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Voters' Top Election Questions, Answered

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If anybody asks you when Election Day is this year, here's your answer - today, now. In 2020, there is less an Election Day than an election season. The pandemic has accelerated a long-term trend toward different kinds of voting which take place over more days of the year. Here we are in September, and some states have already begun early voting. Mail-in balloting, which people have used safely for years, has expanded. My mom in Indiana is already planning to fill out her absentee ballot. There is an official Election Day, November 3, but because of all the voting by mail, it may take longer than usual to count the votes and declare a winner.

So this morning, we have a guide to election season, which is driven by your questions. We invited them on social media, and NPR's Pam Fessler has been collecting them for answers. Hi there, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the biggest challenges that people face as they head to the polls?

FESSLER: Well, this year, it seems to be confusion. A lot of voters are voting in a different way than they've ever voted before - by mail. They also might find that their polling site is not the same as it was before. Maybe the old one, like a church or a school, isn't available this year because of the pandemic. And the rules keep changing, especially about mail-in voting - who can do it, how to do it and when those ballots will be counted - and we have dozens of lawsuits that are ongoing that could still change the rules even further.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear the first of the listener questions people have in this environment.

JESSICA: This is Jessica (ph) from Charlotte, N.C., and I'm mainly wondering about how mail-in ballots count, if they count any differently than live voting ballots. Are they a secondary ballot? Do they only count if it's a close race or any other criteria like that?

INSKEEP: Pam, I've wondered that myself. What's the answer?

FESSLER: Well, Steve, this is a very common misperception, so just to be clear, absentee and mail-in ballots are counted just like a ballot that's cast in person on Election Day. It makes no difference if the race is close or not, and no matter what someone might claim on Election Day, the results of the election aren't official until all the ballots are counted.

INSKEEP: We also had a question about the logistics of mail-in voting. Here's Pat Thompson (ph) from Massachusetts.

PAT THOMPSON: I'm going to vote early by mail, and I'm going to put it in the little box behind town hall. And I was wondering, when do they count the vote? Do they count it when it comes in early, or do they wait until November 3?

INSKEEP: Relevant question.

FESSLER: Well, Steve, like most voting rules, every state's a little different on how they do this. But most of them start processing the ballots before Election Day, and that means that they check the signatures, take them out of the envelopes, unfold them and get them ready to count. But then they do the actual counting on Election Day. A few states do it before Election Day, but they don't announce the results until then so they don't influence the outcome.

One of the big issues that we have this year is that a few states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, aren't even allowed to start processing those mail-in ballots until Election Day. So election officials are warning that that could delay the results by several days in those states.

INSKEEP: My mom is wondering how to deliver the absentee ballot, which is what Alice Callahan (ph) is wondering in Deltona, Fla.

ALICE CALLAHAN: I was wondering if I should put it in a mailbox, bring it to a post office or bring it to another voting place. Which one would be more secure?

FESSLER: Well, that's a great question, and almost every state, believe it or not, with the exception of Missouri, which requires you to actually mail in your mail-in ballot, will allow you to hand it in in person at your local election office. And in some states, you can also hand it in at an early polling site, or, this year, we're seeing a lot of states that are going to have drop boxes where people can deposit their ballots on Election Day and not rely on the mail.

As for which method is more secure, I mean, I'd have to say that probably turning it in person is always going to be more secure because you're taking out the middleman. That said, the Postal Service is usually reliable, but this year, there's a big question on whether those ballots are going to be delivered on time, especially if it's too close to the deadline. So election officials and the Postal Service are encouraging voters to get their ballots as soon as possible and not take any chances.

INSKEEP: Here's a question about a change of plans.

PAM HEALD: My name is Pam Heald (ph), and I live in Atlanta, Ga. If I applied for an absentee ballot but choose to instead vote in person, can I still do so?

FESSLER: Yes, she can, as long as she hasn't already cast her ballot and it hasn't been processed yet. So like many states, her state, Georgia, allows you to bring your blank absentee ballot into the polling place and have it voided or cancelled, and then you're allowed to vote in person. The same is true if you didn't get your ballot on Election Day or maybe you sent it in and it hasn't been received yet. If your absentee ballot has been received and processed, which means it's already been counted or it's out of the envelope and it's ready to be counted, you can't vote in person.

INSKEEP: OK. This is a good point, I think, to note that concerns about fraud that have been raised about mail-in balloting. The president has raised a number of false claims about mail-in balloting. The attorney general has raised questions. There are conspiracy theories. Our questions just might seem perfectly reasonable to a lot of people, and here's one of the questions about the security of mail-in ballots.

STEPHEN MONAMAT: This is Stephen Monamat (ph) from Boise, Idaho, and I'm just wondering, you know, what signature will be used to validate my vote and how that will be confirmed and whether or not I will know if it is invalidated.

INSKEEP: Can a signature invalidate a ballot if it's not done properly?

FESSLER: Definitely, and it's a pretty big problem. In 2016, Steve, more than 87,000 ballots were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

INSKEEP: Wow.

FESSLER: And again, the rules vary by state. Some states just check to make sure you have a signature. They don't compare it to anything. Other states compare the signature to the one that is on your absentee ballot request form. But some compare to the signature you used when you registered to vote, which, of course, could have changed over time. But right now, 20 states are notifying voters if there's a problem with their signatures so they actually have time to change it and fix it before the election, and there's pressure to try and get that option available in other states as well.

INSKEEP: We're taking your questions on election season - not Election Day but election season now. And let's bring another voice into the conversation. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been following the way the media have covered this season. Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How clear have news organizations generally been in explaining how different this voting season is?

FOLKENFLIK: I think you can almost think of it like a split screen. On the one hand, you've had a number of news organizations take efforts to break things down. NBC and CBS are among those that have created websites where, state by state, you can go and see what the procedures are, how you can vote by mail, in person, how it works. And at the same time, there's been a lot of coverage of fractious debate over the merits of these things, over whether or not these things will have integrity, these procedures, whether there could be fraud.

Oftentimes, these are claims without foundation. There's been fact-checking along the way, but you just have to turn on cable news to see this being still treated as open for debate and, of course, the question, as eternally throughout this administration - how much oxygen to give to the president to some of his more unfounded claims on this. So at once, there's a lot of information coursing through which is accurate and a lot of coverage of the debate which tends to muddy the waters.

INSKEEP: Which helps to explain some of the voter confusion that Pam Fessler has been talking about and that we're trying to help clear up today.

FOLKENFLIK: Right.

INSKEEP: We should note that although it's an election season, there is still a formal election night, and we have a question about that from Sandra Germainus (ph) in Guilford, Conn.

SANDRA GERMAINUS: The news media usually calls an election based on preliminary counts the night of that election, especially national elections. Given that there will be so many uncounted votes because of mail-in and absentee ballots, how will or how should the news media discuss election results that night?

INSKEEP: David, I'm recalling covering the election of 2000, when Fox News called a disputed election for George W. Bush, and that did seem to give Bush an advantage in all of the arguments that followed.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. That was media mayhem that night. I had to write five different versions of that story for The Baltimore Sun in five different editions.

INSKEEP: Wow.

FOLKENFLIK: And the way Fox cast it did affect how people, particularly on the Republican side, looked at things. I talked to two fairly senior news executives in anticipation of our chat this morning. Julie Pace is the Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, Susan Zirinsky the president of CBS News. And in slightly different ways, they both said, look, we have to anticipate the fact that there will be a gap in many key states between when the polls are closed in those states and when they can safely and honestly call those states for one of the two major candidates and that that gap is not caused by fraud. It is not caused by failure. That is the way, at times, the messy or deliberate way in which democracy works in our country.

And one of the things Julie Pace said was we are going to have to give so much detail about why that call is being delayed, why it takes time, what the uncertainties are, the facts that people are no longer reporting precincts, really. The major networks are likely to report the estimated percent of votes counted. We at NPR are wrestling with exactly those issues. It is going to be an election season, and it may well be one of uncertainty that stretches well beyond November 3.

INSKEEP: Well, let's say the news media are as responsible as they can be. They're holding back, and then one candidate goes live on TV to declare victory. The president, of course, has said that he should have a result on election night, and it's not impossible to imagine someone insisting on one.

FOLKENFLIK: Then the president said a whole lot more than that. He said early this week the only way he could possibly lose would be to electoral fraud. And then, a bit later in the week, he said that he would not commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power, should the elections not turn out in his favor. Now, the White House backed off from that a little bit, saying he would give up the reins of power should there be free and fair elections.

And when I spoke to Julie Pace of the AP, Susan Zirinsky of CBS News, they both said that this was sort of off the charts, their nightmare scenario, that somehow the president - or, for argument's sake, you could say that former Vice President Biden - would come out and say, if any result is not as I declare it to be, then that is somehow fraudulent, and cast doubt on the integrity of the election process and of the reporting that is done. But what Zirinsky said to me very clearly at CBS, she said, we have to be resolute. We have to separate the noise from what is sound and true. We have to rely on fact, and we have to present it in a way that our audiences and the wider electorate understands that the process can have integrity.

INSKEEP: Pam, how much confidence does the public have in this process, going into the end of it?

FESSLER: Well, Steve, we just released a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll last week, and it showed that confidence is pretty low. We asked likely voters if they'll trust that the results of the election are accurate if their candidate doesn't win, and only half said yes. And there were similar results for both Republicans and Democrats.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pam Fessler, along with NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks to you both.

FESSLER: Thanks, Steve.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

INSKEEP: And happy election season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.