RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've heard a lot about the system being rigged this election season. Voters worry about long voting lines, confusing registration rules and the opaque system of allocating delegates. This week, NPR and some member stations are talking about voting as part of our project, A Nation Engaged. We're asking the question, does my vote matter? NPR's Pam Fessler kicks off our coverage.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: You would think to hear some people talk that the nation's voting system has gone to hell in a handbasket.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
DONALD TRUMP: It's a crooked system, folks. It's a crooked system.
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BERNIE SANDERS: We do not accept Republican governors suppressing the vote and making it harder for poor people or people of color to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Revote (ph), revote, revote.
FESSLER: Whether from Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or frustrated Arizona voters, we've heard a lot of complaints this year about voting. Primary rules are confusing. Voting lines are too long. Names have mysteriously disappeared from the rolls. But despite all that, most voters say they remain confident, at least somewhat, that their votes will be counted correctly, which is crucial for a democracy.
CHARLES STEWART: Ultimately, the legitimacy of government rests on the belief among the losers that it was a fair fight.
FESSLER: Charles Stewart is a political scientist at MIT. He's asked voters for years how things went at the polls. And he finds, for the most part, they go surprisingly well.
After the 2012 and 2014 elections, at least 97 percent of voters said their polling places were very well run. Most people waited less than 10 minutes to vote. Few had problems with machines. And 90 percent or more said they were very or somewhat confident their ballots were counted as cast. But Stewart says that also depends on who you voted for.
STEWART: People who are on the winning side of elections are much more confident about all aspects of the election.
FESSLER: The losers, not so much. It's one way to justify a loss. And while most voters have faith in their own polling places, they're not so sure when it comes to the rest of the country. Lonna Atkeson directs the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico. She says people are greatly influenced by what the candidates say, especially this year, with all the uproar over the primary system.
LONNA ATKESON: No average person has any idea how that operates. And so when the candidates get up and say, hey, this isn't a fair process, I mean, those are cues to their voters that there's something wrong with the process. And so, you know, people are going to be responsive to those messages.
FESSLER: This year's heated campaign rhetoric might also explain the findings of a recent poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. One in four people said they had hardly any confidence their vote will be counted accurately.
UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: Anybody want Trump? Anybody want Trump?
FESSLER: And you can clearly hear that undercurrent of voter discontent outside the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., where people wait in long lines to see the U.S. Constitution and vendors hawk Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton T-shirts at $10 a pop.
UNIDENTIFIED VENDOR: Anybody want Hillary?
FESSLER: Ashley and Patrick Saxe are from a small town near Green Bay, Wis. Ashley says she was extremely frustrated when she went to her local election office to vote early, only to be told to come back later.
ASHLEY SAXE: I just don't understand why it's so hard. I was right there. And she couldn't just hand me an absentee ballot so I could do it. It just kind of adds on to this bottled anger that I think a lot of people have to make it more difficult to vote.
PATRICK SAXE: And with the forms of identification for, you know...
A. SAXE: Yep, the...
P. SAXE: ...Your ID.
P. SAXE: ...Voter ID laws.
FESSLER: Wisconsin's one of more than a dozen states with new voting restrictions this year. The Saxes think they're intended to block certain voters, like minorities, from going to the polls, adding to their suspicions that the process is rigged. But sitting nearby, Cheryl Ward of Charlottesville, Va., says she's more worried that the rules aren't tight enough.
CHERYL WARD: You know, there's so much fraud. There's, you know, voter ID is under attack.
FESSLER: And even though evidence of voter fraud is scarce, the stories persist. Ward says she can't point to any particular problem, but she's just not sure her vote matters anymore.
WARD: I think that they put in the White House whoever they want to, really.
FESSLER: She says there's only a 50-50 chance she'll go to the polls in November. Cheryl Beckman of Madison, Wis., plans to vote but is confused whether it will make any difference in the end.
CHERYL BECKMAN: I'm not real sure how it counts in with the electoral college. That process has never been explained very well.
FESSLER: Beckman thinks the president should be elected by popular vote. Some of this unease over voting is a reflection of widespread frustration with government and politics. In that recent AP poll, only 10 percent of Americans had a great deal of confidence in the overall political system. Still, half do have some confidence. And if nothing else, voters outside the National Archives hope the process works.
JOSH DANIELS: I have faith in the system.
FESSLER: Josh Daniels of Columbus, Ohio, says he has no reason to feel otherwise. It helps that there's a paper backup in his voting machine, just in case there are any questions about the electronic results. Still, Daniels is disturbed by what he sees happening elsewhere, such as voters in Arizona waiting five hours to cast a ballot and voters whose names disappeared from the rolls in New York.
DANIELS: Everyone should have their vote counted if they're eligible to vote, absolutely. So there - it should be uniformly smooth for everybody across the country.
FESSLER: Although with 130 million people showing up at tens of thousands of different polling sites, that's highly unlikely. But Lonna Atkeson from the University of New Mexico says those running elections need to make things run as smoothly as possible, that good customer service goes a long way toward easing voter anxiety.
ATKESON: If you have, you know, poor interactions with poll workers, or you have a problem with your ballot, or maybe you're a provisional voter, all of these things matter to your feelings about your vote being counted correctly.
FESSLER: And whether you think, in the end, that the winner won fair and square. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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