Wed. May 31st, 2023


As voters cast ballots largely without incident on Tuesday afternoon, former president Donald Trump took to social media to declare that a minor, already rectified problem with absentee balloting in Detroit was “REALLY BAD.”

“Protest, protest, protest,” he wrote just before 2:30 p.m.

Unlike in 2020, when similar cries from the then-president drew thousands of supporters into the streets — including to a tabulating facility in Detroit and later to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — this time, no one showed up.

After two years of promises from Trump and his supporters that they would flood polls and counting stations with partisan watchers to spot alleged fraud, after unprecedented threats lodged against election workers, after calls to ditch machines in favor of hand counting and after postings on internet chat groups called for violent action to stop supposed cheating, a peaceful Election Day drew high turnout and only scattered reports of problems.

Election officials said they believed the relative normalcy resulted from a combination of concerted effort on the part of well-prepared poll workers and voters, as well as the fact that some of Trump’s loudest supporters were less potent than they had claimed. The basic dynamics of a midterm election — which always draw less passion than presidential contests and in which voters do not rally around a single candidate — played a role as well.

Then there was the Trump factor. The 45th president no longer held the megaphone of the White House, or even Twitter, to carry his message to supporters in real time. And the election results suggest the number of people inclined to respond to Trump’s exhortations has continued to fall since he lost the 2020 election.

“Our democracy is more resilient than people have given it credit for,” said Adam Wit, clerk of Michigan’s Harrison Township and president of the state’s association of municipal clerks.

Wit said election workers helped counter suspicion in the community by throwing open their doors before Election Day to explain how the ballot counting system operates, using social media to educate voters and holding public information sessions. “Clerks did a lot to restore confidence,” he said.

Officials also reacted far more quickly than they did in 2020 to disinformation, using social media to snuff out embers of baseless accusations and rumors before they sparked wildfires.

Within an hour of Trump’s post about the alleged problem with absentee ballots, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) responded on Twitter, directing her comment squarely at the former president.

“This isn’t true,” she wrote. “Please don’t spread lies to foment or encourage political violence in our state. Or anywhere. Thanks.”

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Pandora Paschal, the election director in Chatham County, N.C., said collaboration with the county emergency operations director and additional security helped keep things calm on Tuesday.

There was an aggressive effort to counter false claims, she said, waged by election administrators who have often felt besieged in the past two years. Out of the 100 county election officials in North Carolina, 45 have left in the last three years, state officials said, amid a deluge of threats, personal attacks and misinformation by election deniers.

“People are trying to break us,” Paschal said. But, she added, “election administrators at every level are resilient people who will fight to the bitter end to ensure that democracy in America will never die.”

There were some isolated reports of problems.

A man armed with a knife was arrested at a polling place in West Bend, Wis., after demanding that they “stop the voting,” police said. Officials said the man reported that he knew that the library was a voting location and that the disturbance would spark a police response. They said they had not identified a political motive but said the man was out on bail from a previous arrest involving the posting of fliers containing “threatening political and racial language.”

The incident halted voting at the precinct — for about half an hour, officials said.

A potentially more significant problem emerged early in Maricopa County, Ariz., home to more than 60 percent of the state’s voters. Tabulators at about a quarter of the county’s 223 voting locations experienced difficulties, county officials said. They said a fix for the problem put many machines back online by the day’s end. In the meantime, voters were able to drop ballots in secure bins. No voter was disenfranchised as a result of the glitch, officials said.

On Wednesday, Maricopa County Board Chair Bill Gates (R) said county officials were baffled by the problems, which stemmed from printers that produced ballots with ink too light to be read by vote-counting machines. The printers were used without incident during the primary, he said.

A judge refused a request by Republicans candidates and the national party to extend voting hours because of the glitch. The problems could become central to potential legal challenges as more ballots are counted and statewide races tighten.

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Elsewhere, election officials breathed a sigh of relief that aggressive fraud-hunting novices seemed few and far between, despite promises from popular voices in the MAGA movement to inundate polling places with activists and station monitors in eyesight of ballot drop boxes.

In Milwaukee, an army of poll workers stationed at tables in a giant conference room methodically counted more than 60,000 absentee ballots as election watchers from both parties, journalists and international observers looked on. At the end of the night, elections director Claire Woodall-Vogg and witnesses from each major party went from voting tabulator to voting tabulator to remove flash drives with results and seal them in envelopes to be taken to the county clerk.

A brief, tense exchange flared when Woodall-Vogg opened a panel on one tabulator, bumping the power cord and inadvertently unplugging it. She wrote down what happened and noted the time.

“I have documented that the machine unplugged,” she announced.

You unplugged it,” an observer retorted.

But the moment passed quickly, as the observer and his colleagues ensured the moment had been caught on videotape.

In an interview Wednesday, Woodall-Vogg said she could not imagine how the observer believed she or a candidate could have been benefited by unplugging the machine. “I think he was just a living example of what we’re facing,” she said. “Really there’s no winning solution.”

But overall, she said, Election Day went smoothly, which she attributed to ample training, including on how to de-escalate conflicts. “Workers weren’t offended at answering questions,” she said. “I didn’t care if people were taking pictures of things. Just, the more transparent, the better.”

In New Mexico, Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark also saw increased interest in poll watching or challenging from both parties. Some challengers got “a little enthusiastic,” she said.

“We just go over the rules again,” she said, explaining how workers diffused any problems.

Election officials said nationally that fewer partisan challengers showed up than they had thought likely, given pre-election rhetoric from figures like former Trump adviser and popular podcaster Stephen K. Bannon, who boasted of a massive new network of “election integrity” activists. (“We’re going to be there and enforce those rules, and we’ll challenge any vote, any ballot, and you’re going to have to live with it, okay?” he said on a recent episode of his show.)

Nathan Savidge, county clerk in Republican-dominated Northumberland County, Pa., said there were about 50 poll watchers spread among 74 precincts, about twice as many as in 2020. In Ottawa County, Mich., a heavily Republican county west of Grand Rapids where election denialism was rife, a local group struggled to find enough volunteers to monitor the county’s drop boxes.

“Sometimes, with tactics like this, the story is the intimidation,” Suzanne Almeida, director of state operations for the watchdog group Common Cause. “It’s about making a movement seem bigger than it is … making a fringe idea feel very mainstream, and like it’s everywhere.”

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In a text message, Bannon said he believed his strategy had been successful. “I think folks were fully deployed, and I think that’s why problems in Pennsylvania and Michigan were identified and put to bed,” he wrote. Deployment of poll watchers in Arizona, he said, “saved the day,” ensuring a quick response to issues with tabulators rejecting ballots.

Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom (R), who won reelection Tuesday, said the election validated the system for some who had been skeptical of it in 2020, in part because some of those skeptics participated in the process this year. McBroom wrote a legislative report in 2021 that concluded massive fraud had not characterized the 2020 Michigan election, and was criticized by Trump and his allies.

“I think we had a lot of those people who wanted to volunteer and be a part of this after 2020,” he said. “They had to learn the rules, the processes. They took the time. They got the training. And in the end, they didn’t see things that concerned them on Election Day to a large extent.”

But some leading voices in the election-denier movement suggested their efforts around the midterms are just getting started. Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who advised Trump on trying to overturn the 2020 election, said in a podcast Wednesday that a group she runs would “reclaim America’s elections” by focusing on changing laws to limit absentee voting and make it easier to purge voter rolls.

In North Carolina, Paschal said it was election workers who had kept partisan challengers from breaking the rules.

“We let them know we would not tolerate it,” she said.

Beth Reinhard, Matthew Brown, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Greg Jaffe, Elizabeth Miller, Sam Easter, Kim Bellware, Ashley Cusick, Matthew David LaPlante, Rodney Welch, Gheni Platenburg and Alex Hinojosa contributed to this report.

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