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Controversies Surrounding Early Voting Emerge Across The Country

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Early voting is underway, and it's been messy. The governor of Texas got support from a court to limit the number of drop-off sites for mail-in ballots. California told Republicans there to stop putting out unauthorized ballot boxes. And in Georgia, the first day of early voting was marred by technical issues and long lines, some of them more than five hours long. Wow. Charles Stewart is with us next. He heads the MIT Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Good morning.

CHARLES STEWART: Good morning. How are you?

INSKEEP: OK. Does this feel like a normal amount of friction for October in an election year?

STEWART: Well, this sounds like the sort of friction we get in a high-energy election on the first few days. Voters are eager to vote, and election officials are learning whether they have enough capacity at their early voting sites. And some places, it looks like they don't.

INSKEEP: Apparently, Georgia did not.

STEWART: Well, you know, you always get lines in the first couple of days. And, you know, there's nothing you can do about the fact that people show up and are eager. I mean, time will tell over the next few days, as the counties redeploy resources, as voters have voted, as they figure - where everybody is trying to figure this thing out.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to figure out what happened in Texas. We've covered this a little bit. The governor said that there could be only one early drop-off site for mail ballots per county - so one for the least populated county in all of Texas; also one for Harris County, which includes Houston, millions of people there - which sounds, on its face, unfair. But the three panel - three-judge panel, federal judges appointed by President Trump, said, listen - there are plenty of ways to vote. There are many ways to get your mail-in ballot in. You can even mail it. What are we even arguing about here? How do you see this?

STEWART: Well, I mean, I see this as the ongoing debate within many states, particularly in the South, about how best to implement early or convenience voting. What the judges pointed out is that in Texas, there was an expansion of the ways to return absentee ballots before the election. There's also been in Texas an expansion of early voting in-person opportunities.

And so one can disagree, I think, with the policy decisions, particularly with respect to drop boxes, but I think that what the governor can say - and it's not a crazy argument to make at all - in that it's much more convenient, much more flexible to vote in Texas; you just have to do it in front of an election official. We're not going to allow people to be dropping off boxes in places that, you know, don't have election officials and potential objectors to look there and challenge people.

INSKEEP: Given that Republicans have raised so many questions about voter fraud, I'm baffled by this story from California, where state officials have told the Republican Party in California to stop putting out their own unauthorized ballot boxes. What is an unauthorized ballot box, and can that be even legally done?

STEWART: So an unauthorized ballot box is - I don't know - sort of a wholesale method at ballot harvesting. It's, you know, setting up a location for people to come and put their ballot - you know, put their ballots in. And at the end of the day or some period, then volunteers go and pick up those ballots and take them to an authorized county drop-off point.

Is it legal? I mean, that's what they're about to be arguing about in California. I'm not a law expert. It does seem odd, given concerns about ballot harvesting by the GOP, that they would be doing this. But, again, I think it shows that Republicans, as well as Democrats, are scrapping for every last vote they can get and that the campaigns are looking to lock down their supporters' votes as early as possible so that they can focus increasingly on people on Election Day to get out their base.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, do you see widespread patterns of voter suppression?

STEWART: No, I see challenges that people are facing, and I see disagreements about what constitutes convenience. But I think that that's different from saying that there's widespread voter suppression.

INSKEEP: Mr. Stewart, thanks for the update.

STEWART: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Charles Stewart of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.