Despite high anxiety, low drama at polls well into Election Day

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Despite high anxiety, low drama at polls well into Election Day

Wed, 11/04/2020 - 12:21
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WASHINGTON — As Americans streamed to the polls Tuesday in an election unlike any other, the most remarkable thing may have been how unremarkable it was.

Fears that voters would encounter intimidation at the polls had not appeared to materialize well into the day. There were no reports of militias blocking entrances to polling places or armed, self-deputized poll watchers intimidating voters trying to cast ballots.

“We’ve had no threats, no intimidation, no harassment, nothing of that nature at all whatsoever,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said on a media call that included law enforcement officials from other battleground states.

It was welcome news as the president continued to make unsubstantiated claims Tuesday of a conspiracy to steal the election from him and put the nation on edge with his suggestion that he may try to declare victory before millions of votes that would determine the actual outcome are counted.

Even as voting appeared to have run smoothly in many places, nerves remained frayed throughout the day. Businesses from Beverly Hills, California, to Washington, D.C., braced for potential fallout when the votes are counted, boarding their windows with plywood to guard against vandalism in the event of mass protests.

The U.S. Postal Service was ordered by a federal judge to sweep facilities in half a dozen battleground states for outstanding ballots and to rush the delivery of any found. The extraordinary directive came in response to the revelation that 300,000 mail-in ballots had been sent by voters but had not been received in election offices.

Battered by the deadly coronavirus crisis, struggling with an economic recession and facing the possibility of a contested election result, voters are on track to turn out in unprecedented numbers. They were not dissuaded by the emergence of clumsy Election Day misinformation efforts in several states that aimed to keep voters from turning out.

They were serenaded by a bluegrass band outside a library in Phoenix, breezed through polling places with only a few minutes’ wait in Georgia and bundled up for warmth while in line in Philadelphia. Poll workers in El Paso, Texas, which is suffering from one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, squirted antibacterial gel in people’s hands and repeatedly wiped down voting machines with alcohol wipes to prevent infections from spreading.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, is favored to beat President Donald Trump, a Republican, but polls remain tight in several key battlegrounds, and officials warn that it could take days to tally enough ballots to determine the outcome.

Roughly 100 million people voted before Tuesday, reflecting an intense focus on this year’s campaign and the expanded use of mail ballots to avoid crowded polling places in the midst of a pandemic.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida expert on voting, predicted that more than 160 million voters could cast ballots this year, or 67% of the total number of eligible Americans. That would be 15% more than in 2016 and, by a significant margin, the largest turnout in modern U.S. history.

In Phoenix, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, voters were lined up in the predawn darkness before their polling places opened. Many stood 6 feet apart to avoid transmitting the virus that has killed more than 230,000 Americans.

Anthony Thomas, 51, said he’s not usually interested in politics, but “there’s something about this particular year” that prompted the home health aide to vote for Biden at a church in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood.

“We need somebody in power to take this thing seriously, because the numbers are going up,” said Thomas, who said he has lost close friends to COVID-19. “We need a leader who’s going to guide us and listen to the doctors and the scientists.”

Other places remained sleepy as the day began, perhaps because so many had already voted.

John Burns, a 50-year-old attorney volunteering as a poll observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, said it has been slow at the community center where he’s stationed.

“I think we have 45 voters so far today,” he said about five hours after voting began. “The county has had very, very heavy early vote turnout, so I didn’t expect it to be long lines today anywhere.”

But in four precincts in North Carolina, problems with printers delayed the opening of polling stations, moving the state Board of Elections to extend voting hours, which will push back the release of any North Carolina results until after 8:15 p.m. EST.

Brittany Smith, a 30-year-old massage therapist, was relieved to see no line when she walked up to Pittman Park Recreation Center in Atlanta. The polling station made national news during the 2018 midterms, staying open hours after the official closing time because of a shortage of voting machines.

But early Tuesday morning, there were more poll watchers, reporters and volunteers outside than voters.

Smith voted for Biden because, she said, she is concerned about racial injustice and wants to improve the morale of the country. But her girlfriends played a role, too — every day, they asked her whether she had voted.

“Everyone knows I haven’t voted yet,” she said. “Even if I didn’t believe my vote counted, the shame and embarrassment I would feel from people in my community would kill me!”

The wait to cast ballots across Georgia was only four minutes, according to state officials, but there was some trouble with voting machines in Spalding County, south of Atlanta. Paper ballots were used until the machines were operational again later in the morning.

Overall, there were only isolated reports of voting problems Tuesday. Some polling places in Clark County, Nevada, delayed their opening because of “technical problems,” according to state officials. In Henderson, a line grew outside a polling place at a community center when some voting machines stopped working. Some people left to vote elsewhere.

Misinformation about voting, a constant challenge this year, appeared to be an ongoing threat. Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen tweeted that there had been reports of anonymous phone calls telling voters to “stay home and stay safe.” Similar calls were reported in Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan. State election officials alerted the FBI and the Federal Election Commission.

In Michigan, misinformation was targeted at residents in Flint and Dearborn. The messages falsely warned of printing errors requiring Biden supporters to fill in the bubble on their ballot for Trump and of long lines that would require voters to wait until after Election Day to vote.

The Michigan attorney general’s office used its social media accounts to urge Dearborn voters to ignore the texts: “Do not fall for it, it’s a trick!” one tweet read.

South of Detroit, Jay Downen, 59, docked his tugboat along the Detroit River at lunchtime to cast his ballot. He voted for Trump and expressed faith that the president is “doing his best” to control the pandemic.

“The economy has been great; he’s not beholden to anyone,” Downen said.

Mail voting has presented some hurdles. Lisa Random, 50, went to the city clerk’s office in Detroit when she learned that she forgot to sign her ballot before sending it in.

“It’s a very critical, important election in terms of electing our president,” said Random, a Democrat who voted for Biden. “So I feel it’s very important that everyone exercise their right to vote.”

In Wisconsin, officials in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin said they had received 16,000 mail ballots by Tuesday morning, and only six were in danger of not being counted. Three hundred ballots had arrived without signatures or other required information, but the problems were fixed after workers called the voters and gave them an opportunity to “cure” their ballots. “People go through a lot to vote and to make sure their votes count,” said Sandi Wesolowski, the city clerk. “And we feel the same. We want to make sure all their votes count.”

Biden’s team told reporters they hadn’t heard about any major disruptions at polling places by noon on the East Coast.

“By and large, voting is proceeding smoothly,” said Bob Bauer, a Biden campaign legal adviser, and fewer mail ballots were being rejected than some feared.

In Miami, Viv Bichachi, 33, and her husband, Joel Bichachi, 38, voted for Trump early Tuesday morning in Legion Park. Joel said he supported the president because he’s “about capitalism, not socialism and communism.”

His parents fled Cuba, and he feared that the Democratic Party leans more toward the ideology that his family escaped.

“You kind of see it with Biden raising the taxes as much as he’s gonna be,” he said. “So I just feel that Donald Trump is the best candidate right now.”

Trump, unlikely to win the popular vote and in danger of losing the Electoral College, has publicly threatened to take legal action to swing the race in his favor. He has baselessly suggested there will be voting fraud in Pennsylvania, a key battleground, because the Supreme Court allowed the state to count mail ballots received after Tuesday, a standard feature in every election.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to be waiting, and we’re waiting,” Trump told “Fox & Friends” in a phone interview Tuesday morning. He added, “Philadelphia will be a disaster.”

He issued an even more dire warning Monday night on Twitter, saying the process “will also induce violence in the streets.”

The country has been bracing for unrest in the coming days. Plywood has proliferated over downtown windows in Washington, D.C., and a black metal security barrier stretched for blocks around the White House complex.

There’s also the potential for voter intimidation. Trump has urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” and his campaign has recruited people for what it calls an “Army for Trump” to keep tabs on voting.

Although both political parties deploy poll watchers, activists and Democrats fear Trump’s plans would be more confrontational and designed to deter people from casting ballots.

In the county surrounding Houston, a Democratic stronghold and the thirdlargest county in the country, all but one of 10 drive-thru voting locations were closed by the county clerk late Monday. Even though state and federal courts have upheld drive-thru voting, a federal judge warned Monday that Texas law technically restricted voting to buildings, so the clerk closed the polling places set up in tents around the area to ensure that all votes can be counted without potential legal worries.

Galen Pineda, 27, of Houston, has been working two jobs during the pandemic to make ends meet and had never voted before Tuesday. Her father, a legal resident from Mexico who isn’t a citizen, and the woman she babysits for, also an immigrant, urged her to head to the polls.

“I feel like my vote counts as their vote,” she said afterward. She voted for Biden, she said, because “I’m just tired of everything Trump has to say.”

In Phoenix, John DeVille, 52, voted for Trump and said he believed the president would easily carry Arizona. He praised the president’s handling of the “fake pandemic” that’s “nothing more than the flu” and described him as a role model for children. As voters filed into the library to cast ballots, J.P. Allen, a radio producer, danced alongside a live bluegrass band while holding a sign that read “Red or blue: We love you.”

“I’m just trying to say that voting is the most important thing, no matter what side you’re on,” Allen said.

Darryl Shephard, 51, woke up early to walk to church in the Orlando, Florida, neighborhood of Parramore, where he voted for Biden. He was worried his ballot wouldn’t have been counted otherwise.

“I just don’t trust mail-in voting, because I’ve seen all the news on the post office delays,” Shephard said.

Lensa Jeudy, 30, a Florida State University graduate student, said her father used to take her to polling places when he voted. On Tuesday, Jeudy voted for Biden, saying, “I’m ready to be inspired again. I’m ready to feel proud and wanting to watch my president speak.”

Trump’s four years in office have led to more outward racism, she said, and she’s worried about a backlash after the election.

“I’m more nervous about how people will react to that more than anything,” she said. “They’re very unpredictable, and I think that’s scary.”