By midafternoon, only minor voting problems on Election Day
So far, so relatively good. By the middle of Tuesday afternoon, that was the general sense for how things were going at polling places across the country on this Election Day to end all Election Days.
There were scattered but nothing close to widespread technological glitches and apparent efforts to suppress voting – mainly misleading robocalls in several states that the FBI was investigating – that kept election officials and independent monitors on their toes.
But, with a few hours to go, one of the most divisive and complex tests ever for American electoral democracy seemed to be nearing the end with unexpected calm — and very long lines of people waiting to do their civic duty.
More than 100 million people had voted ahead of Election Day — almost two-thirds of them by mail, with several million more such absentee ballots expected to get delivered on time to be counted.
In D.C., federal Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the Postal Service to conduct a sweep of a dozen Postal Service processing facilities this afternoon to "ensure that no ballots have been held up" in regions that have been slow to process mail ballots. He said any ballots found must get put on trucks and delivered as soon as possible.
Among the facilities targeted by his order are several in battleground states where envelopes arriving after the polls close will not be counted. They handle mail in south Florida, northwestern Wisconsin, Detroit, Atlanta and all of Arizona, Maine and New Hampshire.
And a wave of suspicious robocalls and texts began bombarding telephones in much of the country soon after the polls opened, their unclear origin raising suspicions of last-minute foreign interference. Millions of them urged people to "stay safe and stay home" on Election Day. Another wave of automated calls in Flint, the sixth largest city in battleground Michigan, told people to vote tomorrow if they hoped to avoid long lines today.
That is not possible, of course, leaving officials scrambling to reassure voters of the rules. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan pledged to "work quickly to stamp out misinformation." The FBI was reportedly investigating the larger wave of calls.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the many voting rights groups that has battled all year to make voting easier despite the coronavirus pandemic, detailed the range of complaints to its hotline, part of the largest election monitoring operation in the country. The presidential battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan had produced the most calls.
The group's president, Kristen Clarke, said the biggest concern so far was technical problems with voting systems in two rural counties in tossup Georgia — Spalding south of Atlanta and Morgan east of Atlanta. Voters were being asked to use paper ballots and already those had run out at several locations.
Clarke called this situation a "crisis-level issue" and said her group was considering filing suit to force an extension of voting hours if a negotiated settlement with election officials could not be reached.
Another area of concern was Philadelphia, where two precincts had not opened by midday.
Still, Clarke said it was too early for her to characterize what was happening nationally.
"I think the verdict is still out," she said.
The volume of calls being received at 30 centers organized by her group around the country, mostly law offices, was still relatively high. Concerns about excessively long waiting times at the polls, historically a sign of voter suppression in many parts of the country, were reported at numerous locations around the country in the morning — but those lines eased after the vote-as-soon-as-possible rush ended.
One likely reason for that is the record-setting number of people who voted by mail or in person in advance — leaving perhaps only 50 million ballots to be cast Tuesday, or one-third the total cast four years ago.
Two incidents of voter intimidation were reported in Florida. In one, five pickup trucks were blocking the entrance to a parking lot at a polling place in Orange County, where Orlando is located. In the other, two men who said they were with law enforcement, but were not in uniform, were seated outside a polling place in Tampa and were questioning voters as they entered.
Clarke said in both cases, law enforcement in those communities was alerted.
In Ohio, voting machines malfunctioned at several polling sites in Franklin County, where Columbus is located, forcing people to use paper ballots. Other voters were given provisional ballots, which Clarke said was improper.
North Carolina's Board of Elections was meeting at midafternoon to consider extending voting past 7:30 p.m. at four voting locations in suburban counties near Greensboro, Charlotte and Fayetteville. It's first vote granted one extension for 45 minutes — meaning a delay in reporting results statewide. State law says no returns can be announced until all voting has ended. The extensions were sought because of technical glitches that caused the doors to open late in all four places.
Approximately 50 voters were given an incorrect ballot (it was missing a state House race) when they showed up to vote right when the polls opened at Hickory Ridge Middle School in Harrisburg, outside Charlotte. County officials made arrangements for them to vote for other offices in the morning and come back later to vote for state representative.
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