Election administrators and regular Americans were bracing for Election Day chaos — warned to expect violence, malfunctions, long lines and disinformation. Instead, they got something else entirely: a fairly smooth election process across the country.
Though some problems have emerged — even serious ones like election equipment failures — there were not, by early Tuesday evening as a first round of states was set to close their polls, any major disruptions to the democratic process, election observers said, despite the fact that turnout appears poised to smash previous records.
“We’ve not seen major systemic problems or attempts to obstruct voting for voters,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The problems we have seen have for the most part been isolated and sporadic.”
One counterintuitive reason for the relatively smooth day, Clarke noted, was the coronavirus pandemic. States across the country loosened restrictions on mail-in balloting and encouraged early voting at an unprecedented clip, with roughly 100 million ballots cast before Election Day. That took pressure off in-person voting on Tuesday, and resulted in lower-than-expected turnout on Election Day in some jurisdictions.
The relatively rosy assessments by Tuesday evening were caveated by the fact that several hours of voting remain, including a postwork surge expected across the country. And election officials are still wary that disinformation efforts — particularly those perpetrated by foreign adversaries — could arise in the sensitive hours after the polls close.
Researchers tracking online misinformation caution that misleading claims about election rigging and fraudulent ballots, which have been percolating in certain battleground states throughout the day, could boil over once polls start to close.
“That’s the time when we all need to be on high alert to watch out for the viral claims of false treatment that we’ve been seeing so far popping up in the vacuum of actual news and really taking over,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, a network analytics firm that tracks misinformation.
“We’ve seen in previous cases that when you have this period of doubt and dismay and uncertainty and there’s a lack of verified information, that’s when moments can suddenly go viral,” he added.
But, with all that in mind, election observers described a surprisingly smooth day for voters across America. They noted isolated episodes of voter intimidation, long lines and machine errors, many of which were normal for any election and that observers worked to resolve. But the reports have been relatively muted and a far cry from the nightmare scenarios that voters were warned about — from violent confrontations to foreign disinformation efforts to cyber intrusions that affect voter rolls.
“As we approach the end of the voting period and polls start to close in the Eastern time zone, I’m happy to report that overall, this has been a pretty smooth Election Day for a very challenging year,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the good governance group Common Cause, said. “That certainly doesn’t mean there were not problems or that voters didn’t have barriers, because they did,” she said, calling it “nothing that seems out of the norm.”
The potentially most significant issue of the day occurred away from the polls: widespread robocalls of unknown origin to Americans, including one call urging people to stay home. That call didn’t just reach voters domestically but others across the globe.
Some of the problems have required additional scrutiny, as in Franklin County, Ohio, where officials made the switch to backup paper pollbooks after problems with electronic ones, and a pair of Georgia counties — Spalding and Morgan — reporting technological problems earlier in the day. But even those issues are a far cry from the doomsday scenarios many feared.
Even some areas that saw disastrous primaries, most notably in and around Atlanta during Georgia’s June primary, remained largely calm, with many never reporting a wait time of over a half hour all day.
A handful of counties in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have announced they’re keeping at least some precincts open for an additional amount of time because of various problems. (One precinct in Cobb County, Ga., will be held open later because a poll manager overslept.) Poll hour extensions are fairly routine.
“This happens in every election,” said Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. “This will mean a slight delay in some of our results coming out. We don’t anticipate a terribly long delay. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that’s anything but the normal course of business in North Carolina and we’re very used to dealing with it.”
Steven Overly contributed to this report.
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