Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega and it's great to have you with us. With less than three weeks to go until Election Day, early voting is now underway in more than 40 states. More than 11 million people have already voted and that's roughly 10 times the number of people who had done so at this point in the last presidential election. But voters in some states are experiencing major hurdles in casting their ballots.
Newscaster 1: Voters in the heart of Atlanta waited for more than four and five hours before they could vote today.
Newscaster 2: New information coming in overnight that affects Texas voters, a federal court has sided with Governor Greg Abbott and will limit mail-in ballot drop off locations to one per county.
Newscaster 3: Some unofficial ballot boxes have popped up in Southern California. The Republican Party admits putting them there and just within the past half hour, the Secretary of State called these boxes illegal and wants them removed.
Newscaster 4: This morning, another change in the witness signature debate for South Carolina absentee ballots, there has been so much back and forth. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that those signatures are required for this election.
Tanzina: While voter participation is high, long wait times and last-minute court decisions are making things more challenging for voters as we head towards November.
Michael McDonald is a professor of political science at the University of Florida and he's here to help me figure all of this out. Michael, thanks for being with me.
Michael Mcdonald: Great to be with you.
Tanzina: Michael, are we seeing more people voting early this year because of the pandemic or are there other reasons?
Michael: There's multiple factors involved here. One is that states had expanded their early voting options. Some have had done this already planned prior to the pandemic, some did it as a response to the pandemic. We already knew that there were going to be over 70 million mail ballots sent to voters this election cycle, which is itself a record and then people are just taking advantage of it. We're seeing a high number of people responding and voting earlier. That's good news. The good news story here is that we're now at 30 million and counting every hour, it seems more people voting. It's working, the election system's working at this point.
Tanzina: Michael, I guess, to that point, you mentioned there 30 million people who've already cast their ballot. That increase is interesting to me because it feels like Americans are more civically engaged this year. Would you agree?
Michael: Yes, just because you offer an early voting option doesn't mean that people have to take advantage of it and we could see this in some states that haven't really changed their laws, haven't expanded anything. You're still seeing early voting numbers running at record pace for those states. Clearly, people have heeded the call, which is to cast those mail ballots earlier and that helps election officials flatten their curve because otherwise, a lot of ballots would be coming in close to Election Day, and that would have put real stress on election offices.
That's good news, but I think also, people made up their minds a long time ago about this election and people are deciding to cast their vote because they already know who they're going to vote for president.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about in-person voting. As we have continued to see over the past couple of large elections in this country, there are still long wait times, they're still long lines, what's driving some of this, Michael? Particularly in states like Georgia and Texas, what's driving it? Is it just higher rates of participation?
Michael: That's part of it but it can't be everything because you get a long line when the early voting starts. That's expected and it's going to take a little while to clear that line. It's like that Black Friday rush of people. You're going to have to clear everybody through your voting location. They did that in Harris County, Texas yesterday successfully and about the same number of people voted in Harris County, Texas, as they did in Georgia yesterday, all of Georgia.
The lines were not that long in Harris County once they clear the initial rush. There's something else that's more systemic that's going on with technology, with the number of polling places that are being offered. Georgia has more time to figure this out, but we're in day two of what's-- Really day three of Georgia voting and yesterday, they still hadn't figured it out. There was still an eight hour wait time at the Gwinnett County main election office yesterday. That's just unacceptable.
Tanzina: Michael, are we seeing-- I want to talk a little bit about how demographics play into this first in in-person voting and then we'll talk about mail-in ballot voting, but in terms of in-person voting, you mentioned Gwinnett County, which has been really an epicenter for a lot of issues when it comes to voting. Are you seeing this happening in communities that are poor, communities that are of color, the long lines or is this really happening across the board?
Michael: Unfortunately, a survey was conducted that found that persons of color were more likely to stand in a longer line. Clearly, in Texas, in Harris County, which is heavily minority, they figured this out but in another state like Georgia, there were problems. Yes, that's an unfortunate reality and it does raise concerns about voting rights when you have unequal treatment of voters.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about mail-in ballots here. There are ballots that are being rejected for failing to meet certain requirements, those requirements, obviously, I think change depending on where you are, but are we seeing racial disparities when we look at whose ballots are being rejected, Michael?
Michael: Yes, we're getting ballot rejection data, large number or the largest number out of North Carolina at the moment and this mostly has to do with a requirement that the state has that you have to have a witness signature. What we're seeing out of North Carolina is-- The good news, let me first say the good news, good news is that we started initially at a high rejection rate around 4% statewide. That's come down over time. Election officials are reaching out as is required under North Carolina law to notify voters of problems and they're working with them to fix those problems.
I also know that there are outside organizations, campaigns, but also other allied organizations that are also reaching out to voters and trying to fix problems and help people with problems. The good news there is that that process is working, we're seeing the number of rejections go down and that rejection rate go down over time as people are fixing the problems with their ballots.
Despite that good news, we're still seeing racial disparities in the people who are having their ballots rejected. We're still seeing African Americans with a ballot rejection rate that's about four times that of whites in North Carolina. Again, we're going in the right direction but we really need to get down to zero because there should not be racial disparities between whites and African Americans in North Carolina.
Tanzina: Michael, are those racial disparities happening in along partisan lines? We know that voting rights have slowly been curtailed over the past couple of years and I'm wondering if you're seeing any of that as districts are redrawn and a lot of this infighting is happening, I think, out of sight for many Americans. Are we seeing this happening along partisan lines?
Michael: Some of these laws exist because of partisan battles. These are battles that are not just political in nature, where state governments are imposing these laws or trying to move to rectify them. There were some states voluntarily waived their witness signature requirements for this election because they knew that it may be difficult for people who are concerned about contracting coronavirus to get a witness signature, maybe they live alone, maybe they don't feel comfortable just getting a witness signature, much less a notary as required in a couple of states as well.
Some of it's politics, some of it's legal, then Democrats and their allied organizations went to court and sued to relax the witness signature requirements or other requirements. The Republican Party, by and large, oppose those and were battling in court against those restrictions. There was a whole other layer of legal battles that were happening and this went all the way up to the Supreme Court in the case of South Carolina, where we had dueling opinions stand at the lower level over witness signature requirement.
Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of keeping the state signature requirement in place. I should just note though, and this is really important for listeners, is that the laws vary tremendously across the state. You really need-- If you are voting a mail ballot, look at the instructions for your state, they should be on your ballot. Follow those instructions very carefully. Doing so will help ensure that your ballot is counted.
If you do have a problem, don't try to fix it yourself, don't use tape or something like that to fix your ballot. Call up your election office and they'll give you the options that they have for you to fix your ballot because if they see tape or something like that on a ballot, they're going to think that that's tampering and they're going to reject your ballot. Follow the instructions very carefully, work with your election officials if you do have a problem.
Tanzina: Michael, there's been a lot of concern over whether or not the election will be called on election night. I don't want to speculate here, but I know that you've been following this, and part of that concern is because of the increase in people asking to vote by mail. Does your research give us any indication about whether or not a winner could be decided on election night or whether we might be waiting a little longer given the increase in the absentee ballots?
Michael: Yes, I've worked with the media called the Decision Desks since 2002. These are the people who analyze the election results and make the calls as to who won the election. When you see a call on television or on the radio, it's not that the personality on the TV set that you're looking at is making the call. There's a whole army of people in the background who are collecting and collating and analyzing those election results to make a determination as to who might win an office or an election.
With that said, looking at the landscape, they're going to be some states that count their ballots very quickly, under their state law, mail ballots have to be back to their election offices by election day. Election officials in those states are permitted to prepare those ballots for counting so that they're all ready to go. They just need to be put into the machines and run through the machines on election day itself. In those states, the ballots will be counted very quickly and one of those states will be Florida.
There are other states as well, but Florida figures pretty prominently. We should get 99+ percent of the votes that are counted in Florida on election night. Unless it's a recount situation in Florida, which can happen, we know that it can happen, then Florida should be called on election night, and then we get into scenarios where if Biden has the lead that is suggested in the polls, we'll see the pretty fast count and declaration of that Biden wins Florida.
Then, in that case, you can look at the other fast counting states and you might get a sense of the overall swinging, and you might have to sense who won the presidency. Conversely, if the polls are wrong and Trump pulls out another surprise victory, that will be evident in the data too and we should see that nationally in other states that fast count. It's really just the slow counting states that we're worried about, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those are the ones where it may take up to two to three days to count the ballots.
Tanzina: Michael McDonald is a professor of political science at the University of Florida. Thank you, Michael.
Michael: You're welcome.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.