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Election Day fears of voter intimidation largely didn’t come to pass

There were isolated incidents across the country, but far from what some feared.

The first day of early voting at Union Station in Los Angeles, on October 24, 2020.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

More than 160 million Americans voted in the 2020 election, the highest turnout in a century, based on preliminary numbers. Millions of ballots are still being counted, which is exactly how it’s supposed to work.

But even with so much still uncertain, there’s one thing we do know from voting this year: Despite fears of voter intimidation or even violence at polling stations on Election Day, that largely didn’t happen. Activists and voting rights group documented some isolated incidents of possible voter intimidation or suppression and other voting problems across the country, but on the whole, this Election Day unfolded as election days should — relatively uneventfully, at least when it came to the voting process.

“We have what looks like by all accounts a successful election with remarkably high turnout, and a lot of things we worried about happening, whether hacking, or disasters of one sort or the other, or intimidation — none of that was was really a serious problem,” Paul Smith, vice president for litigation and strategy at the advocacy group Campaign Legal Center, said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a civil rights organization, their voter protection hotline received more than 29,000 calls by the end of Election Day, which included complaints of possible voter intimidation or electioneering. But on a call Tuesday evening, the organization’s president and executive director Kristen Clarke said overall, voter intimidation “hasn’t been a systematic or widespread issue.”

That’s unquestionably a good thing for the country and for democracy — yet the fact that it’s news puts into perspective just how high tensions were ahead of November 3. President Trump’s baseless rhetoric about the election being stolen (which is ongoing, despite still-inconclusive results) and his call for supporters to join an “Army for Trump” to help monitor polling places for any irregularities raised fears that private citizens or even armed militia groups might take it upon themselves to police the polls.

Early voting and vote-by-mail likely helped make Election Day a little less volatile, spreading out crowds at polling places over days or keeping the millions who cast ballots by mail away from polling sites altogether. But it also seems that, on the whole, Americans kept their cool at the polls, despite fears to the contrary.

Still, there were a few isolated incidents reported. In Charlotte, North Carolina, an armed man wearing Trump gear was arrested after a polling supervisor asked him to leave a polling place on Election Day and he returned. In Lane County, Oregon, armed individuals reportedly approached people as they were dropping off their ballots. And state officials received reports of robocalls targeting voters in key states like Michigan that warned them not to go to the polls on Tuesday because of long lines.

The biggest concern now is misinformation, particularly around the vote count, and how that might spike tensions as America awaits the final results of the election, which is still likely to take days, if not longer. Trump, as expected, is already the biggest offender by trying to sow doubts about the vote-counting process.

Though people seemed to forget this as soon as the polls closed, experts have been warning for months now that it would be unlikely America would know the final outcome of the presidential race on election night because of the unusual number of mail-in ballots being cast this year and because the pandemic has stretched election officials’ resources across the country.

This was always going to be especially true in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where Republican-led legislatures blocked attempts to begin the processing or counting of mail ballots as they were received.

The partisan divide over voting meant Republicans were more likely to vote in person, and Democrats by mail. As such, Trump was expected to be way ahead in these states on election night, before the margins shifted. And, as expected, Trump tried to declare premature victory and has since tried to push the falsehood that the ballot counts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are somehow suspicious.

But states will make the final calls on vote totals, not the campaigns or the candidates. Counting all the votes normally takes days, if not weeks, even without the added challenges of the pandemic. “It’s up to all of us to allow them to finish counting the ballots,” Tammy Patrick, senior adviser for elections at the nonprofit Democracy Fund, said on a call with reporters Wednesday morning. “And, again, no new ballots are being cast. Ballots cast are being counted.”

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