At 7 a.m. on Election Day, when the doors opened for voting at the Resurgence Church in Philadelphia, voters were handed provisional ballots, because election officials noticed that the voting machines appeared to have been tampered with. In Spalding County, Georgia, voting machines were inoperable for a few hours at the start of the day, forcing officials to extend voting until 9 p.m. The electronic poll books in Franklin County, Ohio’s largest county, were out of commission before the day began.
Remarkably, given the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that many states are experiencing record turnout, none of these problems were out of the ordinary. Indeed, on a day when we had been primed for civil unrest, a Trump army of poll watchers, Russian hacking, targeted power outages, and ransomware attacks, shuttered polling places and broken machines seemed almost mundane. It wasn’t that they didn’t have consequences—they did, of course—but it was that they were unplanned and largely the result of human error or negligence. By the comparatively low standards of American elections, most voting on Tuesday appears to have taken place in a fairly orderly and sedate manner.
Even so, Damon Hewitt, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said, on a call at midday, “We’re also seeing some new forms of chaos, especially with respect to potential acts of intimidation.” For example, Hewitt mentioned reports that voters in Mobile County, Alabama, whose I.D.s didn’t match their registration addresses were told that they could cast only provisional ballots, even though election officials in Alabama are not supposed to use I.D.s for this purpose. At a polling place in Miami, voters had to walk past a police officer in a Trump mask. The Reverend Steve Bland, who was one of a hundred and seventy-three “poll chaplains” in Michigan, told me about a white man standing outside a polling place in a predominantly Black neighborhood, holding a clipboard, and asking people their names and if they had criminal records. “He took off when someone accompanying one of our poll chaplains asked him what he was doing,” Bland said.
On SeeSay 2020, an online dashboard where individuals can report problems at the polls, Pennsylvania and Florida each had more than eighty reports of ballot issues, machine failures, instances of voter intimidation, and registration problems by the end of the afternoon. But the most disturbing reports were coming from Michigan, where voters in Flint were getting robocalls telling them that, owing to long lines at the polls, they should stay home and vote on Wednesday. “Obviously this is FALSE and an effort to suppress the vote. No long lines and today is the last day to vote. Don’t believe the lies! Have your voice heard! RT PLS,” Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, posted on Twitter. (In early October, Nessel filed felony charges against the conservative activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, for a campaign of voter-suppression robocalls in Detroit. Wohl and Burkman have pleaded not guilty.) The Department of Homeland Security said the F.B.I. was investigating a nationwide effort to encourage people to “stay safe and stay home” on Election Day, by way of robocalls to more than ten million voters.
“This election season is a test of democracy,” Hewitt, of the Lawyers’ Committee, said. “We’re answering that question in real time.”
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