Celeste Marston, Gabriella Novello
Celeste Katz Marston (left). Gabriella Novello (right). Photo credit: Courtesy of Celeste Katz Marston and Gabriella Novello

The simple and quaint past way of voting is over. It’s a brave new world and the authors of the new WhoWhatWhy e-book help us understand it.

As you read this, as you listen to this podcast, chances are you’re  planning to vote soon if you haven’t already, and are wondering how you will do it — and what will happen to your vote.

You have good reason to wonder. Our electoral process is counterintuitive to almost everything else we do. Technology has displaced everything from the dial phone to the long-playing record. But putting a check mark on a piece of paper and dropping it into a box or into the mail is still our voting default. Even in those areas where technology has crept into the voting system, it’s not for the better.

In this week’s podcast we look at the new WhoWhatWhy-published e-book Is This Any Way to Vote? We interview the book’s authors Gabriella Novello and Celeste Marston.

Novello and Marston break down what we all should know about what happens to our votes, the voting systems used, and the monopolistic corporations behind them. They talk about how the year 2000 changed everything, why we nevertheless did not worry in 2008 and 2012 — and why we do now.

You’ll have a new understanding of the machines that count your ballots, how the software is programmed, and how the records of your registration are really kept.

We learn that the voting machines and vote-counting machines put in place after 2000 are now aging out. Poll workers are scarce in the age of COVID, and too much is connected to the sabotage-vulnerable Internet, even while we see the most “hardened” corporations get hacked. 

It’s a frightening but informative reminder that our democracy is only as good as the weakest link in the electoral chain.

Find Is This Any Way to Vote?: Vulnerable Voting Machines and the Mysterious Industry Behind Them on Amazon now, or download it here.

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Full Text Transcript: 

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to time constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like. Should you spot any errors, we’d be grateful if you would notify us

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special edition of the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Once upon a time we filed into our local precinct, usually in a school or church, checked our names on the written role book, said hi to our neighbors and went into some kind of a booth, sometimes with child in hand, and cast our vote. It was so simple, so quaint, so pure. But like everything else today, it’s all changed. We move around more, global companies have gotten into the voting action, technology is being employed and as a result, on one side, there’s a longing for paper ballots and the little wooden box, and on the other side, a desire to do the same thing we do for shopping, banking and everything else, the ability to use our phones and app, or at the very least go online to cast our vote.

Jeff Schechtman: And then today add to this the U.S. Mail and the role it will play. Perhaps nowhere in our society do the forces and desires of a simple past come so powerfully crashing into the realities of commerce, technology, governance and of course, following the money. Perhaps that’s why voting and elections have gone from a democratic institution we didn’t think a whole lot about to perhaps the most hot button issue of our time. And that’s why WhoWhatWhy has once again provided an important e-book on the subject to advancing the facts as we know them today.

Jeff Schechtman: Joining me to talk about this are the two authors of the WhoWhatWhy e-book, Gabriella Novello and Celeste Katz Marston. The book is entitled, Is This Any Way to Vote? And it is my pleasure to welcome Gabriella Novello and Celeste Marston to this special WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Gabriella and Celeste, thanks so much for joining us.

Gabriella: Thanks for having us.

Jeff Schechtman: Thanks. Gabriella, I want to start with you and the broader notion of when focusing on voting, and fear about voting and how it works, became such a hot button issue. Certainly 2000 was a seminal moment in the history of voting, but then it seemed that in 2012, 2014, there was a sense of normalcy about it. Certainly a far cry from where we are today.

Gabriella: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. One of my biggest takeaways as we were writing this book is, as technology continues to evolve, we’ve seen more voters voting, but as technology evolves so do the different ways that a malicious actor can disrupt the process and that’s one of the things that I thought was most important to talk about. One of the most obvious things that election officials can do to deter interference or disruption in these systems is practice Cybersecurity 101 and that boosted some faith in our system, but that costs money and states can’t do this on their own. So officials can practice cybersecurity hygiene by doing things like regularly changing passwords, for example. But conducting audits on the entire system is expensive and not everyone has the technological know-how to do that.

Gabriella: And one of the things we describe in our book, because our election system is so decentralized one would think that it allows states to really do things on their own and boost faith and confidence in the system. But the best thing that the federal government can do without shelling out millions of dollars is provide general guidance to the states on what to do to protect their elections. But again, and I cannot trust this enough, that costs money. So if the federal government is not willing to provide states with the $3.6 billion that election experts argue is needed to secure at least the 2020 election, we’re drowning in circles without actually delivering a solution to the problem that we’re facing right now.

Jeff Schechtman: Question for either of you, did the Help America Vote Act, which came in the shadow of the disaster of 2000, did that help or hurt in terms of where we are today? Celeste, start with you.

Celeste: I think that overall, it has helped. There are a lot of problems with American elections today. And some of the things that we talk about in the book includes how we get the machinery that we actually use to vote. How it works. How we buy it. How we procure it. How the rules are developed on what it should do and what it should not do. And Help America Vote was supposed to expand opportunity for people to vote in the United States. And that was really important because there continued to be a lot of issues about people finding barriers to registering to vote, to exercising their right to vote, to vote when they cannot appear in-person in a polling place, which obviously is a very big deal during a pandemic.

Celeste: And Help America Vote looks at some of these issues, not all of them, but some of them, and is generally geared towards trying to make voting as accessible as possible to the people, especially after the debacle that we saw in Florida in 2000. The whole hanging chad incident lives on in our memory or our nightmares, more to the point. So I think that it has made some progress in terms of how we vote, how easily we vote, but at the same time, there’s a lot further to go.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that it also did, Gabriella, is it created an awful lot of money out there for companies to get involved in the voting business and really created a lot of opportunities, both for good and for mischief, on the part of a lot of corporations and a lot of companies that got into the voting machine business.

Gabriella: Yeah. And one of the problems that we noticed, especially which we talk about in the book, is the voluntary voting system guidelines, which were in part established by the Help America Vote Act, where states were given guidelines, they’re not mandatory, but they were supposed to ensure that any voting systems that the companies would sell, that they… Again, I go back to they met the Cybersecurity 101 standards, that they were relatively safe and secure, and there were no issues with the equipment that states were receiving. And again, it costs money to do certifications and ensure that the voting systems meet these guidelines and many states simply just don’t have the money to do this. So, sometimes if the states don’t get federal certification on machines, they just take the machines.

Gabriella: One of the examples that we mentioned in our book is in North Carolina, the ES&S, Election Systems and Software is one of the largest voting machine manufacturers in the United States. And last year North Carolina purchased equipment from them but the company wasn’t able to fulfill the order of the specific voting machine model that they had certified and were waiting for. So they offered a slightly different model, which should have undergone another certification process, but because of time and money or lack thereof, the state board of elections just ended up accepting those machines as is. So there were obviously election security advocates that raised concerns about that but as of now, those machines still plan to be used.

Jeff Schechtman: When we examine the companies that are in the business right now, tell us a bit about their lobbying efforts, their efforts to get various states to buy their machines, the competition among these companies and how that really filters down to the way we vote.

Celeste: I think when you look at competition in the voting machine industry and in the software and hardware that supports it, what you find is that there really isn’t a lot of competition. One of the things we look at a lot in the book is the idea… Or the questioning is of whether the voting machine industry in the United States is kind of a monopoly. If you look at who is actually producing and selling and maintaining these machines, there are basically three companies. Three companies! For over a hundred million people that might vote in any particular cycle, only three companies are actually making these machines. Now, if you think about that compared to companies that make cars or computers or sneakers or anything else that you might have in your home or in your office or at your school, there are a lot of choices.

Celeste: And typically, by a merit of a lot of different things, there are not a lot of choices in the machines that you use to vote. Now, I think we’ve talked a lot about this in other arenas, but competition can be good. It can drive down prices, it can advance ingenuity and so on, and there are a lot of questions to be asked about the companies that are making these machines. How much lobbying they’re doing, how much influence they have over the rules by which machines are supposed to be certified, how much influence they try to exert on the public officials who are procuring these machines for the public to use. So in terms of competition, that’s something that we look at quite a bit in this work because they’re basically just… There isn’t a lot of it right now.

Jeff Schechtman: Celeste, do we know how much money these companies are spending in their lobbying efforts in various counties and states around the country?

Celeste: It’s hard to say how much money is being spent in the aggregate by these companies but there are a lot of different ways that they can have influence. They can contribute to political campaigns, they can lobby directly as registered lobbyists, but they’ve also got other ways of going about this that are very interesting. And that might be a point of concern, for example, getting people who are election officials in municipalities, states or localities to serve on “advisory boards” inviting them on trips, inviting them to travel basically to look at the merchandise.

Celeste: And while they’re looking at the merchandise, maybe they’re doing that in Las Vegas, and they go to a show or they go to a party in New York, a reception that is taking place that is sponsored by one of these companies at a meeting. So it’s not necessarily just the bottom line on the official lobbying efforts that these companies are engaging in but the overall picture of how they try to exercise their influence to keep other people out of the market.

Jeff Schechtman: Gabriella, talk about the machines themselves, the various types, the headline types of machines that we’re talking about here.

Gabriella: Yeah. So there are basically two ways that folks can cast a vote. The first is by using an electronic-based voting machine, either a Direct Recording Electronic Voting Machine which we call DREs in the book or a Ballot Marking Device which we call BMDs. And as we described voters interact with both machines generally by either pressing a touchscreen button or using a dial. With the DREs they used to come without any form of an audible paper trail, no principle paper ballot and the machines kept folks votes on a computer memory card that election officials at the end of the day use to tabulate the vote totals. Nowadays, these machines are configured to include a paper trail because of all of the various cybersecurity concerns that experts have raised when it comes to being able to be ensured the accuracy of the results.

Gabriella: Now with the BMDs, these machines automatically produce a paper trail after a voter marks their choices. They mark it on either screen button, dial, a piece of paper gets printed and they hand it to a poll worker so it can be scanned in with the rest of the ballots. These are the more popular machines and from a technology standpoint, as we describe in the book, there really isn’t all that much of a difference between the two. But now the other option voters have which election security experts, advocates, voting rights groups, they all advocate for is hand-marked paper ballots with a pen. And their argument is, you can’t hack a piece of paper.

Jeff Schechtman: How many places are still using hand-marked paper ballots, Gabriella?

Gabriella: So especially after the 2016 election, more states are moving towards hand-marked paper ballots. And of course, with the pandemic even more states are moving towards mailing out ballots to voters so they can just mark it from their kitchen table and put it right back in the mailbox. But in 2016, there were at least a dozen states that were in the process of moving from these DREs and BMDs towards paper ballots. But for the large part, most states still offer at least one jurisdiction, some form of these electronic voting machines.

Jeff Schechtman: Even things like mail-in ballots though, certainly here in California, I can’t speak for anywhere else, mail-in ballots still have to go through the scanning process.

Gabriella: Right. And usually they’re put through what is known as an optical scanner. Basically think of a copy machine, a fax machine, and it’s scanned through, the votes are tabulated. But one of the things that we noticed and we discussed in our book is that in Georgia, during its primary election, some of the scanners either had a programming issue, something appeared to be wrong and it’s still unclear to this day, but hundreds of ballots that were marked by hand when they were put through the scanner, certain races on the ballots were either discarded outright or flagged for further adjudication. So it’s clear that we still have to do some work and ensuring that these machines operate as accurate as possible.

Jeff Schechtman: Celeste, talk about what fail-safe mechanism is supposed to be built into this system to check for things like logic and accuracy.

Celeste: Well, there are a few different things that people can do or try to do. Some people do and some people don’t, in order to ensure that an election is conducted in a valid way, counted in a valid way. For example, there are safeguards that can be taken with the voting machines themselves in terms of how they are handled, how they are set up, who has access in terms of password protection to the systems and who handles them after the voting is conducted. That’s a really important question. Who is physically in contact or online in contact with these machines? Are they connected to the internet? That can be a problem obviously. The more ways into a machine during any point of this process, the more potential there is for interference. So that’s a matter of concern.

Celeste: After the election is conducted, there are ways to find out if the results seem valid. Things like risk limiting audits, which take samples statistically that helps you figure out basically if the outcome is legitimate. It doesn’t tell you necessarily if every vote was counted as it was cast, or it was intended to be cast, but it tells you if essentially the right person won. So there are a lot of measures that places can take. Some places are maybe more rigorous than others.

Jeff Schechtman: Gabriela, tell us about these electronic poll books and the way registration is conveyed to the precinct or the location where people go to vote.

Gabriella: Yeah. So electronic poll books, in an ideal world, they’re supposed to be able to shorten down those long lines that you see at polling places by rapidly checking voters in. If they’re using a ballot marking device, they receive what looks like a hotel key card for their room and that has their ballot information and they put it into the machine and vote. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is these machines can break down. They are technically connected to the internet through a wireless connection because these E-poll books, they receive all the voter registration information from a central elections office.

Gabriella: And once they receive that information, there’s still that wireless internet connection where you run the risk of remote hacking or any malicious actions being taken on these machines. And like I said, these were supposed to cut down on the long lines at polling places to ensure that people are getting checked in quickly, getting ready to go to their voting machine. But these machines are also relatively expensive. So precincts can only have so many of these machines at once.

Jeff Schechtman: And of course these machines created an even bigger problem in the last election, primary election in Los Angeles, where the machines had problems and it created longer lines.

Gabriella: Right. And one of the… Every year, there’s a group of cybersecurity experts and hackers that gather in Nevada for what is known as the Defcon Voting Village. And last year, one of the things that was so surprising was that a couple of folks within minutes were able to turn an E-poll book into… Now, these look like a standard tablet, think of an iPad or a Windows tablet, folks were able to within minutes, turn these into a first-person shooters game.

Gabriella: So if a couple of folks with some basic hacking knowledge can access these and turn them into games, bypass the administrative settings and do whatever they wish, I think that raises an even greater concern about someone trying to attempt to possibly disrupt the voter information itself. Change someone’s name with one letter, change their address by you live at 123 Main Street, but your file says 121 Main Street. You know that’s not right. You know how you filled out your voter registration form, but something happened and you might not be able to vote. You might have to cast a provisional ballot instead. So there are a number of issues that can happen with these electronic poll books.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there a problem in that because of the nature of elections today, there are so many different ballot types in so many communities that that’s creating part of the problem as well?

Gabriella: Yes. And I think if you look at how elections are run in the United States, because everything is so decentralized, it’s hard for the federal government to step in and help in this arena too. So states are essentially left on their own because as the federal government can’t come in and mandate that every state has the same ballot type, simply because there are some states that also run different elections at the same time. And there’s so many different variables in how states conduct their elections. What are on the ballots, not every state has the same ballot measures necessarily. So at this point, it’s just very difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution for this.

Jeff Schechtman: And Celeste, talk a little bit about this ongoing debate between local control and federal control. And certainly the fact that the election system is decentralized, many people see as an advantage, but yet in terms of making all of this work better and making the money available, that creates problems as well.

Celeste: I think in general, when you look at a lot of federal funding programs, what you see is that states or cities or localities have to meet certain thresholds in order to qualify for the money. In some cases that might’ve been true, including under the Help America Vote Act. But as you said, and as we talk about in the book, different municipalities run elections in very different ways. One city might have ballots that have five languages, three languages, two languages. They might have instant runoff voting. They might be running federal state and local contests at the same time. So not every place in America is going to run an election the same way. So there are people who feel that a decentralized system naturally speaks to you the way that each state or municipality has to shape their own process to fit what they’re doing at the time.

Celeste: Some people also feel like, and there have been some attempts to do this, including under the Trump administration, to try to centralize things, including to centralize a voter database. Some people feel like that needlessly exposes people’s personal information to hacking, that they may collect data that is not relevant to the voting process or to the registration process, that it’s invasive, it’s time consuming and that it’s not easily secured. And who’s going to be able to safeguard that much data? Is it the Department of Defense? Is it NASA? There’s not really an easy answer to that question.

Celeste: At the same time though, some states and localities may have developed processes that actually seemed to work better. That make voting faster, that make it easier, that make it more accurate. So it’s easy to see why some people would say why shouldn’t the federal government step in and take the best successes that come from different parts of the country and promulgate those ideas throughout the United States? But the issue with that is of course, like everything else, doing things through the federal government takes a lot of time and you end up as you do with a lot of legislation. We see now, especially in a House that’s controlled by Democrats and a Senate that’s controlled by Republicans, you see a lot of things that end up in gridlock. So the idea of centralizing things may sound appealing, but taking the long view, some of it will just end up stuck in this political morass because people in Washington can’t get together on the solution.

Jeff Schechtman: Are we seeing, Celeste, some kind of a nexus between the problems that arise with respect to voting? The insecurity, the systems, the degree to which that’s talked about, concern about fair elections and voter turnout. Can we see any relationship there?

Celeste: Well, I think that we will be very interested to see what happens in November with this increasingly complex combination we have of in-person voting, voting by mail and so on. But we saw a record-high turnout in the 2018 midterms. We saw decent turnout, not astonishing turnout but decent turnout in 2016. Right now we are operating in an environment where the president is speaking openly about the possibility of a rigged election. He’s sending out messages very clearly and so are his surrogates, that he believes that voting by mail is potentially a source of widespread fraud and abuse even though, we should emphasize and we do emphasize in the book, that there’s no empirical evidence to show that voting by mail increases instances of voter fraud. The evidence is just not there that that happens.

Celeste: So the question will be, if people who are against voting or who want to suppress turnout in general, cast doubts on the fairness or the accuracy of the vote, will that keep people home? Will that prevent people from voting at all? Or will people be so motivated by either the appeal of a certain candidate they like or dislike for the candidate that they don’t care for, that they will be motivated to vote whether it’s in-person or by mail? And that’s something obviously that both camps are really working on.

Gabriella: Yeah. And just two points to emphasize what Celeste is saying. You’re five times more likely to be struck by lightning than to willingly and knowingly commit voter fraud by mail. And when folks talk about absentee voting versus universal mail-in voting, it’s really important to emphasize that they are effectively the same thing because voters are submitting their ballot through the mail instead of doing so in-person in a voting booth. But the only main, if only, difference between the two is when you are in a state that offers universal mail-in voting like Utah, Colorado, Oregon, the officials are mailing registered voters the ballots. Whereas absentee voting, you generally have to provide one of the pre-approved excuses that officials offer or at least because of the pandemic, several states have offered voters the option of citing fears about contracting the coronavirus to receive an absentee ballot.

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent can we be sure about phony absentee ballots or forged absentee ballots, and what should the concerns be in that regard?

Gabriella: Well, there are several ways to ensure that a ballot is being submitted by the person that it’s supposed to be submitted by. There’s disagreements on whether voter signature matches should still be in existence because some people change their signature quite a bit. There’s witness signature and notary requirements that are in place in several states and election officials do what is known as ballot cheering. So as they’re going through the ballot, if they notice that there are any discrepancies in some jurisdictions, voters have the ability to come into an elections office and confirm, “Yes. I am who I’m saying I am, this is my ballot. Yes, I intended to vote that way.” So there are several checks from the election administration side to ensure that ballots are being submitted by those that are actually submitting them.

Celeste: And I would add that there’s motivation on both sides in some cases to make sure that ballots are counted rather than throw them away. There’s a practice by which in many places, each ballot that is received by mail is individually reviewed by partisan employees or partisan workers. One say, from the Republican Party and one say, from the Democratic Party. So, whereas say a Republican might want to include a ballot, a Democrat might want to object to a ballot. So there is not necessarily either a non-partisan or a wholesale effort to deprive one party’s voters of their right to participate in the process.

Jeff Schechtman: Gabriella, talk about the equipment itself, the machines themselves, whatever kind they are. The condition that most of them are in, how old are they and who takes care of them? Who services these machines between elections and who has access to them?

Gabriella: Depending on where you live, you can be using a machine with Windows XP systems that are older than I am, they’re around since the 1990s. So the equipment can be quite old, but there’s always efforts to improve things. There’s a couple of different efforts to… In Los Angeles, they have what’s known as the Voting Solutions for All People and they’re creating their own ballot marking device system, E-poll books, optical scanners, where everything is in-house and they don’t have to worry about a supply chain. That’s actually… And we talk about this in the book. One of the things that is not often talked about when we worry about the security of our election systems is actually where they’re made. So while a majority, if not all, of election equipment in the United States is assembled in the United States, we learned that quite a few companies use overseas manufacturing sites to actually create the equipment that’s used to assemble and make these voting machines.

Gabriella: And we mentioned in the book that in China specifically, where there’s a manufacturing site for election equipment, some of the memory components were found to have MP3 files in Chinese. So that speaks to the degree of how careful we have to be about the safety and security of our equipment because random things that should not be there can end up in there. And like I said, some of these equipment are as old as the 1990s, so not only do we have to worry about random things being in there but also technology just fails at a certain point, old equipment will stop working at a certain point. And so, officials have to keep that in mind and think not necessarily one election cycle, two election cycles in advance, they have to think 20.

Jeff Schechtman: Celeste, talk a little bit about the future and what that looks like with respect to the advance of technology. Certainly there are lots of people that talk about why we can’t have online voting, why we can’t have an app on our phone just as we do for banking and so many other secured things why we can’t do that with voting. What does the future hold as you see it?

Celeste: I think the thing that’s really important or the thing that I think about a lot when we think about the future of voting is that it’s not here yet. And that there is a very, very big difference between the transactions that we are now very accustomed to conducting online and expect to be able to conduct online, like banking, shopping and so on, in the process of voting. For one thing, voting is supposed to be done by a secret ballot. It is supposed to be anonymous. You have a right to not have somebody else know who you voted for. They can know that you voted or that you were entitled to vote, but the actual information included in your ballot shouldn’t be connected with your name. And that makes it a very, very distinct process that’s very different from the things that we use, like credit cards and debit cards and smart cards and phones and laptops and so on. Even a secure internet connection can’t necessarily guarantee that your vote will be secure.

Celeste: So, long-term, I think that we’re looking at the development of technologies that fundamentally don’t exist yet. And that if people are chomping at the bit to be able to live this completely online existence, which to be fair would be nice, especially in a pandemic to some degree, they have to understand that it’s different when we look at applying technology to voting, because it is such a distinct and such a sacred interaction.

Jeff Schechtman: And yet people, I think that if we did a survey, people would be more concerned about the safety and security of their money in their banking transactions online than they would about their voting transactions online.

Celeste: And if you think about it, look at the news. I mean, how long do you go typically without seeing a story about a major data breach with an email provider or that a credit card company or a credit reporting service has had some sort of issue with somebody getting access to private information. It happens pretty often. And if you’re thinking about companies that have millions upon millions of dollars to spend on the highest level security that are doing this privately without the slowdowns that are associated with the wheels of government turning, if these private organizations still have problems with all the people and money they can throw at this, how has your local town board of elections supposed to fight off intrusions or spoofing or hacking or any of these problems?

Celeste: There are some countries that do have internet or online voting. There are some countries that do use biometrics to check people in, to make sure that they’re qualified to vote, that they are who they say they are and so on as a form of voter ID. But generally, I think the consensus is overwhelmingly that online voting itself is not ready for prime time in the United States if you care about a secure election.

Jeff Schechtman: And on the other hand, Gabriella, hand-marked paper ballot seems so quaint, seems so antiquated.

Gabriella: Yeah. Like I said, you can’t hack a piece of paper. So, I mean, there is an argument to be made that going back to paper ballots is not necessarily a bad idea. However, then you have to start focusing on election administration, whether states and local officials have the capability to process all of these paper ballots because then you have either, if these optical scanners are… If you’re feeding them into optical scanners, these ballots, or if you have poll workers manually counting all of these ballots. And if you’re in a major metropolitan city where there’s millions of voters, then that would be a very difficult process. It would be time consuming. And this is why we can’t fall into that cycle of necessarily believing that there will be fraud and failures in the system, that this will end up being a rigged election.

Gabriella: That’s why states have been asking for more money to make sure that if more voters are going to be submitting absentee ballots through paper, that there is the infrastructure there to quickly and accurately count every ballot. But then again, we have a gridlocked Congress. We have an administration in The White House that is confrontational at best to the concept of nationwide mail-in voting. So really it’s a day by day process at this point.

Jeff Schechtman: Finally for both of you, there’s certainly all this talk about mail-in voting now and we hear that every single day. Based upon all the work you’ve done, all the things that you’ve both covered in this e-book, if you were looking at one area where you think the biggest problem will come in the 2020 election, where will it be? Where will you be watching? Gabriella, you first.

Gabriella: I really think it’s going to come down to money. If states don’t have the money to mail voters, their ballots with the prepaid postage like most voting rights advocates and election experts are calling for, if there’s no financial support from the federal government, it’s going to be very hard for state and local election officials to carry out a largely mail-in election. They can do everything that they can with the limited resources but the minute that they run out of those resources, it’s going to be very difficult.

Jeff Schechtman: Celeste.

Celeste: And certainly those are very, very valid points. And I think that additionally, I would say I’m legitimately concerned and I think a lot of people are legitimately concerned about the paradigm shift or the necessary paradigm shift that we talked about right at the top of this conversation, which is that counting mail-in ballots and tabulating the results and announcing the outcome of an election this big, that is going to rely very heavily on mail-in votes, is going to be a completely different experience for the United States. And I think we really have to get people ready for the idea that we may not know all the answers on election night. I think that there’s a potential for people to jump the gun.

Celeste: A candidate does not determine if an election is over by saying he or she won. The outcome of an election is not determined by a TV network calling the results because they want to be first in line to break the news. The election is over when the votes are counted and counted accurately. And I think that if that’s going to take longer in this case, even longer than people are used to and longer than may be comfortable for either candidate or their supporters, that’s something we’re going to have to deal with. And we should start setting our minds in that direction right now.

Gabriella: Yeah, there was… And I had spoken with an editor a few months ago that mentioned to me and it’s stuck with me ever since, you can’t just have the polls close on election night and a winner is announced, the results are in. Elections are not drive-through restaurants. And especially newsrooms, if we want to make sure that we get it right, sometimes that means that we have to wait. And if that means that we don’t know who the next president is, or if President Trump is president again, we might not know until we’re sitting around the table on Thanksgiving.

Jeff Schechtman: Gabriella Novello, Celeste Katz Marston, I thank you both so much for spending time with us.

Gabriella: Yeah. Thanks.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Celeste: My pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Maryland GovPics / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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