A nation battered by the coronavirus pandemic trudged to the polls on Tuesday with an eerie sense, ultimately vindicated, that no matter how they felt or what they hoped, the United States would finish Election Day without much confidence in the name of its next president.
After 7 p.m., the Associated Press made its first calls, projecting Kentucky and West Virginia for President Donald Trump, and Vermont and Virginia for Democratic challenger Joe Biden. A slew of reliably blue and red electoral prizes followed.
But key contests in the crucial states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that were long thought likely to swing the election remained far from decided. And early signs pointed far away from a Democratic sweep, paving the way for the kind of prolonged battle Trump has signaled he would welcome with his political fate on the line.
In other words, a messy legal fight, full of bogus claims of fraud.
Legal War Is Coming
As they have in several past election cycles, armies of election lawyers were bracing on both sides for what could come next.
Backed by Trump’s false allegations about voter fraud, ballot-counting deadlines have become a fraught topic as Democrats and Republicans face off over how late is too late for mail-in ballots to be received in order to get counted. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court in September decided that mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by Friday would still count. But that issue could be revisited by a conservative-dominated Supreme Court despite its own choice last month not to hear the case prior to the election.
Trump baselessly tweeted that the additional three days of leeway in a state widely seen as must-win for him “is a disaster for our Nation, and for Pennsylvania itself. The Democrats are trying to steal this Election.”
Late Tuesday, the president was set to get the fight he craved.
“In Pennsylvania, we know that most of the mail in ballots would not even begin to be counted until tonight and tomorrow, and early indications were that Biden had an advantage with these votes,” James Eisenhower, an attorney and professor of election law at the Temple University, told The Daily Beast in a late-night text.
Echoing civil-society groups who said actual voting largely went off without a hitch, Lauren Vidas, a Democratic election lawyer based in Philadelphia, told The Daily Beast, “All in all, a smooth Election Day.” She did, however, offer a warning for the days to come in this most critical swing state: “Look for [the] Trump campaign to challenge vote by mail in bulk.”
Contrary to claims from Trump, any delay in determining the winner will stem from the need to ensure votes are counted, not fraud. But if Tuesday might typically have marked the end of a raucous election season, one that saw historic surges in early voting in the face of a public health crisis that has killed over 230,000 Americans, any sense of closure by night’s end was lost.
Instead, the potential for even more bitterness ahead was clear as Americans looked out for far-right vigilantes and other threats—genuine and fabricated.
At a quiet downtown polling location early Tuesday in Tucson, Arizona, a Democratic stronghold, people slowly dropped off their ballots in person as Tanya Barnett, a 39-year-old realtor, laid into the political system.
“People are turning into monsters,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never seen polarization worse than it is now in my lifetime. I’m sick of being the country the rest of the world laughs at... I’m sick of being scared of what Trump will do next. And I’m ready to focus on fixing our broken system once he’s gone.”
About 150 miles to the northwest, in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, police confirmed to The Daily Beast that a report had been filed about a man driving by voters with a sign falsely claiming “Bidens Shot.”
On Tuesday night, an initially festive mood in the streets outside the White House, dubbed Black Lives Matter Plaza in the wake of protests this summer, turned more despondent as it became clear Biden supporters were, at best, in for a long night. A large portion of downtown D.C. buildings have been boarded up, and the entire White House complex has been surrounded by expanded fencing. While a few-dozen people watched results on a projector in a nearby park and cheered Democratic pickups, others streamed away from the protests. Police arrested a handful of people amid scuffles, although it was unclear what charges they faced.
While voting-rights groups pointed to some actual polling-place issues in various states Tuesday, concern about disinformation inspired by robocalls was a top source of early anxiety, including in Michigan. The state’s attorney general sounded the alarm on Twitter, saying she was “getting reports of multiple robocalls going to Flint residents that, due to long lines, they should vote tomorrow.”
“Obviously this is FALSE and an effort to suppress the vote,” Dana Nessel, a Democrat, tweeted.
Pandemic Rage Dominates
In Wisconsin—where a new one-day high for coronavirus cases was set Tuesday, according to the state—the coronavirus was inescapable. The pandemic struck at the center of the voting process in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale when the community’s top election official was herself diagnosed with COVID-19, the town’s mayor said Tuesday.
Even without City Clerk Megan Humitz in the office, however, voting was proceeding smoothly at all three polling places in the community of about 12,900, Mayor Bryan Kennedy told The Daily Beast. About 75 percent of Glendale’s roughly 9,800 voters had already cast early ballots, he said.
Humitz had mild symptoms and was continuing to work from home, Kennedy added. Two other city employees who worked closely with Humitz were tested twice and tests came back negative for both of them. They were back at work in City Hall but not in contact with voters, he said.
President Trump, for his part, has spent much of the pandemic lying about mass fraud by way of mail-in ballots and falsely saying at one point during a campaign stop in Wisconsin, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
All the while, the coronavirus has powered ahead—despite presidential rhetoric that the country was “rounding the turn.”
After voting at a North Carolina polling site inside the Central United Methodist Church in a solidly Republican county just to the west of Charlotte, James Ellis admitted to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, “I fucked up and voted for Donald Trump last time.”
“I didn’t do that this time, that’s all I’ll say,” said Ellis, who was laid off from his job at a steel company because of COVID-19. He described Trump as “just not a tactful man.”
The pandemic, more than anything else, influenced how people voted across the country. Data from The Washington Post showed that, by Tuesday, early voting had already led the nation past the 73 percent mark of ballots cast for the entire 2016 election, with more than 100 million total votes already on the books.
To vote safely in the pandemic, the need to wear masks on Tuesday was clear. But Nicole Perlroth, a New York Times reporter, tweeted Tuesday that a Dallas County election judge had relayed a story that ended with them being “forced to leave her precinct after her Republican counterpart/pollworkers refused to wear masks.”
Miami Shows Up... for Trump?
As Election Day wore on, a gray Porsche with two gigantic blue Trump campaign flags flapping from the driver- and passenger-side windows slowly cruised in front of the Westchester Branch Library, one of the polling sites in the Florida Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County.
In predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods like Westchester, President Trump’s tough talk against socialist countries in the Caribbean and South America has resonated with some Latino voters.
Jason Ordonez, a 26-year-old Trump voter, said he expected Biden supporters and social-justice organizations like Black Lives Matter would try to foment civil unrest should the president win re-election. “I think people who didn’t vote for Trump are going to get a little crazy,” Ordonez told The Daily Beast. “But then they will get over that shit.”
However, if the former vice president beats Trump, Americans on both sides are headed for a bloody conflict, Ordonez opined. “If Biden wins, this country is going to shit,” Ordonez said. “There will be a civil war or some type of shit like that.”
About an hour and half before polls closed, the parking lot at the North Dade Regional Library in Miami Gardens was jammed with voters trying to find an open spot amid a caravan of food trucks. The predominantly Black city was also holding local elections for its city council, which local Democratic leaders were hoping would boost voter turnout.
A majority of the campaign workers, entertainers, and voters wore face coverings and danced to the sounds of deejays playing 70s funk and soul music in tents set up outside the precinct.
Despite the vibrant atmosphere, Biden voter Peggy Goulet told The Daily Beast that Trump’s debunked claims that he can only lose if there is massive ballot fraud was enflaming his base. “I am a bit concerned about the safety of me and my family,” she said. “But I am a woman of faith and I think God will guide us through all this chaos and confusion.”
The 37-year-old, wearing black eyeglasses and a dark green facemask, said if Joe Biden wins, Trump supporters may engage in some form of violent retaliation. “I believe if Trump wins, there will be many people who will be disheartened and will question the process,” Julien said. “However, I don’t think Democrats and Biden voters would be as volatile as Trump supporters if the outcome doesn’t go their way.”
All Sorts of Snags
Elsewhere in the country, there were some truly unexpected problems.
After a water pipe burst in the early morning hours, election board officials at State Farm Arena in Atlanta were delayed counting absentee ballots for about two hours. As of 6:30 p.m., poll workers had counted 86,000 of a total 130,517 ballots, none of which were affected by the water damage to the building, according to Regina Waller, media liaison for Fulton County. “Not a single one was affected,” she told The Daily Beast.
Waller said poll workers would continue counting ballots until 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, and then resume at 8 a.m. Wednesday. She said it would like take until end of day Wednesday to finish the job.
Texas, a state where Democrats were holding out hope for a shocker upset, had already passed the total number of votes cast in the previous presidential contest before Election Day had even started, according to the Post.
But if Joe Biden wins Texas, Robert Campo’s said he’ll leave the Lone Star State.
“I’m not joking,” he said. “That’ll be it for me. The last straw.”
Campo, 52, says he “isn’t married to Donald Trump”, but he does believe Texas should be red. If it turns blue, then the truck driver-turned factory foreman-turned boxing coach promised he’ll pack up his bags and head north. Specifically Oklahoma.
“They’ll always be red,” Campo said. “And I think I have a cousin there.”
In a more traditional battleground state, music blared from the parking lot at William C. Longstreet Public School in Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon. The city is a Democratic stronghold vital to the party’s hopes in Pennsylvania, and a favorite punching bag of Trump’s.
Diana Kline, a 56-year-old healthcare coordinator, voted last week, but she was on hand as her father, 78-year-old Waldon Brown, cast his ballot.
“I got a little nervous hearing about all the things with voter suppression,” she told The Daily Beast. “And not that I wouldn’t stand in a long line, but I already have so much anxiety with the protests, the virus, so I said, ‘You know what? Let me just get it done.’”
While some voters felt passionately about their chosen candidate, others, like Rashaan Carter, managed to come into the day undecided.
The 38-year-old told The Daily Beast he “only decided to vote for Trump on my walk over here. Something in my heart, in my gut said to vote for him.”
“I’m fine with either one, honestly,” Carter, who works as a mental healthcare aide and in a grocery store, explained. “I kinda want Biden to win, but if he gets in, the money stops. Over the last four years, I’ve gotten more money, more business than ever. So I voted for Trump because I was prosperous and that’s a lot to do with how he’s helped businesses.”
“I love Biden, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “But I don’t see the big problem with Trump. Maybe I’m being selfish, but he passed stimulus bills to help people out. I’ve never gotten help from the government in my life.”
Ballot deadline disputes have come up in other states. In Wisconsin, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed an appeals court’s decision to disallow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted if they arrived by Nov. 9. Instead, they have to be received by 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
But in North Carolina, “mail-in absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day will be accepted by county boards of elections until 5 p.m. November 12,” according to a press release by the North Carolina State Board of Elections. The United States Supreme Court also said on Oct. 28 it would not issue an injunction in that case.
Speaking to reporters in North Carolina on Sunday, Trump said, “It’s a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election,” before saying “as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers.”
Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general responded on Twitter: “FACT CHECK: Our elections are over when all the votes are counted. But if your lawyers want to try us, we’d be happy to defeat you in court one more time.”
Meanwhile, an armed man who was asked to leave a polling site in the Charlotte area allegedly returned later in the day, leading to his arrest for possible intimidation, North Carolina authorities said. The individual was wearing a camouflage Trump hat at the time.
Three Key Cities Loom
On the eve of the election, Trump was even darker about Pennsylvania in a tweet that was flagged by Twitter because “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.”
“The Supreme Court decision on voting in Pennsylvania is a VERY dangerous one,” Trump tweeted Monday night. “It will allow rampant and unchecked cheating and will undermine our entire systems of laws. It will also induce violence in the streets. Something must be done!”
Early reports pointed to virtually nothing in the way of the mass violence in the Democratic city that the president has long hyped, even after violent protests over a fatal police shooting there last month. Still, the country anxiously awaited mail-in ballot results from three key states, Pennsylvania among them.
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday night that Milwaukee county’s elections director had already made clear that the tally for the presidential race “will not be done earlier than 5 a.m. Wednesday.” In an election night message, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters that the state had been put “on track to be in a position to potentially see a full result of every tabulation out of Michigan in the next 24 hours, which is very exciting.” And in Philly, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “city elections officials said they were working to count ballots around the clock, as planned.”
In Northwest Detroit’s Livernois Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, the second wave of COVID-19 cases hitting the state was weighing on 32-year-old Joyia Pugh’s mind. She said she felt about “50 percent safe” casting her ballot in person and was too busy with her work with CADC, a Black Lives Matter and Biden-affiliated PAC, to take advantage of the state’s expanded absentee voting ahead of Election Day.
The virus claimed several of Pugh’s family members, she said. She took aim at the president for his handling of the pandemic, calling him “stupid” and criticizing him for not taking more steps to protect Americans.
“He knew this stuff was going to happen and he didn’t do anything about—he doesn’t care. He thinks it’s a joke, a game, and it’s not. People… have lost their lives over this.”
Pugh said she was shocked by the foiled alleged kidnapping plot against her state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer. But she wasn’t too concerned about violence at the polls or any sort of militia presence in Michigan, a state Trump flipped from Democrats four years ago.
Still, she was recommending her fellow citizens get home by 6 p.m.
“People start to get a little antsy about everything when the sun goes down,” she told The Daily Beast. “Everybody needs to watch their back and be safe. If you’re going to vote, go vote and get home.”
—with additional reporting from Patrick Adams, William Bredderman, Christopher Moraff, Will Sommer, and Kelly Weill