Election 2008: What to Expect at the Polls

Doug Chapin, Dan Seligson and Sean Greene
Director, Editor and Research Director,
Friday, October 31, 2008; 2:00 PM

Can you wear an Obama button into the polling place? How far away do you have to be to wave your McCain sign? What ID should you bring? Who should you notify if you see voter suppression or illegal voters? Director Doug Chapin, editor Dan Seligson and research director Sean Greene of the Pew Center for the States's were online Friday, Oct. 31 at 2 p.m. ET to answer all your questions about voting, polling place etiquette and rules in 2008, and other questions you might have about the election.

Be sure to visit's Vote Monitor on Election Day to tell us if you encounter any problems voting, and to keep track of voting-related news.

The transcript follows.


Seneca, S.C.: Can you wear a political button in the polling place? If not, can you have a sign for your candidate within a certain distance of the polls?

Doug Chapin: Thanks for having us here today. We have tons of information on our Web site, and we're looking forward to your questions.

In response to the first question, state rules vary on political garb at the polls. Some states will ask you to remove anything you're wearing with the candidate's name. They might give you tape or something else to cover the name. Point is, however, you cannot be denied the opportunity to vote based on what you're wearing.


Arlington, Va.: Everyone is talking about the lines being epically long. When's the best time to go? First thing in the morning or after work? Also, I heard that as long as you're in the door by 7 p.m., you'll still be allowed to vote. So is it better to show up just before the polls close?

Dan Seligson: Excellent question -- in contrast to previous years, there may not be a "good" time to go. The mid-afternoon tends to be slow -- in most years. But that might not be the case if we have the expected historic turnout on Tuesday. Be patient, and as more than one election official has suggested, bring a book.


Washington: Is there any reason I should have more confidence in Florida's ability to run a fair election this time around?

Dan Seligson: Florida has certainly been the "poster child" for election reform since 2000... but no state has done more to try address the problems it's been facing. The amount of change in the Sunshine State has been staggering - in South Florida they'll be using the third separate voting technology in as many presidential elections. That said, the Secretary of State (himself a former county election official) has repeatedly told his colleagues that they must do whatever they can to "not be the next Florida."


Loudoun County, Va.: Please be sure to let everyone know that if they have any problems at their polling location -- if they have their drivers license or other valid identification and are turned away for any reason, or if they have any issues with the voting process, ballots or voting machine -- they immediately should call 1-800-OUR-VOTE. Volunteers will assist them. Don't walk away without voting!

Dan Seligson: Agreed. The only vote that is definitely not going to count is the one that doesn't get cast.


Takoma Park, Md.: Is there a movement among states to provide early voting in the future? Has the early voting in Virginia been deemed a success? Specifically, is it something Maryland ever would consider?

Sean Greene: No-excuse absentee voting and in-person early voting are on the rise nationally. We have seen estimates that this year, a third of all ballots will be cast before polls open on Tuesday. Maryland voters will consider a measure that could open the door for early voting in the future.


Great Falls, Va.: I have heard that during early voting in Virginia, election officials are making phone calls to verify each voter's status when they arrive at the polls, creating very long lines. Is this accurate? Will this happen on Election Day also?

Dan Seligson: That is true. That's part of the "in-person absentee" process in Virginia. That does not happen on Election Day because poll workers have a list of all registered voters for the precinct.


Washington: Do I have any recourse if my requested absentee ballot does not arrive in the mail? Also, have there been reported problems with D.C. absentee ballots?

Dan Seligson: Sorry to hear about that. Have you tried calling the election office? If you did not receive a response, have you considered going to the election office to vote early in person? There were problems with misprinted absentee ballots in the District, and I'm not sure if that's the hold up with yours.


Arlington, Va.: I voted last night -- it was nice to do it ahead of time because I always worry that I'll somehow miss it on Nov. 4. I wondered two things though: I stood in line for two hours, and worry that if it took that long to vote yesterday, the lines be worse on Nov. 4. Also, the polls were supposed to be open from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., but they still were allowing people to get in the two-hour line right before 7 p.m. How does that work? Thanks for doing this chat.

Sean Greene: The general rule across the country is that you can get in line at any point up to the time that polls close. Everyone in line at poll closing time is eligible to cast a ballot.


Manassas, Va.: Do absentee votes get counted on the night of the election? If not, then Election Night may not decide. You may have to wait until all absentee votes are counted. Could it be that close?

Doug Chapin: Most jurisdictions start counting absentee ballots on Election Day. This year, however, with so many absentee or vote by mail ballots, that count may not be completed by election night. Contrary to some rumors out there, all absentee ballots are counted whether or not they affect the outcome.


Montgomery County, Md.: Thanks for doing this chat. Could you remind voters to mark their sample ballots and bring them with them to the polling place to speed their time in the voting booths? I'm sure everyone will have decided who they are voting for in national races -- but have they decided whether they support, for instance, the proposed amendments to the Montgomery County charter? We are expecting record turnout in all three metro-area jurisdictions -- the time to start thinking about who you want to vote for county judge is not when you are in front of the voting machine with 100 people in line behind you. Thanks!

Doug Chapin: Many of you may have heard the commercials by a local clothing store that an educated consumer is our best customer. That same approach applies to Election Day. Just as important is knowing where you vote, verifying your registration status and knowing what you might need to bring with you to the polling place, such as an ID.


Washington: I saw a report yesterday that a vast number of requested absentee ballots in Colorado have not yet been returned. Is it typical for people to drop the ball with absentee ballots? Is there a statistic on return percentage?

Dan Seligson: We don't have definitive research yet but we're hearing stories from across the country that many voters are holding on to their absentee ballots longer. Los Angeles County, Calif., for example, has seen huge numbers of these ballots dropped off at polling places on Election Day. Maybe people aren't trusting the mail?

As a side note, anyone interested in early voting turnout should check out the United States Election Project hosted by Prof. Michael McDonald of GMU.


Boston: Could you take a minute and talk us down after watching that West Virginia instructional video in which the touch screen unexpectedly turns Obama votes into votes for minor third-party candidates, or Democratic Ticket votes into Republican votes, while McCain votes stay the same? Even after the technician helpfully "recalibrated" it, it turned Obama votes into Nader votes.

Sean Greene: There is a lot of concern about voting systems. Nearly 60 percent of voters will be casting their ballots on paper this election. I think what's important is that if someone sees a machine acting strangely, they alert a poll worker before finalizing the ballot.


Silver Spring, Md.: Any difference between absentee voting and day-of voting? I have to go out of town that day at the last minute and plan to vote this afternoon in Montgomery County. Will my vote definitely be counted?

Sean Greene: Your vote will be counted. When voting absentee, make sure to double check your ballot for any stray marks, over-votes, under votes, etc. and that you sign the envelope and do whatever else is asked.

Again, all absentee votes get counted.


Pittsburgh: I'm worried that because Pennsylvania has no early voting, and only allows absentee balloting under strictly limited situations, plus really nice autumn weather is forecast for Tuesday, so the polls will be mobbed here in the Keystone State. I'm fortunate enough to be able to go vote during the normally lighter mid-day, but I worry that unusually long lines will discourage especially our new voters. Do you know if there'll be more voting machines here than before?

Re: Touch-screen voting machines, I've heard about problems in neighboring West Virginia, where early voting has been going on for a while, that some people who press the screen for one presidential candidate are claiming their vote was recorded for the other. Does this only happen for people who split their tickets (i.e., registered in one party, but voting for the presidential ticket of the other party)? How can a voter determine if this is happening, and if one can, how does one go about rectifying the situation?

Dan Seligson: I'm going to watch the vote in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and I too expect to see some seriously long lines. In a state that does not have early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, that's just par for the course.

I think new voters have been hearing the news and they will expect a wait when they get to the polls. The early voters in a number of states have endured 4-5 hour lines, and we haven't seen a lot of reports of people walking away without voting.


Washington: I have the luxury of being off from work Tuesday. When would be the best time for voting, considering I live in a semi-large suburb of Washington? I was thinking maybe 11:30 a.m. Thanks.

Doug Chapin: Dan and Sean have already voted. I'm going to vote tomorrow. As we said before, there may be no good time to vote. Just pick a time when it would bother you least to spend a couple of hours in line.


Washington: Thanks very much for all the helpful information. I wanted to let people know that I called the D.C. Board of Elections to check on the status of my absentee ballot. While it rang many times, someone very helpful picked up and told me it was in the mail. It should be here today. But I was surprised to get a real person, and not all sorts of prompts.

Dan Seligson: We're here to help! Glad to know that they're working it out.


Fairfax, Va.: My elderly grandmother is going blind and would like to have some assistance in the voting booth to make sure she votes for the correct candidates. Can a family member go into the booth with her, or a poll worker? What are the rules with this?

Doug Chapin: As part of the Help America Vote Act, every polling place now has a voting system accessible for people with disabilities. Your grandmother should be offered the choice of using a machine that uses audio prompts and a keypad to allow her to cast a ballot secretly and independently. However, if she wants assistance, she can choose who she wants to help her.


Herndon, Va.: It seems like election procedures are about 30 years behind the times. How do we go about getting poll hours extended? 7 p.m. is way too early to close -- many people still are stuck in traffic then. Also, why do I have to be in my home precinct to vote? I work 20 miles from home, and it would be more convenient to vote at a polling place near my office at midday. Shouldn't they be able to provide me with the appropriate ballot by looking up my name and address? How can I work on getting these changes made for the next election?

Sean Greene: Most states are still using a precinct-based system on Election Day; however, more and more are offering convenience voting such as early voting or no-excuse absentee voting. A few - mostly in Colorado - are experimenting with vote centers, which allow a voter to cast a ballot anywhere in their county (or jurisdiction) albeit with a reduced number of polling locations.


Arlington, Va.: This only applies to Virginia: No one can wear any partisan materials in the polling place -- buttons, hats, stickers, T-shirts and so on. If you do enter with this, you will be asked to take it off or turn shirts inside out. The morning is likely to be busiest period on Election Day. If you can, consider voting in the early afternoon. All voters in line at 7 p.m. will get to vote.

And though I agree that voters should be vigilant, some take this too far. Election officers volunteer and are there to make the process work. We are not the enemy! For instance, in Virginia, you must be registered and vote in your precinct. If you are not in the correct precinct and insist on voting there anyway, we will give you a provisional ballot, but I can guarantee that it will not be counted. So when the chief election officer tells you where you need to go to vote, don't argue -- we are just following the law and giving you the info you need to vote. From a Chief Election Officer in Virginia.

Doug Chapin: That's important for everyone to remember. For all of the discussion of voting machines, election laws and other procedures, elections are basically a human endeavor. Voting may be an act of civic engagement, but Election Day, especially this year, will require civil engagement as well.


Washington: Do we have people from other countries monitor the fairness of our elections, or at least the presidential ones? I just find it ironic that we go to supervise the elections of others but we can't seem to get them right ourselves.

Doug Chapin: I have had lots of opportunities in the last month to meet and speak with observers and reporters from around the world. The Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a delegation here and I know of several other unofficial delegations here to observe the vote. The foreign press has been acutely interested in the process this year as well.

One thing they have in common -- they marvel at the decentralization of the American electoral system. Or rather the 51 (including the District of Columbia) election systems in this country.


Washington: I registered in Washington before the deadline, but the election office doesn't have me in the system. They said I could do a "special ballot." What are the chances that my vote actually will be counted? I made a copy of my voter registration form before I mailed it in. Is this kind of thing typical of the D.C. government?

Sean Greene: Good idea making the copy. I can't promise that it will be counted, but you have evidence that you submitted a registration application. They will offer you a provisional ballot (a special ballot) at the polls and you will be able to find out whether the vote counted by going to the District's Web site -


Denver: Denver is not using the voting centers this election, so all Election Day voters must vote at their precinct location. Early voting, which wraps up today in Denver, was available at different locations around the city. I don't know about the rest of Colorado.

Dan Seligson: Almost 20 counties in Colorado are using vote centers. Denver had a rather difficult roll out of vote centers in 2006 and may have wanted to avoid a repeat this time around.


Washington: I was approached by someone outside of my voting location who wanted to know whom I was planning on voting for -- specifically asking if I was going to vote for a particular candidate. Is this legal?

Doug Chapin: As long as they respect the boundaries set up by the precinct captain that bars electioneering within a certain distance of a polling place, then yes, it's perfectly legal. There should be a mark outside the door delineating the boundaries of where campaigning can and can't occur.

I get those questions all the time too. Of course, you are under no obligation to answer.

If a campaign volunteer is being too aggressive, don't hesitate to mention it to a poll worker.


A couple of hours in line?: What a disincentive to voting ... how many folks are gonna say "why bother?" Any reason we couldn't have a three-day voting period, including weekend day?

Dan Seligson: A lot of people are taking a 3-day period for voting - that's early voting. This is a debate you frequently hear regarding a holiday for election day or weekend voting. But recently, the explosion in early voting suggests that people are choosing their own election day.

In all but a handful of states, voting on election day is less of a requirement than a choice.


Alexandria, Va.: Okay, now I'm confused. I called the City of Alexandria elections department yesterday to inquire about early voting and they told me that Virginia does not have early voting, and that you have to certify you will not be able to vote on Nov. 4. Was I given incorrrect information? What is the truth about early voting in Virginia? Thanks for taking the question.

Sean Greene: Great question. Virginia has in-person absentee voting and you are supposed to have a reason for not being able to go to the polls on Election Day.

In many jurisdictions in the state, anyone who says they will be out of their county for any period of time (even minutes) can vote via an in-person absentee ballot. The absence requirement, in other words, is being liberally construed in an effort to alleviate crowds on Election Day.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Like "Pittsburgh", I am worried about long lines in Pennsylvania. Since we now require identification checks and provisional ballots, it is expected that both sides will have people challenging voters from the other party. Is there anything that could be done if it becomes clear that one side is doing this deliberately to make the lines longer to discourage voters of the other party to vote?

Dan Seligson: The identification requirement is only for first-time voters. Photo and certain kinds of non-photo IDs are accepted.

I think you're right about provisional ballots. With this many new voters in the system, there is the possibility that some records were incorrectly entered or otherwise slipped through the cracks.


Washington: Saw in an earlier discussion topic that Florida is working on its kinks. Any predictions of who will take its place in fouled-up elections this time around?

Doug Chapin: We picked 12 states to watch -- you can read that article here.

We hate to predict a meltdown on Election Day. We can, however, say that there are indications that Colorado could be interesting and Ohio, with its pre-election day litigation, might be worth watching.


Sean Greene: Thank you all for your excellent questions. We'll be tracking developments nationwide on our Web site and will report from the ground in several states.

As Bob Schieffer's grandmother once said, "Go vote. It will make you big and strong."


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