Much of America was on edge going into Election Day due to warnings of widespread disruption and voter intimidation amid an unorthodox and heated campaign that had already led to violent clashes and plots to kidnap politicians. But those fears did not appear to materialize as the polls closed and the votes were being counted Tuesday night.
The bulk of the Election Day problems appeared to boil down to fairly routine inconveniences and technical hiccups, as hapless as a burst water pipe, an unplugged voting machine, and a scanner snarled by ballots saturated with hand sanitizer.
The most nefarious voter intimidation scheme seemed to take place over the phones with a series of robocalls telling voters to “stay home and stay safe” Tuesday, rather than head to the polls. Meanwhile, a legal battle brewed between a federal judge and the US Postal Service, who ignored an order to sweep mail processing facilities for misplaced ballots in swing states with strict absentee deadlines.
Some of the burdens of Election Day might have been eased by the fact that more than 101 million people had already cast ballots by the time the polls opened Tuesday, a figure that underscored how the pandemic transformed this year’s election as voters sought to avoid the risk of infection. Of those ballots, more than 65 million were mailed, double the amount in the previous presidential election.
Many election experts worried that the barrage of ballots would overburden the country’s postal system, which has seen significant delays amid the coronavirus pandemic and cost-cutting measures implemented by the Trump administration. These concerns manifested most prominently on Election Day when US District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered officials to inspect all processing facilities in the districts of Central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Metro, Detroit, Colorado/Wyoming, Atlanta, Houston, Alabama, Northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine), Greater South Carolina, South Florida, Lakeland (Wisconsin), and Arizona (which includes New Mexico) by 3 p.m.
But the USPS declined to meet the deadline, arguing in a filing sent to the court just before 5 p.m. that “there are only one or two Inspectors in any one facility, and thus they do not have the ability to personally scour the entire facility. Indeed, doing so would be impractical (given the size of that facility) and would take them away from their other pressing Election Mail related responsibilities.”
Sullivan’s order came after the Postal Service disclosed that 300,523 ballots from across the country, including more than 16,000 in Florida, had received entry scans but not exit scans as of Nov. 3, suggesting they had not yet been delivered to election offices. It was not clear Tuesday night how many of the ballots had made it to the polls in time to be counted.
Only 22 states allow for extra days for receiving and accepting mail-in ballots so long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire, and South Carolina will only count ballots received by Election Day. Mail-in ballots received after Election Day are being segregated in Pennsylvania and Minnesota and could be thrown out if courts decide to revisit pending litigation.
Reports of robocalls distributing misinformation to voters in Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and Massachusetts began to trickle in late Tuesday afternoon. The FBI said it was aware of the reports but had no further comment. Locally, officials in Attorney General Maura Healy’s office received two reports of the robocalls, a spokeswoman said. Secretary of State William Galvin’s office said “fewer than five voters” in Massachusetts have contacted the office or other organizations about the robocalls.
Janaka Stucky, 42, a Democrat who lives in Medford, told the news agency Reuters that he received one of the robocalls Tuesday morning. He posted about the incident on Twitter: “Just got a robocall that said, ‘This is just a test call. Time to stay home. Stay safe and stay home.’ *click* So that was reassuring."
The Election Protection Hotline, a nonpartisan coalition aimed at ensuring equal opportunity voting, said it received reports of calls discouraging voting from 17 states.
Meanwhile, on the ground, watchdogs said they were encouraged by the relative calm at the polls.
"We were bracing for the worst and were pleasantly surprised,'' said Kristen Clarke, president of Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a 7 p.m. news conference. The sentiment was largely shared by city law enforcement officials from Portland to New York to Atlanta, who had readied for safety threats after a summer of unrest but reported few disruptions Tuesday.
Clarke said her committee did receive complaints in Florida of people purporting to be law enforcement deputies. "These incidents and reports have been very isolated and sporadic,'' said Clarke. “People are reporting them. And fortunately, we’re finding that, in large part, people are not intimidated and are determined, and are going to vote despite the presence of these individuals, many of whom frankly are a nuisance.”
A smattering of voter intimidation incidents was reported across Florida throughout Election Day. Clarke said the committee received complaints of people purporting to be law enforcement deputies; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that two white men in Hillsborough County identified themselves as “deputies” and questioned voters outside a polling site. Both men were at the door and in the campaign-free zone, the paper said. Election protection volunteers also received complaints about Trump supporters blocking polling sites near Orlando, said Graeme Crews, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Police in Charlotte arrested a person at a polling location in North Carolina’s largest city for allegedly attempting to intimidate voters while armed. According to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Justin Dunn, 36, voted Tuesday morning in the closely watched battleground state and then lingered at the polling site while ''legally carrying an unconcealed firearm.'' Dunn failed to leave after being banned by police and was charged with second-degree trespassing.
Voters also encountered other less malicious obstacles as the day progressed. A snow squall whipped through Manchester, N.H. In Des Moines, a person got caught up in a ballot counting machine cord and unplugged it, causing an hour-plus delay. A ballot scanner in a nearby precinct was jammed after some voters with sanitizer on their hands fed their wet ballots into the machine, according to the Des Moines Register.
In Georgia, which has been dogged by long lines and voting machine malfunctions in past elections, a series of breakdowns at the polls caused momentary disruptions throughout the day. A countywide computer failure in Spalding County, Ga., south of Atlanta, caused delays and forced voters to cast provisional paper ballots. Polls were kept open for an extra two hours as a result. In Morgan County, which has about 14,600 registered voters, there was a technical issue with the poll pads that forced the precincts to also switch to paper ballots.
And the absentee-by-mail processing operation in Fulton County — home to a tenth of Georgia’s residents — was delayed four hours after a water pipe burst in a room with ballots. None were harmed owing to the slant of the room, but officials said that the delay likely ruins the hope of having a three-quarters count completed before midnight.
Still, as the fate of the election remained unknown into Wednesday morning, concern lingered that unrest might erupt once the results became clear. Cities across the nation remained boarded up in anticipation of raucous celebrations, protests, or clashes between extremists.
Material from The Washington Post and The New York Times was used in this story.