The Morning Meeting with Al Tompkins is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas worth considering and other timely context for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.
Look back at the 2020 election and you might get a clue about where the hang-ups will be tonight. I suppose they are not really hang-ups; they are regular processes that take longer to count. But the New York Times produced a useful graphic to remind you that Wisconsin didn’t declare a winner on election night but did the next day. Nevada and Pennsylvania took four days, Alaska took more than a week, North Carolina 10 days and Georgia’s race was not settled for a couple of weeks.
It might feel unusual to take days to get results, but really, it is not unusual by modern standards. In the 2020 primaries, 23 states took an average of 4 days to report nearly complete results. The Washington Post reminds us that in the 2020 primaries, “New York processed 94 percent of its votes within a few hours of polls closing. But counting the final six percent of votes took more than 10 days. Multiple races were so close that the winners remained unknown a month after the election.” In the 2020 Wisconsin primaries, “a federal judge ordered that no results could be released until nearly six days after polls closed.”
It is common knowledge that rain or winter storms can dampen voter turnout but in recent elections, mail-in voting has lessened the effect of weather on election turnout and in competitive races, people come out to vote rain or shine. The New York Times gives us examples.
So far this year, the Heritage Foundation counts a grand total of 39 (thirty-nine) voting fraud cases in the United States.
Here is a source you can cite that looks at claims of voter fraud going back to 2009:
The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
This whole idea of casting secret ballots has not always been our practice. History.com reminds us:
For the first 50 years of American elections, most voting wasn’t done in private, and voters didn’t even make their choice on a paper ballot. Instead, those with the right to vote (only white men at the time) went to the local courthouse and publicly cast their vote out loud.
Known as “viva voce” or voice voting, this conspicuous form of public voting was the law in most states through the early 19th century and Kentucky kept it up as late as 1891. As voters arrived at the courthouse, a judge would have them swear on a Bible that they were who they said they were and that they hadn’t already voted. Once sworn in, the voter would call out his name to the clerk and announce his chosen candidates in each race.
Campaigning and carousing were allowed at the polling place, and a drunken carnival atmosphere often accompanied early American elections, which might explain why elections in the voice-voting era commanded turnout rates as high as 85 percent.
The voting machine, called The Myers Automatic Booth lever voting machine, was first used in 1892 in Lockport, New York. Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa Department of Computer Science wrote:
In the words of Jacob H. Myers, this machine was designed to “protect mechanically the voter from rascaldom, and make the process of casting the ballot perfectly plain, simple and secret.”
The country was ready for a much more secure system after the incredibly corrupt presidential election of 1884. Fraud was so widespread, Smithsonian Magazine reports:
Apparently, ballot fraud was so common it developed its own vocabulary. “Colonizers” were groups of bought voters who moved en masse to turn the voting tide in doubtful wards. “Floaters” flitted like honeybees wafting from party to party, casting ballots in response to the highest bidder. “Repeaters” voted early and, sometimes in disguise, often. In Indiana, the absence of any voter registration especially invited such doings.
What voters should know about spotting intimidation at the polls
Voter intimidation is rare. Usually. But this election is so heated that I thought it was best for you to have these resources in your pocket today. I urge you to spend some time investigating your state’s rules and guidelines now, before accusations start flying.
Examples of intimidation may include:
- aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record, or other qualifications to vote, in a manner intended to interfere with the voters’ rights
- falsely presenting oneself as an elections official
- spreading false information about voter requirements, such as an ability to speak English, or the need to present certain types of photo identification (in states with no such requirement)
- displaying false or misleading signs about voter fraud and the related criminal penalties
- other harassment, particularly toward non-English speakers and voters of color
Who monitors voting?
The role of a poll watcher, or monitor, is to observe and monitor the election, without violating voter privacy or disrupting the election. Poll watchers are different from challengers, though in some jurisdictions, poll watchers may challenge the eligibility of voters or the validity of ballots.
The National Conference of State Legislatures gives you some examples:
- Kansas requires poll watchers to be registered voters unless the poll watcher is a member of the candidate’s family, or if the poll watcher is 14-17 years old and meets all of the other requirements for being a registered voter except age.
- Louisiana allows each candidate to appoint one poll watcher per precinct, but also allows them to appoint one “super watcher” who can serve as a poll watcher in any precinct in which the candidate’s name is on the ballot. North Carolina has a similar system in which county party chairs can appoint a set number of at-large observers who can act as poll watchers in any precinct in the county.
- States including Georgia, North Dakota and South Carolina statutorily require poll watchers to wear a badge indicating their name and organization. Other states may do so through administrative rules.
- Poll watcher laws also apply in states such as Oregon and Washington that primarily conduct their elections by mail. In those states observers watch the ballots get counted and processed instead of watching voters vote at the polls.
- Tennessee enacted in 2016 a prohibition on spouses of candidates serving as poll watchers.
In many states, poll monitors must be trained and certified by a political party or a candidate and must carry their certification paperwork with them. In many states, poll monitors also must be registered voters in the state or county where they are monitoring the polls.
Poll watcher rules vary. Here are a couple of examples:
The ACLU explains:
Generally, certified poll monitors are allowed inside the polling place, but states may limit the number of poll monitors per candidate/party at any given time. In many states, certified poll monitors may inspect the pollbooks. In many states, certified poll monitors can challenge the qualifications of voters. Unofficial/self-designated election observers are not permitted inside a polling place.
Poll monitors are not usually allowed in the “enclosed space” that includes the voting machines, the voting booth, or the area immediately around the poll workers’ tables. In many states, poll monitors may observe within a reasonable distance of the pollworkers’ table, but not interact directly with voters. In many states, poll monitors may not inspect the pollbooks when voters are present.
What are poll “challengers?”
The U.S. Election Assistance Office says:
Challengers are individuals who are authorized to raise concerns either with the election process or to challenge whether a voter is eligible to cast a ballot. Most jurisdictions that allow challengers place limits on the types of objections that are grounds for challenges. They may also restrict challengers from interacting with voters directly. Depending on the state, challengers may be required to have specific permission from an election official to be at a polling location.
States have their own rules about challengers too. Here are a couple of examples:
What if your name is not on the voter roll but should be?
Always ask poll workers to double-check the regular list of registered voters. If you are not registered, ask if there is a supplemental list of voters (sometimes, voters who register closer to Election Day are processed after the pollbooks are printed, then placed on a supplemental list). You may also ask them to check a statewide system, if one is available, to see if you are registered to vote at a different polling place. If they still can’t find you, ask for a provisional ballot. All voters are entitled to a provisional ballot, even if you are not in the pollbook. After Election Day, election officials must investigate whether you’re qualified and registered to vote; and if so, they must count your provisional ballot
See problems at the polls, report it here
You can report an issue by calling:
- The U.S. Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline: 800-253-3931;
- 1-866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683),
- 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (en Español)
- 1-888-API-VOTE (Asian multilingual assistance)
- 1-844-YALLA-US (Arabic)
- Local and state officials, including poll workers; your county clerk, elections commissioner, elections supervisor; or your state board of elections
Every state has different rules for voter ID.
Journalists: Remind voters that if they are in line when polls close, they can still cast a ballot. It is possible that voter turnout in some places will be heavy, and people will be standing in line for a while. Late in the day, when polls close, some results may start rolling in. Especially in Mountain and West Coast time zones, the trends from the East and Central time zones may discourage voters in other time zones to stand in line. There will be many very close races today, so don’t assume the race is settled until it is.
Is it true that the federal government invites international observers to watch our election?
Yes, it is true. The U.S. State Department does invite international observers to watch our election process with the goal of helping other countries think through how they can improve election procedures. There is nothing new about this. The cooperation goes through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The invitees fan out across the country and produce a document on what they observed.
The National Conference of State Legislatures explains:
The U.S. was a founding member of the OSCE and signed the 1990 Copenhagen Agreement, which gives member countries the right to observe each other’s elections. Besides the OSCE, other organizations that observe elections around the world include The Carter Center, The International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Five states and the District of Columbia mention international observers in state statutes. (California, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Tennessee) and of those five, only Tennessee prohibits international observers.
Tennessee’s state law (Tenn. Code Ann. 2-1-119) says: “Any representative of the United Nations appearing without a treaty ratified by the United States senate stating that the United Nations can monitor elections in this state, shall not monitor elections in this state.”
By the way, the U.S. also sends delegates to other countries to observe their elections.
Midterm voter turnout history
It may be tempting to think that Americans don’t turn out to vote as our parents and grandparents did. And it is not true. Let’s look at midterm election voting rates over time:
The data since 1948 is pretty solid and comes from Vital Statistics of American Politics. But more historic data often is an estimate.
Compared to other countries, even a “big” turnout today can’t compare to many other countries. Pew Research found:
Even if predictions of higher-than-usual turnout come to pass, the United States likely will still trail many of its peers in the developed world in voting-age population turnout. In fact, when comparing turnout among the voting-age population in the 2020 presidential election against recent national elections in 49 other countries, the U.S. ranks 31st – between Colombia (62.5%) and Greece (63.5%).
One of the significant factors in comparing the data is that some countries automatically register voters once they turn voting age. And some U.S. states have started doing that too. Still other countries require people to vote. Pew reports:
As of this past January, 19 states and the District of Columbia automatically register people to vote (unless they opt out) when they interact with the state motor vehicles department or other designated state agencies. Three other states are on track to fully implement automatic registration in the next few years. And North Dakota doesn’t require voter registration at all.
Another complicating factor for cross-national turnout comparisons: According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 27 countries (and one Swiss canton, or member state of the Swiss Confederation) have laws making voting compulsory, including 12 of the 50 countries examined here. Overall, 14 of those 27 countries actively enforce their laws, with penalties including fines, inability to access certain public services, or even imprisonment.
The way you cover Election Day may determine whether voters accept the results
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalist Resource Center officers this election-eve advice:
- 8 tips from a former elections administrator: Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona, provides advice for new and experienced journalists, including a list of things to monitor on Election Day.
- 11 tips from veteran journalists and election scholars: Experienced political reporters suggest ways journalists can make the best use of their time at local voting precincts. Meanwhile, scholars who research polling place dynamics share insights to help journalists spot problems and contextualize the information they gather.
- 4 tips on covering far-right rallies: Harvard researcher Joan Donovan, an expert on right-wing extremism and misinformation campaigns, says journalists can do these four things to minimize harm and keep rumors, lies and other bad information out of their coverage.
- Factors that can influence voter decisions on ballot measures: We spotlight research on the various factors that can influence whether voters support or reject a ballot measure, including how it’s worded and where it appears on the ballot.
- The role of local election officials: We highlight five studies that examine the role elections officials and poll workers play in making voting run smoothly. One study explains how the different processes for registering people to vote can affect registration rates across a state.