For months, election officials have feared activists who believe the electoral system is corrupt and broken would cause major problems in the midterm elections. But the scattered episodes during voting did not disrupt the system.
The relative calm so far has given election officials a sigh of relief, even as they remain concerned about flimsy legal challenges and misinformation that may surface in the coming weeks. They hailed tactics they believe are strengthening a system rocked by the baseless allegations of fraud and widespread suspicion following Donald J. Trump’s attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.
They pointed to better and more frequent communication by election officials and transparency measures such as live cams at ballot boxes and in counting rooms. Some speculated that polls and right-wing media reports promising a Republican outburst at races across the country may have deterred some right-wing activists from provocations at polling stations.
“It was remarkably smooth,” said Damon Circosta, chairman of the North Carolina state elections committee. “You can tell from my dizziness that I didn’t expect it.”
For the past two years, a movement of conspiracy-minded activists has vocally challenged and undermined the country’s electoral system. Their efforts have garnered support from conservative organizations, wealthy supporters and right-wing media figures, and raised concerns about the potential for violence, intimidation and vigilante justice on election day.
But the incidents reported by officials this week were far less blatant. Despite widespread allegations of cheating, Republican candidates have mostly accepted the results when they lost – including some of the most vocal proponents of election conspiracy theories. Mr. Trump’s calls to “Protest!” in response to relatively routine technical problems in Arizona and Michigan have so far been largely ignored.
Early indications are that turnout was relatively high, particularly in battleground states, suggesting voters were not deterred by the noise.
Dozens of races remain undecided and the count could continue into next week at some points. In two states in particular, Nevada and Arizona, several vote-waiving candidates are running in close races, and election attorneys say they are preparing for legal challenges to once again put the system’s soundness to justice.
On Thursday, Mark Finchem, the Republican nominee for Secretary of State in Arizona, vilified the voting system in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, likening part of the process to Chad’s infamously hung 2000 election in Florida.
There have been serious strains on election officials and others working to protect voting.
By the time polling stations closed, polling officials were still receiving calls alleging alleged defects in polling equipment, while poll monitors in some constituencies pursued poll officials with questions about the machinery. In a few cases, attempts were made to disrupt voting or to prevent voters from voting. And tech glitches in multiple jurisdictions have been picked up on by Republican candidates, election deniers, right-wing influencers and Mr. Trump. Such misinformation will further damage the confidence of at least some sections of the public.
In some places, officials and monitoring groups say they are still concerned that refusers on bodies tasked with confirming the vote may try to disrupt the process.
“There are definitely still things we need to be concerned about,” said Orion Danjuma, an attorney for Protect Democracy, an election integrity group. Last month, he helped the group file successful legal challenges against self-proclaimed vigilantes who patrolled ballot boxes in Maricopa County and at times carried long guns and body armor.
He said the Arizona win might have been enough of a shot across the bow to stop some activists, but stressed that the most serious attacks on elections didn’t surface until weeks and months after the 2020 election, when attorneys for Mr. Trump tried repeatedly to reverse the result. “We are ready for more lawsuits,” Mr Danjuma said.
In fact, Arizona Republican Party leader Kelli Ward has pledged to continue such actions. “We’ve been preparing for this for over a year,” she said in a tweet on Thursday. “We have a huge team of lawyers ready to take action if necessary.”
Regardless of Tuesday’s results, voices supporting electoral conspiracy theories are unlikely to be muted anytime soon. On Wednesday morning, the organizer of a coalition of vote-resisters in Michigan called on the group to redouble its power even as Democrats have won almost every major race in the state.
“We can choose to curl up and succumb on the ledge, or we can dust ourselves off and resume the arduous climb up the steep slopes,” wrote Michigan Fair Elections organizer Patrice Johnson in a blog post. The group’s next online meeting was scheduled for Thursday.
One of Michigan Fair Elections’ preferred candidates, Kristina Karamo, who is running for secretary of state, has not given up despite a 14 percentage point loss, sending out a list of alleged “election violations” on Thursday afternoon, saying there are more to come would.
But Republican nominees for Michigan’s governor and attorney general admitted defeat on Wednesday, as did Tim Michels, the Republican nominee for governor in Wisconsin, who fought on promises to change the electoral system so Republicans never vote again lose in the state.
Concessions from candidates who spread unsubstantiated theories about voter fraud are crucial to ensure the stability of the electoral system, election experts say. Additionally, they note that public relations by election officials can help put out fires.
After calls and emails from voters demanding that their ballots be counted by hand instead of on machines that many activists mistakenly believe can be tampered with, Fred Sherman, the Johnson County, Kan Solution. Voters raising the issue in the borough, Kansas’ most populous, would have the opportunity to place their ballot in a specially marked white envelope inside a sealed red ballot bag and be assured that they would be counted by hand.
About 300 of the 250,000 people who voted in Johnson County used the red bags, Sherman said, and it appeared to solve the problem.
“They obviously caused a bit of turbulence,” Sherman said. “It’s like running on a treadmill on an incline over and over.” Mr. Sherman said he wants “an easy run, and you don’t have that when you have constant refusal to vote.”
According to Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist in Charlotte, NC, polls predicting a major Republican wave may also have helped cool the fervor of election deniers. By that logic, he said, attempts to erode confidence in the results would have only discouraged Republican voters.
“Republican friends told me every day that the Democrats were going to be wiped out,” Mr. Wilson said.
Spurred on by concerns about those who refuse to vote, numerous constituencies began their own preparations well before Tuesday.
A coalition called the Election Defenders organized dozens of sessions to train those stationed at polling stations to prevent voter intimidation. Their goal was to recruit 1,250 volunteers, but instead they were overwhelmed by more than 2,000 people who completed several hours of online training on how to intervene in tense situations, clear confusion, de-escalate confrontations with potentially armed activists, and most importantly, see things through calm.
“We had the good problem that more people signed up than we had space,” said Tiffany Flowers, a key organizer of the campaign. She said she worked 20 hours on Tuesday monitoring social media, visiting polling stations in her hometown of Atlanta and checking in with partners across the country.
One of the few incidents came late from Maricopa County, involving a man trying to physically stop a woman from entering a polling center minutes before it was scheduled to close. Ms Flowers said several campaigners showed up at the scene and escorted the woman inside, then waited outside before escorting her back to her car.
“I truly believe there are more Americans who want to see all eligible voters voting fairly, freely and with dignity,” Ms. Flowers said.
Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.