In the year 2000, we suffered through Florida's hanging chads and lingering lawsuits. In 2004, we agonized over the long lines at polling places, plus Ohio's provisional ballots. On Election Day this year, what problems will emerge as the choke points for the voting process?
The bad news is that glitches have been popping up for weeks, during an early-voting period that has almost overwhelmed some election officials. The good news? Election officials have now had weeks to see exactly what kinds of problems are popping up, and to take care of them before the big day on Tuesday.
"If there are problems on Election Day, it will be because of something unexpected, not because of a lack of preparation," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org at the Pew Center on the States.
One problem that's totally expected will be long lines at polling places. "We knew that by midsummer," said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa who serves as a researcher and consultant on voting technologies.
Voter registration levels have risen to what appear to be historic proportions. If it weren't for the expanded use of early voting and vote-by-mail schemes, polling places might well have experienced the logistical meltdown that some observers feared.
"Things would be insurmountable if we didn't have this outlet," said Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
That's not to say that the election process will be trouble-free: But after two hard-fought presidential elections and an extended buildup to this one, the experts and the lawyers, the politicians and the voters have a better idea what kinds of trouble they'll be up against.
Here are 10 potential choke points to watch for on Election Day, in roughly chronological order:
1. Funny business
During the countdown to Election Day, the GOP has been complaining about illegitimate voters, following up on presidential candidate John McCain's warning that "one of the greatest frauds in voter history" was about to be perpetrated. The Democrats, meanwhile, complain about voter suppression: For example, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's campaign officials in Nevada have said Obama supporters were being told falsely that they could vote by phone.
Lawyers from both sides will be maneuvering to capture the spotlight during Election Day, but Chapin doesn't think concerted efforts at fraud or suppression will get very far. "My sense is that a lot of this is just background noise to a lot of people," he said.
2. Registration mismatches
The Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA, required states to draw up voter registration databases that can be matched against ID cards. Some states are more persnickety than others about a "no match, no vote" policy. You should make sure that you're registered at the right address, and that you're heading for the right polling place. ("Can I Vote?" and GoVote are good places to start.)
You might be able to "cure" registration problems in advance of Election Day. Bring the proper ID for your jurisdiction (registration card, drivers license, even a utility bill or bank statement with your name and address on it). That's particularly important if you're a first-time voter, someone who has moved recently or a student voting at a college outside your hometown.
3. Provisional ballots
If you run into an ID issue or some other snag at the polling place, you may be asked to fill out a provisional ballot — which will be set aside in a separate pile to be counted after the election. Or not. The chances of your vote being included can vary dramatically from state to state. During the primary season, Ohio rejected 20 percent of the provisional ballots cast, while Illinois rejected a whopping 70.8 percent.
Bob Brandon, president and co-founder of the Fair Elections Legal Network, suggested that you try to resolve the problems that put you in the provisional pool before filling out the form. If you feel the need for outside help, you can check with voting assistance groups such as Election Protection or the League of Women Voters. But if all else fails, a provisional ballot is better than no ballot at all.
4. Unfamiliar voting systems
After the punch-card ballot debacle of 2000, election officials rushed to upgrade their voting machines, spending the $3.9 billion set aside by HAVA. Some jurisdictions switched over to electronic voting machines, only to switch once more to optical-scan machines due to concerns about glitches and lost votes.
Each switch forced polling-place workers to learn a new system, Jones noted. "Each time you do that, you're starting over again, and you get embarrassed again," he said. "My advice to election officials is, 'Don't panic — instead, study the system you have.'"
5. Vote-flipping and other glitches
If you're lucky, the early-voting season has already wrung out the glitches in the voting machines. Some jurisdictions, however, use different systems on Election Day, and there's always the chance that bad calibration on a touchscreen voting machine will allocate your vote to the wrong candidate (a phenomenon known as "vote-flipping").
Some states are required to have emergency paper ballots on hand in case too many of the touchscreens go on the blink, or in case the lines get too long. (The battleground states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio are prime examples.)
6. Long ballots, long lines
Technical glitches aren't the only reasons for delays at the voting booth. "We're hearing that lengthy ballots are making polling times longer," said Kay Stimson, communications director for the National Association of Secretaries of State. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have been basing their allocation of voting machines on the assumption that it will take three minutes to vote — when the actual times might run closer to six minutes.
In 2004, there were scattered reports of pollworkers pressuring voters who took too long, but Stimson said she wasn't aware of such problems this year. To streamline your own polling-place experience, Stimson and many other election observers say you should study a sample ballot in advance and bring it to the polling place as a guide.
7. Party hot spots
If history is any guide, each political party will try to focus its legal firepower on precincts where it stands to gain the most — or where the other party stands to lose the most. Judges and election officials are usually caught in the middle. Will polling-place hours be extended, as they were for early voting in Florida? Which states, and which counties within states, will be in play for the election endgame?
"The 'fog of war' is the right way to explain Election Day, as seen by the county election office," Jones said. "It's a battlefield."
8. Counting the ballots
You might think the early votes and absentee ballots would be beyond dispute, but that's not necessarily the case. Such votes could be excluded due to mismatched signatures, or irregularities in the way the ballot was marked, or failure to sign the outside envelope for a mail-in ballot.
Jones said 4 to 10 percent of optical-scan absentee ballots typically "end up having to be examined by eyeball directly to get the voter intent correctly." Because so many more of such ballots are being cast this year — not only in the traditional absentee scenarios, but also in mail-in and early-voting settings — they could offer a bigger target for legal challenges.
9. Post-election ordeals
More and more states are conducting post-election audits to check the accuracy of their voting systems. In some states, touchscreen machines have been modified to print out a paper record of each vote. That's aimed at addressing concerns about disappearing e-votes. But what if the audit suggests a result that's different from the electronically recorded vote? Are the computers at fault, or the printers?
Even paper-based systems have their problems. The classic example played out in Palm Beach County, Fla., where thousands of optical-scan ballots went lost and found after an August primary election. It took several weeks' worth of recounts before officials settled on the winner of a razor-close judicial contest. If things turn out just wrong, something similar to 2000's Bush vs. Gore ordeal could happen again this year — even though Florida's infamous butterfly ballots are long gone.
10. Letting go
If the presidential election isn't all that close, none of these potential choke points will matter. But if the margin is as narrow as it was in 2000 or 2004, it might be up to the candidates themselves to decide how far they want to keep the uncertainty going. Democratic candidate Al Gore took his dispute all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2000. In contrast, Gore's successor as the Democrats' standard bearer, John Kerry, decided against appealing the Election Night verdict in 2004.
This year, if the vote is close, the final act of one of America's most gripping campaign dramas may be determined not by the winner, but by the loser.