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New Machines, Rules Could Cause Election Confusion
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New Machines, Rules Could Cause Election Confusion

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Control of Congress is now in the hands of tens of millions of Americans who are voting today, among them, President Bush who cast his vote in Texas.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: No matter what your party affiliation, or if you don't have a party affiliation, do your duty. Cast your ballot and let your voice be heard.

INSKEEP: About a third of those voters will cast their ballots on unfamiliar equipment. Many face new voting requirements. Problems are expected as a result, especially in areas where there are tight races.

NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting issues and joins us now. Pam, good morning.

PAM FESSLER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are some of the things voters should be prepared for this time around?

FESSLER: Well, I think most voters probably won't have any problems, but they all should be ready for the possibility they could have some kind of problem, especially if they're in one of these states with new equipment. Poll workers might not know how to operate the machines; the voters themselves might not be able to. We've already heard some reports from the early voting of problems with machines in Texas and Florida - of people pressing one candidate's name and another candidate's name showing up as them having voted for them.

Also, a lot of states have new ID regulations. There are also - for the first time this year - states are required to have statewide, computerized voter registration databases. We don't know, some people might show up at the polls thinking that they're registered, but they're not on the list. There also could be long lines, like we saw in 2004. The election officials have tried to fix that, and think that they have the machines and equipment distributed properly and that they have enough poll workers, but they won't know until they see who shows up.

INSKEEP: Pam, you mentioned early voting. Have lots of people already cast their ballots one way or another this year?

FESSLER: In some states we've had thousands of people who have cast ballots -places like Florida and Texas. There has also been a lot of absentee voting this year that we're expected to see.

INSKEEP: So what can voters do to make the experience a little bit easier?

FESSLER: Well, first of all, I think that one of the biggest questions that people seem to have when they call these election help lines is, where is my polling place? So people should know where they are supposed to go to vote. It does, in fact, change from one year to another. They also should know what are the rules in their state as far as bringing identification. You also should know how to use your voting equipment. A lot of election offices have Web sites where you can go on, you can find out all this information before you head out to the polls today.

You also should know your rights as a voter. If you run into problems at the polling place, you should be able to vote a provisional ballot. However, there is a warning with provisional ballots. The rules of when they are and aren't counted in states differ, and in some places, you have to be in your proper precinct casting that provisional ballot for it to count.

INSKEEP: When would the ballot actually be counted - days later, weeks later?

FESSLER: That also varies from state to state. Some places it might be counted later that day, other places it may, in fact, be days or weeks later.

INSKEEP: Is it possible we could end up in a situation where there are a few close races - in the House of Representatives particularly - that just aren't -the answer is not now, the answer is not decided, and those few races determine who controls the House?

FESSLER: It is very, very possible. As you mentioned, there's a lot of tight races. And it's those places, where in fact we anticipate there could be the most voting problems. Say Maryland, for example - close Senate race there, close gubernatorial race. The state of Maryland does not start counting absentee ballots until Thursday; they don't count provisional ballots until next week. And the governor and several other politicians in the state has been encouraging voters in that state to vote absentee.

INSKEEP: Both parties are sending, today, thousands of watchers to the polls. Both parties have hundreds of lawyers standing by to take calls from those folks. Will they make things simpler?

FESSLER: It's hard to believe that they would, in fact, make things simpler. I believe that there's going to - especially when we get to these very tight races - there could be lots of litigation. The lawyers are not only watching what's going on, but they're collecting information for possible litigation about voting irregularities.

However, there are also a lot of third-party groups out there; there are a lot of volunteers who are outside polling places. And I think in some cases they will, in fact, help voters, because they can clarify some of the rules, what... They can tell the voters - even before they go in - what are the ID rules, what are their rights. And, in fact, I've actually watched some in previous elections in which a voter has come out, said, oh, I couldn't vote because I didn't have ID, and somebody from one of these groups like Election Protection said, no, you don't need ID here. And they go back, and they help them out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks very much.

FESSLER: Thanks, Steve.

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