By Bill Turque
The Washington Post
— Q: Will there be a winner on election night?
A: There is a decent chance that by the time most Americans wake up on Wednesday morning, the seemingly endless campaign will finally have ended. But all the elements are in place for a Florida-style donnybrook of recounts, lawsuits and partisan intrigue. Pivotal Ohio is a tossup in many polls and at the center of most overtime scenarios. State law provides for an automatic recount if the margin separating the candidates is within one-quarter of a percent of the total votes cast. But before any recount begins, each of the 88 county election boards has until Nov. 27 to certify results and submit them to Secretary of State Jon Husted. Unless he decides to expedite the process, a recount would be unlikely to begin before early December. The state has a history of Election Day troubles, and this year could be a logistical nightmare. Husted decided to have absentee-ballot applications mailed to 7 million registered voters. So far, about 350,000 residents who requested the ballots have yet to mail them back. If they decide instead to vote in person on Tuesday, they must use provisional ballots — a precaution against double voting. Officials could be inundated with provisional ballots, which must be evaluated individually. At the center of it all is Husted, a Republican who has drawn criticism from Democrats for his attempts to limit early voting. Under Ohio law, the secretary of state is given unusually broad power over elections, and Husted could play a critical role in determining the next president.
Q: How much of an issue could voter fraud be?
A: Almost none — at least at the polls this week. While Republicans and grassroots "ballot integrity" groups contend that many illegal votes go undetected, there is scant evidence to support the claim. An analysis of more than 2,000 alleged cases of voter fraud over the past 12 years by News21, the Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project, found the rate of actual wrongdoing "infinitesimal." Instances of voter impersonation, which prompted many states to debate or enact tough ID laws, were "virtually non-existent," News21 reported. Many purported cases of fraud turn out to be the result of mistakes by election officials. "The idea that impersonation fraud could be done on a large enough scale to affect the outcome of any major race, without detection by government officials, is ludicrous," Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, wrote in his new book, "The Voting Wars." Voter registration, however, has been a source of abuse and scandal. In 2008, a registration drive by the community organizing group ACORN produced an estimated 400,000 incorrect, duplicated or fraudulent submissions with false signatures. This year, the Republican National Committee said it cut ties with organizer Nathan Sproul after dozens of suspect registration forms were discovered by Florida officials.
Q: What places are likely to encounter delays or other problems with voting?
A: The historic volume of early voting — it's possible that as much as 40 percent of the electorate will have cast ballots by Tuesday — is likely to ease some bottlenecks and speed the process on Election Day. But extremely long ballots in some localities, including in Florida, have already caused lengthy lines. Confusion over recent changes in state laws could complicate or delay voting. A Pennsylvania judge put the state's strict new photo-identification law on hold last month, ruling that election officials could ask for picture ID but not require it this year. Voting rights activists are concerned that poll workers may misunderstand the judge's decision and insist on photo identification. They also contend that some ads sponsored by the state are misleading and will suppress the vote by giving the impression that the law is currently in force. Technical snafus are always a part of election night. A study released this summer by Common Cause, the Rutgers School of Law and the Verified Voting Foundation listed six states (Colorado, Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) as the "least prepared" to respond to voting-machine failures. Overall, the environment is significantly improved over 2000, when Florida voters used unreliable punch-card ballots and officials were left to examine dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads to divine a voter's intent.
Q: Will new state voter-ID requirements keep large numbers from voting?
A: Not to the extent once anticipated. Over the past two years, measures requiring voter identification became law in nine states, nearly all of them Republican-controlled. But courts and the federal government have struck down or placed on hold laws in four of them: Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. Laws in Alabama, Rhode Island and South Carolina won't take effect until 2013 or 2014. That leaves Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Indiana with strict photo ID laws — the latter two states passed their laws before 2010. Other states, including Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota, have less-stringent statutes that allow election officials to request photo ID but allow residents to vote without it. Virginia, Ohio and Arizona accept non-photo identification. Critics say the laws have disproportionate impact on seniors, voters under 30, the poor, and blacks and Hispanics. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law estimated that as many as 21 million voting-age Americans — 11 percent — lack government-issued photo ID.
Q: What if one candidate wins the popular vote and the other wins the electoral college, or if the electoral college is tied?
A: Four men have won the presidency after losing the popular vote, most recently George W. Bush, who lost to Al Gore by 500,000 votes in 2000. The others were John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888). Such a split decision can cast a shadow on the legitimacy of a presidency and could make it difficult for Obama or Romney to claim any kind of mandate for the next four years. This year's tightly contested race also raises multiple possibilities for a 269 to 269 electoral college deadlock. In that case the newly elected House would choose the president, with each state delegation casting one vote. Barring an extraordinary series of upsets, the House is likely to remain in Republican hands, and Romney would easily gain the required simple majority of 26 delegations. The Senate, which picks the vice president, could be a more contentious matter if it stays Democratic as expected. Vice President Joe Biden would be the choice, but there would undoubtedly be pressure on him to step aside, in the interests of giving the new president the chance to have the No. 2 he had intended.
Q: Could the presence of poll watchers make polling places chaotic or intimidating?
A: The vast majority of the nation's more than 100,000 polling places are likely to run smoothly and uneventfully. But grassroots organizations such as True the Vote say they will be at the polls in large numbers to look for possible fraud, such as voters who don't display appropriate identification or attempt to vote more than once. Many states allow poll observers to challenge a voter's eligibility based on questions about home address, citizenship or other background details. If an election official concludes that there is sufficient doubt, a voter may be asked to cast a provisional ballot, which can be counted later if new information is provided. These situations are most likely in areas with high concentrations of minority voters. Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, senior attorney for voter protection at the Advancement Project, urges voters to resist accepting a provisional ballot and seek assistance if they believe they've been unfairly challenged. Staff from Election Protection, a coalition of civil rights groups, will be available at many polling locations to provide help. They will be wearing black T-shirts with their phone number, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, in white lettering.
Q: How do people who vote by mail or absentee ballot know their votes were counted?
A: Local registrars and elections officials say absentee ballots that are received on time are counted as long as they are correctly filled out. The notion that they are counted only if an election is close is "an old wives' tale," said the auditor who oversees voting in Iowa's Polk County, Jamie Fitzgerald, D. "They all count." The best way to ensure that your vote is counted, officials say, is for the signature on the ballot to match the one in the voter-registration record. But the spectacle of the 2000 recount and the subsequent rise of social media and its ability to spread rumors have fostered mistrust and eroded public confidence in the elections system. A national survey by the Voting Technology Project, a joint venture of the Massachusetts and California institutes of technology, found just 57 percent of those who voted by mail in were "very confident" that their ballots were counted. Seventy-four percent of Election Day voters expressed the same level of confidence. Many voters end up with uncounted ballots by failing to fill out all parts with appropriate signatures and addresses. States use varying degrees of diligence in contacting voters with flawed ballots. "Ours have three red X's," Fitzgerald said of the places on the ballot that must be filled out.
Q: Will damage from Hurricane Sandy have an impact on the election?
A: The storm is not likely to cause a shift in the electoral college totals. New Jersey and New York and Connecticut, the three states hit hardest by the storm, are solidly in Obama's column. But lingering damage could trim Obama's popular vote in those states. Hundreds of thousands remain without power, and gasoline is in short supply. Polling places could remain dark or inaccessible. New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, R, said last week that the state would deploy military trucks to serve as makeshift polling places and extend the deadline for requesting mail-in ballots. The silver lining for Obama is that the storm froze Romney in place for a couple of days at a time when he had momentum swinging his way. Romney was in the background while Obama commanded enormous attention as a commander in chief leading recovery efforts — and won high approval ratings for his performance.