After a campaign marked by rancour and fear, the United States on Tuesday will decide between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, selecting a leader to steer a nation battered by a surging pandemic that has killed more than 231,000 people, cost millions their jobs and reshaped daily life.
At least 98.8 million people voted before election day, about 71 per cent of the nearly 139 million ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election, according to data collected by The Associated Press. Given that a few states, including Texas, had already exceeded their total 2016 vote count, experts were predicting record turnout this year.
Polls opened across most of the country earlier on Tuesday. In and around polling places across the U.S., voters were greeted by reminders of an election year shaped by a pandemic, civil unrest and bruising political partisanship. Many wore masks to the polls — either by choice or by official mandate — with the coronavirus raging in many parts of the country.
The most closely watched results will start to trickle in after 7 p.m. ET, when polls close in states such as Georgia, though definitive national results could take days if the contest is tight. Biden entered election day with multiple paths to victory while Trump, playing catch-up in a number of battleground states, had a narrower but still feasible road to clinch 270 electoral college votes.
Control of the Senate is at stake, too — Democrats need to have a net gain of three seats if Biden captures the White House to gain control of all of Washington for the first time in a decade. The House is expected to remain under Democratic control.
Problems occur every election, and Tuesday was no different. There were long lines early in the day and sporadic reports of polling places opening late and equipment issues. This was all expected given past experience, the decentralized nature of voting in the U.S. and last-minute changes due to the pandemic.
Federal authorities were monitoring voting and any threats to the election across the country at an operations centre just outside Washington, D.C., run by the cybersecurity arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Officials there said there were no major problems detected early Tuesday but urged the public to be patient and skeptical in the days ahead.
From the centre, U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Christopher Krebs asked people in the U.S. to “treat all sensational and unverified claims with skepticism and remember technology sometimes fails.”
Krebs said there was “some early indication of system disruption,” but he did not elaborate. He said he has “confidence that the vote is secure, the count is secure and the results will be secure.”
Krebs said officials have seen attempts by foreign actors “to interfere in the 2020 election.” But he says officials “have addressed those threats quickly” and “comprehensively.”
Legal battle looms over early votes
Voters braved long lines and the threat of the virus to cast ballots as they chose between two starkly different visions of the country for the next four years.
The record-setting early vote — and legal skirmishing over how it will be counted — drew unsupported allegations of fraud from Trump, who refused to guarantee he would honour the election’s result.
Biden started his day at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, his Roman Catholic church near Wilmington, Del., where he and members of his family spent some time at his son Beau’s grave. Beau died of cancer at age 46 in 2015.
Fighting to the end for every vote, Biden returned to his childhood home in Scranton, Pa. Pennsylvania is key to Biden’s White House hopes; he plans to visit Philadelphia later before awaiting election results in Wilmington.
His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, was visiting Detroit, a heavily Black city in battleground Michigan. Both of their spouses were headed out, too, as the Democrats reached for a clear victory.
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Trump began his day with a call-in appearance on Fox and Friends, where he predicted he will win by a larger electoral margin than he did in 2016. “I think we’ll top it,” Trump said, referencing the number of electoral college votes he won in the 2016 election
Trump said he would declare himself the winner of the election “only when there’s victory.” There has been concern that Trump will declare victory early — before vote counts are definitive. But the Republican president told Fox there’s no reason to “play games.” He said he thinks he has a “very solid chance at winning.”.
He also discussed the size of the crowds at his rallies — something Democrats have criticized him for amid the pandemic. Trump planned to visit his campaign headquarters in Virginia, and invited hundreds of supporters to an election night party in the East Room of the White House.
The Republican president threatened legal action to block the counting of ballots received after election day. If Pennsylvania ballot counting takes several days, as is allowed, Trump claimed without evidence that “cheating can happen like you have never seen.”
In fact, there are roughly 20 states that allow mail-in ballots received after election day to be counted — up to nine days and longer in some states. Litigation has centred on just a few where states have made changes in large part due to the coronavirus.
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Preparations for unrest
A new anti-scale fence was erected around the White House, and in downtowns ranging from New York City to Denver to Minneapolis, workers boarded up businesses lest the vote lead to unrest of the sort that broke out earlier this year amid protests over racial inequality.
Just a short walk from the White House, for block after block, stores had their windows and doors covered. Some kept just a front door open, hoping to attract a little business.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups said they were watching closely for signs of voter intimidation, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said it would deploy staff to 18 states.
The fondness among some Trump supporters to form honking, traffic-jamming caravans of vehicles has spread to New York and beyond, and more such events were planned for Tuesday. Some election security experts worry the caravans could break laws, intimidate voters or spiral into violent confrontations.
At a polling station at a library in Tampa, Fla., Biden supporters had set up a marquee with signs for both their candidate and for Black Lives Matter, the slogan-turned-movement around which protesters massed in cities across the U.S. this year.