[Image courtesy of constitutioncenter]
We are now less than 24 hours away from the opening of polls. I know many of you who read this blog are going to be closely monitoring events to see if (and if so, where) problems arise on Election Day; what follows is a short viewer's guide that I have developed in over a decade of watching voting from an election geek's point of view.
Don't overreact in the morning. Elections are, at their root, an intensely human affair. With tens of millions of voters visiting tens of thousands of polling places and encountering hundreds of thousands of poll workers, it is inevitable - indeed, completely predictable - that things are going to go wrong. This is especially true in the morning; you can expect the morning news (or Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to be filled with reports of polling places opening late, problems starting voting machines or other issues. While some of these problems may turn out to be significant, usually they work themselves out and are just a memory by midday. It's worth noting problems early in the day but in most cases there's no real need for concern.
Midday is when serious problems will come into focus. By midday (local time), the easily-resolvable morning issues should have fallen away and any serious issues will become clear. Any problems that have persisted by, say, noon or 1pm local time are likely troublesome enough that they're worth watching more closely. In particular, look for any locations where delays or problems (as opposed to large numbers of voters) have resulted in long lines; similarly, any polling place where mechanical or other problems result in a last-minute change to procedures - like the need for backup or even photocopied ballots - are especially important. By late afternoon, we should know if there are areas where these problems are so bad that a court is asked to extend polling hours - those will be the "hot spots" for the evening.
In the evening, look for polling places open long past their scheduled closing time. Given the time-limited nature of Election Day, the close of polls is an incredibly important moment that separates voters from non-voters (even if they were would-be or wanna-be voters). If problems have indeed occurred, the focus will almost certainly be on those jurisdictions where either there are still hours' worth of voters in line at the scheduled closing time or where a court has ordered extended poll hours. Don't forget that any voters who vote as the result of court-ordered polling hours are required to cast provisional ballots under federal law; such ballots could become significant if there is post-election litigation (recount, challenge, etc.) about the outcome.
And finally, the most important piece of advice ...
Be prepared to be underwhelmed. Ever since the 2000 Presidential election, we as a nation have held our breath waiting for a re-occurrence. Quite simply, it hasn't happened; in the 12 years since Election Night 2000 I have had countless phone and email conversations with journalists looking for problems on Election Day - and almost all of them have ended up with the journalist going away disappointed. Sure, you get the occasional razor-thin race that generates excitement like Washington's 2004 governor's race or the 2008 Minnesota Senate contest, but by and large people looking for another "meltdown" of the election system are still looking. I wouldn't be surprised if we're still looking when all is said and done tomorrow.
Of course, I will be trying to follow my own advice as Election Day unfolds; please follow along with me on the HHHElections Twitter feed - we'll also be tracking and posting news from across the country on electionline.org.
Ready? Yeah - me too.