Can the System Handle Huge Voter Turnout?

A record number of Americans are voting early this year, and Election Day turnout is expected to be so high that experts predict long, snaking lines -- and plenty of legal challenges.

If the turnout is as big as expected, and the race is close, lawyers for both parties could file challenges on issues related to provisional and absentee ballots, the expertise of poll workers, the efficacy of voting machines and the hours of operation at polling places.

"A key question," says Edward B. Foley, of Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, "is whether the infrastructure can handle the volume that we will see."

The pressure on the system will be eased in those states where voters have taken advantage of the early vote, but in a battleground state such as Pennsylvania, with no early vote, experts hope that election officials have adequately prepared the system.

Brenda Wright, legal director of the voting rights group Demos says, "There is a lot of attention being paid to preemptive policies, for instance encouraging people to take advantage of early voting and encouraging election officials to have adequate supplies of paper ballots if the machines break down."

But Wright says, "For a lot of voting-rights advocates this is a good news, bad news election. The good news is we expect more people to turn out politically than any presidential election in decades. The bad news is in many places our election system may not be fully prepared to handle the numbers."

Laws regarding elections vary widely from state to state, and many legal challenges are already in front of courts, but on Election Day the campaigns will have to make strategic decisions on how far to push challenges and whether to go to court. Issues expected to be challenged include:

Provisional ballots. By definition, provisional ballots, those that contain contested information, are vulnerable to challenge on issues such as a disputed address. Because big turnout is often correlated to new registrations, experts believe that those new registrations could translate into more provisional ballots. Although it varies from state to state, these ballots are often counted days after the election is over. Large numbers of provisional ballots could lead to challenges and possible delays.

Absentee ballots. Unlike early votes, absentee ballots are not separated from their envelopes. Poll watchers could challenge an absentee ballot's signature. Although not every jurisdiction tallies absentee ballots at the polling places, in the counties that do, more absentee ballots means more potential challenges and more delays.

"It's a step-by-step process" says Foley, "that could slow things down. The counting could go into the night."

Voting machines. Large turnout could tax machines and make them more vulnerable to breaking down. Lawyers will check if a polling place has enough paper ballots for a challenge. They will also want to make sure that there are enough actual machines in the poll stations, a problem feared in battleground states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Voter ID laws. Lawyers will watch to see if poll workers are correctly interpreting a state's voter ID law. If lines are long, such a check could add time and discourage voters.

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