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How Voting Is Different This Year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We have one week left until Election Day. Of course, that term Election Day is a bit of a misnomer these days. Nearly 70 million Americans have already cast ballots, including Jamaal Simington, who voted this morning at Washington, D.C.'s Capital One Arena. He wore a Colin Kaepernick jersey to honor the former San Francisco 49er's protest of police brutality.

JAMAAL SIMINGTON: I think the people are saying that it's time that we get out, that we actually make a difference instead of sitting at home, standing by.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This election has been defined by predictions of record turnout and by struggles around who gets to vote and how. Let's bring in NPR's Pam Fessler and Miles Parks. They both cover voting for us.

Welcome, you two.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So, Miles, let me start with you. We just noted tens of millions of Americans have already voted. Do we know how many more still have ballots left to cast?

PARKS: Yes. Specifically on the vote-by-mail numbers, we're up to 46 million vote-by-mail votes turned in, according to the U.S. Elections Project. But more than 90 million vote-by-mail ballots were requested this year. So you do the math there, and that leaves, you know, well over 40 million absentee ballots that have been requested but not sent back in.

KELLY: And a basic question, but we are one week out. Is it too late to vote by mail?

PARKS: The answer is probably yes, unless you're in one of those handful of states that allows for you to have your ballot just postmarked by Election Day and not actually to election officials on Election Day. The Postal Service has said for months that for voters to be sure those ballots are counted, they need to be mailed a week or more in advance of any deadlines. So now the messaging from local election officials is kind of shifting from, you know, mail those ballots in to don't mail those ballots in. Find a way to vote in person. Most states allow for voters to turn in that mail ballot in person in some way, whether it's dropping it off at a secure drop box, dropping it off at an elections office or a polling precinct or just voting in person on Election Day instead. Voters should just check their local rules depending on where they live.

KELLY: OK, a really important message there for all of us who still need to get out there and vote. Do it in person. Find an official election drop box. Maybe do not walk it to your regular mailbox. Pam, let me ask you about the legal side of this. There's just this huge number of lawsuits unfolding, particularly over voting by mail. Where do things stand with the remaining legal challenges?

FESSLER: Well, one of the biggest cases was decided last night. And that involved when mail-in ballots have to be received in the state of Wisconsin. And the U.S. Supreme Court said the deadline should be Election Day. And it rejected Democrats' arguments that voters should have some leeway because of potential postal delays. The Democrats had wanted ballots to count if received within three days after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day. And that's an issue in two other cases before the court. Republicans are trying to block North Carolina's rule allowing ballots to arrive up to nine days after Election Day and Pennsylvania's plan to count ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day. We don't know what's going to happen in those cases, but the court does not seem inclined to accept these extensions. And that could mean thousands of mail-in ballots end up being rejected if, in fact, they are not mailed in on time.

KELLY: Another question to you, Pam, which is the president - that he keeps telling his supporters to go watch the polls. And that's prompting concerns about militia, about other unauthorized groups who maybe are intimidating voters. Are we seeing actual signs that that will happen? Is that happening?

FESSLER: Well, not yet, although President Trump did again tell his supporters this week to go watch the polls, you know, for any kind of wrongdoing. And election and law enforcement authorities have been preparing for possible unrest. They're training poll workers. They're stepping up police presence in some areas. And they're also reminding the public that intimidating or blocking voters is against the law. That said, with all this early voting we've had already, there haven't been any significant issues. There were a couple of cases of some boisterous Trump supporters outside polling places in Virginia and Florida, which unsettled some voters. But for the most part, voting has gone relatively smoothly, with, you know, the exception of those extremely long lines.

KELLY: Which prompts a question back to you, Miles Parks. What should voters expect if they are planning to vote on Election Day itself, November 3? I mean, I'm wondering if all the people voting early - does that mean Election Day itself might be a little bit easier to manage?

PARKS: Right. All those early and absentee votes - they don't need to be cast on Election Day. But that does not mean this is going to be a picnic. You know, you think about the past few weeks. You think about all those in-person early votes, all those mail votes spread out over those past couple weeks. You add all of them up together, and you get roughly the same amount of people who are going to want to vote all on that same day on Election Day. That will mean really long lines in some places, and it means voters and election officials are more vulnerable to variables. You know, if a computer system breaks down in one county or there's horrible weather somewhere, with early voting, if that happens, a voter can say, you know, maybe I'll come back tomorrow or the next day. The voters on Election Day are really at the whim of whatever happens there. So they need to come a little bit more prepared, probably.

KELLY: Pam, I'm going to give you last word - and hoping that maybe you can give us some hope. It seems like voting has been so stressful this year. Anything positive to report?

FESSLER: Yeah, you know, it's not all doom and gloom. I think most voters are going to end up having a positive experience. In fact, those long lines are a sign of enthusiasm. And some people are even trying to turn those waits into a party, with groups delivering food to people online. There's bands providing music. And over the weekend, there was this viral video of voters outside a polling place in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHA CHA SLIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIAN: Left foot stomp. Cha cha...

KELLY: The "Cha Cha"...

FESSLER: And they were all doing that.

KELLY: The "Cha Cha Slide."

FESSLER: The "Cha Cha Slide," right.

KELLY: That's a great place to leave it.

FESSLER: And they were having a great time.

KELLY: Yes, yes, yes. NPR's Pam Fessler and Miles Parks, thank you both.

PARKS: Thank you.

FESSLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.