NEAL CONAN, host:
This is an election special from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And finally, it is Election Day. No matter what happens in the polls, history will be made and based on what we've seen so far, voters do want to be part of it. There are long lines reported in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and many other states. In Florida, some people lined up two hours before the polls opened. We'll get an update on reports of irregularities around the country and we want you to be our reporters. What's happening where you live? So take off your partisan hats for the first half of this hour, and tell us what you see; 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, some news organizations say they may announce a winner in the presidential race before the polls close in New York state, much less in Alaska. Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor, will join us to talk about why and why affect they may have. Plus, later in the hour, donkey and elephant piñatas, election party drinking games, what distractions do you plan for tonight. And post-election etiquette: Never high-five the losing side. Peter Segal and Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson will join us. But first, what's happening at your polling place? And we begin with Larry Nordin at the Election Protection Coalition headquarters in Washington, where he directs the direct voting technology project of the Brennan Center. Nice to have you in the program today.
Mr. LARRY NORDIN (Election Protection Coalition): Thanks for having me on, Neal.
CONAN: And I know you're getting calls from all over the country on voting problems. What are you hearing thus far?
Mr. NORDIN: Yeah, let me start with good news before I get to the problems, and the good news is there seems to be record turnout and for the vast majority of Americans, the system is working. Of course, having record-breaking turnout presents challenges. I can't say the problems that we've seen are unexpected. They really point to areas where we need reform in the way we run our elections. The first set of problems that we're seeing have to do with the voting machines themselves. Particularly earlier this morning, we had a lot of calls of machines failing in Virginia and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and all of those - I can go into detail about all of those and kind of the challenges with the machines failing in each of those states.
The second set of problems - and of course, one of the biggest - is long lines. The second set of problems has to do with registrations. We had a wave of new registrations this time around and in a number of states, we're getting reports - Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida - of voters who registered who should be on the state - who either are on the statewide databases or should be listed there but when they came to vote, they were told that they weren't on the poll books.
CONAN: And so in a sense, what you're reporting is that the good news is also the bad news: There's a whole lot of people out there jamming up the system that isn't ready for them, necessarily. But in terms of the other things, are you seeing a lot of idiosyncratic things, or are you seeing any systematic things?
Mr. NORDIN: Well, there are a couple of systematic things. With the machines failing - and this is something that the Brennan Center has done a lot of work on - particularly in Virginia, we were very concerned about, you know, machines fail. Machines fail somewhere always and particularly when you have this big a turnout, you're going to have problems. And Virginia did not really have a good statewide policy. They didn't have any statewide policy for distribution of emergency paper ballots. So that kind of became - early on, we were getting reports - what seemed like a systemic problem of poll workers not necessarily understanding when they should be turning out emergency paper ballots or not having those paper ballots available for voters. And that has caused a bit of a backlog in certain precincts in Virginia.
CONAN: But again, is this lack of training or is this evil design?
Mr. NORDIN: No, no, I don't think this is evil design at all. I do think that in the case of Virginia, this is maybe a lack of a clear policy. And one of the things that certainly I've been emphasizing in my work on elections is that you, you know, generally things will go well, and we can hope that they'll go well and we can assume that they'll go well but we should still have a plan in place on the chance that they don't. I would also say that there is a systemic problem with the way we register voters. And we do see some problems today where you'll have a massive increase in registration immediately before the deadline. It's very tough for election officials to keep up with that. And then you can get the kinds of problems that we've seen in a couple of states today where they just didn't catch up in time. So people really should be registered.
CONAN: But they're not.
Mr. NORDIN: And they're not in the poll book.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Again, our guest is Larry Nordin, counsel at the Brennan Center who directs the direct voting technology project there. Let's go to Gary. Gary is with us from Sacramento in California.
GARY (Caller): Good morning. This is voter Gary Seller reporting from Sacramento County, California. When I went to vote this morning at 7:30, the wonderful news was there was only one person in line in front of me. The not-so-good news is when I filled out my paper ballot and went to put it in the scanning machine, I asked, which end goes in first? And she goes, just stick them in the slot, we'll have to figure how to tally them up later, scan them later. And I ask what happened. She goes, we don't know, when we ran the test ballot this morning, it worked fine - and it hasn't worked since.
CONAN: So the machine isn't working with the two people in line.
GARY: Sorry, go ahead. Go ahead.
CONAN: I was just going to say that doesn't bode well for later in the day.
GARY: No, not at all. It's 7:30. If only the test ballots are scanned OK, it'll be a long day for the poll workers.
CONAN: All right. Gary, thanks very much for the report.
GARY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Bill Childers: I went to the poll at 6:40 a.m. I found the line out the door around a corner, never had to wait at this polling location more than 10 minutes over 10 years. Went back at 7:55, the line was a third as long as the earlier line. I waited 35 minutes to vote. When the poll worker asked for identification, I provided my city water bill. She rejected this and said I needed a voter ID, which is not required in Ohio. A utility bill with your name and address is permitted. I asked the poll judge, who confirmed that I did not show my photo ID, and I voted. This may be important in a precinct with many Kent State students whose photo IDs don't necessarily match their residence. Now, that's a problem that could develop as well.
Mr. NORDIN: Yeah. And another systemic problem that we see is, unfortunately, we're very reliant on poll workers. And it's one of these jobs that people do once every couple of years and often don't get a lot of training. And in a state like Ohio, in particular, where there are constantly new rules on the elections because they're treated a bit like a political football, that can lead to a lot of problems with poll workers, unfortunately, sometimes.
CONAN: Let's get Richard on the line, Richard with us from North Liberty in Indiana.
RICHARD (Caller): Yeah. I went in to vote today, and there's a bit of a line and so the three booths were full. So I sat down at a folding table and in a folding chair and borrowed a pen from a woman's purse next to me, and filled out the ballot at the table with some folks sitting next to me, which was definitely a unique experience for me.
CONAN: That is unusual. I don't think you're supposed to do that, Richard.
RICHARD: Yeah, I suspected not but that's how it was going, and people are getting through that way, so...
CONAN: Did anybody look over your shoulder - said, you can't be voting for that clown!
RICHARD: No. It was a bit like you were taking a test in third grade, sort of protecting your answers.
CONAN: Larry Nordin, that precise circumstance, which I described rather jocularly, that's why there's supposed to be a little booth and a curtain.
Mr. NORDIN: There is. And that's certainly an issue. At the very least, voters should be given some kind of privacy sleeves that they can cover up their vote when they're completed, when they've finished voting.
CONAN: So, Richard, next time take a blanket you can put over your head.
RICHARD: I suppose so.
CONAN: All right, Richard. Thanks very much. Here's an email that we have from Vicky Cordy. I voted in the same precinct in Kansas City for 25 years. This morning's turnout was the most incredible experience I have had as a citizen. Normally, I could walk or drive, cast my vote without waiting. This morning, I had a one hour, 10-minute wait. It was wonderful. So people reporting the wonderful experience of getting to wait on line. This from Marcy Roberts: I just wanted to have a voice today. I'm in the very red state of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. I've been campaigning for the Democrats for weeks and have never seen the enthusiasm that I've seen for Barack Obama.
My prediction is that Oklahoma will show very well for Obama, and we might even shock the nation sending a Democrat to the Senate, Andrew Rice. I'm not sure that our projections agree with that. I was volunteering yesterday and gave a handicapped woman a ride to the county election board to vote early. She was an 84-year-old Hispanic woman. This was her first time to vote. She had on an Obama pin and voted for Democrats across the board. Yes, we can. Don't count Oklahoma out. Believe it or not, there are a ton of liberals out here. Again, I don't think that comports with NPR's electoral projections. Let's see if we can get Phil on the line. And Phil's on the line with us from Saint Louis, on the other side of Missouri.
PHIL (Caller): Yes. I'm a child caregiver for my grandchildren, and I needed to be able to pick up my grandchildren for my daughter from work at about five minutes to 8 so I said, OK, I'll be at the polls at 5 o'clock this morning. And I got there at about 5:10 and there were 42 people ahead of me. And the line was snaking around the library parking lot by the time I did get in to vote, which was about 6 - I guess about 6:30, something like that. But everything went well. I decided to use the paper ballot this time because of the news the night before. An independent, I guess, poll watcher or somebody having to do with voting suggested doing the paper ballot because she said that there would be a better chance of being able to track those votes. So anyway, that's what I opted to do. But it was well-run and no glitches, and everybody in line was patient, and it was wonderful.
CONAN: Phil, thanks for the report. I appreciate it.
PHIL: You're quite welcome.
CONAN: And again, Larry Norden, as we go back and hear these reports of difficulties and various sorts, I think what Phil just reported is going to be the experience that a lot of people have today.
Mr. NORDEN: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. I think for the vast majority of people, things will go smoothly and I think, you know, I think most Americans realize that this is a historic election, and are excited about the fact that there is this incredible interest in the election.
CONAN: Here's an email from Joe in Florida, in Mayport, Florida: 2,560 Mayport Road voting locations started off badly, scanning machine rejecting all ballots. I have to TRUST - he writes in capital letters - that they will scan my ballot later. At least they didn't say, trust me, wondering what party the workers are registered as. They said I could come back at 7 p.m. and watch them scan my ballot. I told them no, thanks. If my man is not elected, I'll just riot in the streets. Looking forward to the show. We hope that Joe is not taking his own advice and is taking that jocularly.
800-989-8255, we'd like you to be our reporters today. Call in and tell us what's happening at your polling place, what the word is. We're going to continue to take your calls. And this also, after a short break, we're going to be talking with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving about a decision the networks may make tonight, to call the presidential election as early as what - 7:30, 8 o'clock, before the polls close in New York, much less in Alaska. Stay with us. We'll talk about why and what affect it might have. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to an Election Day special from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is an Election Day special from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The polls are open in all 50 states. Alaska's will be the last to close, at 1 a.m. tonight, Eastern Time. Voter registrations hit a new record in this election, and that's reflected in long lines in many polling places today. We're asking you to be our reporters. Take off the partisan hat for right now. Tell us what you're seeing where you went to vote today, 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com.
We got this email from Alyssa. I wanted you and the nation to know my voting joy today. As I was leaving my voting place, I saw about 20 of our local high school students and a couple of their teachers walking over for the students' first vote. I'm in Birmingham, Alabama, and this is my voting day JOY, she writes in capital letters. At least one major broadcast network said yesterday they may be able to predict a winner in the presidential race as early as 7 o'clock Eastern Time, if one candidate appears to be within reach of the 270 electoral votes he needs. That in spite of the fact that the polls will still be open in New York, Ohio, Florida, not to mention California and a whole lot of other states, and given the unreliability of early exit polls in the last presidential election. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor, and he joins as now. Nice to have you back in Studio 3A, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And what's driving this apparent push to call the election early?
ELVING: Two things. One would be the possibility - and it's only a possibility - that one candidate might be doing quite well in the early counting and thereby set out a dynamic, which when you combine it with the expectations for the western states, would create a very strong likelihood of a big majority that would take that candidate over 270 electoral votes and make him president. Now, that's one element. The other element besides that prospect is the Internet. We now have this marvelous way of sharing information, not just instantaneously, but instantaneously with everybody so that as soon as data that used to take a little while to make heir way through the pipe line are available anywhere, they will be available everywhere.
CONAN: Yeah. And this is also based on the idea that people think there are a lot of big states on the West Coast that they know - capital K-N-O-W - are going to go the way they think they go - California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.
ELVING: That's right. And if you take all the states in the West, count their ballots at either - or close their polls at either 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock Eastern Time, that would be a total of, well, 89 - not well - let's put it this way. It would be 104 electoral votes, and that's mostly California, of course, 55 in California alone. So you take that 104, 89 of those 104 are expected on every map you can find, any place and any news organization, including Karl Rove's map, which is on his website and which you can look at, 89 of those 104 are expected to go for Barack Obama, so - and just 15, then, for John McCain. So, if sometime before 10 o'clock, maybe even before 9 o'clock, it's projectable that Barack Obama is closing in on having 200 electoral votes, then that presumption of 89 more out on the West Coast is going to lead a great number of people to conclude that he's going to win. And this is, of course, totally hypothetical, we don't know the results of anything yet. We don't have a single state in - no state has stopped the balloting and no state has started counting. But if that were to be the case, at least one network has said they're not going to hold back on saying they smell a winner.
CONAN: And that is going to drive a lot of voters crazy. It will drive a lot of officials crazy. Remember back in 1980, which was the last time this happened, people on the West Coast said, by announcing the winner in the race, you dropped voter participations by something like 2 percent.
ELVING: Well, you know, 2 percent probably isn't going to turn a lot of heads, although it would make the difference to a lot of candidates. There were many people who felt that their particular race in some West Coast contest was skewed, partly because the networks called that 1980 race against Jimmy Carter early, and also partly because Jimmy Carter himself came out and gave a concession speech, which was, on the West Coast, at least, before the polls were closed.
CONAN: And there were still races for Congress and Senate and governors and all that sort of thing still going, and some Democrats may have been upset that Democrats may have been discouraged from turning out to vote for them. And sort of the same thing happened in the western part of Florida in 2000, when the networks called Florida for the Democrat Al Gore in 2000 a little prematurely, but nevertheless, even before the polls had closed in the Panhandle of Florida.
ELVING: That is something that should not be done. We should not be calling the result in a given state, in a given state, before the polls have closed there. But what do you do, Neal, with the knowledge? And this is going to be a problem for a lot of news organizations tonight because even newspapers that come out once a day, in the morning or the afternoon, have a website that's up 24/7. So what does that website say for the Washington Post, for the New York Times? If every journalist there has reached a conclusion about what's going to happen, does the website say, and we'll tell you in another hour and a half, when we feel like it, or when we're not going to be discouraging anyone from voting on the West Coast?
CONAN: And on the other - so you don't sit on news, is what you're saying. On the other hand, is it news until the votes are actually counted, until the polls are closed and people are finished voting?
ELVING: That is the question. ..TEXT: CONAN: And what are you going to do tonight, Ron? It's your decision.
ELVING: Well, I think that the answer we have to give is that we are not going to do anything that prematurely judges what's going to happen in a given state based on exit polls alone, that we are not simply going to say, exit polls tell us this. But I think we need to also show and tell our listeners what it is we know so that we are not in some sense or another withholding information. I mean, we're public radio, we are educational radio. We do not want to be giving people less than we know, and we are going to share with them what we can of the likelihood of what's going to happen.
CONAN: It'll be interesting to listen to some of the terminology this evening, some of this tortured language. I'm glad my colleagues, Robert Siegel and Michele Norris, and all those people are going to be doing it and not me. Ron Elving, thanks very much. Have a great time tonight.
ELVING: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor, with us here in Studio 3A. Larry Norden is still with us, the counsel at the Brennan Center who directs the direct voting technology project there. And we're going to take a couple more calls about what's happening where you vote. And let's go to Susie. Susie is with us from St. Louis, in the hotly contested state of Missouri.
SUSIE (Caller): Yes, we're a battleground state.
CONAN: And what's happening where you live?
SUSIE: Well, we have a report. One of the precincts, people started lining up at 3:45. Does that get us a record?
CONAN: I'm not sure it's a record, but it's pretty darn early.
SUSIE: Well, the tenor at where I voted was just absolutely unique from any other election I've ever been to. It was almost euphoric but very quiet, respectful, joyous, almost reverent people - many people were first-time voters, and they were so excited to be first-time voters at this important juncture in history. We did have a report of a failure of machine early - the touch-screen machine early in the morning. And where I voted, virtually everyone wanted a paper ballot.
CONAN: Paper ballot and, Larry Norden, though there is a long history of manipulation of paper ballots, I think going back to Magna Carta, the - nevertheless, people really don't trust the electronic machines.
Mr. NORDEN: Yeah, you know, one thing people should keep in mind is that, you know, a lot of the electronic machines have paper trails, and I think by our account, about 18 states in this election will - whether they're electronic machines with paper trails or they're paper ballot systems, 18 states will absolutely, no matter what happens, be using those paper records to check the machines, so that should give people some assurance that the machines are recording their votes accurately.
CONAN: Susie, thanks very much for the report, appreciate it.
SUSIE: Thank you.
CONAN: And we have this Email from Eric in Lexington, Massachusetts. Here in Lexington, we have a town-wide email list where we've been sending each other status of lines at the precincts. It's been a great way to help people plan and keep the lines to a minimum. It's been working well. Ann in Oakland County, Michigan, writes on email, anticipating the long lines, I walked to my voting poll armed with a New York Times and a charged-up iPod. When I got there, I walked right in and voted in about 15 minutes. I did pass Mitch Albom and his wife on their way to vote. Mitch, of course, is the author - sportswriter and author of "Afternoons with Morrie" and "The Five People You Most Want to Meet in Heaven." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Correct titles of books are "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven."] Let's see if we get one more caller in, and we'll go to Jay. And Jay's with us from Rabbit Hash in Kentucky.
JAY (Caller): Yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JAY: Well, hi, good morning. Yeah, we're here in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, on the Ohio River and it's been a good turnout. We're here at the general store. It's been around since 1831, and we've had over 300 - 350 vote, which is a hundred more than any other election that we remember.
CONAN: That's extraordinary.
JAY: But we're also having a special election today. Our - sadly, our Mayor Junior, the dog, passed away, and now we're voting for a new mayor, and right now, Travis the cat is in the lead with 3,000 votes.
CONAN: It's - this is really an election that involves domestic animals?
JAY: Absolutely. We run the election pretty normal. Every dollar is a vote. Every dollar goes to the historic society down here in Rabbit Hash. And there are more votes for the animals than for president right now, over 3,000 votes just for Travis the cat.
CONAN: And should Travis be elected, what privileges ensue?
JAY: Well, Travis becomes the spokesperson - spokescat for Rabbit Hash, and at every event, you'll see Travis. Junior did a great job as our last mayor, and we hope that Travis will do as good, but the election is not over until tonight. It'll be a big election night party here, and the polls will be open until 8 or 9 o'clock.
CONAN: And I have to ask. The name of the town is Rabbit Hatch. How come Pat the Bunny isn't running?
JAY: Well, there's no rabbit running this year. There has been a donkey. Higgins the donkey was doing quite well until a recent tide, and the voting changed overnight. We don't know what happened. Votes started coming in from out of state.
CONAN: Well, we'll await the outcome with baited breath.
JAY: It's going to be an exciting election. But what's really thrilling is seeing how many people are also coming out to vote in the national election. All the polls down here are doing - have been very exciting.
CONAN: Jay, thanks very much for the report. We appreciate it.
JAY: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And Larry Norden, I assume you're more accustomed to dealing with the run-of-the-mill political animal.
Mr. NORDEN: Yeah. I have to say, that's not a type of election I've covered before.
CONAN: Larry Norden, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. NORDEN: Sure, Neal. And if I can put in one quick plug for - if voters do have problems, if they could call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, which is the election protection hotline. We have experts here to deal with those things, and we can log in whatever kind of problems they have.
CONAN: And if you didn't scribble down that number quickly enough, we'll post it on our website. So you can go to npr.org/talk and see it there, and we'll be able to get that number out to you, people.
Mr. NORDEN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Larry Norden, counsel at the Brennan Center, who directs the direct voting technology project there and he joined us today from the Election Protection Coalition headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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