What To Expect Before Heading To The Polls What constitutes voter suppression versus disorganization by local officials running the ballot booths? Will long lines deter people from voting? Can you wear a campaign T-shirt to the polls and still vote? For more, Farai Chideya speaks with two experts on these matters of making sure your vote counts.

What To Expect Before Heading To The Polls

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/96538073/96536887" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now we've got more advice on making sure your vote counts with George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton. He's the author of "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression." Plus, we've got Shannon Reeves, a top-ranking staffer for the Republican National Committee. Hi, gentlemen.

Professor SPENCER OVERTON (Law, George Washington University; Author, "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression"): Hi. How are you doing, Farai?

Mr. SHANNON REEVES (Republican National Committee Staffer): Hey, there.

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. We're in the homestretch. So Shannon, I'm going to start with you. You've been working on the ground for the RNC for the last few months. So do you get a sense that people understand their voting rights?

Mr. REEVES: I get a sense that people understand, but I think we also want to always emphasize people's responsibility, that you have a responsibility to be informed and to go out and to cast your ballot. Just in the previous segment, I spent a 20-year career with the NAACP, and noting that, you know, Medger Evers and Dr. King gave their lives for us to have this right to vote, among others, that it's important for everyone to be steadfast and to not be deter - not be denied or deterred in going to the polls and to voting on Election Day.

So there are a lot of organizations that are at polling places. I'm in Nevada today, and there are - during the early voting last week, there were a lot of organizations present around the polling areas when you have problems. And we encourage people to, if you have problems, even if it's, you know, reading your ballot when you're in the ballot box, ask for help from those who are working with the local county to - who are working the polls with your local county.

CHIDEYA: Spencer, there's been a lot of talk about what constitutes fraud, particularly centering around ACORN and voter registrations, and what constitutes voter suppression. So how do you tell the difference between voter suppression and just disorganization if people haven't gotten it together on a local level to run a polling place?

Prof. OVERTON: Well, what's most important to voters is that they should go vote. You know, elections are running smoothly. In terms of a distinction between voter fraud and voter suppression, in terms of what's out there, the data suggests that claims about voter fraud are exaggerated and irresponsible, frankly.

But that is an aside. What's most important is that voters take basic steps, as Shannon has talked about, in terms of responsibility. Taking ID and some supporting documentation and taking some other steps and going in and casting their vote. Most voters are not going to have any trouble. Things are much better than they were in 2000.

CHIDEYA: All right. Early voters in some precincts have waited up to six hours to cast a ballot. One of them texted me from line, because I guess she had a lot of time. So we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but we can expect some lines.

Let's talk about a very specific, practical issue, which is getting time off from work. Shannon, how should people ask for time off, and what happens if you go to vote and then you kind of get stuck because you don't want to leave the line, but at the same time, you're not really getting anywhere as fast as you thought you would?

Mr. REEVES: Well you know, it's amazing to me all this crying about, you know, how much time it takes, how long you have to wait in line. And maybe I'm just a little too practical. People get off of work to go to ball games, to go to Essence Festival, to go to anything that they want to go to, they find a way. You know, people even lie and call in sick on these jobs.

So let's keep it real. This is an opportunity that somebody died for you to have the right and the opportunity to vote. Get out if you have to stand in line all day. You stand in line for concert tickets. You stand in line to go wherever you want to go. This is one day in history, on tomorrow, to go and cast your ballot for the candidate that you believe in the most. And that's what it's all about at the end of the day.

So employers, they understand tomorrow's Election Day, and in many places they give you time off. This is an extraordinary situation with the amount of turnout that we're seeing from across the country, and this is, you know, democracy at its greatest. I'm not minimizing the fact that there are problems in places with not enough machines or not enough, you know, staff. But work through it, and keep it in perspective. Most of the time when people want to get off these jobs, when they have something else to do, they find a way to do the things that they enjoy the most for entertainment.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Spencer, how about this. I mean, you know, there's some jobs that - let's be real, it's a little bit easier to get time off than others. I mean, if you were an Emergency Room ICU nurse, probably not so easy to just say, hey, I'm just going to be off for a little bit. Other jobs maybe a little easier.

But here's a political spin that's just been put on this. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow argued that long voting lines were the modern-day equivalent of the poll tax, and she argued that if you have to take leave and pay for that leave in order to stand in long lines, you were paying for the right to vote. Some people view that as a long stretch of an argument, but what do you think? Do you buy that?

Prof. OVERTON: Well, Farai, I will note that Starbucks, McDonalds, they'd go out of business if they made you stand in line three or four hours to buy a Quarter Pounder or get a cup of coffee. Certainly, the right to vote is more important than those two things.

That said, I do agree with Shannon in terms of this notion that if there are problems, one needs to just stay there, whatever it is. I mean, we can debate about what the fixes are in the future. Right now, it's time for America to cast its ballots here in terms of determining who the next president will be and who will fill all these other offices, and it's important to stay there and cast your ballot. If you're in line by the time the polls close, you can stay there and stay in line until you have a chance to cast your ballot.

CHIDEYA: Quick question. There have been a lot of questions about whether or not you can wear insignia to the polls. You know, your favorite pin, your favorite T-shirt. Shannon and then Spencer, thumbs up on insignia? Can you wear it? Or thumbs down?

Mr. REEVES: Don't even chance it. Don't even chance it.

CHIDEYA: Don't even chance it.

Mr. REEVES: Just - look, you don't wear that stuff to work every day, you know, just go in, you know - you don't have - it's not the time to campaign. It's a time to do your civic duty. Now it's personal. Tomorrow it's personal. You can walk precincts, that's over with now. Tomorrow it's time to go into the ballot box, go into the booth and cast your ballot, and it's personal. You don't have to shine - look, you want to go to a party afterwards and watch the polls come in? Do that.

Don't even chance it. Not a button. Not a T-shirt. Not a cap, or anything. Go into the polls with the - take ID, even if you think you don't need ID. Be prepared, and take this seriously, and go in and - I think there may - there's going to be some problems, and keep in mind, both sides are going to - there are lawyers on both sides, ready to challenge any and every little thing. Go in, be thoughtful about it, and handle your business.

Tomorrow's a big, big day for the country. A big, big day, you know, for all of us, and I just think, regardless of who your candidate it, do your - have your - take your responsibility to go. And you don't need the T-shirts and the buttons and the caps. It's not about campaigning. It's about doing what you have to do.

CHIDEYA: Spencer, we just heard from Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP. And one of the things that comes up there is the hotline, the voting hotline that they have, and the idea that not just through the NAACP but through many different sources there are lawyers on call if you think you're having a problem at the polls that you shouldn't have. Do you expect there to be any legal challenges tomorrow that could slow things down, at the very least, or even bring them to a halt in terms of the counting of the ballots and the declaring of the next president?

Prof. OVERTON: There may be some challenges, but again, don't stay home because you think that your ballot won't count because there're going to be challenges or problems. Political operatives are not going to steal this election. Voting rights lawyers are defending the right to vote, and the courts have been rejecting barriers to voting.

We've seen political operatives bring dozens of lawsuits trying to erect voting barriers in a number of states, and they keep losing. And so it is not going to be a problem. It's incredibly important to cast your ballot. Lawyers and courts are going to protect the right to vote.

CHIDEYA: Shannon, we've spoken with a variety of black Republicans and black conservatives. We spoke with Michael Steele about what he saw as a very difficult road for black Republicans in terms of gaining traction overall. You are someone who is black, who is conservative, who has been in the past, but not currently, affiliated with the NAACP. What is the role of the Republican Party in making sure that African-Americans have a secure vote tomorrow?

Mr. REEVES: Well, I don't know - we don't have a role in that. Civil rights organizations are going to handle their business when it comes to - like you had, you know, Ben Jealous on, who gave people the 866-OURVOTE. That's going to be the role of civil rights organization. I don't think either political party is going to actually play a role in actually doing that.

I think, you know, from the Republican National Committee standpoint and the party, you know, we're going to work to get all the votes out for our candidate. But I just can't emphasize how important it is for, you know, for everybody to exercise their right. I mean, after the election is over, regardless of who is the winner at the presidential - of this election or all the elections across the country, the Republican Party - we're going to be in a rebuilding mode because we're going to either going to have a new president from our party, or we're going to have an election and review the results and find out how do we rebuild our organization and prepare for cycles in the future.

So I think there's opportunity, there's plenty of room at the table for African-Americans in my party to play a role in the future development of the Republican Party, which I think is very, very needed.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there, but I'm sure we'll be checking in with both of you over the exciting coming days. Thank you, gentlemen.

Prof. OVERTON: Thanks so much, Farai.

Mr. REEVES: Thanks very much.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Shannon Reeves, a top-ranking staffer for the Republican National Committee. Also Spencer Overton, a professor of law at George Washington University. He's also the author of "Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression," and he joined us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.