Republicans And Democrats Battle Over The Future Of Voting : The NPR Politics Podcast The coronavirus has reshaped how voting may happen for the 2020 elections, and Democrats and Republicans are battling in courts across the country trying to get the upper hand in November. But because the landscape has changed so quickly, neither party is sure what exactly gives them an advantage.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, political reporter Miles Parks, and correspondent Pam Fessler.

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Republicans And Democrats Battle Over The Future Of Voting

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Republicans And Democrats Battle Over The Future Of Voting

Republicans And Democrats Battle Over The Future Of Voting

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: I'm Miles Parks, and I cover voting.

KEITH: And, Miles, you have a special guest here with us today. Do you want to introduce our friend?

PARKS: Yeah, absolutely. We have Pam Fessler with us today, who also covers voting for NPR.

KEITH: Hey, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: And I am very happy to be here. Hi. How are you doing?

KEITH: Well, you know, we're just going to have the Pam-Tam confusion. But other than that, everything will be fine.

FESSLER: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Well, it's Memorial Day, also known as another day at home.

PARKS: Just staring wistfully into the distance.

KEITH: (Laughter) There you go. So we have you both here today because the coronavirus pandemic has made voting more interesting or it's certainly made the issues around voting that have been brewing for awhile - it's thrown them into stark relief. And I'm hoping that you can help put some of these headlines that we've seen into context. In particular, President Trump has been making a lot of noise lately about voting by mail, raising concerns - though without any evidence - about potential fraud. And last week, NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist had a poll that found that half of people would like to vote by mail in November if that's an option. Of course, that's because of coronavirus fears, in part.

FESSLER: Yeah, that's right. I mean, we are having a major, major revision in the way we vote in this country because of the coronavirus. I expect that we're going to see, actually, probably well more than 50% of the people voting by mail. So what's happening was we have all these states that are now trying to figure out how to accommodate that, how to change the rules, and that has provoked all these - this legal action between the parties about how, in fact, we are going to vote and what the rules are going to be because they know it's going to make a big difference in November.

PARKS: And this is all really new in terms of how partisan this debate over vote by mail is too. I think that's worth mentioning. You know, over the last 10, 20 years as vote by mail has become more prevalent in the West, a lot of the states leading the charge on that have been states led by Republicans. You know, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman in Washington state is one of the most outspoken advocates of vote by mail, and she's a Republican. Utah, Arizona have been states that have really led the way on increasing vote by mail, and those are, you know, Republican-majority states in a lot of cases.

FESSLER: Yeah. I mean, it is kind of interesting because there's this huge debate going on in who's helped most by having more mail-in or absentee voting. And the jury is definitely out on that. Most studies show that it really doesn't help either party one way or the other, although there is a sense that, in the past, it has helped the Republicans more when it's been absentee voting because it tends to be older, whiter voters who used that method of voting in the past. But we're in a whole different ballgame right now. I mean, nobody knows what's going to be happening this year.

KEITH: Can you explain what the legal fights are that are happening below the surface of this sort of public fight?

FESSLER: Well, there's a major, major battle going on in courts - you know, it's, like, almost like hand-to-hand combat - in courts in almost every state in this country between the Democrats and the Republicans over what rules are going to govern the absentee voting and expansion of mail-in voting. The Democrats are filing suits to get rid of a lot of the current restrictions - things like, you know, requirements that you need a witness signature, requirements that the ballot be received on Election Day. They'd like it to be that it just has to be postmarked on Election Day. They want voters to have their postage paid. They also want to have the ability for third-party groups like community groups to go out and have the ability to collect and deliver absentee ballots for people who might not be able to do it themselves. The Republicans...

KEITH: And that is particularly controversial, right?

FESSLER: Yes, exactly. The Republicans really don't like that. That's something that they call ballot harvesting, and they claim that this would really expose the system to fraud because, you know, you don't know if somebody is going to be pressuring the person on how to vote. And, in fact, we did have a big ballot harvesting case in 2018 in a congressional race in North Carolina.

PARKS: Yeah. I think, broadly, you just have to remember that any time rules are changing this quickly, both parties see it as an opportunity. They look at this as an election that could potentially be won in the margins. You know, you look at 2016 and how few states really ended up making the difference for President Trump. And both parties look at that and say, well, if we can, you know, get a few thousand votes here or there, if that means that the ballots that are sent, you know, before Election Day or on Election Day count as long as they're - even if they're received after Election Day, if that gives us 5- or 10,000 votes in one of these swing states, that could end up making a huge difference in November. So I think it really gets down to these margin races and just trying to fight for every vote.

FESSLER: Yeah. I mean, just as an example, the fact that ballots in Wisconsin in the primary that we had in April - the fact that a judge ruled that the ballot just had to be postmarked on Election Day and not received by Election Day meant that 79,000 more ballots were counted in that...

KEITH: Whoa.

FESSLER: Yeah, than would have been...

KEITH: That's a huge number. I mean, that's bigger - I mean, obviously, we don't, you know, in a general election, we wouldn't know, like, would they all go one direction or another? But that's far larger than the margin of victory that President Trump had in Wisconsin...

FESSLER: Right.

KEITH: ...In 2016.

FESSLER: Right. And all these rules - you know, I think it was 2018 - a half-million ballots - mail-in ballots in this country were rejected because either they didn't get - weren't received on time; the voter forgot to put a signature on it, you know; the voter didn't get a witness if they were required to get a witness. And that's a half a million ballots that were tossed and not counted. And those are the kinds of rules that this litigation is really focused on. And as Miles points out, you know, all these races, you know - this can make a big difference in some of these - in these states.

PARKS: And with voting - the voting rules, like, in an unprecedented time, all the modeling kind of gets thrown out too. So all the parties - both parties are just kind of flying blind and trying to get advantages wherever they can because, really, no one has any idea how all of these rule changes are actually going to affect the electorate in November.

KEITH: Well, and just one fascinating little note - while President Trump is railing against vote by mail and absentee voting - even though he has done it but claiming the Democrats are going to misuse it. Republicans in states around the country - you know, organizers and activists - are pushing hard and encouraging their voters to get their absentee ballots.

FESSLER: That's right.

PARKS: Yeah, Georgia is a good example where they basically - the Georgia secretary of state put in a similar rule to the one that President Trump was having such an issue with in Michigan. And what we've seen - The Brennan Center out of NYU just did an analysis on the people who've registered for absentee ballots. And 45% of voters over 65 have already registered to receive an absentee ballot, whereas only 9% of voters under 40 have registered. So I think that age difference shows you, in some cases, how the mail voting system can slant toward voters we traditionally think of as Republican.

KEITH: Certainly, older voters have tilted in that direction in the past - certainly. All right, well, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we've got some listener questions.

And we're back. And, Miles, you recently put out a call for listener questions related to voting. You put it out on your Twitter. I put it - I tweeted it forward, and we got a lot of good questions.

PARKS: Yeah, we got a lot of really, really good questions. I think what's interesting, too, is that, you know, from the hundreds of responses we got on Twitter and on Facebook, a lot of the questions ended up kind of following down just a few different threads. We have a cut here from a listener in Minnesota. We got this question a lot on Facebook and Twitter.

LAURA: Hey, this is Laura (ph) from Minneapolis, Minn. My question feels pretty drastic, but there's so many people talking about it that it feels worth asking. With the possibility of a second wave of COVID coming in the fall, there's been talk of delaying the presidential election in November. Is there any actual constitutional or legal pathway for this to happen?

KEITH: All right - so Pam and Miles.

PARKS: The political scientists I've talked to have basically said it would be close to impossible considering what - the hoops they would need to jump through involving getting the Republican Senate, the Democratic-controlled House and the president all on the same page is what you'd basically need. You would need bipartisan agreement to delay the election, and it just seems incredibly unlikely that you would be able to get that. The president has no executive authority to be able to delay or postpone the national election.

KEITH: OK. And one other question we got came from a listener, Cody Ferguson (ph).

CODY: Hi, my name's Cody from North Carolina. I was wondering why we're pushing voting by mail when we could be voting via mobile. We saw during the Iowa caucuses this is possible, although it might need cleaned up a bit. Can we do that and make voting more accessible to the masses via mobile?

KEITH: Wait; did he just say that the Iowa caucuses are an example of it being possible? (Laughter).

PARKS: Yeah, I think possible if - maybe not. I don't know that we would all look at the Iowa caucuses and say, yeah, I think this thing's ready for primetime. I think that's definitely debatable.

KEITH: Yeah, that's not the model.

PARKS: Not only that, but it's also important to note that people weren't actually voting on the app. The app was used to kind of tabulate and transport the results. But it's not like, you know, the thousands of people voting each were using their individual smartphones.

KEITH: Pam, why can't we just vote by mobile phone?

FESSLER: Well, I mean, this is something that some people have been pushing for a really long time. And I think they see the opportunity right now because, you know, people don't want to go to the polls. But there are so many security issues, and there have been so many issues about, you know, mobile systems not working and being insecure that, you know, I really, really don't - I mean, this is not the time for people to - states to be dealing with this. I mean, they have so much else to deal with.

PARKS: I thought it was really interesting, too, that the Department of Homeland Security even weighed in on this question a couple weeks ago. They released guidance that basically said electronic ballot return - which is a fancy way for saying Internet voting - is a high-risk endeavor. Now, the federal government, in that way, does not usually weigh in on voting issues, so you know that they really are not into this idea.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned something that I think is an important point underlying this entire discussion, which is that voting is not really a federal thing. It is a local and state thing. This is federalism - the way elections are done in America, you know, the rules vary by state, by county. It's a dispersed system.

FESSLER: Yeah. And, you know, and states have, you know, such a wide range of expertise. You know, in a lot of places, it's not even the states. It's the counties or even little towns that are really running the elections. And some of them - I mean, the thought that they might be doing mobile voting or online voting - I mean, they - some of them don't even have computers - you know, some of these small election offices. You know, it's just so out of the realm of expertise in a lot of these offices. And they have enough right now just trying to figure out how to protect themselves against hacking, which, you know, that - we're not even really talking much about that at all - this whole concern that outsiders like the Russians or somebody else will try to break into the election.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean, it's sort of a remarkable thing how the things that we thought that you and Miles would be covering this year have changed so dramatically.

FESSLER: Yes, exactly.

PARKS: The problems that we were talking about the last three years haven't gone away either. It's not like the Russians just decided, oh, they're having a tough go of it. You know, we probably shouldn't get involved this time around. You know, there are vulnerabilities in our system that - they haven't all been fixed. And all of these local election officials spent the last three years getting, you know, figurative master's degrees in cybersecurity and then were told, no, actually, don't even - don't - that - all that stuff is not the priority. You just need to make sure people can vote without getting sick, and you need to, you know, up your vote by mail - you know, double, triple your vote-by-mail infrastructure. But, you know, a lot of the reporting I've been doing the last couple weeks is on the fact that the cybersecurity community is really worried about this still.

KEITH: Well, that is a wrap for today. We are going to keep following your reporting, and we will definitely have you both back on the pod very soon. There is just so much to talk about. Both Pam and Miles have stories that have been up on the air and on npr.org and will continue to be. Find your station by going to npr.org/stations.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

FESSLER: And I'm Pam Fessler. And I cover voting too.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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