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The pandemic changed how — and when — Americans vote

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Let's dig a little bit more into the voting process itself with NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting. Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

RASCOE: So tens of millions of people have voted already. Give us the big picture about how Americans are able to cast their votes now.

PARKS: Yeah, so as people may remember, 2020 really supercharged American early voting and mail voting. This election, we're probably going to see more of that, if not just a little bit pulled back just because 2020 election was kind of at the peak of the global pandemic, right? So we had a new NPR Marist NewsHour poll out that found that more than half of voters this election cycle have either already voted or are planning to vote before Election Day. You compare that to just 10 years ago - about 70% of Americans voted in person on Election Day. The last thing I'll say is that we are seeing a partisan divide happening, though, when it comes to those early vote numbers. We know Democrats are still casting mail ballots at much higher rates in places like North Carolina and Pennsylvania than Republicans are, due in a large part to people like former President Trump and other high-profile Republicans really pushing misinformation about voting-by-mail security over the last couple of years.

RASCOE: You know, voting is going to turn into vote counting on Tuesday night. What should we keep in mind as we're waiting for results?

PARKS: The key word that we are pushing this election cycle, we were pushing in 2020 is patience. You know, it takes a long time to count 100 million or more than a hundred million little pieces of paper that have a bunch of different questions. And then you add in the fact that in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they've not changed the rules to allow local election officials to begin processing their mail ballots. Mail ballots take longer than in-person ballots to process, to do the kind of security measures that keep that form of voting safe, and they're not able to even start doing that until Election Day. So in those swing states, it may take a little bit longer for those mail ballots to get counted. And what that means is that early on in the time right after Election Day, it may look like Republicans have leads because we know Republicans this cycle plan on voting in person on Election Day in higher numbers than Democrats do. That might change in the coming hours after Election Day. That's not something to be scared of. Even if we know some people, like former President Trump, might say that something nefarious is going on, that doesn't mean that's what's happening.

RASCOE: We've seen this before, right? Like, as the counts are going on, you know, there - all of these accusations get lodged, you know, depending on where you are in the count...

PARKS: Like clockwork. Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Whether you're winning or not. If you're winning, then stop the vote and stop the count. If you're not winning, then keep going. You've been reporting on concerns that some of these disputes could lead to violence. Like, what should we know about that?

PARKS: So we've heard a lot over the last couple of years from local election officials that this is just a really polarized environment. They've spent the last couple of years hardening their local offices from a physical security perspective. A lot of these offices have gone through de-escalation training, and they've also built a lot of new relationships with their local law enforcement agency, which seems kind of bleak to say, but that is kind of the moment we're living in. It is clear from where we're seeing the most threats against local law enforcement officials where these hot spots are. And it's mostly swing states - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona. Experts I talked to, though, do say it's really important not to overstate the threats to voters. Here's David Becker, who's the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. And at a media briefing recently, he said it's important to note that most voters will not have any issue casting their ballots.

DAVID BECKER: There would be nothing that extremists and election deniers would like more than for voters to feel scared about whether they should vote. And they shouldn't. Voters are showing that you can vote in complete safety in this election.

RASCOE: That's a bit of reassurance there. Like, are there any other bright spots when it comes to voting this time around?

PARKS: Absolutely. I mean, I think the fact that this many people have voted early in this election is a sign that access to early voting nationally has gotten much, much easier for most of the country. I mean, we have spent so much time over the last couple of years, and rightfully so, focusing on the few states that have restricted access to mail ballots, for instance, or restricted access to drop boxes that sometimes you can kind of lose the forest for the trees. But almost every place in the U.S. now has some way to vote early, whether it's by mail or in person.

RASCOE: NPR voting correspondent Miles Parks, thank you so much.

PARKS: Thank you, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is the host of "Weekend Edition Sunday" and the Saturday episodes of "Up First." As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.