Ahead of Election Day, fears of possible chaos in the elections mounted.
Election officials warned of poll watchers steeped in conspiracy theories falsely claiming then-President Donald Trump didn’t actually lose the 2020 election. Democrats and suffrage groups are concerned about the impact of new election laws in some Republican-controlled states, which President Joe Biden dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0.” Law enforcement agencies monitored potential threats during the elections.
But Election Day and the weeks of early voting that preceded it went pretty smoothly. There were some reports of unruly poll watchers disrupting voting, but they were scattered. Groups of armed vigilantes began guarding a handful of ballot boxes in Arizona until a judge ordered them to stay far away to ensure they didn’t intimidate voters. And while it could be months before their full effect is felt, the GOP-backed election laws enacted after the 2020 election didn’t appear to cause any major disruption like they did during the March Texas primary.
“The entire ecosystem has become more resilient in many ways after 2020,” said Amber McReynolds, a former elections commissioner in Denver who advises a number of voting rights organizations. “A lot of effort was put into making sure everything went well.”
Although the worst fears of some election experts have not materialized, some voters still experienced the kind of routine foul-ups that happen on a small scale in every election. Many of these fell disproportionately among Black and Hispanic voters.
“Things went better than expected,” said Amir Badat of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “But we have to say that with a caveat: our expectations are low.”
Badat said his organization has seen long lines at various polling stations from South Carolina to Texas.
There were particular problems in Harris County, Texas, which also includes Houston. The lack of paper ballots and the late opening of at least one polling station resulted in long lines and sparked an investigation of the mostly Democratic county by the state’s Republican authorities.
The investigation reflects in part how certain Election Day voting errors increasingly fall on Republican voters who have been discouraged by Trump and his allies from using mail-in ballots or early in-person voting. But it’s a very different problem than what Texas had during its March primary.
Then a controversial new electoral law that tightened the requirements for mail-in ballots resulted in about 13% of all those ballots being rejected, far more than in other elections. It was an ominous sign of a wave of new legislation passed in the wake of Trump’s defeat by Biden and false claims about mail-in voting, but no problems of this magnitude have been reported for the general election.
Texas changed the design of its mail-in ballots, solving many of the problems voters had in getting identifying information in the right place. Other states that added additional voting rules didn’t appear to have widespread problems, although voting rights groups and analysts say it will take weeks to sift through the data to find out the impact of the laws.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law is compiling data to determine whether new voting laws in states like Georgia have contributed to a decline in turnout among black and Hispanic voters.
Preliminary figures show that turnout in Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Texas — four states that have enacted significant voting restrictions since the 2020 election — was lower this year than it was at the last midterm election four years ago, although there are a number of reasons why could give.
“It’s difficult to empirically assess the impact of these laws on voter turnout because so many factors go into voter turnout,” said Rick Hasen, an electoral law expert at the Law School of the University of California, Los Angeles. “They also have a lot of exaggeration on the Democratic side that any kind of change in electoral laws is going to have a significant impact on the election, which has been proven not to be the case.”
In Georgia, for example, after the 2020 election, Republicans made it more complicated to apply for absentee ballots — including by requiring voters to provide their driver’s license number or some other form of identification in lieu of a signature. That could be one reason why early in-person voting has surged in popularity in the state this year, with voter turnout there only slightly declining since 2018.
Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative Honest Elections Project, which advocates for tougher electoral laws, said the fairly robust turnout in the midterm elections showed fears about the new voting rules were overdone.
“We are at the end of an election that was supposed to be the end of democracy, and it definitely wasn’t,” Snead said.
Election observers were a major concern of voting rights groups and election officials on their way to Election Day. The representatives of the two major political parties are an important part of any safe election process, accredited observers who can appeal any perceived rule violations.
But this year, groups allied with conspiracy theorists questioning Biden’s 2020 victory heavily recruited poll watchers, and some states reported aggressive volunteers causing disruption during the primary. But in November there were fewer problems.
In North Carolina, where several counties had reported problems with poll monitors in the May primary, the state Elections Commission reported 21 incidents of poll misconduct in the general election, most during the early voting phase in person and by campaigners rather than poll monitors. The observers were responsible for eight of the incidents.
Election experts were pleasantly surprised that there were no more problems with election observers in what was the second straight general election when a feared threat from aggressive Republican observers failed to materialize.
“This appears to be an increase from 2020. Is it a small increase? Yes,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. “It’s still a dry run for 2024, and we can’t completely let go of our vigilance.”
One of the main organizers of the election observers’ effort was Cleta Mitchell, a veteran Republican election attorney, who joined Trump on Jan. 2, 2020, in calling Georgia’s top election official when the president asked that the state “find” enough votes to get her to declare he the winner. Mitchell then started an organization to train volunteers to keep an eye on election officials, which was seen as driving the rise in election observers.
Mitchell said the relatively quiet election was a confirmation that groups like hers were simply concerned with the integrity of the elections, rather than causing disruption.
“Any training conducted by those of us who do such training includes instructions about how to behave and that they must be ‘peaceful, lawful and honest,'” Mitchell wrote in the conservative online publication The Federalist. “Yet without evidence, the headlines became more hysterical as we got closer to Election Day, warning of electoral violence resulting from too many observers watching the process. It did not happen.”
Voting rights groups say they are relieved their fears have not materialized, but they say threats to democracy remain on the horizon for 2024 — particularly with Trump’s announcement that he is running again. Wendy Weiser, voting and election expert at the Brennan Center, agreed that overall things went smoother than expected.
“On the whole, no sabotage happened,” said Weiser. “I don’t think that means we’re clear.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
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