Happy Scribe
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Hi, I'm Corey, so I took a vacation to New Zealand back in January. The plan was to rent a camper van and travel around the country. But guess what? I'm still here and I'm still living in a camper van.

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This podcast was recorded that October 1st at 207 pm.

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Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Wish me luck because I try to figure out how to receive and submit my absentee ballot.

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I'm speechless. I know that sounds like a vacation that more from great to terrifying. Real quick. Good luck. Hey, there it is, the NPR Politics podcast. I am Danielle Kersley.

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When I cover politics, I'm Miles Parks and I cover voting.

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I'm Pam Fessler and I also cover voting. And our listeners may have gathered from the fact we have Miles and Pam here. We are talking voting today. Does Election Day is technically more than a month away, 32 days and 10 ish hours. But who's counting? But more than two million Americans have already cast their ballots. So Election Day or no people are getting it done. That data, by the way, is according to Michael McDonald, U.S. Elections Project.

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So let's just start with that number, Miles and Pam. Two million people. That sounds big. But how how does that compare to past years?

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Well, compared to past years, it's way bigger, especially at this point in the election. I mean, we're 33 days away and two million Americans have already voted. It's extraordinary. And it's all because so many people want to vote by mail because of the pandemic.

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Yeah, you look at like North Carolina there, the number of absentee ballots that have been returned so far is like 17 times higher than it was at this point in 2016. Obviously, it's not really a fair comparison because they've loosened the rules about who can actually vote absentee. But I think it gives you a good indication that people are just voting at different times. Like you think about the idea of the stereotypical October surprise, you know, is such a different idea now because so many ballots are going to be cast over the next couple of weeks, that by Election Day, a huge chunk of the electorate probably will already have voted.

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That's a great point, Miles. So I looked up before we started recording today in 2016. It looks like around 20 percent of people voted by mail. But I know you reported that not long ago experts were projecting that as many as 70 percent of Americans might vote by mail. So a huge spike. But you've also reported that people have changed their minds.

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So what's going on there yet has been kind of a roller coaster on trying to guess this summer how many people were going to vote by mail. You know, we saw in the primaries in the spring, you think about Wisconsin, I believe that was in April, like 70 percent of voters in that primary voted by mail. But then and we saw in polls that we conducted NPR Marist College poll in May showed about 50 percent of people saying they were likely to vote by mail in November.

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But now the polling data that's coming out over the last couple of weeks is showing a drop in that number. You know, we saw 35 percent of people in our most recent poll say they're expecting to vote by mail, which, you know, that might not sound like a huge difference to people. The difference between 50 or 60 percent to 35 percent. But you're talking about, you know, tens of millions of people who, instead of voting by mail, are now saying they're going to vote specifically in-person on Election Day.

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About half of the electorate in our most recent poll said they wanted to vote in-person on Election Day and that has election officials pretty concerned. When you think about all of these people trying to vote at the same time, in the same way on Election Day instead of by mail, like we thought they were going to, that could create some real problems.

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And one of the big problems is that that officials really don't know what's going to happen. So in effect, they have to actually run two separate elections. They're running a mail and voting election, plus an in-person voting election because they just really don't know what people are going to decide to do, because even people who request absentee ballots, a lot of them might decide that they want to actually go to the polls instead. And that is an option for for people.

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So and we also don't know what's going to happen with the pandemic if if, you know, cases are going to start surging, what impact that might have as well.

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Well, and to be totally clear here, when we're talking about those numbers that Miles brought up, the sort of roller coaster of people saying, I'm going to vote by mail, no, never mind, I'm going to vote in person. Do we know what's behind that shift or do we have an idea of it?

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It seems like it's kind of a blend of things because you're seeing things affecting different parts of the electorate. Obviously, early on in the pandemic, when it start, we started to see kind of hints about this vote by mail expansion. President Trump immediately came out and his allies came out basically with a full force against the idea of a vote by mail expansion. And Republican voters almost immediately responded to that. They started saying, oh, wait, even if I thought I was going to vote by mail, I actually want to vote in person.

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You know, we saw the amount of Republicans saying they wanted to vote by mail, immediately drop it looked in the middle of the summer like Democrats. Then we're going to anchor this vote by mail expansion. But then August rolls around and we have all of these high profile congressional hearings about, you know, postal service delays. And Democratic voters heard that and said, you know what, I want my vote to count. And I think, you know, voting by mail might be just a little bit scary for me right now.

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You know, I was speaking with a voter up in Pennsylvania and it was interesting. One of the reasons she was going to the vote by mail, but then she decided she wanted to go in person, but not because she was worried about her ballot not getting there, but she was worried about somebody specifically. President Trump declaring himself a winner on Election Day based just on the in-person voting results. And she wanted to make sure that her vote was going to be counted.

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So she said, I'm going to go and vote in person because I just I want my vote to count that day. All right.

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Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk more about voting, including voting misinformation that President Trump has spread.

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There are these networks of staunchly pro-gun groups on Facebook and one of them is run by these three brothers, the door brothers. But it turns out they don't just do guns. The door family name has been attached to other causes.

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Their goal is to eliminate public education and to replace it with Christian schooling. The roots of the door family on the No Compromise podcast from NPR.

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And we're back. And we are turning to President Trump now on the issue of voting this week at the debate, President Trump spread baseless. And we want to be clear on that baseless voter fraud, conspiracy theories. Miles, let's start with you, because I know you were watching and helping us fact check on this. What struck you about some of the things that President Trump said? I think a lot of them were sort of towards the end of the debate.

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And what are the implications to you?

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You know, we get there the first hour and a half of the debate. We haven't heard anything about it. And then it's like the last five minutes, we just get a rapid fire of voting, which really led to a rapid fire of President Trump's favorite claims about voting kind of coming one after the other. He's naming, saying ballots were being found in creeks and ditches, naming a bunch of states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, to the point where, you know, even as somebody who for a living tracks this stuff, I was having to rack my brain and try to think of what he's talking about in each individual instance.

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And that makes it really hard for voters who are trying to parse out, whoa, are there really like all of these issues around this vote by mail expansion? Should I be scared?

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And I think my takeaway from it was the fact that, yes, there are election administration issues from this huge, you know, bureaucratic undertaking the U.S. government is trying to do right now, holding a national election in the middle of a pandemic. But the president is able to basically seize on every isolated, tiny instance where you think about this incident in Pennsylvania, where we're talking about nine ballots. It comes out that he's trying to say it's fraud. But in reality, the lead election official says this was just a new election worker who made a mistake and discarded a couple ballots that shouldn't have been discarded.

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And so what we're going to see over the next couple of weeks, probably just judging by what's happening now, is we're going to see more of these administrative issues because more people are voting and therefore some more of these are probably going to come to light. And the president is probably going to seize on them and say they're more nefarious than they actually are.

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Well, and he also, aside from what you've been talking about, he's been urging his supporters to, quote, go into the polls and watch very carefully. And, Pam, I know you've been reporting quite a bit on this. You've reported that that's really unnerved voting rights advocates. Tell us more about that.

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What you have is this combination of the president sort of attacking the voting system itself and then at the same time saying, oh, you should go watch this to his supporters to make sure that that the Democrats don't steal the election. So there are a lot of concerns that people have about people maybe showing up at the polls and that they might intimidate voters. And we saw some of this emerge a few days ago in Fairfax County, Virginia, at an early voting site.

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There was a group of Trump supporters who showed up outside the polls. They were waving flags and signs and they were chanting four more years. But there was a long line of voters outside waiting to cast their ballots. And now nobody, nobody was actually blocked from voting.

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But some of these voters felt intimidated and the election officials had to move the line inside so that the voters would actually feel a little bit more comfortable. But but these voters complained and the attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, actually issued an opinion making the point. That there are laws, state and federal laws against voter intimidation and that they were going to be enforced if voters did, in fact, feel like they were being blocked from voting.

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I did think there was an interesting point that one of the voting rights advocates made that you mentioned in your story, Pam, which was this idea that this is not the first time that this idea, you know, ambiguous idea of pollwatchers coming out to the polls and scaring people has, you know, been around in U.S. elections. And what she said basically was it doesn't usually materialize on Election Day. But the problem is that it can it can have a chilling effect on voters.

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If you're kind of on the fence about going at all and you've been hearing this idea that there could be somebody there who is going to give make this a problem for you, then maybe it's just not worth it. Right. Does it seem like that is, you know, almost a bigger worry than the actual act of people showing up on Election Day?

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Yeah, I mean, I do think that is definitely a concern. We had a lot of the same thing in 2016, that there were groups, vigilante groups that were threatening to go to the polls to make sure that there was nothing nefarious going on. Roger Stone had this whole group called Stop the Steal, and he was going to organize all these people to go go to the polls. But actually, it never materialized. And so civil rights people are voting rights groups, you know, are concerned that it's just all the talk about this that might intimidate voters and might keep them from showing up.

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So they're very worried about that. But at the same time, we have a different atmosphere this year than even four years ago.

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And I just got some new numbers from a survey that voters at the Democracy Fund has done talking about the use of violence at the polls. And there are actually some pretty astonishing numbers. They said they found that only 56 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats think that violence would not be justified at all if the opposite party wins. And that's down substantially from June. And even more alarming, 20 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats think that there is a lot or a great deal of justification for violence if the other party wins the presidential election.

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So that's a pretty astonishing numbers. Yeah, that's terrifying.

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That really is. Well, maybe let's wrap this up by stepping back from what you just told us, Pam. I mean, we've been talking here about some honestly pretty scary and pretty extraordinary things about voter intimidation, but we don't leave our listeners terrified.

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Let's step back and just say, look, there's no reason for people to actually be afraid of voting, correct?

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Oh, definitely. And a lot of these things that people say are intimidation, you know, you can just walk right by these people if you want. You know, they cannot stop you from voting. And, you know, the election officials usually have you know, they have procedures on how to respond to to incidents. They try to de-escalate them if there are any kind of confrontations at the polls. And they can also call in law enforcement if things get out of hand.

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But quite frankly, I mean, it has happened so infrequently. And, you know, hopefully that will be the case again this year.

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All right. We'll leave it there. And I think it's also good to put out a plug for that. We have a new Life Kid episode, right, about voting that you worked on, Miles. So we should direct our listeners to go listen to that, to answer all of their questions about voting. But until then, I am Danielle Kurtz and I cover politics.

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I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting. I'm Pam Fessler and I also cover voting.

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And thank you for listening to the NPR Politics podcast.