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Inside Politics

Secretary John Merrill (R-AL) Is Interviewed About Mail-In Voting Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic; FDA Grants Emergency Authorization For COVID-19 Saliva Test; Harris Addresses Skeptical Voters In The Black Community. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 17, 2020 - 12:30   ET



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They recognize this as a difficult issue for Republicans if they want to fight it. And they're making sure it is in the forefront from here on out, John?

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Phil Mattingly, live on Capitol Hill. Appreciate that, Phil. Keep us in, -- keep in touch with us all week as this plays out.

State election officials, of course, carry the burden of helping people vote amid all of this Post Office controversy, not to mention amid a pandemic. With me now with the Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. Secretary Merrill, thank you so much for being with us. I just trying to clear up fact from fiction here. We're in an election year, so some things said that are going to have a little political tinge to them as you well know. You voted earlier this year. This is your July primary. We have pictures of you casting an absentee ballot in March in the middle of the pandemic. You clearly thought it was safe. You oversee the elections. Listen to the President. The President says there's nothing wrong here.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll take care of the Post Office. We want to make sure that the Post Office runs properly, and it hasn't run properly for many years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you worried about cutbacks in service affecting people getting Medicaid and prescriptions?

TRUMP: No, no, the Post Office is running very well.


KING: Is the Post Office running very well, in your view, especially with a look toward the elections, as you know, 46 states put on notice by the Post Office in recent days. Think, you know what, we might not be able to process your ballots and get them where they need to be in time. Do you think the Post Office is OK? JOHN MERRILL (R-AL), SECRETARY OF STATE: John, thanks for having me as your guest. Look, everybody knows the Post Office one of the most inefficient and ineffective entities that exist at the national level. It is definitely the one that most people come in contact with on a daily basis. Their concerns with the Post Office, these are not new concerns.

The first time that anything was introduced to me about the concerns with the Post Office as far as voting is concerned, happened at Election Assistance Commission meeting in Carlsbad, California in April 2016. That's why when we passed our legislation in 2019 to revise the absentee process, we enabled our voters to be able to return their ballots by using FedEx, by using UPS, DHL or other nationally or regionally recognized carriers because there are concerns.

KING: So I want to ask for your help here. I've covered politics a long time. And in my experience, the secretaries of state, normally try to operate on a bipartisan basis. You have an association. You compare notes with each other. You learn from each other. You borrow from each other. You learn from each other's mistakes.

MERRILL: That's right.

KING: I want you to listen here to a couple of Democrats who they look at the White House right now. And they think the President is trying to put his thumb on the scale.


JOSH STEIN (D-NC), ATTORNEY GENERAL: The damage he's doing is to really the fabric of our democracy. The way our system works is we have peaceful transfer of power between parties and have done so successfully since our founding, because people have faith that the final result reflects the will of our members. And he's trying to damage that belief and it's incredibly harmful.

JENA GRISWOLD (D-CO), SECRETARY OF STATE: I just think it's shameful to the extent that people in the administration are going to sabotage this election.


KING: Help me Sir. I just -- people out there are confused. And again, we're in a political season and people have to do their own homework to filter out some of the partisanship. But do you see an effort by this administration to sabotage the election?

MERRILL: Well, John, I don't speak on behalf of the administration. But I would say this. Anyone that vote by mail should feel secure about voting by mail through the absentee process in the State of Alabama. We think it's important for people to be educated about what the concerns are related to that. That's why I encourage our voters and we've done that through a multimedia campaign, through television, radio, social media platforms to encourage our people to go ahead and apply for an absentee ballot now to let them go ahead and vote through the absentee process now. So they will not be concerned about whether or not their vote is actually counted for the candidate of their choice.

We think that's very important. But the data be concerned about that is not October 25th, October 29th, or November the 2nd, it's August the 17th, 73 days before the last day to make application for your absentee ballot.

KING: I think that is an excellent point whether you're Democrat or Republican listening to the Secretary of State in Alabama. Sir, quickly, the President says mail-in voting if you have more widespread mail-in voting, you're inviting fraud. Is that your experience in Alabama?

MERRILL: Well, the only concerns that we have seen, John, have come through the absentee ballot process. We've had five convictions on voter fraud in the absentee area. And we've had three elections overturn and those have all been directly related to absentee participation. We want people to know that our process is safe and secure. But we want them to be able to cast their ballot for the candidate of their choice, but just one time. We want to continue to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat.

KING: Amen to that. John Merrill is the Secretary of State in the State of Alabama. Sir, we wish you the best of luck in the very difficult confusing weeks ahead. We'll stay in touch. Thank you, Sir.

MERRILL: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.


Still ahead for us, the government approves a cheaper and a quicker way to test for the coronavirus.


KING: A new saliva test for the coronavirus is being held out as a potential game changer. It was developed by researchers at Yale University. And over the weekend, the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency authorization for its use. Chantal Vogels is a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Public Health and one of the leaders on the team that developed this test. Thank you so much for being here today. I'm excited to have this conversation. So I was looking at some of the pre interview work you did in saliva. I can spit in a cup, get it to the lab, and know within three hours?

CHANTAL VOGELS, WORKED ON COVID-19 SALIVA TEST: Yes, that's correct. Saliva is going to be way faster, safer, and more comfortable to use as a sample type. So this is really going to be huge in increasing the testing capacity.


KING: That's amazing. So let me ask you about some of these other tests that have come out quickly. There have been questions about the accuracy. How accurate is this test?

VOGELS: So we've compared our saliva samples to nasal pharyngeal swabs, and we found 94 percent positive agreement.

KING: Ninety-four percent. So talk to me about scaling this up. You've obviously, as during your research, I'm sure you're tracking the news, and you've had issues with states not having enough tests. In the last couple of weeks, we've dealt with so many frustrating stories about you get your swab test, but that it takes eight days, 10 days, 14 days to get your results, which means it's useless. How quickly can you scale this up?

VOGELS: Well, we think we can quickly scale this up because testing is going to be faster, and it's less expensive. So it just has to be running CLIA certified labs, but they can increase the testing volume and therefore we can get a much faster turnaround.

KING: Right. And I saw, again, you believe this could offer $10, $10 to this test. So help somebody who might not understand scientists like yourself do this fascinating work in a laboratory. What does it take to get it to the market in a wide scale way as quickly as possible?

VOGELS: So our emergency use authorization is quite unique. Normally, it's a specific CLIA certified lab that applies for this, or it's a manufacturer. Now we are a lab and we can designate other CLIA certified labs to use our tests. So we essentially came up with a protocol instead of like, just the kit that labs can use.

KING: And I assume, you know, as a parent, people talk about, do you need testing in school? Should you have testing on college campuses? Is something like this, it's easier for children, younger people, correctors (ph) because I've had -- I had surgery, so I had the swab experience. It's not as horrible as some people say, but it's not pleasant.

VOGELS: Yes. It's definitely not comfortable. And saliva is going to be way, way better in that regard. So we are now really trying to, you know, get this out there, it's so far approved for or we received emergency use authorization for use for suspected COVID-19 cases. And we are now continuously developing this more. So we are partnering with the NBA to test asymptomatic and medic individuals. So that's the next step. We're investigating options for pooling of samples. So we're constantly developing saliva direct.

KING: I wish you the best of luck as this goes forward. Please circle back with our team as you reach other thresholds through this so we can tell people how things are going. Very much appreciate your time and congratulations on your work.

VOGELS: Thank you.

KING: Up next for us, Kamala Harris has a message for those voters who aren't exactly sold on her. But first, we caught up with one Detroit Democrat we met last summer. Here are her thoughts on Joe Biden's V.P. pick. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIN KEITH, DETROIT DEMOCRATIC VOTER: I also tend to be a very progressive or liberal voter as a defense attorney. And so I sat with it and quickly realized that I don't philosophically have to agree with everything that Senator Harris believes in order to cast my vote for this ticket. For far too long, black women have been the backbone of the Democratic Party, almost a thankless member, casting our votes time and time again, being reliable.


And so at a time where black women are told were too ambitious, too loud, at a time when black women are murdered in their homes by police officers and justice isn't readily served, this was a morale boost that we needed, that we deserve.



KING: Kamala Harris knows her past work as a prosecutor worries some progressives, including fellow black voters. Her pitch, look at the big picture and the full issues portfolio.


SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESUMPTIVE VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: You may not fall in love with who you're voting for. But if you just look out on a piece of paper at the issues that are impacting you every day, or you look at who's going to pay attention to whether the black community is going to have equal access to a vaccine when it's created, and you'll know there is so much on the line in this election.


KING: Let's get some perspective from Alicia Garza. She's principal of the Black to the Future Fund and one of the cofounders of the Black Lives Movement. Thank you so much for being with us on this important moment. I'm thrilled to have you because I'm interested in your perspective. And I just want to show our viewers who may not know you. You have been on the frontlines for quite some time. This is a picture of you in the middle of a demonstration six years ago after the tragic killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a white police officer. So you know, when you're in these marches, so many of the people to them, prosecutor is a dirty word. And yet you've had a recent conversation with Senator Harris, I want you to share that with us.

ALICIA GARZA, PRINCIPAL, BLACK TO THE FUTURE ACTION FUND: Well, I want to be super clear that Senator Harris has been in relationship with movement for a while. And, you know, to say that does not mean that there aren't valid criticisms of her record, that there isn't more that she could be doing. It's also not to speak for all activists, right, who may or may not vote in this election cycle. But what I can say on behalf of the Black to the Future Action Fund, is that we've had several conversations with Senator Harris about a range of policy issues, some things that we pushed her on, and other things that we had complete alignment around. And so I think she's right when she says that, you know, voting is an opportunity for us to engage with the world that we want to see. It's one path.


And I think there are a lot of people who are very clear about that and a lot of people who want to see more from her. And that is actually OK. In a functional democracy, what we do is we push candidates to be better and more responsive to the issues that we care about. And so she should be continued to be held accountable. She should be content -- she should continue to be supported in coming to the right position on the issues we care about. And we should also acknowledge where she is close, or actually has gone further than we thought. So I think it's a balance here. And that's what black voters in particular will be considering as we move into the 2020 election cycle.

KING: Right. Honest conversation is the best thing any of us can have, especially on difficult issues. So Kamala Harris would be the Vice President if this ticket wins the election. Joe Biden, of course would be the President. A year ago, a little more than a year ago, you spoke to my colleague Van Jones, about some of your questions about the former vice president. Let's listen.


GARZA: What's going to prevent me from or encouraged me to vote for someone is somebody who can talk to me about the issues I care about from the way that I'm experiencing them and somebody who can tell the truth if their mind has changed about their stances that they may have taken 20 years ago.


KING: You mentioned the conversation with Senator Harris. How about the former vice president soon to be Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden? Is he engaging in the right conversations with the community? Is he convincing people like yourself that he has an open mind and they, yes, he's changed his mind from some of the things he may have done 20 or 25 years ago?

GARZA: I'll say this, the selection of Senator Harris as the vice president to run with Joe Biden on the top of the ticket is the right choice. I think that, you know, we've just recently started to engage with the Biden campaign. And there is still some work to be done, although we're very excited about some of the recent additions to the campaign that have really done a lot of work to reach out to us, to engage us, and to talk with us about with real talk about the issues that, you know, folks are movable on and some of the other issues that they're not.

Again, in our approach to elections and electoral organizing, we are super clear. In this case, Senator Harris being selected to run with former Vice President Biden at the top of the ticket was a good choice. And in part because I think that there were a lot of questions with the Biden campaign in terms of their engagement with black organizations, and certainly in terms of their positions on issues that are important to black communities.

I can however say that they have reached out to have some more conversations specifically about the policy agenda that they released not too long ago, my organization released a black agenda for 2020 that looks at how we can make Black Lives Matter from City Hall to Congress. And we've done a side by side comparison of you know, the Lift Every Voice plan and the Black Agenda 2020. There are still some gaps there. But there is also still less than 80 days, right, that we have to be able to get these candidates closer to the issues that are impacting people every single day. And that's the work that we'll be engaged in moving forward.

KING: Alicia Garza, grateful for your time today. We'll circle back as those conversations to continue to check in with you to see how they're going. Thanks again for joining us today. Thank you.

GARZA: Thanks for having me.


KING: Coming up for us, a major election postponed because of, yes, the coronavirus.


KING: The coronavirus pandemic is raging in Peru, the country added more than 10,000 cases to its total just on Sunday. Peru has now recorded more than a half million COVID infections and has overtaken Mexico with the second highest number of confirmed cases in Latin America. Brazil is number one, of course. And then New Zealand, the coronavirus has just delayed a major election.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Will Ripley in Hong Kong. New Zealand has fewer than 100 active cases of coronavirus right now. And yet the country has decided that it will delay its national elections by more than a month out of concerns about the general public's health.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was praised for her decisive and quick response to the pandemic in the early days, a response that led to the nation declaring itself COVID-19 free for 102 days, up until this new cluster was detected in New Zealand's largest city of Auckland.

Now that cluster spread from four people in one household to now dozens of cases. But again still fewer than 100 cases. Just nine new cases reported on Monday numbers that most places would celebrate. But in New Zealand, they're extending the lockdown in Auckland with police checkpoints, schools closed, nonessential businesses closed. And they're testing tens of thousands of people trying to isolate all of the cases that exists in the country, get them out of the general population.

And until those numbers get back down to that magic number of zero, New Zealand's government feels it won't be safe to hold an event like a general election. And this is not about politics or the economy, it's about public health, the prime minister says. In fact her party was expected to do very well in the upcoming elections specifically because of its effective response to the pandemic.


KING: And thanks for joining us today. Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. Also be here tonight. Join us on CNN special coverage. The Democratic National Convention begins at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here, 8:00 p.m.


Anderson Cooper picks up our coverage right now. Have a good day.