. They are afraid of being pushed back into international waters by Italian authorities.

POGGIOLI: And that's what the Italian government is threatening.

MARTIN: So what's the scope of this situation? I mean, how many ships are trying to dock now with how many migrants?

POGGIOLI: Another NGO ship, the Norwegian-flagged Geo Barents, was allowed to disembark some 500 migrants, leaving around 250 on board. The government is applying selective entry, insisting it's acting humanely but firmly. But the ship's captains refused to leave Catania Port, insisting the remaining migrants must be allowed to land and be allowed to apply for asylum. SOS Humanity is failing legal actions, with two Italian courts appealing the government's selective methods.

MARTIN: So explain, Sylvia. You said that dozens of men are being kept on one of these ships, but lots of people have been let go. What are the criteria to determine who gets to get off the boat and who has to stay?

POGGIOLI: Italy is allowing women and children and ill people to disembark. A team of doctors is sent on board to determine who's ill. Now there's a third ship, a German-flagged Mission Lifeline. With 89 migrants on board, it was allowed to dock at Reggio Calabria on the toe of the Italian boot. And the - all 89 migrants were allowed to leave the ship. The Italian authorities say that migrant rescue took place in a section of the sea that's under Italian jurisdiction, as determined by some international convention, while the other two ships rescued migrants in waters not under Italian jurisdiction.

MARTIN: Is this a different position for the Italian government when it comes to migration?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's - the new Italian government is just installed two weeks ago. It's a far-right coalition, and it wants to send a message to irregular migrants. It claims migrants should seek asylum in the countries under whose flags the rescue ship sail. In this case, it would be Norway and Germany. The government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has accused the charity rescue ships of acting as a de facto taxi service for the many migrants from Africa and Asia trying to reach Europe and therefore allegedly encouraging human trafficking, although the U.N. has said that NGO rescues account for only 15% of migrants who arrive in Italy. But the deputy justice minister says Italy will no longer be migrants' punching bag. And here's what Lucio Malan, an MP from Meloni's Brothers of Italy Party, said Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCIO MALAN: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He said Ukraine migrants are women and children. African migrants are young males who shouldn't abandon their women and children. And then they staged these organized shipwrecks, he said, as if they were victims of the Titanic. Now, the government has threatened the boats with $50,000 fines if they don't leave the port of Catania. But the U.N. agencies for migration and refugees, as well as European Union officials, have called on Italy to allow all the migrants to be disembarked without delay.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.